Archive for October 2002


October 25, 2002

It may have pleased Frida Kahlo to know that the first I ever heard of her was in a comic book. Not just any comic book, mind you, but the acclaimed Love and Rockets, helmed by the Mexican-American brothers Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez. Gilbert has always been the more surrealist of the two, so it was natural for him to turn his pen in 1988 to a twelve-page biography of Frida’s life. (The curious can find his piece “Frida” in the Love and Rockets collection Flies on the Ceiling.) Hernandez’ work expressed Frida through his own eyes while borrowing a bit from the source — it was a case of one artist reaching out to another.

The same is true of Julie Taymor’s film Frida, which like Hernandez’ piece was based on the Hayden Herrera biography. Taymor’s background is in theater — specifically, highly stylized theater of the sort that made her vision of The Lion King a Broadway must-see. Her 1999 debut film Titus was a whirlwind of imagery built around the cycle of violence. Frida finds Taymor much more subdued; there aren’t nearly as many flights of fancy. Still, the film is as dynamic and passionate as its subject.

Salma Hayek fought tooth and nail for this project (Jennifer Lopez had a rival biopic going at one point), and this petite actress, who had always struck me as an entertaining light presence but not much more, takes the screen and holds it with a playful animal fierceness that would do — and does do — the real Frida proud. Hayek’s Frida is a young woman who falls in with the artistic crowd at school, and embraces new and exciting ideas about shattering the complacency of the bourgeois. Within her is art waiting to be freed by pain. The pain comes soon enough, in a trolley accident that leaves her immobile for months, during which she doodles butterflies on her body cast until her parents bring her some real canvasses to unload on. The script keeps reminding us that Frida is in chronic pain, though Hayek and Taymor avoid showing us the obligatory scenes of Frida wincing. We look at her paintings and we get it.

Frida packed a lot of living and loving into one 47-year life, and Taymor and her four screenwriters (five if you include Edward Norton, who appears here as Nelson Rockefeller and is said to have given the script an uncredited polish) can’t possibly include it all. As it is, we see Frida dancing with photographer Tina Modotti (Ashley Judd), trysting with the likes of Leon Trotsky (Geoffrey Rush) and Josephine Baker (not named as such here, but, as Hayek has said, “There is evidence that they, uh, knew each other”), and, most centrally, spending a great deal of time loving/hating her ultimate match, the womanizing artist Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina).

Played by Molina with what can only be called flabby sensuality — he thinks he’s irresistible, therefore he is — Diego tells Frida up front that he can’t be faithful to one woman; Frida responds that what’s really important to her is loyalty. Screw whoever you want, she essentially says, but love me and come home to me. It’s a dynamic familiar from the great documentary Crumb, in which Aline Kominsky-Crumb shrugged at the idea that her husband Robert has affairs, because she has them, too. These movies seem to say that artists who exist outside conventional sexual mores nevertheless need a supportive partner attuned to their art, as well as one who is also an artist.

The movie hurtles along; the style couldn’t be more different from the forbidding tableaux of Taymor’s Titus. Taymor knows she has tons of Frida art to draw from, though, and the movie at its most cinematic is a sort of homage to Mexican art in general — its obsession with skulls and death, its roots in folk art and infatuation with cheap pop art raised to the level of romanticism, its lurid aliveness. (One might think that Pedro Almodovar would be the obvious choice for a Frida biopic, but he’s been there and done that in his own highly original work.)

Taymor brings in the Brothers Quay to animate a spooky delirium scene after Frida’s accident; she envisions Diego’s arrival in New York, where he was commissioned to paint a mural for Nelson Rockefeller (as was also dramatized in Tim Robbins’ Cradle Will Rock), as King Kong terrorizing the city until the offended bourgeoisie shoot him down. Taymor is an artist, but she’s also an entertainer, and Frida is by very conscious design one of the most accessible art films (in all senses of the word) in years.

As bold and fearless as its heroine, Frida rescues the artist from the standard victimology-feminism line that Diego kept Frida under his thumb and was a rotten husband. (The movie concedes that Diego was a shitty husband, but — due to Taymor’s and especially Molina’s generosity of spirit in portraying him — he nonetheless comes off as a good, if flawed, man.) This movie has no time for pity, just as Frida had no time for self-pity. She dealt with her demons and her pain by pouring them into her work; in the movie, this allows her the space to live life to its fullest.

Frida begins and climaxes with a wonderfully cheesy Hollywood moment: Sickly and on the verge of pneumonia, Frida is told by her doctor that she can’t leave her bed to attend the first exhibition of her work in Mexico; her response is to have herself dressed fabulously and carried to the exhibition in her bed. One could hardly find a more over-the-top denouement outside a melodrama of the ’50s. Well, yeah, it’s Hollywood and it’s schmaltzy, but it’s also true — Frida did actually do that. And in the very last shot — the best closing image I’ve seen in a long while — Taymor does justice to the legend of Frida’s cremation: that the light from her burning hair gave her the appearance of a smile. Like Gilbert Hernandez before her, Taymor brings all of her artist’s compassion to bear on a subject that deserves it.

Candy Von Dewd and the Girls from Latexploitia

October 25, 2002

“How can you even review that?” That was the question asked just now by my viewing companion for Candy Von Dewd. I suppose I shouldn’t. It’s an experience, a happening. It has been lovingly concocted by director/writer Jacques Boyreau, who used to run the psychotronic Werepad in San Francisco, where music was played, vintage trash movies were screened, and — I’m only guessing here — drugs were taken. The Werepad closed its doors in 2005, but Candy Von Dewd carries on its spirit.

The “plot” is as inconsequential as were the plots of the movies that Boyreau references: It’s the future, “testicles are shrinking,” and a few brave, horny men explore space in search of “seedable women.” They land on a planet full of latex-clad amazons and are summarily detained, whereupon they call for the help of a freelance heroine named, yes, Candy Von Dewd. All of this is an excuse for aggressively trippy visuals, knowingly wooden acting, and a fair amount of footage of women dancing or rolling around on fur rugs. And by “fair amount” I mean “seems to take up half the movie.” At times it’s as if Nick Zedd had remade one of those laughable cheesecake one-reelers you see on Something Weird’s on-demand channel on Comcast.

At feature length this might be pretty intolerable, but Boyreau has the sense to keep it to 55 minutes. The movie was obviously shot on the cheap, yet Boyreau just as obviously put a great deal of thought and effort into the look of the film. It could just as easily have been a full-on tribute to the cheapie sci-fi of old, with cardboard sets, but the design here is art in and of itself. Boyreau has edited books such as Trash: The Graphic Genius of Xploitation (about z-movie posters) and the forthcoming Portable Grindhouse: The Lost Art of the VHS Box, and Candy Von Dewd springs wholly and purely from those decadent images. It’s a shame the movie didn’t find a big cult following (it’s on DVD courtesy of Alpha Video, those tireless purveyors of $6.00 public-domain movies), because it’s built for an audience — specifically one under the influence. My advice? Give it a shot. Let go of the demand that it make sense, and just let the thing wash over you. At the very least, it’s full of images more arresting and mesmerizing than most of what comes out of Hollywood.

Ghost Ship

October 25, 2002

Ghost Ship is another one of those Dark Castle horror movies, which are usually good for a crappy good time. Dark Castle is the production house set up by Joel Silver and Robert Zemeckis, who produced HBO’s Tales from the Crypt and obviously enjoy doing their bit to perpetuate the time-honored tradition of the medium-to-low-budget horror film. The movie has few surprises for lifelong horror fans, but it’ll keep them (or us — I count myself in their number) happily diverted for just under 90 minutes.

Things start off promisingly: a mishap aboard the Italian cruise liner Antonia Graza, which went missing in 1962. Proving that Silver or, more likely, Zemeckis has a bit of clout with the MPAA, the opening scene gives us dozens of bloodily dismembered bodies without getting slapped with an NC-17 rebuke. I found the scene as wildly implausible — if you see it, ask yourself if all the bodies would remain standing — as it was fun to watch; horror fans are always on the lookout for new ways to affront the human body, and Ghost Ship introduces the dreaded Runaway Cable. Okay, you’ve seen that before, but as an instrument of mass murder?

A weather spotter (Desmond Harrington) has caught sight of Antonia Graza apparently floating out in the nowhere of international waters; he brings this info to a salvage crew, headed by Gabriel Byrne as a tough Irish captain named Murphy. This is excellent news for Byrne, who gets to retain his accent while downing hard liquor and tersely issuing unquestionable commands. Murphy decides to take his crew — including the fearless welder Epps (Julianna Margulies), first mate Greer (Isaiah Washington), engineer Santos (Alex Dimitriades), and scruffy crewmen Dodge (Ron Eldard) and Munder (Karl Urban) — to see if the ship contains anything worth salvaging.

It contains, of course, much more than the crew bargained for, including a newly minted cliche in recent horror: a ghostly little girl (Emily Browning) who turns up now and then to distribute mystifying warnings. (Someday soon, I expect to see a ghost-movie parody in which the herald of supernatural doom is a portly guy with a bad combover.) For fans of The Shining, there’s an enticing chanteuse (Francesca Rettondini) who sings passionately and strips merrily to lead gobsmacked men to their doom — perhaps she thinks she’s in a David Lynch movie. Horror fans will also note with bitter amusement that, obeying the rules of the game, the first two victims among the crew are the non-Caucasian ones. My hopes that Ghost Ship would circumvent this rule were dashed when each of the above victims was shown to have a photo of his beloved — one has a wallet photo of his girlfriend, the other a framed picture of his car.

The movie doesn’t know how to use Gabriel Byrne (hint: just point a camera at him and let him be cool), and the big revelation about the bad guy would come as more of a shock if we didn’t see it coming about ten minutes into the movie. But the scares arrive on schedule and are crisply mounted, courtesy of director Steve Beck, who manages the unenviable task of making a one-location movie visually interesting without resorting to fancy tactics (having Gale Tattersall as his cinematographer probably helped). And any movie that eventually awards front-and-center status to Julianna Margulies is inherently worthwhile; reading Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter books, I kept picturing Margulies as Anita, but if we don’t get an Anita movie series starring Margulies, Ghost Ship is an agreeable alternative.

Indeed, the movie is generally agreeable; the Dark Castle films come with no pretense, no huge stars to throw off the balance of the script (which means any character can die at any time), and no flab. They’re certainly not fit to stand alongside the true classics of the genre — they’re somewhere between Roger Corman’s run of horror in the ’60s and direct-to-video horror of the ’90s — but they’re fun, handled with a modicum of craft and respect for the horror audience. Until the next horror master with the prerequisite combo of vision and madness comes along, the Dark Castle movies will have to do.

The Ring

October 18, 2002

The Ring is at least the second remake of the 1998 Japanese big hit Ringu (how big a hit? Let’s say Ringu was in Japan what The Blair Witch Project was here). Korea remade it first, three years ago, as The Ring Virus, and Ringu itself has been sequelized and prequelized (it was also a remake itself — the story was done for Japanese TV in 1995). Now along comes Hollywood, ever late to the party, to weigh in with its own take on the material, which cries out for a master of illusion/delusion like Brian De Palma. I mean, here’s a story about a killer videotape — you watch it, then die seven days later — and you can’t help wondering what De Palma would’ve done with it (turn it into a dark comedy, most likely). Instead, we get Gore Verbinski, the master of horror who gave you MouseHunt and The Mexican.

Verbinski — who also did clean-up work on last year’s Time Machine remake when its director faltered — has proven himself, if not a Howard Hawks jack of all genres, at least a competent hack who’ll take any script Hollywood kicks his way. The script here, adapted by Ehren Krueger (fast squandering the early promise he showed with Arlington Road), could’ve used more kicking; it adds nothing in particular to the material that terrified Japan. Tackling his first horror film, Verbinski is irrepressibly of the flash-cut-booga-booga school: show something weird for a split-second while the soundtrack goes “EEEEEK” (in anticipation of the eek in the audience, no doubt). Some of it does the job — i.e., works on the level of dumb motor scares — but the content of the deadly videotape, which is supposed to freak us out beyond all sense, inspires one cynic in the film, and at least one in the audience, to snicker “That’s very student-film.”

This Ring has something the others didn’t, though: Naomi Watts as Rachel Keller, the reporter trying to get to the bottom of the video mystery. Her teenage niece (Amber Tamblyn), along with three friends, watched the tape and died a week later; Rachel watches it and somehow doesn’t laugh (honestly, it reminded me of nothing so much as Illeana Douglas’ pretentious short film in Ghost World; the tape in the Japanese version was quieter, subtler, and spookier). Realizing she’s on a deadline, Rachel and her ex-husband (Martin Henderson) get to work on the video and the various secrets it may or may not disclose. They’d better hurry, because their young son (David Dorfman) has also watched the tape.

I first noticed Watts in the much-maligned (why? it’s fun enough) Tank Girl, where, as the bashful Jet Girl, she instinctively covered her mouth when she smiled until Lori Petty told her there was no need to hide such a pretty smile. I could’ve told her that, but we didn’t see much more of Watts until her acting marathon in Mulholland Drive; now she graces a Hollywood remake marketed to pull in teenagers looking for the next Blair Witch, and she’s much the best reason to see it. (Well, that and an impressive scene involving a horse gone berserk.) Even in this overproduced claptrap, Watts gives solid evidence of a bright future in engagingly flawed women; I most enjoyed her smaller moments, like the way she shoos her editor away when she’s on the phone, or when she snatches a teenage girl’s cigarette — not out of motherly disapproval, but to light her own.

The Ring, in any version, is locked into its portfolio of scares and revelations (though what Verbinski does with the bodies of the tape’s victims is inspired, and rhymes with the device of the victims’ distorted pre-death photographs better than in the original). Hideo Nakata’s film was unabashedly old-school, and it benefited from its measured, meat-and-potatoes style; it only got weird when it was playing for keeps. This Ring keeps strobing us with weirdness — deathly afraid the young audience will fall asleep, maybe — and so its climax, in which the animating spirit of the video reveals itself, comes off as just another eek! Instead of insinuating its way into your night thoughts, the way the original does, the remake simply tries too hard to be terrifying. Horror audiences are a tough room; you don’t get points for trying.

Punch-Drunk Love

October 11, 2002

In Punch-Drunk Love, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia) uses Adam Sandler as a sort of found object of pathos and hostility. As Barry Egan, a sad sack running a threadbare California business, Sandler shrinks from people like an amoeba recoiling from a drop of cold water. Barry is also given to apocalyptic bursts of rage, which we can trace back to his seven sisters and their cavalierly sadistic, meant-to-be-loving treatment of him. The movie is devoted to Barry’s mercurial moods — yearning and loathing combined in a passive-aggressive ball — and some of the result is dazzling, and alive in a way few other movies are. Yet for all that, I couldn’t wait for it to be over.

Anderson’s 188-minute Magnolia tested the patience (and bladders) of many who endured it; this time, the eager young maestro set himself a 97-minute ceiling. But it’s clear by now that whatever characterization skill Anderson showed in his lean, mean debut, 1997’s Hard Eight, was a fluke. Barry is no more or less than his resentment and need — the latter underscored by Anderson’s frequent use of “He Needs Me,” sung by Shelley Duvall’s Olive Oyl in Robert Altman’s Popeye. Okay, we get it: if Hard Eight was Anderson’s riff on Altman’s California Split, Boogie Nights was his Nashville, and Magnolia was his Short Cuts, then Punch-Drunk Love — with its lunkheaded hero and his tremulous lady love, familial tension, and obsession with a food product (in Barry’s case, pudding he buys by the gross to get frequent-flyer miles) — must be Anderson’s Popeye. Would this filmmaker have anything to say had Robert Altman never been born?

Barry falls in love with Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), who does some sort of work alongside one of Barry’s meddling sisters, and who wanted to meet him based on having seen a family photo of him with his dread siblings. What does she see in him? He offers nothing except need. But need isn’t love, or vice versa, and the desire to be needed is also not love. There is no evidence that these two specific people belong together, and Emily Watson, in the latest in a string of drastically underwritten roles, isn’t given the material to make us see why Barry would be special to her. We understand why she’s special to him — she’s attractive, and shows attraction towards him — but this match seems awfully one-sided. There isn’t even a scene in which Lena is charmed by one of Barry’s personality quirks.

As usual, Anderson shovels in details he thinks are cool, whether or not they belong in the movie. A subplot in which Barry gets ripped off by a phone-sex operator is exceedingly tiresome, though it gives Anderson a reason to put Philip Seymour Hoffman (as the scuzzy boss behind the phone-sex scam operation — the film’s Bluto, if you will) in the film, and it activates Barry’s rage gratifyingly a couple of times. It should be said that the half-serious Oscar buzz surrounding Sandler at the time shouldn’t even have been half-serious; he does nothing here he hasn’t done before, even in his quiet, somber moments when he lets his voice go limp and passive. He gave a more fully-rounded performance in The Wedding Singer, where he not only had a basic, solid script to work from but better dialogue and room to be funny. Then again, The Wedding Singer wasn’t directed by Paul Thomas Anderson the Critics’ Darling.

Anderson has said he wanted to make an Adam Sandler movie, but Punch-Drunk Love is no more an Adam Sandler movie than The Spanish Prisoner — which used its journeyman comedian to similar dissonant effect — was a Steve Martin movie. It is, as the ads say, “a P.T. Anderson Picture.” As always, Anderson does things no one else is doing (that’s not to say no one else has ever done them), and his ardor and enthusiasm keep you watching. But what he puts onscreen is increasingly unengaging. Anderson is obviously in punch-drunk love with making movies; he has also just as obviously forgotten — other than for his own pleasure — why, exactly, he makes them.

Bowling for Columbine

October 11, 2002

Why is it, wonders Michael Moore in his lacerating documentary Bowling for Columbine, that America leads the world in the number of gun killings? Surely it can’t be our pop culture (violent movies, video games, heavy metal) — we make sure other countries get the same junk, and it doesn’t make Japanese or French kids shoot anyone. Broken homes? Well, Great Britain has us beat in that department. Unemployment? Though nowhere near rosy, we’re sitting pretty as compared with other first-world nations. Guns? Could it be? Well, a surprised Moore discovers that our neighbors to the north have seven million guns, yet not only do Canadians not shoot each other — they hardly even lock their doors.

Bowling for Columbine (the title refers to the bowling class that Columbine killers Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris reportedly attended the morning of April 20, 1999, and may also be a metaphor for America’s set-’em-up-knock-’em-down mentality) is an inquiry into why we appear to be a nation of destructive sociopaths. It could not come at a better time, when our (s)elected president obviously itches to go to war to settle his daddy’s score no matter what anyone else says, and when American belligerence and fear are at a pitch probably not seen since the Red Scare of the ’50s. And there’s your answer right there: Hostility and paranoia, says Moore, are a toxic cocktail flooding the veins of the country and triggering the fight-or-flight reflex endlessly. The most invincible power in the world is afraid of its own shadow.

And that shadow is dark, long and bloody. Moore inserts, to the tune of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World,” a mini-history lesson on the offenses America has committed, right up to bankrolling the very people (Saddam, Osama) we’ve now adopted as boogeymen (it ends with a sobering, unblinking view of the plane hitting the second tower, the defining moment of the new national mood). He also shows us an irreverent short cartoon on the history of the United States as a string of overreactive jitters. Maybe America sleeps the troubled sleep of a schoolyard bully who knows his reign of aggression and ignorance can’t last.

When it’s not serious, BFC is often a knee-slapper, in Moore’s familiar can-you-believe-what-you-just-heard ironic style. Camper Van Beethoven’s absurdist “Take the Skinheads Bowling” under the opening titles sets the tone. Moore gets his usual mileage out of sneak-attack tactics, undeniably unfair but effective. A good part of the film’s third act deals with Moore’s response to the school shooting of one six-year-old by another, in Moore’s hometown of Flint, Michigan. The mother of the young shooter worked in Dick Clark’s chain restaurant; Moore tries and fails to get Clark to comment on why the mother was so overworked she had no way of knowing that her son had gotten his uncle’s gun. When Charlton Heston brings a pro-gun NRA rally to Flint days after the shooting (just as he did near Littleton ten days after Columbine), Moore wants to know why; Heston has no answer.

Moore doesn’t really, either. Bowling for Columbine isn’t nearly as populist-righteous as his earlier broadsides against corporate swine Roger & Me and The Big One, his TV series TV Nation and The Awful Truth, or his bestselling book Stupid White Men. For all its gallows humor and choked laughter of disbelief, it feels rather soul-sick and bewildered. The voices of sanity are few and far between — and, in the case of Marilyn Manson, unlikely (Manson won points with me when, asked what he would have said to Klebold and Harris, he says “I wouldn’t have a single thing to say. I’d just listen to them — because nobody else was”). Towards the end there’s a victory of sorts: Moore and two kids who still have bullets from the Columbine shooting in their bodies — Mark Taylor, who has trouble walking, and Richard Castaldo, who’s in a wheelchair — go to K-mart, the source of the killers’ 9mm bullets, and ask them to stop selling them. After some runaround, K-mart actually agrees, to the visible surprise of Moore. But it’s a pyrrhic victory: the kids still carry that metal around, and thirteen others carried it to their graves. Bowling for Columbine is not so much a rallying cry as a call for sense, stability, sanity. We can only hope that someday the film will seem very dated and quaint. Right now, it doesn’t.

The Rules of Attraction

October 11, 2002

You will see very few — probably no — movies this year that play with the film medium as joyfully, and with as much reckless elegance, as The Rules of Attraction. I want this movie on DVD tomorrow so I can watch it on a loop over and over; I loved every jagged, unstable minute of it even when a headache that kicked in about halfway through (not induced by the movie) forced me to squint through much of the proceedings. Of course, you need to realize two things going in: There’s no story, and there are no characters you’d find interesting for more than thirty seconds in real life. That’s par for the course with material that originated from Bret Easton Ellis, the zombie Dostoyevsky of the Brat Pack. But writer-director Roger Avary — like Mary Harron, who worked similar magic with Ellis’ American Psycho two years ago — performs a dazzling feat of alchemy on the base metals of Ellis’ unreadable 1987 novel.

The action is largely confined to debauchery and unrequited yearning, and unfolds mostly on and around the campus of Camden College, where the education seems to be solely the sexual variety (and varieties), and lessons are learned in bedrooms rather than classrooms. But it’s not all lust: mass quantities of drugs and alcohol are consumed before, after, and during the sex, and occasionally an unselfish human emotion does peek through the fog before dying of loneliness. But mainly we’re watching Sean (James Van Der Beek), who has the hots for Lauren (Shannyn Sossamon), who has the hots for Victor (Kip Pardue) …. Ellis and Avary can expound on the satirical weight of this stuff all they want, but this is essentially a postmodern Archie comic — Sean even has a Jughead in the form of the bisexual Paul (Ian Somerhalder), who has the hots for him — and Avary rightly treats it as such.

I was not among the admirers of Avary’s first film, 1994’s self-consciously vicious Killing Zoe. It was clear to me that Avary had talent (he did have a hand in writing Pulp Fiction, after all), but Killing Zoe seemed too, well, Tarantino-esque; I wondered if Avary had a voice of his own. Taking off from Ellis’ monotone, Avary spreads his wings and sings. To confuse the Dawson’s Creek fans in the audience, Avary runs what seems like half the first reel backwards, doubling back to show the same party three different ways. A split-screen scene between Sean and Lauren ends with the neatest camera trick I’ve seen in a movie since the forced perspective in The Fellowship of the Ring. Avary also gives us a high-speed condensed version of Victor’s drugs-and-sex-fueled trip through Europe; the sequence is a mini-essay on the maxim “Brevity is the soul of wit.” On one level, The Rules of Attraction is brilliant film-geek eye candy, borrowing liberally from the greats (Kubrick, Scorsese) to tell a story fundamentally not worth telling.

So why see it? Well, aside from Avary’s brand of rock and roll (by the way, the film has some of the most diabolically funny music cues ever, ranging from “Faith” to “Afternoon Delight”), there’s the acting; Van Der Beek is several continents removed from the Creek here, a lackadaisical sadist who shrugs between sensations, and Shannyn Sossamon, an empty pixie in most other roles, bruises and blossoms here as a self-hating virgin whose psyche is as snarled as her hair. Special mention must also go to Faye Dunaway and Swoosie Kurtz as out-of-it pill-popping matrons, Clifton Collins Jr. as a coked-up dealer who uses a certain 12-letter word as every part of speech, and the drop-dead hilarious Russell Sams as Paul’s gay buddy Richard, who prefers to be called Dick. Sams’ dinner chat with the mortified Dunaway and Kurtz scales the heights of Jim Carrey-esque mania; it’s the film’s highlight.

So: masterfully directed, well-acted, and dead in the water dramatically and emotionally. Is this a recommendation? Hell, yes: Think of how many movies lately have been badly directed and acted and dramatically/emotionally stunted. This one has Eric Stoltz as a leering Irish professor, and Fred Savage tootling on his clarinet while riding a heroin high, and a student walking backwards through the snow, erasing his footprints as the snow flutters upward. And by example and without editorializing, The Rules of Attraction also manages to comment on the follies of excess and instant gratification. Speaking of the latter: I’ll have that DVD now, please.

Red Dragon

October 4, 2002

The most fun part of Red Dragon is over before the opening credits end, but don’t take that as a slam at the rest of the 124 minutes; it’s just that screenwriter Ted Tally (who also adapted Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs) has imagined a sort of “never-before-seen” Hannibal Lecter in the moments before he got caught and put away for nine consecutive life sentences. Lecter, sporting a dashing little ponytail (that sounds really wrong for him, but trust me, it looks right), amuses his fellow Baltimore Orchestra board members over a concoction of his making. Later, dogged FBI agent Will Graham shows up at his door with a hunch that the killer that Lecter has been helping him profile may be … eating bits of his victims. Lecter, in one of Anthony Hopkins’ hilarious career-best moments, just about keeps a straight face. It’s all terribly nudge-nudge-wink-wink, a bit of lagniappe for the fans, and it goes down like Chianti.

The rest of Red Dragon hews fairly close to Harris’ 1981 source novel, which was filmed before, in 1986, by Michael Mann as Manhunter. Will Graham, played with restless, fidgety intelligence by Edward Norton, is scarred from his encounter with Lecter and has “retired” from the FBI. Due to his unusually empathetic intuition — he can get inside a serial killer’s mind and imagine his next move — Will is still much in demand, which explains why FBI director Jack Crawford (Harvey Keitel) shows up at Will’s door with photos of two murdered families. A maniac has been butchering entire households during the full moon; the next lunar cycle gives them a short deadline to catch the killer — whom the tabloids dub “the Tooth Fairy” — before he strikes again.

Entrusted with this leg of the franchise — a prequel whose events unfold before Lecter makes the acquaintance of Clarice Starling — director Brett Ratner, known mainly for Chris Tucker vehicles, doesn’t embarrass himself or the many Lecter fans nervously watching his progress. The film’s look is heavily indebted to Silence; Ratner hired that film’s production designer, Kristi Zea, to rebuild Lecter’s glass cell, and cinematographer Dante Spinotti (who shot Manhunter) apes Tak Fujimoto’s drab, gun-metal tones for Silence. Aside from one bit of shock-cut cheesiness, and a Danny Elfman score that sometimes appears to be shrieking along on its own wavelength and leaving the movie behind, the movie has been crafted smoothly and with minimum schlock.

If Ratner fails anywhere, it’s in the scenes between the disfigured killer, Francis Dolarhyde (Ralph Fiennes), and his newfound lady love, blind coworker Reba McClane (Emily Watson); this odd, blossoming romance, with its intimations of perversity and dread, deserves David Lynch at his peak¹, but Ratner simply photographs it. Still, hell, even I could turn a camera on and get great stuff from Fiennes and Watson. Working with Tally’s script, which lets them breathe and relate, they make you hope against hope that the movie will break free of Harris’ story and fashion a happy ending for Dolarhyde (who, having felt love for the first time, is trying fiercely to put his demons down) and Reba (who, as personified by Watson, could melt the heart of a statue).

Meanwhile, Will is on Dolarhyde’s trail, aided by tidbits from the suavely jeering Lecter. If Silence was Lecter in love, and Hannibal was Lecter at play, Red Dragon is Lecter in stasis, quietly furious and tensed for action, any action; this is the Lecter who could chew out a nurse’s tongue while maintaining a pulse of 85. Hopkins, this time, gives us a Lecter who keeps himself amused by playing vicious little games (one assumes he might have done likewise to Clarice if she had not so enthralled him). Norton, in the movie’s one real failing as compared to Manhunter, doesn’t suggest, as William Petersen did, that the closer Will gets to capturing Dolarhyde the more driven and callous he gets, but for the most part he gives us a freakishly intuitive agent exhausted by his own powers of deduction.

I wasn’t sure that another adaptation of Red Dragon was necessary (I think Manhunter is just fine); it smacks suspiciously of Universal’s desire to put out the inevitable Hopkins-as-Lecter DVD 3-pack. But if Lecter’s shadow world must be visited again, let it be this way, and with a superlative cast (I haven’t even mentioned Philip Seymour Hoffman as the loathsome reporter who gets on the bad side of Will and Dolarhyde), and not as a tired sequel taking place after the events of Hannibal. As it is, this movie brings things full circle; it ends with one final wink to the fans, completely unnecessary and a bit too cute, but I enjoyed it anyway. Red Dragon will replace Silence of the Lambs in no one’s heart, but at least it earns its place in that DVD 3-pack.

¹Incidentally, Lynch was offered Manhunter to direct. Repulsed by the material, he turned it down.