Criterion Sunday 13: The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

As a winner of all five major Academy Awards (film, director, actor, actress and screenplay), this film has a fairly solid reputation, although I’d argue that this kind of lionisation by the Oscars doesn’t amount to all that much, given how wide of the mark they so often are. But certainly, The Silence of the Lambs is a very tautly made psychological thriller with fairly straightforward horror elements in the way its antagonist, a mysterious figure known for most of the film only as Buffalo Bill, carries out his murderous work. His crimes are being investigated by rookie FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), who on the suggestion of her boss (Scott Glenn, always reliably on hand to play bureaucratic heavyweights) interviews the incarcerated serial killer Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). I imagine most of this is fairly well known now already, and certainly the tête-àtête scenes between Starling and Lecter remain fairly intense, as director Jonathan Demme keeps the camera in close on their faces throughout. The performances too are well-awarded, as Hopkins manages somehow to stay just the right side of camp in the leering delight he takes in all the nasty sordid little details of the crimes, while Foster is upright and believable as a fresh-faced recruit. In fact, much of her role is to be a lone woman in the very male-dominated world of law enforcement, scrutinised far more closely than her colleagues as she goes about her work, and the procedural details the film allows her character are partly so that she can be framed and followed by the eyes of the men around her. That said, there’s an uncomfortable element to both the crimes (all against women of a certain size) and to the depiction of their killer, with the story showing a fascination in his cross-dressing which could easily be construed as transphobic, although details are taken from cases of real serial killers. Whatever its weaknesses, the resulting film is still a fine display of filmmaking craft which manages after 20 years to hold up rather well (hairstyles and fashions amongst law enforcement characters remaining fairly restrained, after all) and which will no doubt continue to exert an eery fascination for future generations.

Criterion Extras: The extras on the disc include storyboard comparisons, text from the FBI manual detailing some grisly case studies of serial killers, some lengthy deleted and extended scenes (all nicely contextualised within the film by introductions), and a commentary. This last features the lead actors and creative personnel as well as an FBI agent and is carefully edited and marshalled. It’s largely interesting, though the FBI agent doesn’t have much time for liberal handwringing about capital punishment. Another side effect of listening to a commentary is that the images come into greater focus shorn of the soundtrack, and you really notice the way Demme so frequently frames the faces frontally in dialogue scenes. The cinematography by Tak Fujimoto is also really excellent, with good use of light and dark and almost a softness to the palette. (NB There’s been a new Blu-ray release of this film since the review above was written, so the extras may differ.)


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jonathan Demme; Writer Ted Tally (based on the novel by Thomas Harris); Cinematographer Tak Fujimoto; Starring Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn; Length 118 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 7 December 2014 (as well as years before in Wellington).

Noah (2014)

I must confess I’ve never been much of a fan of Darren Aronofsky, though as it happens I’ve seen a good number of his feature films starting with his debut Pi (1998). If I think, then, that this latest — a biblical epic about the eponymous ark-building character — is his best work, then that probably shouldn’t be taken as a rave review, but still it has enough going for it that it might just scrape through to being a film that I can genuinely recommend at some level, rather than being a masochistic exercise in cinematic punishment (hi, Requiem for a Dream).

Of course, punishment is still a key theme at some level, since the film deals with the Biblical story of Noah, who builds an ark to protect a few deserving creatures from God’s wrath. God, incidentally, is never named in the film, but as “the Creator”, he (still a man apparently) remains present in the narrative, and wisely Aronofsky refrains from having any of those high camp ‘voice from the clouds’ type moments. Instead we get a number of stop-motion animated interludes retelling the Creation myth and setting up these characters, which reappear later on in the film and manage to somehow interweave it with evolutionary theory. Stop-motion animation also gets used for the Nephilim, who here are fallen angels trapped on Earth in solidly rock form as “the Watchers”, and again it shows some nous from Aronofsky that he’s not tried to make them ‘realistic’, for what exactly would be the point of that? They’re giant rock creatures after all, and ones which are not even too abstracted from the original tale.

I think the key here is that this isn’t an attempt to resolve the story of Noah into something akin to realism by shearing it of its supernatural elements; not much would be left of it, after all. Instead, it sensibly focuses on the moral issues, as Noah grapples not just with the Creator’s intended punishment but with his own role in that punishment. He is pushed to the edges of sanity but what he perceives are the Creator’s demands, as he interprets the flood as a way of ridding the Earth of all the errors of humanity, including him. Of course, the world’s repopulation presumably leans rather heavily on incest, but that’s a consideration that is beyond the scope of the film.

So it’s a Biblical epic and also at some level an ecological horror story, as the forces of evil, incarnated by Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone, doing his best Cockney hard man once again) wreak havoc on the world with their vicious tribal society, which we briefly glimpse as, I suppose, a pre- rather than post-apocalyptic dystopia. But however dark and barbaric Tubal-cain’s settlement may be when Noah infiltrates it, it’s his people’s insistence on hunting and eating meat that is presented most insistently as their greatest failing, making Noah something of a visionary evangelistic vegetarian epic.

Few of the actors really make much of a mark in the film next to Russell Crowe’s charismatic central performance. It feels only right that he should embody Noah in all his contradictions and vainglory, as the quest he embarks upon is the kind of single-minded folly that only the most confident of epics could countenance, and Crowe has already proved he can hold this kind of film together. Anthony Hopkins gets a few scenes as the decrepit old Methuselah, living atop a mountain and largely absent for most of the film, while the lovely Emma Watson gets written in as a love interest for Noah’s eldest son Shem (Douglas Booth, largely forgettable). Instead his middle son Ham (Logan Lerman) gets a more prominent role, but then his conflicted character, who forges an uneasy alliance with Tubal-cain, is rather more interesting.

As is no doubt clear, I can’t really comment on the religious accuracy of this retelling, but then I shouldn’t really have to. As an epic story about humanity grappling with its own fate, it more than succeeds on its own terms. Maybe the Bible is finally the kind of excessive setting that suits Darren Aronofsky’s talents.

Noah film posterCREDITS
Director Darren Aronofsky; Writers Aronofsky and Ari Handel; Cinematographer Matthew Libatique; Starring Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson, Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins; Length 138 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Sunday 13 April 2014.

RED 2 (2013)

Of all the comic book-based franchises that this past decade has wrought, RED (2010) neither seemed to demand nor require a sequel. It was a pleasant, light-hearted confection about former government ‘black ops’ assassins just trying to retire in peace (its capitalised title being short for “Retired, Extremely Dangerous”). Plenty of the original cast have returned for this second outing, and admirably it manages to retain much of the same breezy charm for what is essentially an entirely unnecessary film.

At its heart is the relationship between retired killer Frank (Bruce Willis) and ordinary office worker Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker). In fact, I’d go so far as to say that all the action and espionage thriller hokum that give the film its narrative structure are just distractions from what is basically a romantic comedy: Frank is having trouble allowing Sarah autonomy within their relationship, and his friends from the first film, Marvin (John Malkovich) and Victoria (Helen Mirren), offer him counsel — generally while despatching Russian agents or kidnapping Iranian diplomats. It’s these little domestic moments, lit up by Parker’s agile facial expressions, that really make the film.

For quite patently the plot is overextended Cold War-era nonsense involving a secret nuclear device in Moscow created by Anthony Hopkins’ apparently mad scientist, who has since been imprisoned in London. This bomb is being chased down by Catherina Zeta-Jones as a Russian secret agent (double agent?), Victoria has been employed to go after Frank, while Lee Byung-Hun as a Korean contract killer is gunning for pretty much everyone.

Given all this, it’s just as well all the actors seem to be having fun, and it makes some of the longueurs (of which there are several) pass more easily to watch Malkovich, Willis and Parker work together. Like any good ensemble comedy, there’s a generosity towards the guest appearances, and no single actor is allowed to steal any scenes, though Parker comes closest. Mirren meanwhile gets to take charge as a competently lethal professional — with a brief comic detour into play-acting as Queen Elizabeth (though the first one here, mercifully) — and Malkovich pops up in a procession of ridiculous hats and costumes.

The film is too long and the plot too labyrinthine, but there is chemistry between Willis and Parker and, more importantly, there’s an underlying comic frisson. If the jokes aren’t quite as sustained as the first film, it doesn’t make this film any less likeable in an easygoing way. As long as you don’t go in expecting much, you should be able to glean a couple of hours of enjoyment from RED 2.

RED 2 film posterCREDITS
Director Dean Parisot; Writers Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber; Cinematographer Enrique Chediak; Starring Bruce Willis, Mary-Louise Parker, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, Anthony Hopkins; Length 116 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Sunday 4 August 2013.