Lisa Reviews An Oscar Winner: The Silence of the Lambs (dir by Jonathan Demme)


Oh, The Silence of the Lambs, I have such mixed feelings about you.

On the one hand, I’m a horror fan and Silence of the Lambs is a very important film in the history of horror.  Back in 1992, it was the first horror film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture!  It even made history by winning all of the big “five” awards — Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Adapted Screenplay!  It was the first film since One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and It Happened One Night to pull that off!

Beyond that, it’s one of the most influential films ever made.  Every erudite serial killer owes a debt to Anthony Hopkins’s performance as Hannibal Lecter.  Every competent but untested and unappreciated female FBI agent owes a debt to Jodie Foster’s performance as Clarice Starling.  Even though the whole criminal profiler craze probably owes more to Manhunter (a film to which Silence of the Lambs is a sequel, though that often seems to go unacknowledged) than to anything else, this Oscar winner still definitely played a part.  I mean, how many people watched Manhunter for the first time, specifically because Lecter mentioned the events in that earlier film in Silence of the Lambs?

Plus, this won an Oscar for Jonathan Demme, one of my favorite directors!  And while I’m sure Jodie Foster would have gone on to have a strong career regardless of whether she had played Clarice Starling or not, it’s generally acknowledged that Silence of the Lambs revitalized the career of Anthony Hopkins.  So for that, we should all be thankful.

And yet, it can be strange to watch Silence of the Lambs today.  All of the imitations (not to mention some ill-thought sequels and prequels) have lessened its bite.  I can only imagine how it must have freaked out audiences when it was first released but I have to admit that I was slightly disappointed the first time that I watched the film.  Looking back, I can see that disappointment was due to having been told that it were one of the scariest movies of all time but, because, I had seen a countless number of imitations, parodies, and homages, I felt as if I had already watched the film.  So, I wasn’t shocked when Lecter turned out to be ruthlessly manipulative and dangerously charismatic.  Nor was I shocked when he managed to escape and poor Charles Napier ended up strung up in that cage.  I’m sure that audiences in 1991 were freaked out, though.

Actually, as good as Foster and Hopkins and Scott Glenn are, I think the best performance in the film comes from Ted Levine, playing Buffalo Bill.  Seriously, Levine’s performance still freaks me out.  It’s the voice and the way he says, “Precious.”  Levine’s performance, I found to be a hundred times more frightening than Anthony Hopkins’s and I think it’s due to the fact that Hannibal Lecter was clearly an author’s invention while Levin’s Buffalo Bill came across like he might very will be hiding in an alley somewhere, waiting for one of your friends to walk by. (Interestingly enough, I had the same reaction when I first saw Manhunter.  Brian Cox did a good job as Lecter but he still came across as a bit cartoonish.  Meanwhile, Tom Noonan was absolutely terrifying.)  Levine has subsequently gone on to play a lot of nice guy roles.  He was a detective on Monk, for instance.  Good for him.  I’m glad to see he was able to escape being typecast.  Admittedly, I do kinda wonder how many serial killer roles he had to turn down immediately after the release of The Silence Of The Lambs.

Still, it’s a good film.  Time may have lessened it’s power but The Silence of the Lambs is still an effective and well-directed thriller.  It’s impossible not to cheer for Clarice.  It’s impossible not to smile at the fun that Anthony Hopkins seems to be having in the role of Lecter.  Jonathan Demme creates a world of shadows and darkness and still adds enough little quirks to keep things interesting.  (I especially liked Lecter watching a stand-up special in his cell.)  It’s the little details that makes the world of The Silence of the Lambs feel lived in, like Clarice’s nervous laugh as she gives a civilian instructions on what to do in case she accidentally gets trapped in a storage locker.  Even the film’s final one liner will make you smile, even though it’s the type of thing that every film seemed to feel the need to do nowadays.  It’s still a good movie, even if it no longer feels as fresh as it once may have.

A Movie A Day #113: Mother Night (1996, directed by Keith Gordon)


Four years after she played the mysterious (and dead) Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks, Sheryl Lee starred as another mysterious (and possibly dead) woman in Mother Night.

Lee is cast as Helga Noth, the German wife of American expatriate Harold W. Campbell (Nick Nolte).  Harold is a playwright, living in Berlin and doing propaganda broadcasts for the Nazis.  Working with Frank Wirtanen (John Goodman), a military intelligence officer, Campbell has developed a series of verbal tics that are meant to secretly deliver information to the Allied Forces.  It is never clear whether Harold’s information serves any real purpose just as it is left ambiguous as to whether Harold believes any of the anti-Semitic propaganda that he broadcasts over the airwaves.  Working as both a propagandist and a double agent, Harold serves both the Allies and the Axis.

In the final days of the war, Helga is reportedly killed on the Eastern Front and Harold is captured by the Americans.  Frank arranges for Harold to be quietly sent to New York City but tells him that the government will never admit that they used him as a double agent.

Harold spends the next fifteen years living an isolated life in New York.  His only friend is an elderly painter, Kraft (Alan Arkin), with whom he plays chess.  Eventually, Harold opens up to the painter and talks about his past.  Kraft, for his own shady reasons, reveals Harold’s identity to a group of neo-Nazis.  Though Harold initially wants nothing to do with them, this changes when they reveal that they have Helga.

Or do they?  Almost no one in Mother Night is who they claim or what they seem to be, especially not Harold.

Based on a novel by Kurt Vonnegut, Mother Night suffers from the same uneven quality that seems to afflict most films based on Vonnegut’s work.  It is easy to go overboard when it comes to bringing Vonnegut’s unique mix of drama and satire to the screen and Mother Night does that in a few scenes, especially once Harold reaches New York.  It is still an intriguing and thought-provoking film, though.  Nick Nolte gives one of his best performances as Harold and Sheryl Lee does a good job in a difficult role.

The pinnacle of Vonnegut films remains George Roy Hill’s version of Slaughterhouse-Five but Mother Night is still superior to something like Alan Rudolph’s adaptation of Breakfast of Champions.

Horror Film Review: Cat People (dir by Paul Schrader)


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Before I get around to actually reviewing Paul Schrader’s 1982 reimagining of Cat People, I’m going to suggest that you take a few minutes to watch the film’s opening credits.  Say what you will about Schrader’s Cat People, it has a great opening, one that perfectly sets up the rest of the film.

In this version of Cat People, Irena (Natassja Kinski) is a naive young woman (and virgin) who, after the death of her parents, has spent most of her previous life in foster care.  Irena travels to New Orleans, where she reconnects with her older brother, Paul (Malcolm McDowell).  From the minute that Irena meets her brother and his housekeeper (Ruby Dee), it’s obvious that something is off.  When Paul looks at her, he does so with an unsettling intensity.  At night, while Irena sleeps, Paul wanders the dark streets of New Orleans.

One morning, Irena wakes up to discover that Paul is missing.  Having nothing else to do, Irena wanders around New Orleans.  When she visits the zoo, she feels an immediate connection to a caged panther who stares at her with a familiar intensity.  It turns out that the panther was captured the previous night, after he mysteriously appeared in a sleazy motel and mauled a prostitute.

It’s at the zoo that Irena meets zookeeper Oliver Yates (John Heard).  Oliver gets Irena a job working at the zoo gift shop. where Irena is befriended by Oliver’s co-worker, Alice (Annette O’Toole).  One day, Irena witnesses the panther kill another zookeeper before it then escapes from its cage.

That night, Paul suddenly shows up in Irena’s bedroom.  He explains to her that they are a cursed species.  Having sex causes them to turn into panthers and the only way to avoid the curse is through incest.  A terrified Irena flees her brother and soon finds herself living with and falling in love with the increasingly obsessive Oliver, all the while knowing that giving herself to him physically will lead to her transformation.

From the very first second of the film. Schrader’s Cat People is an exercise in pure style.  If the original Cat People was largely distinguished by its restraint, Schrader’s version is all about excess.  Everything that was merely suggested in the original is made explicit in this version.  As tempting as it may be to try, it’s somewhat pointless to try to compare these two versions.  Though they may both be about a woman who turns into a panther when she has sex, they are two very different films.

Schrader’s Cat People walks a very fine line between moodiness and absurdity, which is perhaps why I enjoyed it.  Making great use of both the sultry New Orleans setting and Giorgio Moroder’s atmospheric score, Cat People is compulsively dream-like and enjoyably over-the-top.  Cat People is often described as being an example of a movie that could have only been made in the coked up 80s  and truly, this is one of those films that’s so excessive that it’s becomes fascinating to watch.

(I think that often we are too quick to assume that excess is necessarily a bad thing.  If you can’t be excessive when you’ve got Malcolm McDowell playing an incest-minded cat person in New Orleans, when can you be excessive?)

Schrader’s Cat People may not have much in common with the original version but the film’s best scene is the only one that is a direct recreation of a scene from the original.  In fact, in recreating the scene where Alice is menaced while swimming in a public pool, Schrader actually improves on the original.  Brilliantly performed by both Annette O’Toole and Natassja Kinski (whose cat-like features made her perfect for the role of Irena), it’s the only scene in the film that can truly be called scary.  Starting with a tracking shock that follows Alice as she jogs, the stalking scene is practically a master class in effective horror cinema.  If nothing else, you should see Cat People for that one scene.

And you should also see it for the wonderful soundtrack!  Let’s end this review with David Bowie’s theme song, which you may also remember from Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds.

 

 

 

Icarus File No. 2: Maximum Overdrive (dir by Steven King)


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There is exactly one effective sequence to be found in Maximum Overdrive, a horror film from 1986 that attempts to show us what would happen if all of Earth’s machines decided to destroy humanity.

It takes place at the end of a little league game.  The coach, happy that his team has won, declares soda for everyone!  He walks over to the soft drink machine and puts in his coins and…nothing happens.  The coach stares at the machine perplexed.  His team gathers around him.

Suddenly, a can flies out of the machine and hits the coach in the groin.  Coach falls to his knees, just to get another can driven straight into his skull, leaving him with a big bloody hole in his head.  As the coach twitches, his teams starts to run away.  Suddenly, the machine is shooting cans out at them.  Some of the kids escape but quite a few don’t.

Suddenly, as the kids flee, a driverless steamroller crashes through a fence and drives across the field, graphically flattening one of the players…

It’s over-the-top, it’s kind of scary, it’s fun in a naughty sort of way, and it’s exciting to watch.  It’s totally absurd and yet it’s effective at the same time.  It’s a really brilliant scene, one that hints at what Maximum Overdrive could have been.  It hints that Maximum Overdrive‘s first-time director did have some potential and watching it, one is tempted to feel a pang of regret over the fact that he never directed another film after this one.

However, then you watch the rest of Maximum Overdrive and you realize that one effective scene was a total fluke.  To your horror, you realize that this film’s director (and screenwriter) has decided to set nearly the entire film in the ugliest and most disgusting truck stop in the world.  You realize that the director has no idea how to maintain suspense and that his idea of horror appears to be having a lot of trucks constantly circling the truck stop.  And then, worst of all, you realize that the unlikable caricatures inside the truck stop are meant to be our heroes!

And you find yourself wondering if things could possibly get any worse.  Well, believe me — they can.

First off, a guy named Camp Loman (Christopher Murney) shows up and reveals himself to be a total lech and then starts trying to sell bibles and really, what do you expect from someone named Camp Loman?  And, what’s annoying, is that the film’s director seems to think that he’s blowing our mind by presenting us with an hypocritical bible salesman.  I mean, seriously — the amount of time devoted to Camp Loman will make you nostalgic for scenes of a steamroller crushing a child.

And then Emilio Estevez shows up as our hero but he scowls through the entire movie and delivers all of his lines through gritted teeth, as if he’s pissed off about appearing in Maximum Overdrive and really, who can blame him?  That said, it doesn’t really make for an enjoyable performance.

But hey — Emilio’s not the only person in the truck stop.  There’s also Pat Hingle, playing the owner of the truck stop.  He’s overweight, wears a tie, smokes a cigar, and speaks with a vaguely Southern accent.  Hmmmmm, do you think he’s going to be a bad guy?

Oh!  And let’s not forget the waitress played by Ellen McElduff.  “WE MADE YOU!” she shouts at the machines and then she shouts it again and again and again and again and it’s almost as if the film is being directed by a guy so in love with his own dialogue that he doesn’t realize how annoying the same line gets when it’s screeched over and over again.

And I haven’t even gotten to the helium-voiced newlyweds yet…

When I recently watched Maximum Overdrive on Encore, there were a lot of things that annoyed me, such as the bad pacing, the bad acting, the bad dialogue, the bad special effects, the bad cinematography, and the bad everything else.  But what really got to me was just how inconsistent this movie was.  Some machines turned into killers but oddly, others did not.  At one point, a machine gun starts shooting at the people in the truck stop but the weapons that Pat Hingle keeps in the truck stop never turn on their human masters.  Seriously, if you’re going to make a terrible movie, at least be consistent.

So, you may be asking, why is this an Icarus File?  Well, it was directed by Stephen King, the writer who is routinely called the “master of horror.”  King may be a great writer but, judging from this movie, he was a really crappy director.  I imagine, when the film was in pre-production, the logic was that if King could write a scary book then he could definitely direct a scary movie.

Nope.

It turns out that, just as Icarus should never have gotten so close to the sun, Stephen King should never have directed a movie.

Previous Icarus Files:

  1. Cloud Atlas

Review: The Thomas Crown Affair (dir. by John McTiernan)


In 1968 there was a little caper film titled The Thomas Crown Affair starring the ever-cool Steve McQueen and a radiant Faye Dunaway. The film was considered hip, cool and sexy in its way during the late 60’s. It took 31 years, but a remake was finally made of this film but this time around starring Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo in the roles originally played by McQueen and Dunaway. With some great direction from thriller and action filmmmaker John McTiernan, 1999’s The Thomas Crown Affair ends up being the exception to the rule of remakes of older films turning out lesser than the original. This modern and updated version of The Thomas Crown Affair actually surpasses the original McQueen production. McTiernan’s film ably combines humor, thrilling action set pieces, sexy chemistry between the leads and just a beautifully shot film.

Set in New York that never looked as good as shot by McTiernan and his crew, Pierce Brosnan stars and shines as the title character Thomas Crown. Thomas Crown is a suave, roguish and successful businessman who has everything a man could ask for: money, power and any woman he desires.

What does a man like Crown would ever want in life?

The film looks at this and shows that no amount of money in the world could replace the adrenaline rush and thrill of getting acquiring it. Crown does this by staging a complex and elaborate plan to steal a Monet (San Giorgio Maggiore at Dusk) from the NY Metropolitan Arts Museum and do so in the middle of the day. His plan goes off without a hitch and with none the wiser. This heist sequence was actually very fun to watch as McTiernan never lost command of the many threads being weaved to pull off Crown’s plan. McTiernan would one-up this with the climactic finish in the same museum but with a sequence I could only call as the anti-heist.

With the heist completed, the film soon introduces Crown’s foil in the form of Rene Russo as insurance investigator Catherine Banning. Ms. Russo never looked more beautiful, sensual and sexy as she did in this film. Her performance as the determined and crafty Banning more than holds up to Brosnan’s roguish and playful performance as Thomas Crown. From the moment she appears onscreen as the camera slowly pans up her silky-stocking leg and garters, Russo dominated the scene and pretty much commanded attention from everyone. This was especially true whenever she shared the screen with Denis Leary as police detective in charge of investigating the Monet heist. Leary’s always a strong performer in any film he’s in but was pretty much lost in the wake of Russo’s performance when both were on the screen.

The rest of the film was pretty much Crown and Banning trying to get into each others’ heads to find the one advantage that would give them an upper-hand in the “game” they’ve both decided to play. It’s hard to see who is chasing who in the film. Is Banning chasing Crown as her one and only suspect for the theft or is Crown playing her as part of a much more complicated scheme to spice his life. These questions swirl within the frame of the heist investigation and the growing relationship between the two strong-willed characters.

To say that Brosnan and Russo’s on-screen chemistry was strong would be a big understatement. The two pretty much sizzle when together. Whether it’s a playful, flirtation during a nice dinner out on the town to the two steamy dance numbers in the middle of the film. When Crown asks Banning if she wanted to dance or does she want to dance the temperature just went up by degrees. Their love scenes together shows that it could still be done with class and also have a sense of playfulness and fun. It also showed that young couples doing love scenes onscreen have nothing on the mature couple.

There’s not much else to say about McTiernan’s remake of the Thomas Crown Affair than to say that he took a good film, that showcased Steve McQueen’s coolness for everyone to see, and made a much more superior production in every sense. The direction was excellent and the cinematography was beautiful in every second shot. The cast performance was very strong with the two leads in Brosnan and Russo acting their hearts out on the screen. This film shows that remakes really are not bad ideas when put into capable hands. It would be nice to see how the sequel — tentatively titled The Topkapi Affair —  to this film turns out with pretty much the same cast and crew returning. I, for one, will be there to see it when it comes out.