Sunday, March 11, 2007

Cine-Ketchup: Hannibal Dining

But first:

  • "Bush seeks 8,200 more troops for wars;"
  • or, How Do You Say No to a Man Who Never Learned The Meaning of the Word?Center for Cartoon Studies :: View topic - CCS Photos

    Poppa and Momma Bush clearly never taught our Prez when he was a tot the fundamentals of right, wrong, 'yes' or 'no.' George don't wanna hear 'no,' George don't hear 'no,' George will go to South America to ignore 'no' and act like 'no' is 'yes.'

    George wants what George wants, come what may.

    Congress better grow some nanny-nuts and learn to say and mean 'no' to George, and make it stick, and fast.

    With this news, we're further into Vietnam in the 21st Century than ever before.

    OK, as promised in the title today -- a more personable serial killer and war criminal, wholly imagined and unreal:

    * Hannibal Rising (2007) - Author Thomas Harris and executive producer Dino DeLaurentiis bring their ongoing Hannibal Lecter franchise to its most recent fruition, a prequel detailing Hannibal’s back story. As I’ve detailed elsewhere (in my Video Watchdog review of Ridley Scott’s Hannibal, a film I quite love), Harris’s career has been perversely defined by Hannibal, an almost Frankensteinian dynamic between creator and creation that emerged from the character’s compelling supporting role in Harris’s novel Red Dragon to the pop boogeyman stature Lecter was elevated to with Silence of the Lambs, the bestseller and Academy-Award winning boxoffice blockbuster. Hannibal was and remains a brilliant creation, an ideal fusion of Dr. Fredric Wertham and the good doctor’s real-life patient Albert Fish: a progressive, astute psychologist & psychiatrist who also happens to be a cannibalistic serial killer. Thus, via his best two novels (Red Dragon, Silence of the Lambs) and their original film adaptations (Michael Mann’s Manhunter and Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs), Harris evolved the atavistic, almost primal boogeyman archetypes of the ‘70s and ‘80s (the Ed Gein-inspired Leatherface, the non-cannibal Michael Myers of Halloween and Jason of the Friday the 13th sequels) to a whole new and much more terrifying threshold. Hannibal, forever fixed in the popular imagination via Anthony Hopkins’s Oscar-winning incarnation of the role, transcended the procession of Leatherfaces, Michaels, Jasons, Freddies and Pinheads to pluck a collective nerve that was both more adult and more primal: the patriarch as devourer, the vengeful father as uber-ogre, the cultivated carnivore capable of not only peering into one’s deepest fears but articulating and manipulating them, to his own needs, driven by a frightening but admirable personal aesthetic and ethical code (initially defined in his complex relationship with FBI agent Clarice Starling in Silence and its sequel, Hannibal).

    This is profound stuff, really, but it’s no surprise it has eluded Harris’s grasp a bit: as a novel and a film, Hannibal alienated many readers and viewers (though, again I must note, not I), and Dino’s decision to remake Red Dragon (making it the first movie ‘prequel’ of the series) only diminished the franchise (Brett Ratner was the wrong director for the project; it's a dim shadow of Mann's Manhunter, at best). Hannibal has since held Harris’s creative life in thrall, a blessing and a curse, and Hannibal Rising extends this (with Harris’s co-producer and screenplay credit asserting his control over cinematic franchise as well as the novels) retroactively, if you will, by chronicling the future serial killer’s traumatic childhood and teenage years.

    What made the man, it turns out, is very much a series of generic lock-step conceits: in the mode of The Shadow, Frank Miller’s then-innovative retooling of Marvel’s Daredevil, and a multitude of pop icons (including Batman) since, Harris provides Hannibal with a revisionist grounding in Asian cultural disciplines of spirit and samurai skills via a widowed aunt (the lovely Li Gong of Farewell My Concubine, 2046, Memoirs of a Geisha, Miami Vice, etc.) who took him in after young Hannibal survived a Jerzy Kosinski-like WW2 childhood (e.g., The Painted Bird) and post-war orphanage maturation. This semi-familial relationship blossoms into incestuous possibilities the film teases but never explores (I’ve yet to read the novel), prefering instead to (as in The Shadow, Miller’s Daredevil comics, et al) apply this revisionist, superficial samurai discipline to Lecter’s serial killer roots. We see these skills -- built upon lethal survival/predatory instincts evidenced in the glimpse Harris provides of teenage Hannibal’s Dickensian orphanage years -- progress from exacting revenge against a French butcher (Charles Maquignon) for an insult against his aunt/lover to calculated, full-bore vengeance against the ragtag band of Russian rogues who cannibalized his younger sister on the Western front.

    This tragic motivation for Hannibal’s taste for human flesh was evocatively sketched in Hannibal (the novel, not the film); it is fully visualized here, as tastefully as possible (lest you fear a Hollywood-sanctioned companion to Herman Yau’s unflinching The Untold Story, 1996). This is all revealed in the film’s deftly executed first act, wherein 8-year-old Hannibal (played by Aaron Thomas) is most traumatically orphaned, whereafter we follow young adult Hannibal (very well played by Gaspard Ulliel) and his subsequent struggle with the traumatic memory -- recovered piecemeal not because he had suppressed the horrific reality, but to coax forth from his unconscious clear mental pictures of the men responsible for his sister’s fate. In these sequences, Harris, director Peter Webber and their cast and crew excel; make no mistake, Webber mounts Hannibal Rising with the same eye and ear for nuance, period and detail he brought to the lovely Girl With a Pearl Earring (2003) -- no slumming here. Ulliel (previously seen by American audiences in De Pact des Loups/Brotherhood of the Wolf, 2001, and A Very Long Engagement, 2004) is a most compelling Hannibal throughout, inhabiting the role with authority belying his youth, spiced with neatly observed correlations to Hopkins’s definitive claim on the adult Lecter role. Amid the borrowings of the distinctive ways of moving and looking Hopkins brought to the role, Ulliel particularly manages Hopkins’s cool, reptilian opacity without affectation, which keeps his Hannibal from seeming a mere sadist or lunatic. It’s only once the imposition of the faux-Eastern philosophical and (most important) samurai conceits appeared that my involvement as a viewer faltered. Still, I cannot consider this a lapse or failing, per se. Harris and Webber and their fine cast handle these confections with efficiency and precision: the allure of the basement alter, mask and the sword, Lecter’s corruption of the samurai code into his personal vendetta, etc. Sadly, the film doesn’t deflate as much as it too readily shorthands (what are, after all, profound cultural and religious belief systems), and my detachment was not, I hasten to add, due to the “desensitizing impact of cinematic violence” non-argument media critics and analysts love to embrace, but rather to the over-familiarity with the water of the communal pop well Harris chooses to dip into here. This Eastern-tinged origin story is so over-familiar, via The Shadow, Daredevil, Batman Begins, Kill Bill, etc., and has been so neatly satirized for a full generation by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, that my reaction would seem universal and inevitable. After all, this seems quite out of step with the Hannibal Lecter backstory hinted at in previous novels and films; it raises as many clumsy questions as Harris, presumably, thought it would answer.

    Thus, the character’s previously displayed rarified knowledge of psychological and psychiatric science (refined, no doubt, via professional experience and medical practice -- he is, after all, Dr. Hannibal Lecter -- as well as a university education) and deep love for art, drawing, European cities, fine wine, and even rarer culinary delights (his appetite for ‘long pig’ notwithstanding) is subsumed by a young adulthood steeped in, uh, ninja assassin techniques? Well, roll with it, if you can. Auntie disapproves, but she loves her fine young Hannibal, and thus Hannibal Rising eases into its true groove -- Hannibal’s systematic investigation of and assassination of the men who killed and ate his little sister, and his pursuit by a dedicated detective (Dominic West, now onscreen in 300) with his own post-WW2 atrocity obsessions to slake.

    This potboiler builds a strong head of steam by the end of the second act, and worked quite well for me as a film -- it’s a polished 21st Century horror movie revamp of Nevada Smith (1966). Henry Hathaway’s Steve McQueen vehicle was a staple of my youth, essentially a sort of Grand Guignol western in its day, deterministically detailing its obsessed young hero’s vengeance with a cruel streak many found disturbing (though that would soon seem pale alongside the stronger Guignol of the spaghetti westerns soon to open stateside). Hannibal Rising adheres to that tradition to its graphic conclusion, punctuated throughout (like Nevada Smith) by effective characterizations and setpieces. As in the best '60s westerns, the men Hannibal so relentlessly pursues are marvelously cast and played, led by Rhys Ifan (Notting Hill, Enduring Love, etc.) as the amoral commander and Richard Brake, Ivan Marevich, Goran Kostic, Stephen Walters and Kevin McKidd (a very nice turn, here, from the Scot in Trainspotting, Dog Soldiers, etc.) as his soldiers, all of whom have settled into various niches of safety after the war. Again, this is more evocative of the 1960s Western revenge films than, say, revenge-horror-films like The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971, which provided the narrative and thematic template for Se7en and the Saw series). Thus, young Hannibal shares Nevada Smith’s and his ilk’s appetite for their victim’s agonies: as in Nevada Smith, the violence essential to Hannibal savoring his revenge is disturbingly intimate and personalized, the whole of the carnage ritualized, which was also true of the best and worst of the Italian revenge westerns.

    This aspect of Hannibal Rising hasn’t, to my knowledge, been noted by any other critic writing about the film, though it’s as central to its focus and purpose (and formula) as, say, Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) was to David O. Russell’s Three Kings (1999). I think everyone has, as with Hannibal (which was a marvelous, passionate, demented love story), quite missed the point. This makes for a slickly-done, sumptuously mounted and most satisfying revenge tale, though not the horror or Hannibal film many seemed to wish for -- choose your poison. For me, save for one key caveat (Harris's opportunistic adoption of the samurai trappings), Hannibal Rising is a solid piece of work, and one well worth revisiting once it's on DVD.

    Have a great Sunday, one and all!

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