Monthly Archives: March 2011

The Men with the Dragon Tattoos

Sometimes it’s fun to watch multiple film versions of the same story and see how they stack up against each other. Usually it makes sense to do this with canonical stories-for-the-ages: Hamlet has dozens of film iterations, Jane Eyre similarly has a lot as of 2011, and there’ll be new adaptations of Oliver Twist so long as we have new media to adapt them in. It’s fun to see how different filmmakers approach the stories, how they reconfigure the emotional beats, how they revise the characters.

And sometimes, out of some perverse instinct, you watch both film versions of glorified airplane reading like Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon in a short span of time. To be blunt, Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1986) and Brett Ratner’s Red Dragon (2002) are painfully similar, lining up scene-for-scene almost exactly, with basically the same approach to the plot, characters, and even the moments of suspense and terror. Only a few significant differences exist between the two of them; the most relevant is that Manhunter is a good movie while Red Dragon, despite boasting a cast of impressive names, is a bad one.

The structure of Red Dragon resembles its belated sequel, the much more famous Silence of the Lambs: a serial killer is on the tear, so the authorities bargain with the incarcerated Dr. Hannibal Lecter for psychological clues about the killer. As with Clarice in the sequel, FBI agent Will Graham—who originally caught Lecter but paid a great price—gets in too deep, imperiling his life, limb, and sanity. Here, the killer isn’t Ted Levine’s Buffalo Bill of “I’d fuck me” fame, but Francis Dolarhyde, dubbed “the Tooth Fairy” by the press, who kills two whole families and puts mirrors in his dead victims’ eyes so they can watch him rape the mothers. Ghastly stuff, to put it lightly.

He’s also obsessed with William Blake’s bizarre paintings of a “Great Red Dragon,” hence the novel’s name. Dolarhyde, who’s both a bloodthirsty serial killer and a mild-mannered film processing technician, is played by Tom Noonan and Ralph Fiennes in the ’86 and ’02 versions respectively, and their performances hint at the wider divides between the two films. Fiennes lays it on pretty thick as a disfigured, split-personality manchild who’s admittedly very creepy, while Noonan adeptly walks the line between raving psychopath and shy loser.

You sense that he just wants to be the Red Dragon because, as Rodney Dangerfield would say, he gets no respect (and is mentally ill, and was abused by his mother); at least now in the throes of his bloodlust, he’s “BECOMING” something. As Graham discovers, Dolarhyde wants to be desired and even revered. As he tells the sleazy journalist Freddy Lounds before killing him, “You owe me awe.” Although Fiennes captures something demonic and brutally physical in his performance, Noonan’s absolutely the superior villain—he’s so consumed by his own delusions that he sees his ritualized murders not as destruction, but as transformation.

He’s also frighteningly believable as an innocuous if eccentric coworker, a side of the character that doesn’t quite come out in Fiennes. Alas, Fiennes is also the best thing about Red Dragon, a film which (like his performance) is persistently marred by unsubtlety. Just compare, for example, Danny Elfman’s scare-chord-laden score with Michael Rubini and The Reds’ synthy, atmospheric music for Manhunter. With every creative decision, Ratner and company go the pedestrian, by-the-numbers route, making it feel like a generic police procedural with Hannibal Lecter tossed in.

Speaking of whom, even Anthony Hopkins’ performance just feels like a rehash of his iconic work in Silence of the Lambs, with all the dry wit gone from his mind games and bon mots. The whole cast seems to be sleepwalking through Red Dragon, including stalwarts like Harvey Keitel, vaguely paternal as FBI higher-up Jack Crawford, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as the oily Lounds. Red Dragon may trounce Manhunter in terms of total star power, but it squanders any and all promise with its dull execution. It ends up as nothing more than Manhunter Redux, minus all the stylistic quirks that elevated the original in the first place.

Hell, I’d even go so far as to say that Brian Cox makes a much better Hannibal than Hopkins in Red Dragon. He’s coy, he’s funny, and he’s deep inside Will’s embattled head. Manhunter is a potentially generic thriller firing on all cylinders, with every supporting actor and directorial choice working together to give the film its grotesque, even hallucinatory charm. It’s a weird movie, from Noonan’s Dolarhyde to the Iron Butterfly-filled climax to the disturbing imagery that pops up here and there—and this is the version that doesn’t bother to show the killer’s giant, freaky tattoo.

The words I’d use to describe Red Dragon, on the other hand, would be “sullen,” “icky,” “retread.” Its only real edges over the original are 1) that it goes into greater depth on Dolarhyde’s Blake obsession (while missing the point of Blake completely) and 2) that it prominently displays Ralph Fiennes’ naked ass. In every other respect, Manhunter takes the delicious cake. This may not be a groundbreaking assertion (a Brett Ratner movie… that sucks?!), but hey, at least I was thorough! Not only is Manhunter surprisingly good, but it’s infectious; it sticks in your head just like Will Graham’s understanding of the killer sticks in his. Just the sound of Tom Noonan’s voice by itself, as he berates Lounds: “Before me, you are a slug in the sun…” It’s chilling.


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Playful Hitchcock

How do you even write about Psycho? It’s one of the most analyzed films of all time, it’s the seed from which all slasher movies sprouted, and it’s an absolute, still-terrifying masterpiece. It’s got a giant reputation, and it’s the one film most identified with the name (and style) of Alfred Hitchcock. Luckily, I don’t really have to write about it! I just have to pick my favorite image, because Psycho‘s the most recent selection for The Film Experience’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot series.

One of my favorite things about Psycho (and there are a lot of them) is the way Hitchcock structures parts of the film as little games or sick jokes at the expense of the viewers. It’s a dark, scary movie, to be sure, but you get a definite sense of playfulness in how Hitch toys with film grammar to manipulate the audience. Take, for example, the repeated shot of the patrolman leering at Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) from across the street as she urgently tries to trade in her car:

He just stands there, leaning against his car, and the camera glances back at him every few seconds. As Marion completes her transaction, this shot is repeated so many times it’s almost ridiculous, but it’s still effective. Like Marion, we become nervous. It feels like we’re compulsively checking over our collective shoulders and, sure enough, he’s still there. It’s editing that’s more expressionistic than functional, and it helps drag us into alliance with poor, guilt-ridden Marion. Hitchcock also plays around with framing, as in this instantly recognizable shot:

Nobody’s behind her. Not yet, anyway. We’ve been casually watching Marion showering in close-ups and medium shots,when in a barely noticeable transition, she moves from the center of the frame to off in the lower-right corner. This shot is held for about 2-3 solid seconds before we get any background movement or silhouettes. It’s a subtle warning to the audience that someone is about to arrive—or, alternatively, Hitchcock rolling out the welcome mat for his shadow-shrouded killer. It’s yet another manifestation of his giddy, self-conscious visual style.

But neither of these, clever as they are, constitute my favorite shot in Psycho. For that, I go to a reaction shot. Just a plain, superficially unremarkable reaction shot showing Lila Crane (Vera Miles) gazing inside a book. It’s also probably my favorite reaction shot in any movie, ever:

It’s a testament to Hitchcock’s restraint and Miles’ range of expression that they don’t overplay this moment. She doesn’t shriek or gasp or drop the book or anything. In fact, we never find out what she does, because a second later, we cut away to Sam and Norman arguing back in the motel. The next time we see Lila, she’s running to hide in the fruit cellar. The book is unmarked by a title or cover illustration; it just has two little symbols on the binding. Since it’s lying randomly in Norman’s childhood room, it might well be a book of bedtime stories or nursery names.

But we never find out. And since the Bates household is such an inherently creepy place, and since Lila assumes this ambiguous look of curiosity (or is it concern? or surprise? or muted horror?), we’re left to wonder. Was it a manual on corpse preservation? Was it the Bates family’s photo album? Was it hollowed out and used to contain chunks of human flesh? Unless there’s a lost insert shot that turns up someday, we’ll never know. This reaction shot, with Vera Miles’ downturned eyes, is our only glimpse into what might just contain the Bates family’s darkest horrors.


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Link Dump: #27

Oh, that poor kitty from Drag Me to Hell. Clearly Alison Lohman just cannot be entrusted with animals. At least it got to spend its last moments on earth bein’ all cute and lying around in a laundry basket. Sorry that the Link Dumps have been MIA for the past two weeks, but between a lack of Internet access, moving back and forth, and preparing frantically for MoCCA Fest, it’s been hard to sit down long enough to post them. So here you go, as compensation: a compilation of the best (non-Rebecca-Black-related) Internet stuff from the past two weeks.

  • Here’s a fucking brilliant piece by Michael Dwyer of PopThought all about Blue Valentine, the MPAA, and American attitudes toward sexuality. This is sophisticated cultural commentary.
  • We all knew the Phelps family (of Westboro Baptist Church fame) was more than a little fucked up. Now we have proof, from the mouth of Fred Phelps’s son Nathan, who explains some of the disturbing but unsurprising secrets behind his family’s behavior.
  • Did you know that the anti-choice movement is also the Thought Police? A woman in Iowa was  jailed for thinking about having an abortion.
  • In less ragey news, what’s a collaboration that we’ve all always fucking wanted? Tom Waits and David Lynch.
  • Empire Online has the “Ultimate Shirt And Tie Picture Quiz,” wherein you match the suit to the movie. I got 8; how well can you do?
  • Todd Brown of Twitch has a pretty sophisticated piece about the effect of the PG-13 rating on movies for kids ages 10-13.
  • Rue Morgue offers up “100 Alternative Horror Films,” with some fun, relatively obscure additions like The Changeling, Martin, and Wait Until Dark.
  • Courtesy of our friends at Dead Homer Society, we have Fredrik Larsson’s medley of Simpsons song covers. He has a great voice and does wonderful segues; definitely go watch that video.

We had the occasional bizarre search term over the last few weeks. Some highlights include “pretend rape goes wrong”—I don’t even want to think about how it went wrong—and “Эмбер Хёрд,” which Google Translate informs me is Russian for “Amber Heard.” Someone was obviously very confused about the concept of pussy; how else to explain “pussy-???.???.???.???” Someone else was just confused in general, asking “what to do with myself”? Finally, I’m kind of honored: someone actually searched directly for “black swan andreas stoehr.” Hopefully they found the words of wisdom they were (presumably) looking for.


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Ready for her close-up

She’s the woman who gave one of my favorite performances of all time, in one of my favorite movies of all time. (I also liked her in DeMille’s Male and Female.) She is big. It’s the pictures that got small. She’s Gloria Swanson, and she was born 112 years ago today! Happy birthday!

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The Curiosity of Strangers

As part of The Film Experience’s ongoing celebration of Tennessee Williams’ centennial, this week’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot entry is Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire. I hadn’t seen it in several years, so it was refreshing to again see Vivien Leigh as Blanche, the faded southern belle, and Marlon Brando as her boorish brother-in-law Stanley. The film takes place across two worlds—Stanley’s hard-edged, working-class reality and Blanche’s fuzzy, aristocratic dreams—and it’s amazing how cinematographer Harry Stradling visually differentiates them. (They can only meet, of course, in violence.)

My favorite image in the film comes straight out of Blanche’s distorted, histrionic world. She’s in the midst of her long breakdown, and at her diva-est. Mitch has just confronted her and torn the oh-so-symbolic paper lantern off the lightbulb, leaving Blanche alone with her illusions. She stumbles outside screaming, and suddenly all of New Orleans wants to see what’s going on.

I love this image because for once, Blanche is the center of the universe. Everything does revolve around her. She’s literally the center of attention. These faceless onlookers may not be gentlemen callers, but they’re the best she can do. At least they’re interested in her! In a perverse way, they’re the closest she has now to a flock of eager beaus. As always, that staircase looms there, just as twisted and ominous as everything else in this shot, and all the nearby strangers are cloaked in shadow, leaving Blanche as the only lit-up figure in the shot. It’s strikingly composed and eerily, horrifically beautiful.

Speaking of horrific beauty, I can’t not include Marlon Brando in all his monstrous virility. As Stanley, he’s the untamed beast who stalks Streetcar‘s frames as the madness grows, stooping to greater, more inhuman depths as he gets fed up with Blanche’s regal behavior. He’s attractive, yet repellent. Above all else, he’s common. So here’s my second-favorite shot from Kazan’s maniacal masterpiece of carnal intensity, southern style.


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Keen on Keener

For a while last December, it felt like Catherine Keener was following me around. She popped up in lead and supporting roles, in one movie after another. I wish that would happen again! Ms. Keener turns 52 today, and her film career (thankfully) is going as strong as ever. She had four onscreen appearances in 2010, five if you count David O. Russell’s never-to-be-released-(probably) Nailed.

She may be best-remembered, in the years to come, as Maxine, the bitch ne plus ultra in Being John Malkovitch, but she’s also carved out a healthy little niche for herself playing sturdy, sensitive, sometimes downbeat wives and mothers. Above is a picture of her in Nicole Holofcener’s Please Give, which I proclaimed my love for a few months back. That love persists, largely thanks to Keener’s funny/sad performance as a guilt-stricken New Yorker. I love how the film encodes bitter truths in her awkward (and sardonically hilarious) interactions with those she sees as “less privileged,” like the innocuous black man above.

Kate (Keener): Excuse me, sir? Are you hungry? Would you like this?

Man: I’m waiting for a table.

In this image from Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (2008), Keener’s facial expression looks a lot like her embarrassment in Please Give, but it’s subtly different. That expression, I think, was a deadly cocktail of mortification and disappointment in her failed altruism; this looks more like pity with a dash of weariness and just a hint of ennui. In Synecdoche, she plays the estranged wife of Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s hypochondriac theater director, and does wonders with a small, somewhat tossed-aside role.

Damn, she’s good! And consider that both these characters are 180° from Maxine. Talk about range! Clearly I need more Catherine Keener in my life. Is Cyrus any good? Or maybe I should finally check out Where the Wild Things Are. Happy birthday, Ms. Keener!

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Gross horror and pleasant anime: two great tastes that taste…odd together.

[This post is written by both of us in support of the Japanese Cinema Blogathon for Japan earthquake and tsunami relief, hosted by Cinema-Fanatic and Japan Cinema. Check them out and please donate if you can.]


This may be a colossal understatement, but here goes: Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man is a really fucking weird movie. It’s short, cheap, and to the point, communicating through gory, rapid-fire sequences that blaze past in the blink of an eye. This makes the film as a whole pretty difficult to follow, since it often comes across as a particularly hazy, frenetic nightmare. Add in the fact that none of the characters have names, and that the dialogue is minimal, and you can see why I’m not even sure if I saw a film. Maybe I just imagined it. Could a string of images and sounds as intensely, off-puttingly gruesome as Tetsuo really exist?

Well… yes. I guess. The impression I got of the film’s plot was, roughly, this: a panting madman (played by the director) impales his leg with a metal rod. It gets infected. He runs in front of a car and gets run over. Later, the driver of the car notices a gross chunk of metal sticking out of his cheek. He tries to remove it, and (naturally) it sprays pus all over the place. After that, I’m lost. The man tries to go to work, and gets chased by a fellow commuter who’s turning into a cyborg—or maybe not? He goes home, where he has fatal drill-penis sex with his horny, wild-eyed girlfriend after some surreal foreplay—or, again, maybe not?

The rest of the movie involves yet more sped-up chase scenes, violently phallic imagery, and stop-motion transformations. Just imagine the movie Videodrome on amphetamines, with an even more inscrutable storyline. That’s Tetsuo in a nutshell. Overwhelming and gratuitous as the film may be, there’s still a dizzying, demented genius in how earnestly and resourcefully Tsukamoto executes his vision. At heart, it’s a nonstop, nonverbal battle between metal and flesh, with each one ferociously preying on the other; the audience is left to say “Eww!” or “WTF?” Or both.



Let’s take the edge off a bit, shall we? I’ve written about Ponyo before; it’s one of my favorite feel-good movies, right up there with Harvey. It is the ultimate example of what a kid’s movie can be: sweet and pleasant without all the pandering, condescending bullshit. You don’t have to have a “kid’s” movie full of double entendres, coded language, hidden imagery, or obscure parallelism (although I ain’t knocking that kind of animated film; I need more of it in my life) for it to be clever, cute, and appealing to a broad audience. Miyazaki’s effortlessly beautiful hand-drawn underwater worlds and his impish little Ponyo are totally irresistible. Sadly, I’m very short on time so I can’t get too in depth about the film but I will leave you with a number of lovely images.

Thanks to Cinema-Fanatic and Japan Cinema for hosting this great blogathon! Please donate if you can!


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