`Hamlet' suited to be in present

Reviews: Something's not-so-cool in Denmark in a fun, clever update on Shakespeare's classic.

June 30, 2000|By Ann Hornaday

"Hamlet" Sun score: ** 1/2

The King and CEO of Denmark Corporation is dead. These are the opening words of Michael Almereyda's "Hamlet," and they pretty much clue in the audience as to how the director has reconceived Shakespeare's play, which lends itself well to the contemporary context of corporate ambition, Gen-X angst and post-Freudian psychodrama.

In this clever take on that most quoted of classics, the original manages to take on new shadings despite a few performance and casting gaffes. Most important, Almereyda has done a splendid job of rendering "Hamlet" as expressive visually as it is verbally. With a striking look, and funny visual and aural puns, the director catapults "Hamlet" straight into the 21st century, where it seems quite comfortable, thank you.

Ethan Hawke, who embodies youthful suffering and self-involvement as attractively as any actor of his generation, does fine in the role of the agonized prince, whose father's death sends him into a paroxysm of Oedipal insecurity and murderous revenge. His Hamlet is a petulant, spoiled would-be video artist, whose "to be, or not to be" speech is at first a pretentious suicide note, and finally a powerful call to action in the middle of a Blockbuster video store.

Even as Hawke struggles with Shakespeare's dialogue, these potent visual settings make Shakespeare's meanings - and Almereyda's interpretations of them - clear and often mordantly funny. When the ghost of Hamlet's father, played in the film by Sam Shephard, materializes, it's in front of a Pepsi machine: Perhaps he's not The One after all?

And although Julia Stiles' Ophelia seems too sturdy and self-possessed for that fragile heroine, Liev Schreiber's Laertes is a revelation, bringing the power of Shakespeare's words full force on a par with this muscular and imaginative production. With its palace intrigue by way of fax machine, and back-stabbing via computer disc, this "Hamlet" is very of the moment, proving just how timeless it is.- Ann Hornaday

"Kikujiro" Sun score: ** 1/2

The Japanese director Takeshi Kitano has become a cult favorite for his moody gangster films such as the recent "Hana-Bi" ("Fireworks"). But with "Kikujiro" he leaves the guns behind. As usual, he stars in his own film, this time as the title character, an irascible gambler who agrees to take a 9-year-old boy named Masao (Yusuke Sekiguchi) on a trip to find his mother.

Their journey entails the predictable sentiment and heartache that characterize similar stories, but the two lead actors make an appealing pair.

The solemn Masao is especially winsome as a little boy who seems to see right through you, even with his eyes perpetually aimed at his shoes.

The stock road-picture characters are less interesting, as is a protracted camping trip during which Kikujiro enlists a team of vagabonds to entertain the little boy with stories and games.

Still, "Kikujiro" provides an arresting journey through the Japanese countryside and culture, as well as a welcome (if uneven) departure for Kitano, who once again is quietly fabulous in front of his own camera.

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