RIORI Vol 3, Installment 42: Nima Nourizadeh’s “Project X” (2012)


Project X


The Players…

Thomas Mann, Oliver Cooper, Jonathan Daniel Brown, Kirby Bliss Blanton, Alexis Knapp and Dax Flame (which simply cannot be a real name).


The Story…

Hey, it’s Thomas’ 17th birthday! And his folks are out of town for the weekend! We gotta throw a party, with babes, booze and bongs! But not too huge, just a few friends. Wouldn’t want the cops show up and bust us.

Yeah, just a few friends. And some of their friends, maybe. F*ck it. We’ll throw out invites on Facebook to spread the word. The more the merrier, right?

What could possibly go…who are we kidding?


The Rant…

Not sure where to start with this one. Here goes.

Years ago Paul Figgis’ Timecode hovered into my radar. To let you in, the film was an experiment simultaneously pairing stream of conscious, improvised acting with the entire film shot in one, long, hour and a half take. It was bold. It was daring. It was boring.

The concept was cool, but delivering a film in a single, straight line did no wonders for plot, tension or holding my attention. I watched Timecode out of commitment to this blog. Commitment being the key word, as in Bellevue bound. I like pudding.

Still, the “life in one day” aspect of the movie had its appeal. Might’ve been the only appeal. In some sense however, a straight line throughput to delivery a movie’s story cuts away the bullsh*t that might muddle the film proper. Come on. Ever seen a flick that was in desperate need of having the fat trimmed? Cleaved even? Get rid of the slow parts. Eliminate extraneous dialogue. Jump straight into the thick of it.

Hmm. Unsure on all points. The “day in the life” motif’s kind of an old device, even minus the single take thing. Problem is that if you want to make a film chronicling a single day, regardless of content, all that fat really should be there. Let’s face facts: take away the minutiae and there’s gonna be head’s a-being scratched. Something’s missing. It happened in Timecode to a degree, and it really hit the fan with Project X. 

The straight line effect a la single take has its place, when done well. Which isn’t often. That kind of thing is usually reserved for art house films and student projects. It’s a gimmick really.

Especially when the movie in question is nothing more than one big selfie…


Loser Thomas (Mann) is looking down 17 years on the planet, and doesn’t have much to show for it. No girlfriend, but at least his friend Kirby (Blanton) to pine for. Not a lot of friends, save his brothers in arms Kosta (Cooper), the lech and JB (Brown), the clueless. Hell, even his folks regard Thomas as an afterthought. Bummers all around.

It’s a good thing that Kosta smells opportunity disguised as…well, opportunity. Birthday time. Thomas’ mom and dad are off on a weekend vay-cay, and have implicit trust that no shenanigans will go down, because their kid is such a shrinking violet. Kosta figures—nay, declares that Thomas’ 17th birthday will be a bash for the angels.

Hell, he scored a bouncy tent already…


I’m gonna show my hand right now.

Project X is the worst movie I’ve ever seen here at RIORI.

Save that. It’s not really even a movie. It’s a music video in search of music. It’s an hour-and-a-half of mindless debauchery that we’ve all seen before in every goddam teen flick made since Edison’s railcar in Menlo Park. might’ve been regarded as satirical, but since it barely had any humor, it was nothing more than an exercise in dumb for dumbness’ sake. I f*ckng hated it.

Whew.

I wasn’t looking forward to watching it. Last installment’s take on Straw Dogs and taking extra time to watch the original as a control was a bit of a dodge. X landed in my queue before Dogs, and I couldn’t bring myself to watch the former first. My Netflix account is still old school, DVD by mail. I’d stream but my Wi-Fi sucks, so there. My microwave gets better reception. So landed in my mailbox weeks before both versions of Dogs touched down. And from what I learned about prior, I opted to watch Dogs squared beforehand. Then I procrastinated. Then I did laundry. Then I went to work. Then I took up whittling. Then I watched the original version of Dogs again.

Okay. Now then. In the name of professional courtesy—of which I have some—I will still break down the numbers. Loosely. Yeah, yeah. I’m an amateur. Save it. But rest assured, I’ll keep it short this time out. I have to, lest I face pissing blood and voting for Trump. Whatever’s worse.

First off, I’m unsure as to what the disclaimer at the movie’s start was all about. Disregarding the whole “day in the life” schtick, I could only suppose it was either a gimmick to make the film seem “dangerous” (Ooooo). Like this was a real event; a documentary by way of The Blair Witch Project mixed with too much vodka and Red Bull.

Instead, we have every boring cliche with every boring teenage mom-and-dad-are-away-so-we-teens-absolutely-must-party-ourselves-to-death movie in Christendom. And no, I’m neither resentful or jealous such sh*t never happened with me back in the day. I had my Nintendo and a well-stocked supply of Jergen’s and clean socks on hand, so to speak and thank you very much.

Ahem. Time to pick nits. I’ll be quick about it. Yer welcome. I’m just gonna run down what I scrawled in my notebook.

Who here is tired of the would-be ghetto fab white kid? Thought so.

Dax is a unique vehicle for breaking the fourth wall.

An attempt at a plot would be nice.

White to black and back again. And we ain’t talking lenses.

The editing is great. It’s ultimately what the films hangs on, really.

I wasn’t looking forward to seeing this movie. Now I know I was onto something.

Again, there’s something to be said about having a plot.

Okay. That’s it. I’d go into further detail, but there are none. Save this: this was the first time here at RIORI that I feel my bile was entirely justified. was derivative, winking and above all f*cking boring. The ultimate sin.

The end. See you on the flipside.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it, for f*ck’s sake.


Stray Observations…

  • “Please respect my house.” A sign of things to come.
  • We all knew doofs like this in high school. If you didn’t you were one. Surprise.
  • “Even Wheelchair Bob got a blowjob!” Picture that. Stop crying.
  • Was Kosta’s sweater designed to be hated?
  • “You are literally retarded.”
  • Only pussies take tequila with lime and salt. Smart pussies.
  • “I gotta be at the dojo by five.”
  • Damn, Dax has some fleet feet.
  • “I’m understaffed!”
  • It’s nice to see that Verne Troyer was still able to find work. Kidding.

Next Installment…

Forget being a 21st Century digital boy, Robin Williams aspires to be the first android Bicentennial Man.


Advertisements

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 41: Rod Lurie’s “Straw Dogs” (2011)

 


Straw Dogs


The Players…

James Marsden, Kate Bosworth, Alexander Skarsgärd and James Woods, with Dominic Purcell, Rhys Coiro, Billy Lush, Drew Powell and Laz Alonso.


The Story…

Who says you can’t go home again? Well, that’s exactly what David and Amy aim to do.

After her father’s passing, Amy inherited his house in rural Mississippi. So she and David uprooted themselves from LA to start a new life away from the trappings of crowded, urban blight. It should prove to be an idyllic life, hopefully mending a rift in their tenuous marriage.

It’s unfortunate that the locals don’t cotton well to city slickers. It’s also unfortunate that Amy’s old high school sweetheart Charlie’s been bitten by the green-eyed monster. It’s really unfortunate that David isn’t a football fan.

Sometimes it’s a good idea to leave home behind. Far, far behind.


The Rant…

Okay, sorry it took so long to get around to this week’s mashup. For reasons I will explain later, the gap in time between Red Dragon and Straw Dogs is due to my cinematic ignorance.

*gasps*

Yeah, despite all my charms, trivia and thousands of hours wasted watching movies instead of doing something really productive (like finding the cure for rectal cancer and/or Rob Schneider), even I fall out of the loop once in a while. Hey, you can’t be expected to see everything, especially since movies have been around for, what, at least 30 years? That’s a lotta VHS to unfurl. Besides, my NES ain’t gonna play itself and Yoshi’s getting hungry.

What?

So, no. I haven’t seen everything. Working on it, but it’s a long road to walk. It takes patience, undying curiosity and some moronic drive to keep at a blog like this. Lots of potholes. Sometimes there are a few setbacks. Like what, you may ask? For the first time I ain’t talking ’bout a movie you should not view near an open flame holding a Molotov cocktail. Worse.

I’m talking about remakes.

*screaming, rending of garments, passive urination*

Yeah, I feel the same way. See, Hollywood’s gone remake happy over the past decade. With greater and greater diminishing returns, BTW. Don’t misunderstand me; remakes of classic films have their place, even not so classic films. But as I pointed on in my I Am Legend installment, things can get out of hand. I cited with that remake review that in 2004 alone (you know, over a f*cking decade ago), there were about 40 remakes, sequels or prequels churned out. Even the Coen brothers got in on the act back then.

*screaming, rending of garments, passive urination*

Who had the asparagus? Anyway, I ask myself: what gives? What’s with all these unoriginal films? Was there really a demand for Total Recall ver 2.0? What about that Spider-Man reboot a mere three years after the last one? The new RoboCop anyone? Surprise, surprise, I have a few theories. Pull up a chair.

*screaming, rending of okay you get it*

For one, I think remakes are somewhat cheaper to produce than original movies. Not in budget per se, but I’m willing to wager a silk pyjama that it’s quicker to churn out an adaptation of a previously penned, established storyline. I highly doubt we had a scenarist burning lean tissue into the night pumping out the script for the fresher, shinier The Fog or Halloween (sorry, Mr Zombie). There was already an outline. Color by numbers and fill in the blanks, and pray the audience is either curious enough to see the train wreck or ignorant of the original.

That leads to my second premise. Never in the history of the human race have we been so blessed with so much immediate, instant access to info as we have now. And people are dumber than ever for it. The number one Internet search in 2015? Funny animal pictures. Screw mapping the human genome, Angry Cat needs its own movie! On Lifetime, for f*ck’s sake! We have the history of the world at our fingertips, and the butt end of Gen X into the Millenials don’t know jack.

It makes for good business. Hollywood is doubtless aware of this social learning curve (or gap, as it were), and lately have hedged their bets on the public’s willful ignorance to drop slop done before—some sh*t that was only middling the first time out—and wait for the dollars to ooze in. And cross their fingers anyone between the ages of 15 and 50 do not have Netflix streaming, YouTube or any of Leonard Maltin’s film guides. Can’t be many with those kicking around, right?

Most moviegoers have attention spans of gnats with ADHD. With so much media saturation, surely Tinsel Town can get away with slipping us a mickey now and again. Like every summer. And winter. Sometimes fall, too. Only spring before Daylight Savings take effect. Folks got so much stimulus bombarding their brainpans—I repeat, Hollywood is keenly aware of this—that a virus uploaded into the palsied minds of casual movie fans is a safe bet for some fast cash. Hollywood Trojan horses these needless remakes to empty the uninformed pockets. And the hell of it, this wouldn’t be an issue of most of these remakes were actually ripe for revision, let alone good. The many my idiot self has seen over the past decade have been neither.

Of course there have been exceptions. But before I get to my limited, hopelessly biased list permit me to enlighten you further about the nature of remakes. Here, put on this pair of Depends. Right. My take is this: if a director/writer gets a wild hair up their ass and feel the need to boldly go where someone has gone before, they sure as sh*t better have something new to add to the mix. You can’t just do boilerplate. You can’t just connect the dots. And you not to have any delusions of homage ricocheting about your vodka and blow addled imagination (I’m not saying such directors are addicts. I’m not saying they’re not, either. If the spoon fits use it).

A director and/or scenarist must give their unique spin to the original product. Either enhance the storyline, rely on an impeccable casting director or simply put a signature stamp on the final product, wrapped up in a nice, neat, tasteful package that actually brings something fresh to the table. It’s been done before, and maybe can be done again. Lately though? I have my doubts.

Some cool remakes over the past few years? Glad you asked. Here, let me loosen those restraints a bit. Okay, let’s play compare and contrast. You learned math in elementary school, right? Same rules.

Scorsese’s The Departed (which won Best Picture in 2006. Marty’s apology Oscar, BTW) was lifted from a Chinese gangland flick called Infernal Affairs. Besides Scorsese’s signature stamp, the film worked well thanks to the tight performances from DiCaprio and Nicholson (Jack’s best sh*t in years if you ask me). We also had Ocean’s 11, also under the helm of solid director Soderbergh and the charms of Clooney and Co. Hell, even the 1996 take on The Birdcage was wild, wooly and witty. These are but a scattered few winners.

But despite my focus on recent remakes, there are quite a few notable flicks remade well prior to the Internet generation. I mean, hey, did you know The Wizard Of Oz was done four times? It’s true. The first was a silent version. The next was a talkie, but sans the high tunage and technicolor extravaganza that we got with Judy Garland and her amazing pipes for the third, definitive version (and let’s not forget The Wiz, awash in R&B and overtones of urban blight).

Casablanca was done three times. Not including the iconic classic, the source material was the play Everybody Comes to Rick’s, which was done twice before Elsa got on that plane. Michael Curtiz’ masterpiece almost didn’t get made, BTW. Something about lousy casting or something. What do I know?

We had The Front Page against His Girl FridayThe Man Who Knew Too Much was done by Hitch twice (three times if you remember Billy Bob Thorton’s effort). Seven Samurai got morphed into The Magnificent SevenThe Hidden Fortess borne Star Wars: A New HopeThe Good, The Bad And The Ugly wrought Yojimbo. The list goes on.

Another aspect of the remake hangs on the wobbly pretense of basing films on pre-exisiting texts. I’ve seen three interpretations of Hamlet on the silver screen (two with casting mistakes of Mel Gibson and Kenneth Branagh portraying the titular tragic hero. Hamlet was a teen. Gibson was straight off the Lethal Weapon train. He was way too old for that sh*t). Speaking of Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet has numerous incarnations. Not just Shakespeare but a lot of great films were lifted from great literature. Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness was adapted for Apocalypse Now. Bloch’s Psycho became flesh by Hitchcock (and we’re gonna ignore the frame by f*cking frame remake with a miscast Vince Vaughn). And the last time we were out, we were introduced to Hannibal Lecter’s salad days via Manhunter and Red Dragon, both based on Thomas Harris’ novel.

It’s fortitudinous really that Red Dragon was the previous whipping boy at RIORI. It makes a good companion piece to this week’s beauty and ruin, this Straw Dogs remake. Remember eons back when I said I haven’t watched everything? Before I watched Red Dragon I had already seen Manhunter many years prior. If you read the installment, I felt compelled to compare the older version with the new one. Directors Mann and Ratner brought different meals to the table, their own visions. Both were good, but markedly different. I had read Red Dragon miles before I saw the films, and dug each version’s unique take.

I never read Straw Dogs‘ source material, Gordon Williams’ The Seige Of Treacher’s Farm. Didn’t have immediate access to it. F*ck, never knew the film(s) were based on it until the end credits. More importantly, regarding the viewing of Rod Lurie’s remake of Straw Dogs—

(here it comes)

—I never saw Sam Peckinpah’s original. I can’t see everything. I heard about the original with the Director’s Cut reissue in Entertainment Weekly back in the mid-90s (when I still read that rag), and the plot intrigued me. But I lived in a cultural armpit of Pennsylvania, and Netfilx didn’t exist and the local Blockbuster was stocked to the rafters with endless copies of Ghost, so I missed that bus. But like I said at the beginning of this screed, know that Lurie’s version was a remake, and me never seeing the original, and me being well-versed with Manhunter serving as a tonic to my Red Dragon review, I decided I’d be remiss in my duties to take apart Lurie’s version without being acquainted with Peckinpah’s film. So I took the time to sit down and watch the original. A copy of Williams’ Siege wasn’t to be found at the library as a control, either. Which explains the delay in churning out this installment regarding Lurie’s “vision.”

Despite patience being a virtue, I think I might’ve made a big mistake…


City life isn’t for everyone. David and Amy Sumner (Marsden and Bosworth, respectively) quietly fled crowded, polluted LA to Amy’s family home in rural Mississippi. They want an idyll life, far from the stress and strain of the West Coast.

Speaking of strain, their marriage is an uneasy relationship. It’s reflected in their move, as well as a change in direction. David’s a screenwriter, tired of playing the Hollywood game. He throws himself into a new, personal project: a historical documentary, miles away from the glitz he tiredly has churned out. Amy focuses on the restoration of her late dad’s homestead, as well as rediscovering her roots.

Speaking of roots, the locals don’t take kindly to outsiders. David’s viewed as some Calfornia “cream puff” and Amy is little more than eye candy. Especially to Charlie (Skarsgärd), her old flame from their high school days. As more or less a favor, Charlie and his crew have been hired to help Amy achieve her dream by restoring the barn adjacent to the antebellum mansion. This permits Charlie and his cronies ample time to ogle Amy and intimidate David.

Speaking of intimidation, what starts out as an tenuous relationship with Charlie and the locals slowly escalate into psychological warfare. They don’t like wussy David. They want Amy on a platter. They want them gone. Who needs some f*ggoty Hollywood sh*t mucking about town? He don’t even like football. And how the f*ck did he score that blonde cupcake? Charlie and his buds have malice on their minds, and the Sumners need to be taught a lesson and chased out of the f*cking county as fast as f*ck as possible. Or else.

Speaking of else—

The Sumners don’t wanna know what else…


After watching this version of Straw Dogs, I performed an about face and checked out the original. I told you all that. I’m telling you this again for a good reason. About halfway through Peckinpah’s version, I paused it. I was mad. I was mad not about the quality of the 1971 version, which was intriguing. And outright I’ll say Dustin Hoffman made for a much more interesting David than Cyclops did (big shocker there), as well as rural Cornwall as setting. No. I was mad because Lurie’s version was identical to Peckinpah’s. Not slightly. Not passingly. Completely.

Like I said earlier, if you’re gonna do a remake of a classic film you sure as sh*t better bring some twists and turns to story. Otherwise, you have a Gus van Zant travesty on your hands, and a lot of dissatisfied (thinking) movie fans. Rage and ruin. Overturned popcorn buckets. Bitching like mine. Screaming. Rending of garments. Passive pee covering the theatre floor. You thought it was sticky already? Boy, howdy.

Sorry.

Lurie’s Dogs was less of an homage and more like a rip-off, but it wasn’t a total loss. Quite the contrary, at least until the second act (more on that later). At the outset though, the film had nice rising action. There was some good, icky tension between Charlie and company with the Sumners. The whole feeling of unwelcome was palpable, and made me cringe in the best way possible. The menace was there, with Skarsgärd operating with smarm and disdain disguised as Southern Hospitality. Upping that ante was a signature, over-the-top performance of James Woods as redneck ringleader Coach Hadden (with my takedown of White House Down, Woods always makes for an exceptional villain with his shuck and jive, interspersing humor within his odious shenanigans).

The tech stuff was in there where it mattered, too. The editing was smooth, almost seamless along with steady camera work. The soundtrack was great, really highlighting the tension. The landscape was beautiful; give that location scout a hug. All these things worked well.

But only so far.

I fast learned by watching Peckinpah’s film that Lurie’s version was missing the point. 2011’s Dogs was ostensibly meant to be an extension of Peckinpah’s meditation on violence and how the kindest of people could resort to desperate measures. Instead, we get violence for its own sake here. There’s too much of a Hollywood stamp: shock and awe as a substitute for substance. Days of the true psychothriller are gone. If one happens to pop up unexpectedly, the media practically lunges at it like a starving tiger. In the meantime we get a lot of flash, dash and viscera to keep the masses entertained. Truth be told, Lurie’s Dogs didn’t quite follow that line, but the movie felt as if scene upon scene was staged for some sort of explosion later on. There was no slow build after act two. The delivery was halting, and began to lose steam. There’s a difference between foreshadowing and Kafka’s Gun theory and setting up your marks. Like I said, a remake like this hung its bets on an audience not in the know to sell tickets.

That and the help of a very pretty cast.

That’s the major crime here in Dogs. Our dramatis personae. The acting is rather stiff, and our leads are horribly miscast (save Woods, who chews so much scenery it’s a wonder he’s not crapping out drywall). Dogs relies more on name recognition and face value than a coherent ensemble. This is especially true regarding True Blood‘s Skarsgärd. I have to admit—and I am straight as an arrow, regardless what the wifey believes—his Adonis-like looks and build are distracting, and doesn’t a country bumpkin make. Even when he’s being sinister Skarsgärd lacks menace, and that lack made for a very late-in-the-show unconvincing heavy, as well as the cheesiest REDACTED scene ever (the original’s scene made me want to puke, if that tells you anything). The final execution feels like a sick teen comedy. Minus the rococo angst.

Yes, I actually wrote that line. Back to the prettiness.

Marsden is totally out of his element here. In the original, Hoffman’s David is a nerd to be sure, but he’s also wary about his circumstances. He carried an air of suspicion. Marsden by contrast is just clueless. He keeps asking for it from the locals. Over and over and over again, as a square peg to a trapezoidal hole. It doesn’t take long until wanna smack him, over and over again more than the rednecks who’ve targeted him. Sure, his naiveté works with great humor in the first act, but the joke is old by the second. His innocence is ultimately not endearing. He doesn’t engender sympathy. He’s hollow and stereotypical. He didn’t even shoot lasers from his eyes. Gyp.

Even though I’m not a fan of Marsden’s and Skarsgärd’s acting, they weren’t dull. Stereotypes maybe, poor fits both, but even with their faults they did sh*t. Bosworth (of whom I am not a fan period) is so passive it’s almost as if she’s not there. Frankly, at this point in the game I felt any other actress would’ve fit the bill. Pick one. Anyone. Just make sure they have a little confidence and not screaming potential victim. I mean, it’s inevitable bad things are going to happen Amy. I just don’t want to see it coming a light-year away.

Okay. And now for something completely different. Ignoring its flaws, Lurie’s interpretation was, in all honesty, not that bad. Barring the whole second act thing I keep flogging, the movie as a whole was entertaining. It’s not like a “more than the sum of its parts” scenario. But everything hung together pretty well for the most part. Again like the dichotomy of Red Dragon was made to entertain while The Silence Of The Lambs was made to penetrate, both Dogs follow that mold. Peckinpah’s film was awash in social commentary. Lurie’s film simply hoped to thrill. I am loathe to admit it did, despite the poor cast and graphic violence for shock’s sake. The original film was far cleaner in its execution. Only by act three the fit hits the shan. Lurie’s aforementioned icky tension shows the movie’s hand too soon. It would’ve been better with a slower build up and less of that scene building.

In sum, the message of violence here in Dogs gets a bit too on the nose for Lurie’s interpretation. I hate to keep comparing apples to kumquats, but the original film was about “chronicling the beast within.” Lurie’s film just can’t wait to blood butter everything. Meaning breathe it in, punk. There’s an after school message here. A blood-soaked message to be sure, which in turn hides the true meaning of Dogs. What began with good, icky tension ends up with forced, cloying suspense. It’s like a timer went off, and stuff quits making sense. Sh*t descends into mediocrity. Even though there are (vague) motives for the locals to target the Sumners, said motives never really gel. Despite the obvious machinations put into motion, you walk away with “Huh?” Does this movie want to endear contempt for everyone involved? If you can’t get behind anyone then when the climax hits it lands with a fizzle, not a roar. Like I said, at least Hoffman was interesting. Marsden needs a spanking.

This movie ultimately made me feel scummy, like I needed a shower afterwards. It wasn’t the violent climax that upset me. It was the message, glorifying violence. Don’t misunderstand me. I like a decent splatter flick on occasion as well as the next idjit, but a little depth wouldn’t hurt neither. At the end of it all, Lurie’s Dogs remake initially had a lot going for it. Really. I dug it until…well, you know. Its undoing (besides the floundering cast) was reveling in sex and violence, with nary a whit of irony. Some films embrace this, sometimes with a modicum of success. Some of them even remakes, too. One out of three ain’t bad for this Dogs.

But hey, Lurie’s take had zydeco music. That’s sumpin’ different at the table.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A reluctant relent it, and it’s a real shame, too. Here was chance to make a remake about a vital topic. Instead we get Hollywood’s idea of depth. Lurie did an admirable job, just not a respectful one. If you gotta watch it, watch both.


Stray Observations…

  • “You know what? I’m gonna drive.”
  • Hipster music. What better way to alienate oneself from the Skynyrd lovin’ locals?
  • “Thought you was off duty.”
  • Marsden may be a nebbish, but Bosworth is a stick.
  • “Sorry ’bout Flutie.” Keep the change.
  • All of a sudden David becomes John McClane. Zydeco can do that to you.
  • “Shoot anyone that isn’t me.”
  • Stalingrad. I get it, I get it.

Next Installment…

I got a feeling that this film titled Project X has nothing to do with experimental, super smart chimps. Monkey business maybe, but no chimps. Broderick reference!


RIORI Vol 3, Installment 40: Brett Ratner’s “Red Dragon” (2002)


Red Dragon


The Players…

Anthony Hopkins, Edward Norton, Ralph Fiennes, Emily Watson and Harvey Keitel, with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Anthony Heald and Mary-Louise Parker.


The Story…

To know the mind of a killer, one must understand a killer.

FBI agent Will Graham knows this all too well. His final capture which sent him into retirement was the infamous serial killer Dr Hannibal Lecter. “The Cannibal” almost sent Will to his grave. Instead, Lecter merely left Will with a scarred body and an even more scarred psyche.

Now there is a new killer on the loose, and Graham gets dragged back into active duty. This “Tooth Fairy” seems to have the same tastes, so to speak, as our dear doctor. So Will seeks out his old adversary for some insight into the motives of his quarry. You know, to help with the manhunt.

Seems like Graham doesn’t understand as much as he should.


The Rant…

I don’t think there have been a lot of Best Picture Oscars in the past 30 years that have truly earned the award. I mean the Oscars are nothing but a high school senior year popularity contest, right? Minus the beer bust on Friday at Kevin’s place since his ‘rents are in Barbados. Best Pics in my observation are nominated on popularity (eg: box office booty), critics’ nose-out-of-joint say-so (I’m not in the Academy, so my say-so is worth f*ck-all. By proxy, I’m more qualified, so nyah) and the dotty senility of a clutch of old, white, rich guys who don’t even have to watch the nominees (refer to my Crash installment. I’m too damned lazy to repeat myself).

Bitter? Me? Naaah.

What I’m saying is there are some movies that are so monumental of course they’d win awards, no matter how irrelevant and empty such trinkets are. I am of the George C Scott school regarding awards and self-congraduations: just stay home from the bells and whistles (never get invited anyway. Sulk). Great sh*t doesn’t need to advertise they’re great. They speak for themselves.

By my measure—and my standards, which are hopelessly myopic, thank you—precious few grand films have come down the pike lately. By lately I mean in my lifetime, all forty angry, drunken, flatulent years. Across this continuum, we’ve had “what the hell” winners like Dances With Wolves, The English Patient, Driving Miss Daisy, 12 Years A Slave and the original Rocky. Yes, that Rocky.

I await your beer cans. I am not afraid. I’m wearing Gallagher concert gear.

Those films are a small sample of good movies, but really haven’t endured. It’s no mystery that I find Wolves treacly and somewhat insulting, but it’s still decent. Worthy of all that praise? Let’s put it this way, quote from it. Anything but “Tatanka.

*whistling wind*

Okay, weak sauce. But what I’m driving at is a lot of those Best Pics haven’t really saturated the pop culture consciousness, as if they’ve always been there. Or the pop scene couldn’t’ve existed without these films, so entrenched they are in our short attention span, microwave mac n’ cheese, Nickelback downloading hive mind. The comprehensive list is short, but potent. Casablanca, Gone With The Wind, The Godfather 1 & 2, Lawrence Of Arabia, the original (can’t believe I have to quantify that) Ben-Hur are prime examples. Precious few other capital Q quality movies have dropped in our laps that had no other option but to win Best Picture. Few and far between, but since the bicentennial we have had The Deer Hunter, Gandhi, Amadeus, Unforgiven to impress eternal upon our collective, popcorn-drunk brainpans.

Oh, and The Silence Of The Lambs. Can’t forget that one.

*our blogger finally approaches his point, and the crowd lets out a sigh of relief*

Stick around. I’m baking cookies.

Ah, Lambs. A perfect example of an enduring movie. Quarter century old and it still resonates with the movie munching public. Even folks who’ve never even seen the thing (for shame) can quote it verbatim, Agent Starling. I’m not gonna wax rhapsodic about the film, except the for that fact is that it’s the wifey’s fave film, which says something. Maybe that she’s a Virgo. But I am gonna go on about Anthony Hopkins’ performance as the infamous cannibal. It’s pertinent to the rest of this screed, never worry. So regardless what your personality makeup is, Lambs packs a punch. Along that line, no one out there in the audience has more (of a twisted) personality that Dr Hannibal Lecter, Hollywood’s favorite serial killer.

The most fascinating thing I ever heard about how the character is regarded is that Lecter was the guy you wished you knew. The man with the grace, intelligence and poise who would be the ideal person to spend an evening with over wine and cheese. This is naturally thanks to Anthony Hopkins’ Oscar-winning performance, and although I cast a cocked brow at the Academy, they didn’t have rocks in their heads back in ’91. Hopkins’ charm sold the character, and Lecter is a very scary customer. Hollywood lore says that Hopkins only had like 20 minutes of screen time, but boy did he make the most of it.

So how did those scant 20 work so coldly effective? I think I have an idea. This theory’s based on an actual interview with Hopkins, and how he approached the character of Lecter. When he initially read the the script for Lambs he was uncomfortable with the character. Appalled might’ve been a better word. The party line went that Lambs’ babbling director Jonathan Demme was a fan of David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, the biopic about the Victorian prodigy with elephantiasis John Merrick. In that film, Hopkins portrayed his sympathetic benefactor Dr Treaves. Demme suggested to Hopkins that Lecter is Treaves, in reverse. Play him that way.

It worked. Lecter was well-mannered, considerate, insightful…devious, manipulative and twisted. Come into my parlor, said the spider to Clarice. That combo of sweet with the bitter made for a delicious, scary villian. And he was behind bars! The real terror was Buffalo Bill skinning girls (and a moment of aforementioned rocks in the head back then Ted Levine wasn’t nominated for his freakish performance. No justice, I tell you), not that you cared with Lecter scheming behind the plexiglass barrier. The anti-Treaves method worked wonders.

Which is why we still talk about the movie—and the character—to this day. Now, with such a compelling character as Lecter we hated to see him go. Although Lambs didn’t (immediately) invite a sequel, although the ending left that open (and it eventually showed up in the form of Ridley Scott’s Hannibal, not to mention the TV series to a degree) doubtless Hollywood was champing at the bit to keep Lecter in the minds of moviegoers. Well, word on the street was that Hannibal failed to deliver, both the novel and the film (perhaps that trifle will be cast asunder at RIORI in the near future. Cross your fingers), and the nascent franchise seemed dead in the water.

Then Hollywood decided to employ a device I loathe: the prequel. It didn’t work with Star Wars, and if that ain’t a red flag I don’t know what is. Maybe that Rob Zombie Halloween remake. Some folks never learn. I believe that prequels are not just milking cash cow, but strangling the udders until they bleed. Can’t expand the story further? Retrofit! Fix what’s not broken! Muddy the waters! Freebird!

Deceive. I hate deception. Especially flagrant deception, in plain sight and a big middle finger to the moviegoing public. When a good movie comes out, and there is actual room for a sequel (eg: the original Star Wars or Godfather movies), it works once in a while. But for every The Road Warrior we get Ghostbusters 2.

That being said, and simply put, extending a movie’s story is a tricky, often faulty undertaking. Most of the time sequels are all about bigger, better, faster, more. Prequels try even harder. They are mercifully scant, but when they do pop up…well, law of diminishing returns. Think Attack Of The Clones, Prometheus and Monsters University. Superfluous, annoying and an obvious cash grab. If there really is another story to tell before the here and now, it helps if there is a legit story to draw from.

Might be a good thing that Lambs author Thomas Harris wrote Red Dragon first…


FBI profiler Will Graham (Norton) has a problem, and it’s behind bars. It’s also in his mind. Furthermore, it’s not an “it,” but a he. His last case.

Dr Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter (Hopkins).

Graham has the skill—or perhaps curse—of malign empathy towards killers. He can get inside their heads, imagine how they operate, understand their motives. But all that sifting takes a psychic toll. It’s taken Graham to the brink more than once. Even the most skilled of manhunters need help in sorting disgusting matters out. Which is why he sought out Lecter.

Once. And it nearly killed him.

You see, Graham was being aided by Lecter in cracking a case of serial killer terrorizing the Baltimore area. Him being the preeminent forensic psychologist in the country, of course his insight would be invaluable. It was. All too much. Graham uncovered Lecter was the killer, flaying his victims and devouring their organs. Graham’s oversight nearly cost him his life at Lecter’s hands, but not before sending him to the loony bin.

After that, retirement, but not before stints in a medical and mental hospital. Psychic toll.

Graham was over with it. Forget the FBI. Retreat to Florida with his wife Molly (Parker) and young son Josh. Fix boats to pay the bills. In sum, recuperate, and let the nutjobs alone.

Then his old boss Jack Crawford (Keitel) shows up with a pair of photographs. Two families, slain in a gruesome fashion. Jack needs Graham’s old magic back; this case is hard to crack. At first, Graham balks. He was done after Lecter. Jack insists. This new freak, dubbed “The Tooth Fairy” (Feinnes) is crafty, and Crawford needs Graham’s unique skill set. Will he lend a hand, if only as a consultant?

Graham has a family, too. But before he takes Jack up on his offer, he feels he needs some unique skills for his own use. This Tooth Fairy is cagey, and his pattern stinks of an old adversary. A very smart, clever and devious adversary. Someone who may be better than him at getting into crazies’ heads.

“Dr Lecter, there is someone here to so see you…”


I’d be remiss in my duties to point out, as far as prequels go, Red Dragon the novel was made into a film once before back in the 80s. A very good film, BTW. Michael Mann (of Miami Vice fame) directed  Manhunter back in 1986, five years before Demme’s Lambs. In Manhunter we were introduced to our best bud Lecter in the form of the brilliant Irish character actor Brian Cox. Cox’s Lecter was pissy, mocking and devoid of all charm that Hopkins had. He was great. After watching Red Dragon, I wondered that beyond Treaves, maybe Hopkins took some cues from Cox for a proper delivery before Clarice carefully descended into the basement and got jizz flung at her hair. Maybe.

Manhunter was a product of its time, and it showed. This is a good thing. It was a very 80s film, down to the fashions and synth-driven soundtrack. The cast was awesome, too. As Graham we had William L Peterson pre-CSI, the late, great character actor Dennis Farina as the dour Crawford, and looming large and creepy Tom Noonan as the Tooth Fairy (he later portrayed Frankenstein’s Monster if that tells you anything. Okay, it was in The Monster Squad, but come on).

Manhunter was an angular, engaging, hard to watch (in a good way) kinda film. I own it. I love it. Some folks claim that in some ways it’s superior to Lambs. Some say. Both are very different animals, though. It’s kinda of hard to believe that the character of Lecter (thanks to Hopkins) was nothing but charming and quietly menacing. Cox’s performance was a sarcastic, angry, trolling doosh, well met since he was pissed at Graham for capturing him.

This was not lost on Hopkins in Red Dragon. Must’ve seen Manhunter as research. Hopkins affects the same vitriol as Cox did. His Hannibal is f*cking pissed being behind bars, and spews his ire all over Norton’s Graham. He does it with the old Hopkins/Lecter charm, though, but here it’s soured. Where Hopkins was a smooth smoothie in Lambs, he’s crude and rude in Dragon, happily taunting his nemesis at every opportunity. Sure, Graham’s Tooth Fairy case piques Lecter’s intellect, but most it serves as the MacGuffin: revenge on his captor. Lecter taunts Graham, rather than goads Starling. Hannibal’s not scary here. Instead he’s funny, but not ha-ha. He mocks Will with his wit. He’s angry, and at every chance he snipes and snarks. And what better way to torment a scared person on the edge with a well-placed barb? Hell, I use that all the time. Sometimes even here.

Before we delve deeper into bedrock, let me me scatter some gravel. Remember what I said about Manhunter being a product of its time? Dragon has that, too. I’m not talking pop culture fingerprints, though. Director Ratner (whom I wish would’ve shown more verve after this film. X-Men 3? Blargh), with thanks to the scenarists cut a clean film that has tons of 80s touchstones without blaring them. Subtle old school touches are myriad in Dragon. The cars, the fashions, those blocky computers and VHS tapes aplenty. You almost forget that this film was cut in the early aughts. Of course it helps that at the outset, Lecter’s capture happened in 1980.

That’s another thing. Here’s where the prequel aspect actually comes into good use. In Lambs again, Hopkins’ Lecter was slender, almost gaunt. Spending years in captivity will do that to you (prison food sucks, and no liver or fava beans either). In Dragon, Lecter looks well-fed, so to speak, and still has dark hair. One would assume a cannibal deprived of his menu would slim down behind plastic. In Dragon, not long after his capture, one might assume that Lecter would be peeved being deprived of his “luxuries” and look a tad chubby. Of course, this in reality would be due to Hopkins hitting Old Country Buffet with his millions, but let’s not split hairs. Pass the gravy.

Norton as Graham on the other hand is a different case. In Manhunter, Petersen’s Graham was a cold, distant, haunted person. He maintained a flat affect throughout the film that made him haggard, scared and enervated, No surprise with the Lecter case he carried around in his head. The show was over, but not upstairs. Petersen’s Graham was disturbed. Norton’s Graham is cool. Where Petersen was on the edge of cracking up, Norton is collected (albeit barely). Norton has a rep for being difficult, and has a penchant for playing weird characters. Our baby-faced protag has donned the mask of neo-Nazi Derek from American History X, Dr Bruce “The Incredible Hulk” Banner and Fight Club‘s narrator. FBI profiler Will Graham ain’t too far a stretch, still he lacks the personality tics expected of a cop nearly killed by his arrest, only to have tea with him later. The saving grace here is whenever his Graham has to (reluctantly) interact with Lecter he looks visibly upset, if not scared, all set jaw and on the verge of cringing. His cool demeanor gets disrupted. It would’ve been better if the curled chin and glassy look were used more often over the course of the film.

Norton was no Petersen, but Dragon had a different flavor. Manhunter‘s Graham was emotional. Dragon‘s Graham was clinical. That’s it. Dragon is more a straightforward crime drama than Lambs was all drama and scary. Here we have fast-paced, where Lambs was careful and deliberate. Dragon wasn’t made to win Oscars. It was made to thrill.

Urgency is the watchword here. When Crawford shows up at Graham’s door he’s quick to inform him that they have a scant three weeks to find the Tooth Fairy before he kills again. The race is on, and it only lets up in fits and starts when we gotta give face time to our pair of serial killers. Everything in Dragon is bounce, bounce, bounce and the editing is fantastic. Usually a breakneck speed that Dragon sails at would derail most crime dramas. There is a lot of info dump here, but the delivery is so fluid you have little trouble following the narrative. In fact, Ratner’s skill at pacing is so good here that the hints and subtleties register moments later with an “Ah ha!” You figure out what’s happening in a flash and it gives you a sense of satisfaction. I’m on to you, Tooth Fairy! Chewy this, and I’m not apologizing for that one.

Something else worth pointing out. This is a DeLaurentiis production. For those out there that this fact fails to send a chilling chuckle down your spine, lemme tug on your coat a bit. That name has been synonymous with distributing low rent, chewing gum for the mind movies for half a century. Some of that studio’s output has been noteworthy for that. The good: Blue Velvet, Evil Dead 2 and (wait for it) Manhunter. The bad (and they are criminally bad): Maximum Overdrive, Earth Girls Are Easy and the Pumpkinhead franchise. All those disparate movies, however, have a signature thread running through the cinematic tapestry: cheesiness. For good and bad. Virtually every one of the DeLaurentiis films have a happy degree of movie gouda.

The rub? It works both ways. Dragon has some of that cheeze. There’s a campiness nipping at the heels in Dragon. As interesting as the acting is, its all one curd away from seagull-splaterring onto your shoes. Then again, it works here. There’s a sort B-movie aspect to Dragon, in a good way. Example? The supporting cast.

Example? Feinnes as the Tooth Fairy (AKA Francis Dolarhyde, one of the best character names this side of a Pynchon novel) is really enjoying his role here, which is really creepy. Sure, we all know serial killers are nuts and scary, but Feinnes really digs in here. His Dolarhyde is a slow burn, only to get bonkers all alone. Graham documented the handiwork while Dolarhyde was pumping iron and getting berated by his dead grammy. It’s the whole letting your imagination filling in the blanks. When Feinnes is on screen, we know he’s…off. The whole pie scene alone is quite chilling. His is almost a stereotype, but with the whole “Ah ha!” thing I mentioned earlier paired with the cheese Dolarhyde is not menacing as much as he is freaky. In the end, almost a thing of pity. And isn’t the best way to appreciate a character? Sympathy? Who’s with me?

There’s a few hiccups here, though. There always are. It’s understood by this point that Dragon plays on Manhunter‘s legacy with a lot of winks and nods. It’s almost as if the movie assumes you’ve seen the other version, inviting if not daring you to stab a finger at the screen. While Manhunter took a few liberties with the source novel, it was its own entity. It maintained the spirit of the story if not the letter. Dragon on the other hand follows Harris’ book almost note for note, scene for scene. If you read the book, it’ll be either very satisfying to see Ratner got it “right” or frustrating for the film being so literal in its execution. In fact, there are only two scenes I can recall in Dragon that weren’t pulled directly from the text: the first scene and last scene. How Graham nabbed Lecter and the ensuing psychological damage was touched upon in the novel, made flesh with the opening. The final scene is a sop/snicker for Lambs fans. The first works while the last is merely cute.

So much hero worship can send the movie experience into ultra-overdrive. For example, we learn that the Tooth Fairy’s motives lay in “seeing” things. And, boy, there sure are a lot of pictures and home videos in the victims’ houses. The clever subtlety is there, but as satisfying as it is to catch it, there’s not a lot of time to digest it all. Ratner’s roller coaster flow had a tendency to get a bit too fast paced. Like if you’re not familiar with Manhunter it’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it. I admit I had to do a bit of explaining here and there when I sat down and watched Dragon with the wife and stepdaughter (don’t worry. She’s sixteen. Not the wife). That’s not fun (not the wife).

Sometimes it felt like Ratner let the actors take over the movie. The lunatics took over the asylum, almost literally. As much fun as it was to watch our cast dig in, the narrative occasionally felt muddled for it, often overtaken by a bit too much symbolism (somewhat more soft selling to Manhunter) and scenery chewing. The “lady dressed by the sun” paired later with Reba and the fire scene was a tad heavy-handed. Then again, “Ah ha!” Again. It could get a shade busy and tiresome. It all came to a head with the super tense ending, which was very good, but it also had the taste that this scene was what the movie was ultimately leading to, not necessarily the journey. Virtually all our cast were in the direct spotlight, recapping their reasons for being. Considering Ratner’s style, though it was a good way to go regardless.

So no, Dragon is not Lambs. It doesn’t try to be. Dragon may be more demented than Lambs, but such a film should be. The latter was approaching art. The former was meant to entertain, and that it did. Quite well, in fact. With a guy like Lecter, you need both sides of the plate to really dig in after all. Delightful and goofy supporting cast both. Cheese with the chianti. In further fact, Lambs might’ve started the whole modern serial killer drama template as we know it. Style over style over substance in the finest way. Without Lambs, we’d have no Se7en, no American Psycho, no Henry.

And no Red Dragon, either. Full circle, that.

“Dream much, Will?”


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It’s a high octane thriller, more so paired against Lambs’ slow burn. Dragon‘s worth your while, so long as you pair the right wine with the proper cheeze. Visit your dentist while you’re at it.


Stray Observations…

  • I have that book. I also have no idea what human flesh tastes like. Probably like chicken.
  • “Where’s the dog?”
  • What’s with the mini-gallows?
  • “Would you give that up?”
  • The sniffing thing in both movies. Continuity?
  • “What was your trick?” “I let him kill me.”
  • Notice the sweat stains and tell me Graham’s not scared.
  • “I have no pity” I saw Schindler’s List. Gotcha.
  • Bless you, 666.
  • “You’re so sly, but so am I.” I mentioned this film caged a lot from Manhunter.
  • That billboard is a tad early.
  • “How ’bout an exclusive?” Hoffman is so slimy here he has algae stuck to his brow.
  • “I’ve been there myself.”

Next Installment…

“Heaven and Earth are heartless, treating creatures like Straw Dogs” – Su Zhe