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.

Horror on the Lens: Gargoyles (dir by Bill Norton)


For today’s horror on the lens, we have a made-for-TV monster movie from 1972, Gargoyles!

What happens when a somewhat condescending anthropologist (Cornel Wilde) and his daughter (Jennifer Salt) head out to the desert?  Well, they stop by a crazy old man’s shack so that they can look at his genuine monster skeleton.  Before Wilde can thoroughly debunk the old man’s claims, the shack is attacked by real monsters!

That’s right!  Gargoyles exist and they apparently live in Arizona!

(And, hey, why wouldn’t gargoyles live in Arizona?  I mean, they have to live somewhere, right? Real estate is not cheap.)

This film was introduced to me by TSL contributor and Late Night Movie Gang founder Patrick Smith and we had an absolute blast watching it.  There’s nothing particularly surprising about the plot but the gargoyles are memorable creations and Bernie Casey gives a good performance as their leader.  The gargoyle makeup was designed by none other than Stan Winston, who won an Emmy for his work here and who went on to win Oscars for his work on Aliens, Terminator 2, and Jurassic Park.

As well, a very young Scott Glenn shows up in the cast.  I like to think that he’s playing the same character in both Gargoyles and Sucker Punch.

Enjoy!

Review: The Hunt for Red October (dir. by John McTiernan)


The Hunt for Red October

Fresh off the success of his two previous films, The Predator and Die Hard, John McTiernan was now tasked with adapting one of the 1980’s most popular novels with Tom Clancy’s debut techno-thriller, The Hunt for Red October.

By 1990, the year the film was released, Gorbachev had thawed the Cold War that existed between East and West. The Berlin Wall was months away from being torn down and glasnost became the word of the day for most people who knew nothing but the spectre of nuclear annihilation hanging over their heads since before born.

It was during the final years of the Cold War that an insurance salesman with a penchant for military and spy thrillers tried his hand in writing one. this first attempt became a worldwide sensation and was quickly put up in a bidding war by all the major studios. It would be Paramount Pictures who would win to adapt The Hunt for Red October for the big-screen and John McTiernan would be hired to steer the film.

While Sean Connery would ultimately be cast in the main role of Soviet submarine Marko Ramius, he wasn’t the first choice. German actor Klaus Maria Brandauer was originally cast but ended up leaving production a coupe weeks into production due to prior commitments. So, in comes Connery and the rest, as they would say, is history.

The thing about film adaptations of popular novels has been how much of the novel could the filmmakers, especially the screenwriter, be able to fit into a film that would run around 2 hours or so. Some cutting of scenes that fans loves would have to be done and depending on the scenes in the novel, a backlash could begin against the film even before filming was completed.

Fortunately, this was Hollywood in the late 1980’s and there was no such thing as the internet as we know of it today. There were no blogs dedicated to reporting on every minute detail of a film production. No amateur film newshound bringing up unsubstantiated rumors of the going’s on during a film’s production. This was still a Hollywood who controlled how news of their activities were going to be reported and what they decided to tell and show reporters.

This would be a boon for McTiernan’s The Hunt for Red October since the film had some major help from not just the U.S. Navy, but from the Department of Defense in trying to make sure the film was as realistic as possible in portraying the life of American submariners, Naval personnel and how the intelligence community in the West operated. Again, this was also with the film portraying all these groups in a much more positive light in return for their assistance.

In today’s world, such a compromise from the filmmakers to gain the help from the military-intelligence apparatus would be akin to some as perpetuating warmongering and glorifying the military. I could see blogs shouting for boycotts if such a thing happened nowadays.

But returning to the film The Hunt for Red October, for a straight-by-the-numbers thriller it still brings a certain surprise and inventiveness in the action-thriller genre that other filmmakers decades later would try to emulate (Crimson Tide and the many Jack Ryan-based films). Despite a Russian accent that really was cringe-worthy even when first heard, Sean Connery made for a charismatic and sympathetic Marko Ramius whose reasoning for defecting with the titular submarine Red October went beyond just the politics of the era.

Backing him up was a strong ensemble cast with a very young Alec Baldwin in the role of Jack Ryan, James Earl Jones as his boss CIA director Adm. James Greer and Sam Neill and Scott Glenn as Cmdr. Borodin and Capt. Mancuso. The film goes in heavily into Clancy’s love for technobabble and military jargon, yet the actors involved seemed very game and convincing in acting out the dialogue that would sound ridiculous is just read without context and understanding.

While the film does sacrifice some of the more political maneuverings in the book, which meant less scenes with Richard Jordan as National Security Advisor Dr. Pelt, it does streamline the film to be more action-oriented. It was a shame they went that way in which parts of the novel to cut out since Jordan’s performance as Dr. Pelt was one of the highlights of the film, despite his limited screentime.

In terms of action, The Hunt for Red October proved once again that McTiernan knew how to handle both tension and action in equal measure. He makes the cat-and-mouse battle between the Soviet and American subs seem as thrilling as any fast-paced dogfight scenes that thrilled filmgoers when Top Gun premiered on the bigscreen.

Even the film’s orchestral score from the late and great composer Basil Poledouris would lend the film a certain level of martial prowess that Poledouris’ compositions were known for. Even after many viewings it’s still difficult not to hum the film’s Soviet national hymn-inspired theme.

While The Hunt for Red October was one of the last films of the Cold War-era that still showed the tug-of-war between the East and West, it was a fitting end to a part of Hollywood’s cinematic history that portrayed Communism, especially that of the Soviet Union, as the big go-to Enemy that made action movies of the 80’s so popular with the Reaganite crowd.

The success of this film would begin a cottage industry of sequels featuring the character of Jack Ryan who would be portrayed in subsequent films by none other than Everyman himself Harrison Ford then in a miscasting in a later sequel by Ben Affleck.

An Olympic Film Review: Personal Best (dir by Robert Towne)


Like all good people, I am currently obsessed with the Olympics.  I was hoping that I would be able to post an Olympic-related film review every day during the games but, unfortunately, regular life got in the way and it didn’t happen.  I’ll try to post what I can today and then, for the rest of this upcoming week, I will be concentrating on reviewing films that have been nominated for best picture.

(Interestingly enough, only one Olympic-related film has been nominated for best picture and I reviewed Chariots of Fire years ago.)

The 1982 film Personal Best is a movie that I recorded off of Cinemax last year, specifically so I could review it during the Winter Games.  That may have been a mistake on that part because Personal Best doesn’t actually deal with the Winter Games.  Though it’s a film about athletes training to compete in the Olympics, they’re all runners, swimmers, and pole vaulters.  In short, they’re all hoping to compete at the Summer Games (which, for my money, are nowhere near as much fun as the Winter Games).  On top of that, no one in Personal Best actually gets to compete at the Olympics.

Of course, that wasn’t how things were supposed to go originally.  While doing research for this review, I discovered that Personal Best had quite a long and somewhat tortured production history.  The directorial debut of the famous (and famously slow) screenwriter Robert Towne, Personal Best was originally meant to showcase athletes preparing for the 1980 Summer Olympics.  However, shortly after production began in 1980, it was announced that the United States would be boycotting the Olympic Games and the script was hastily changed to reflect that fact.  Shortly after the boycott was announced, production was put on hold when the Screen Actors Guild went on strike.  In what the New York Times described as being “a ploy to allow the movie to become an independent production and resume shooting during the strike,” Towne filed a lawsuit against Warner Bros.  The end result of that lawsuit was that David Geffen stepped in and financed the film.

This led to yet another lawsuit, this one filed by Towne against Geffen.  Towne claimed that Geffen forced him to sign a “coerced agreement” that not only lost him the rights to a script he had been working on about Tarzan but also left him dead broke.  Geffen, in that same New York Times article, is quoted as saying, “Robert Towne took a picture budgeted at $7 million – ‘Personal Best’ – and made it incompetently for $16 million,” and that he agreed to take over financing because, ‘no other studio would pick the film up because Robert Towne had spent $5 million, and there wasn’t a coherent scene in the entire movie.”

I know what you’re saying.  “That’s great, Lisa, but what’s the actual film about?”

Personal Best, for the most part, is about bodies in motion.  Oh, don’t get me wrong.  There’s a plot.  Chris Cahill (Mariel Hemingway) is a young runner who hopes to someday compete in the Olympics.  She finds herself torn between following the advice of her lover, Torry (Patrice Donnelly) and the advice of her manipulative coach (Scott Glenn)  and things get even more complicated when she enters into a heterosexual romance with a swimmer named Denny (Kenny Moore).  Both Towne and the film deserve credit for the forthright way that it portrays Chris and Torry’s relationship and also for its unapologetic portrayal of women who are just as competitive and determined to win as men.

But really, the film doesn’t seem to be that concerned with the story that it’s telling.  The film itself is far more interested in the images of professional athletes competing and training.  This is one of those films that is full of slow-motion scenes of people running down tracks and attempting to jump over hurdles.  Most of the cast was made up of actual athletes and Towne’s camera lovingly captures every single ripple of muscle as they move across the screen.  Watching the film, it was hard not to be reminded of the way Leni Reifenstahl fetishized athleticism in Olympia.  This is a film that loves, celebrates, and comes close to worshiping athletes.  That wouldn’t be a problem, except for the fact that the film lingers for so long on those bodies that it’s hard not to eventually get bored with them.  I mean, there’s only so many times you can watch someone jump over a hurdle in slow motion before you don’t care anymore.

And it turns out that, no matter how impressive the athletes may look, you do need to tell a compelling story, especially if, like Personal Best, your film is over two hours long.  As written, Chris Cahill is not particularly likable or even that interesting.  Her life revolves around competition and she really has no other interests.  That may be a realistic portrayal of what it takes to be the best but there’s a reason why most sports biopics are heavily fictionalized.  Chris spends a lot of time getting mad and crying and it gets a little bit old after a while.  Perhaps it would be different if we believed that Chris actually was one of the best runners in the world but the film never quite convinces us.  (It doesn’t help that Mariel Hemingway spends the entire film surrounded by actual track and field athletes.  Hemingway does her best with the role but it’s always easy to tell who is actually an athlete and who is just acting.)  On the other hand, the coach and Torry are far more interesting characters but both of them keep getting pushed to the side.

Personal Best is a film that will be best appreciated by people who are as obsessed with athletics as the film is.

Horror on the Lens: Gargoyles (dir by Bill Norton)


For today’s horror on the lens, we have a made-for-TV monster movie from 1972, Gargoyles!

What happens when a somewhat condescending anthropologist (Cornel Wilde) and his daughter (Jennifer Salt) head out to the desert?  Well, they stop by a crazy old man’s shack so that they can look at his genuine monster skeleton.  Before Wilde can thoroughly debunk the old man’s claims, the shack is attacked by real monsters!

That’s right!  Gargoyles exist and they apparently live in Arizona!

This film was introduced to me by TSL contributor and Late Night Movie Gang founder Patrick Smith and we had an absolute blast watching it.  There’s nothing particularly surprising about the plot but the gargoyles are memorable creations and Bernie Casey gives a good performance as their leader.  The gargoyle makeup was designed by none other than Stan Winston, who won an Emmy for his work here and who went on to win Oscars for his work on Aliens, Terminator 2, and Jurassic Park.

As well, a very young Scott Glenn shows up in the cast.  I like to think that he’s playing the same character in both Gargoyles and Sucker Punch.

Enjoy!

Daredevil Has No Need For Iron Suits or Magic Hammers


daredevil

“I accept your conviction. The lone man who thinks he can make a difference.” — Wilson Fisk

Today we saw the release of the official trailer for Netflix and Marvel Television’s first of five series based on characters from the Marvel Universe. Daredevil will be the first out of the gate and it looks to darken things a bit in the Marvel Cinematic Universe by bringing to the small screen one of it’s street-level heroes.

Daredevil (aka Matt Murdock) will soon be joined by Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist in their own web series on Netflix before teaming up for the Defenders series.

Under the guiding hands of showrunner (and Whedon alum) Stephen S. DeKnight, Daredevil will soon be available for bingewatchers everywhere on April 10, 2015.