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 Film Review: Joy Ride (dir by John Dahl)


The 2001 film Joy Ride is an example of a subgenre of horror that I like to call the Don’t Fuck With Truckers genre.  It all started with Duel back in the early 70s and since then, there’s been a large number movies about ordinary people who end up getting on the wrong side of a trucker.

Myself, I would never piss off a trucker.  First off, I have a few cousins who are proud members of the Teamsters and I can tell you, from personal experience, that you don’t want to get on their bad side.  Secondly, those trucks are really, really big and it takes a certain amount of skill to drive them, certainly more skill than it takes me to drive my little convertible.  (Truckers can make turns in those gigantic trucks and somehow do it without crashing into a stop light.  I can barely parallel park.)  Trucks block out the road, making it impossible to see anything beyond them, which makes the prospect of trying to pass them all the more frightening.  Essentially, if you get into a vehicle fight with a trucker, you’re going to die.  There’s just no way your little car is going to be able to beat that giant truck.

Now, I have to admit that I really like Joyride but sometimes, I feel like maybe I shouldn’t.  It basically comes down to two things:

Number one, I have always defended horror movies against the charge that they always feature people making the stupidest possible decisions.  My defense is usually that people in real life are actually far more stupid than they realize and that whenever anyone says, “I would never be stupid enough to wander around a deserted camp ground in the middle of the night!,” they are essentially lying.  Seriously, everyone would do that just so they could later joke about how it was just like being in a horror movie.

That said, the majority of the characters in Joy Ride are really, really dumb.  Basically, two brothers (Steven Zahn and Paul Walker) are driving from California to Colorado so that they can pick up Walker’s best friend (Leelee Sobieski).  Along the way, Zahn and Walker decide to have some fun by getting on the CB radio and telling a trucker who calls himself Rusty Nail (voiced by Ted Levine, who was also the killer in The Silence of the Lambs) that there is a prostitute named Candy Cane waiting for him in a motel room.  The joke, of course, is that Zahn and Walker know that an obnoxious businessman is actually staying in the room.

The next morning, after playing their little joke and then listening to Rusty Nail and the businessman have a huge fight, the brothers are informed that the businessman has been found on the side of the road.  He’s still alive but his jaw was ripped off.  The brothers’ reaction is to get the Hell out of town.

Okay, so far, so good.  The joke was mean but people are mean.  Leaving town instead of helping with the police investigation was selfish but people are selfish.  What drives me crazy is that, once they’re on the road, the brothers get back on the CB radio and inform Rusty Nail that there was no Candy Cane and that they were just playing a joke on him.

IDIOTS!  Seriously, you’ve just been told that the guy ripped off another man’s jaw and now you’re going to piss him off more?

My other problem is that Leelee Sobieski’s character is so underdeveloped.  The film’s nearly halfway over before Zahn and Walker reach Colorado and pick her up.  Just a few scenes later, Sobieski is kidnapped by Rusty Nail.  Characterwise, she pretty much only exists to be kidnapped and held hostage.  It seems like a waste of Sobieski’s talents and the flatness of her character is especially disappointing when you consider how well-developed the characters played by Walker and Zahn are.

And yet, despite all of that, I really like Joy Ride.  It’s just a well-made film, a relentless thrill ride that succeeds largely because director John Dahl never gives the audience any time to relax and think about whether or not the film makes any sense.  As a largely unseen threat, Rusty Nail is both plausible and seemingly supernatural at the same time.  I mean, that truck literally pops up out of nowhere sometimes.  Zahn and Walker are very well-cast as brothers, with Zahn’s natural goofiness nicely paired up with Walker’s natural earnestness.  You like them, even if they are selfish idiots.

Almost despite itself, Joy Ride is a good movie and it features an important message: Don’t fuck with truckers.

A Movie A Day #25: Next of Kin (1989, directed by John Irvin)


next-of-kinTruman Gates (Patrick Swayze) may have been raised in Appalachia but, now that he lives in Chicago, he’s left the old ways behind.  He has a job working as a cop and his wife (Helen Hunt) is pregnant with their first child.  When Truman’s younger brother, Gerald (Bill Paxton), shows up in town and asks for Truman’s help, Truman gets him a job as a truck driver.  But, on his first night on the job, Gerald’s truck is hijacked by a Sicilian mobster named Joey Rosellini (Adam Baldwin) and Gerald is killed.  Truman’s older brother, Briar (Liam Neeson), soon comes to Chicago and declares a blood feud on the mob.

Of the many action films that Patrick Swayze made between Dirty Dancing and Ghost, Roadhouse may be the best known but Next of Kin is the best.  Next of Kin spends as much examining the family dynamics of Rosellini’s family as it does with Truman’s, suggesting that there is not much of a difference between the two groups.  There’s even a scene where Joey’s uncle (played by Andreas Katsulas) tells Joey that the Sicily was the Appalachia of Italty.  Next of Kin also has a better supporting cast than most of the films that Swayze made during this period.  Along with Paxton and Neeson, the hillbillies are represented by actors like Ted Levine and Michael J. Pollard while Ben Stiller has an early role as Joey’s cousin.  Patrick Swayze gives one of his better performances as Truman but the entire movie is stolen by Liam Neeson, who is a surprisingly believable hillbilly.

Playing Catch-Up With 6 Quickie Reviews: The Big Game, The Connection, Graduation Day, McFarland USA, Taken 3, and War Room


Here are 6 more reviews of 6 other films that I watched this year.  Why six?  Because Lisa doesn’t do odd numbers, that’s why.

The Big Game (dir by Jalmari Helander)

In The Big Game, Samuel L. Jackson plays the President of the United States and you would think that fact alone would make this film an instant classic.  Unfortunately, this film never really takes advantage of the inherent coolness of Samuel L. Jackson playing the leader of the free world.  When Air Force One is sabotaged and crashes in the wilderness of Finland, President Jackson has to rely on a young hunter (Onni Tommila) from a group of CIA agents disguised as terrorists.  Tommila does a pretty good job and the scenery looks great but at no point does Samuel L. Jackson says, “Check out this executive action, motherfucker,” and that’s a huge missed opportunity.  As for the rest of the film, it takes itself a bit too seriously and if you can’t figure out the big twist from the minute the movie starts, you obviously haven’t seen enough movies.

The Connection (dir by Cedric Jiminez)

Taking place over the 1970s, the French crime thriller tells the largely true story of the efforts of a French judge (played by Jean Dujardin) to take down a ruthless gangster (Gilles Lellouche) who is the head of one of the biggest drug cartels in the world.  The Connection run for a bit too long but, ultimately, it’s a stylish thriller that does a very good job of creating a world where literally no one can be trusted.  Dujardin, best known here in the States for his Oscar-winning role in The Artist, does a great job playing an honest man who is nearly driven to the point of insanity by the corruption all around him.

Graduation Day (dir by Chris Stokes)

Hey, it’s another found footage horror film!  Bleh!  Now, I should admit that this horror film — which is NOT a remake of that classic 1980s slasher — does have a fairly clever twist towards the end, that goes a long way towards explaining a lot of the inconsistencies that, up until that point, had pretty much dominated the film.  But, even with that in mind and admitting that Unfriended and Devil’s Due worked wonders with the concept, it’s still hard to feel any enthusiasm about yet another found footage horror film.

McFarland USA (dir by Niki Caro)

McFarland USA is an extremely predictable but likable movie.  Kevin Costner plays a former football coach who, while teaching at a mostly Latino high school, organizes a cross country team that goes on to win the state championship.  It’s based on a true story and, at the end of the film, all of the real people appear alongside the actors who played them.  There’s nothing about this film that will surprise you but it’s still fairly well-done.  Even Kevin Costner, who usually gets on my last nerve, gives a good performance.

Taken 3 (dir by Olivier Megaton)

Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) is back and he’s killing even more people!  Fortunately, they’re all bad people but you really do have to wonder what type of dreams Bryan has whenever he goes to sleep.  In Taken 3, Bryan’s wife (Famke Janssen) has been murdered and Bryan has been framed.  He has to solve the case and kill the bad guys while staying one step ahead of the police (represented by a bored-looking Forest Whitaker).  Neeson does all of his usual Taken stuff — the intense phone conversation, the steely glare, and all the rest — but at this point, it has literally been parodied to death.  If you’re into watching Liam Neeson kill ugly people, Taken 3 will provide you with adequate entertainment but, for the most part, it’s but a shadow of the first Taken.

War Room (dir by Alex Kendrick)

I saw the War Room in Oklahoma.  It was being shown as part of a double feature with The Martian, of all things!  Anyway, this film is about an upper middle class family that hits rock bottom but they’re saved by the power of prayer!  Lots and lots of prayer!  Seriously, this film almost qualifies as “prayer porn.”  Anyway, the film was badly acted, badly written, incredibly heavy-handed, and ran on way too long but, on the plus side, it did eventually end.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #119: Shutter Island (dir by Martin Scorsese)


Shutter IslandThe 2010 film Shutter Island finds the great director Martin Scorsese at his most playful.

Taking place in 1954, Shutter Island tells the story of two detectives, Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio, giving an excellent performance that, in many ways, feels like a test run for his role in Inception) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo, also excellent), who take a boat out to the Ashecliffe Hospital for The Criminal Insane, which is located on Shutter Island in Boston Harbor.  They are investigating the disappearance of inmate Rachel Solando, who has been incarcerated for drowning her three children.

Ashecliffe is one of those permanently gray locations, the type of place where the lights always seem to be burned out and the inmates move about like ghostly visions of sins brought to life.  It’s the type of place that, had this movie been made in the 50s or 60s, would have been run by either Vincent Price or Peter Cushing.  In this case, the Cushing role of the cold and imperious lead psychiatrist is taken by Ben Kingsley.  Max Von Sydow, meanwhile, plays a more flamboyantly sinister doctor, the role that would have been played by Vincent Price.

When a storm strands Teddy and Chuck on the island, they quickly discover that neither the staff nor the patients are willing to be of any help when it comes to tracking down Rachel.  As Teddy continues to investigate, he finds himself stricken by migraines and haunted by disturbing images.  He continually sees a mysterious little girl.  He has visions of his dead wife (Michelle Williams).  A horribly scarred patient in solitary confinement (Jackie Earle Haley) tells him that patients are regularly taken to a lighthouse where they are lobotomized.  When Teddy explores more of the island, he comes across a mysterious woman living in a cave and she tells him of even more sinister activity at Ashecliffe.  Meanwhile, Chuck alternates between pragmatic skepticism and flights of paranoia.

And I’m not going to share anymore of the plot because it would be a crime to spoil Shutter Island.  This is a film that you must see and experience for yourself.

This is one of Martin Scorsese’s most entertaining films, an unapologetic celebration of B-movie history. He knows that he’s telling a faintly ludicrous story here and, wisely, he embraces the melodrama.  Too many directors would try to bring some sort of credibility to Shutter Island by downplaying the film’s more melodramatic moments.  Scorsese, however, shows no fear of going over the top.  He understands that this is not the time to be subtle.  This is the time to go a little crazy and that’s what he does.

Good for him.

Review: The Hills Have Eyes (dir. by Alexandre Aja)


Many people have issues about remakes and reboots. They see it as unnecessary and a proof that the film industry has run out of ideas. I can’t say that either points have no validity to them, but I disagree with both.While all genres of film have had it’s share of remakes and reboots its the horror section of the film aisle which has seen the most. This shouldn’t come as a shock since horror has always been ripe for remakes. The stories in horror films have always been quite simple and producers take advantage of this by remaking them for a new generation. Take the simple set-up, change the time and setting with a new cast of cheap, unknown actors and you got yourself a horror flick which should make back its budget and make its filmmakers a profit.

While most horror remakes usually range from average to truly dreadful there comes a time when one comes out of the horror remake heap to actually show promise and quality not seen in its remake brethren. One such film is in the Alexandre Aja directed and Wes Craven produced The Hills Have Eyes. Aja’s The Hills Have Eyes is the rare horror remake in that its more than a match to Wes Craven’s original and, at times, surpasses it.

Alexandre Aja first burst onto the horror-cinema scene with his ambitious and grisly homage to grindhouse horror: Haute Tension. Haute Tension was one nasty piece of horror filmmaking which brought to mind 70’s and early 80’s horror exploitation and grindhouse mentality. Aja’s directorial debut was a no-hold-s-barred punch and kick to the stomach that was overtly violent and sublimely painful for the audience to watch. Aja was soon tapped by Wes Craven to lead the remake project of his own The Hills Have Eyes and to Aja’s growing reputation as a rising star of horror, he grew as a filmmaker and more than earned this reputation.

Aja’s The Hills Have Eyes follows pretty much the very same story and characters as the original. This remake has abit more of a political sense to its storytelling in that it doesn’t just pit the basic premise of civilized humans versus the primal inbred, mutant hill dweller, but also the different demographics of red state versus blue state. This theme was hammered through to the audience through the subsurface conflict between Big Bob Carter’s (well-played by industry veteran Ted Levine) red state gung-ho ex-detective and his son-in-law Doug’s (X2‘s Aaron Stafford) pacifist mentality. I think this new wrinkle in the original’s sparse and tight story was unnecessary and unsubtly done. I really didn’t want to know what political leanings and motivations the Carter family members followed. What I did care about was how they would react to the outside forces that was soon to menace and attack them.

The first half of the film was very deliberate in its set-up as it slowly built up the tension and dread as the Carter family’s journey through a supposedly short-cut through the desert put them closer and closer to the dangerous people who dwelt amongst the hills bordering the desert road. Once the family becomes stranded in the middle of nowhere the fun begins for horror-aficionados. For those who have seen the original this remake doesn’t deviate from the main story. The hill people who, up until now have only been glimpsed through quick shadowy movements across the screen, were the true cause of the family’s predicament attack in a brutal and grisly fashion. None of the Carter family members were spared from this attack. From Big Bob Carter, his wife Ethel, their three children, son-in-law and young granddaughter they all suffer in one form or another. The night attack on the camper is the main highlight of the film and shows that Aja hasn’t lost his touch for creating a horror setpiece that doesn’t hold back. From the brutal rape of the Carter’s youngest daughter Brenda to the sudden deaths of several Carter family members. This sequence was both fast-paced and chaotic in nature. It also helped push the definition of what constitute a very hard R-rating. Just like Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects and Roth’s Hostel, The Hills Have Eyes pushed the limits and boundaries of what the MPAA has allowed so far in terms of on-screen violence when it was first released in 2006. I’m very surprised that some of the violence and deaths in this film made the final cut. This film definitely brings back the 70’s style horror.

The cast for this remake was one high point that the original didn’t have. Where Craven had a very inexperienced cast for the original film. Aja had the luxury of a bigger budget to hire a more competent and able group of actors. A cast that was led by Ted Levine who shined in his role as the patriarch of the civilized Carters. Kathleen Quinlan as the mother of the bunch soldiers on even though its almost predestined in films such as this that she would be one of the doomed. The two daughters as played by Vinessa Shaw and Lost’s Emilie De Ravin were quite good in roles that involved some very graphic rape sequences. Much kudos must go to De Ravin for having to perform through her scene during the trailer-camper attack. But the two actors who excelled in the film has to be pacifist turned avenging angel Doug as played by Aaron Stafford. We see in his character Doug the lengths a civilized human being would go through to survive and protect those he cares for. Even if this means resorting to becoming more brutal and primal than the inbred, mutant hill dwellers. It’s in Doug’s character where the basic premise of the clash of the modern with the primitive comes close to matching the same theme in the original. To a smaller degree this was also echoed in the Carter’s teenage son Bobby. Dan Byrd of Entourage plays Bobby Carter and its in him we see the level-headedness of the family. Despite all the horror and carnage he has seen the hill dwellers have inflicted on his family, Bobby remains somewhat calm and even-keeled to protect what is left of his family. The only drawback as to the cast itself was that the opposing family seemed to have been shortchanged. In the original we actually got to understand some of the motivations that drove the hill dwellers to prey on unsuspecting travelers through their area. In this remake the hill dwellers seem more like superhuman monsters and boogeymen. It didn’t bother me as much, but then it also lessened the impact of the story’s basic premise of civilization versus primitives.

Lastly, the look of the film helps add to the grindhouse nature of Aja’s remake. The film has an oversaturated look and feel that took advantage of the desert location and the high-sun overhead. This oversaturation of the film’s look also lends some credence to its grindhouse sensibilities. It looked, felt and acted like something made during the late 70’s and early 80’s. For most fans of horror it would really come down to the special-effects used to show the death and violence’s impact on the audience. Once again, Greg Nicotero and his crew at KNB EFX house show that they’re the premiere effects house. The make-up used to show the mutant effects on the survivors of the original inhabitants of the hills was excellently done. The same goes for the gags used to show the many brutal and messy deaths of both families.

There’s no denying that The Hills Have Eyes was all about pain when boiled down to its most basic denominator. This film is all about pushing the boundaries and piling on violence upon violence. The Hills Have Eyes is not a film that tells us violence solves nothing. Here it does solve the problem for the Carter clan and is also the only avenue of survival of the remaining Carters. The same goes for the nuclear survivors and their offspring who stayed in the irradiated zones that was their home. This film is all about survival and the levels and heights individuals would take to achieve it.

The Hills Have Eyes might not be the original second helping some have expected from Aja after his brilliant, if somewhat flawed first major film with Haute Tension, but it does show his growth as a filmmaker and his clean grasp of what makes horror cinema truly terrifying and uncomfortable. Two ingredients that makes for making a genre exploitation fare into something of a classic. I’m sure that outside of the horror-aficionado circles this film will either be met with indifference or disgust, but for those who revel in this type of filmmaking then it’s a glorious continuation of the grindhouse horror revival that began with Aja’s own Haute Tension, continued by Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects, Roth’s Hostel  and continues to live each and every year with the many direct-to-video releases of cheap, but very good horror films. It truly is a great time to be a fan of horror and Aja’s The Hills Have Eyes more than holds its own against Craven’s original.