Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Opinions Change: Retro Review of Michael Mann's MANHUNTER (1986)

I would like this to go down as a historic moment in my history as a fan of the Hannibal Lecter films, which comprise the well known "Silence of the Lambs" (1991), "Hannibal" (2001), and "Red Dragon" (2002), as well as the lesser known "Manhunter" (1986) and the recent piece of trash prequel.

Often its fun to debate which is the best of them, since they're all so very different. "Manhunter", the indie-hipster's "I got into it before it was cool" choice? The Oscar-winning "Silence"? The divisive, Grand Guignol, OTT "Hannibal"? Or the other two?

A major point of comparison here is Brett Ratner's "Red Dragon" vs. Michael Mann's "Manhunter". Both adapt the same book, Thomas Harris' "Red Dragon" - the first book he wrote featuring the Lecter character - but one is able to feature Anthony Hopkins as Lecter, the main element that popularizes these films, while the other strips away all of the character backstory from Harris' novel and features production design that could be called "Miami Vice: The Movie".

The pro-"Manhunter" case was thus: Brian Cox is a more subdued, realistic Lecter, Petersen's portrayal of Will Graham was subtler and less "phoned-in" than Norton's (how does one determine that anyway?) and Michael Mann is a recognized autuer with a large following and a distinct artistic vision whereas Brett Ratner is a work-for-hire director with a penchant for taking over other people's abandoned, yet still profitable franchises.

The pro-"Red Dragon" case was thus: How can you have Lecter without Hopkins? Ralph Fiennes portrayal of Dolarhyde was more three-dimensional and complete than Tom Noonan, the script was from Ted Tally and followed Harris' book more closely, and the overall atmosphere matched the other Lecter films more.

Since its release, I have long supported "Red Dragon" over "Manhunter", which I regarded as a late-80s exercise in style-over-substance, with no depth, and a cold, unfeeling direction from Mann, who I've never been a fan of. Oh, and no Hopkins.

But tonight...

...my opinion changed.

There are a lot of things I still don't like about "Manhunter". Its treatment of the Dolarhyde character, stripped of his poignant and revealing backstory and with his motivations and inspirations ignored and confused, is one of the biggest. Then there's the pastels and the In-Da-Gadda-Da-Vida ending.

But... it feels more genuine. It feels like it belongs beside "Silence" and "Hannibal". Yes, Mann has a very unique style that is very distinct from Jonathan Demme's, but so did Ridley Scott. It reminds me of the Alien films -- all have a unique flavour because they are from such different autuers (in that case: Scott, James Cameron, David Fincher, Jean-Paul Jeunet). This compared to Ratner, who is trying to ape Demme (with a bit of Tim Burton in places it feels, but maybe that's just the overwhelming Elfman score) -- the comparable scenario to Ratner's entrance would be Paul WS Anderson's "AVP" film. Ratner is competent, but that's about it.

And "Manhunter", made in 1986, simply feels more genuinely pre-"Silence" than "Red Dragon" does. "Red Dragon" never fully manages to convince me that its pre-1991. Yes, Hopkin's face has been digitally de-aged and his hair coloured black, but he has far less of it, and he's noticeably fat. Then there are all those Earth tones borrowed from "Silence" that the cinematography (which is quite good, mind you) is dripping in. It's ironic that its the same cinematographer as Mann's film, Dante Spinotti. "Red Dragon" is set in the 80s but it doesn't feel like it -- "Manhunter" does because, well, for gosh sake it was MADE in the 80s!

Petersen and Norton are very different as Graham and there are elements to both their portrayals that I enjoy. I think Norton has more of a human side and I enjoy the scenes with the Graham family featuring him. But... Petersen is more believeably tortured by his experiences than Norton. And, more importantly... I can believe that Petersen took down Hannibal Lecter. Maybe it's from all these years on CSI now, but I just don't see Norton outsmarting Anthony Hopkins. Maybe that's why in the scene which opens "Red Dragon" which depicts the momentous event it comes across more as Graham winning by dumb luck than anything else.

Which brings me to another point: "Red Dragon" the film is often said to be much closer to "Red Dragon" the book. This is true in all but one important element, to many the most important: The character of Lecter. To increase the Ratner movie's marketability, Lecter is far more prominent than he is in the novel. His face looms on the poster art. He gets a prologue, he gets additional scenes, etc. etc. I mean, he's the star of the series by now, after all. In the original novel, and Mann's film, he's a supporting character. He's still a supporting character in "Lambs" for crying out loud, remembered so vividly mainly due to Hopkin's hypnotic performance. Only with "Hannibal" was he promoted to lead. So all the emphasis on him in Ratner's film feels out of place, since we're supposed to only be just getting to know him. The slow, subtle introduction of Mann's film seems more appropriate, as does not showing Graham's confrontation with Lecter -- keeping it out of the plot (as does the novel) allows it to hang over the film like a spectre, and engages the audience's imagination more. The Ratner film on the other hand feels like its biding time until more Hopkins scenes (except in the sequences focusing on Dolarhyde).

As for Cox vs Hopkins, well the only thing I miss about Hopkins in Manhunter is the voice -- it seems genuinely cultured whereas Cox's seems like a put-on. Other than that Cox is fine -- I still register him in my mind as suitably "Lecter-like" for the effect to work. And he looks far more like a younger version of "Silence"'s Hannibal than Hopkins does in "Red Dragon".

The overall feel of "Red Dragon" is that of a rushed production, competently shot and competently acted, allowing De Laurentis to follow-up on "Hannibal" even though he had nothing to follow up with. I mean the film came out only 20 months later, after all! It works if you want to keep the backstories from Harris and absolutely need Hopkins as Lecter. For years I believed solidly that this was so -- I even think Hopkins gives a decent performance in the film, if a little lacking in the depth from his other two turns (which is fine, after all he's a class above his director for the first time). But that's all it is. At it's best it's an interesting "alternate, mainstream" version for inclusion on the second disc of the ideal "Manhunter" DVD set.

"Manhunter" is more genuine. Genuinely 80s, genuinely pre-"Silence" in its characterizations. It's not leaning on Lecter, but instead telling Graham's story. And maybe there's even something to be said for taking out the Tooth Fairy's backstory. After all, if we're concentrating on Graham, than Dolarhyde isn't as important.

So I've swung over to the other camp. My Lecter screenings now go Mann, Demme, Scott as opposed to Ratner, Demme, Scott. That fourth (fifth?) movie we can completely ignore, of course.


1) Silence of the Lambs (Demme, 1991)
2) Hannibal (Scott, 2001)
3) Manhunter (Mann, 1986)
4) Red Dragon (Ratner, 2002)
5) The other one

1. Collateral (2004)
2. The Last of the Mohicans (1992)
3. Heat (1995)
4. Manhunter (1986)
5. Ali (2001)
6. Miami Vice (2006)
7. Public Enemies (2009)

(But this doesn't mean I like Michael Mann. I still find his films too cold and unmoving. I just respect him as an auteur with a unique vision equal to Demme and Scott, which Ratner is not).

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Social Network review

I hope that if one thing is made clear by the portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg in the Facebook movie its that making a "If 10,000 people join Mark Zuckerberg will change Facebook back" group every time the layout is updated is NOT gonna do squat.

Frankly, the movie is brilliant. Aaron Sorkin has written a fantastic script, with more fast-paced dialogue than a Hollywood film has had since the Golden Age. Fincher's directing is far, far less showy than usual, probably because Sorkin's script is so strong that any of his customary flair would distract. Same can be said for Jeff Cronenweth's cinematography, which while undeniably Cronenweth just doesn't "blow me away" like his other stuff.

So the real stars of the show are Sorkin's script and the young cast. Jesse Eisenberg shines in his subtly understated portrayal of Mark, who is trying so hard to be a jerk so no one notices how desperate he is that you like him -- the creator of the website that destroys privacy throws up walls of assholedom so that you won't break his. Eisenberg has turned in a performance that I think will finally free him from being "the poor man's Michael Cera". For one thing, the closest Cera ever had to being this edgy was the completely unremarkable "Youth in Revolt". Andy Garfield is immensely impressive as the closest thing the film has to a sympathetic character, Eduardo Severin, and does a way better job than most highly payed Batman playing actors at covering an English accent and becoming American. And Justin Timberlake is just beautifully cast as massive douche Sean Parker. Armie Hammer is just brilliant in a dual role as the Winklevoss twins.

So The Social Network is good. Really good. Engaging, maybe even fun. Certainly interesting and entertaining. It casts light not just on Facebook, but on the nature of entrepreneurship and entrepreneurs, who usually come across kind've as dicks to people because a) they actually are smarter/way ahead of you and b) they are wrapped up in their creation, and you come second. These are the people we respect and raise above us and teach our children to emulate. And we should -- their accomplishments are incredible and should inspire others. But they don't have to be good people and usually aren't. Because they're sitting on a gold mine and if they're smart they have to be ruthless in protecting it. The movie leaves you without a feeling of cathartic release or satisfaction because even though you get text saying "the sympathetic people won", you don't see it. You last see those characters angry and dejected. You don't see their triumph. The film instead leaves you with Zuckerberg unrepetant, rich, and still kind've a jerk -- but alone. The brilliance of the film's portrayal of Zuckerberg is that as low as he goes, you still understand him. You still see where he's coming from. It's actually an extremely relatable character. We all want to be popular. We all want to get back at people who've slighted us. So even though he's an asshole, it's a kind of asshole you recognize.

Probably the one critique you could raise is "how wise is it to make a Facebook movie when it itself is so new?" Frankly, very wise. Its impressive that Sorkin and Fincher and everyone realised that this movie had to be made now, while Facebook was relevant, before anyone else did, and while the information and stories were fresh. Before a similar, fictionalized story was made and became popular. The fact is that the movie itself raises the fact that coming first matters a lot with these things.

But -- while all this means the movie is good, the question remains: is it worth all this critical praise being heaped on it? The answer is both yes and no. The movie is worthy of critical praise, yes, and should get a lot even. There's a lot to praise. But what the movie isn't worthy of is the hyperbole. The "greatest movie of the decade", "the Citizen Kane of its generation" (although I can see the story parallels), "a new era of film", etc etc. It's not that good. The fact of the matter is though that it's the first movie of the year that critics have felt comfortable latching onto and really praising.

Here's the thing. Critics want to be right. But how do you prove criticism right when its subjective? How successful the movie is. And usually that's not money, that's more like awards. If The Social Network wins Oscars, then all these critics feel validated. And so far The Social Network has been the only Oscar-likely movie all year. The year was utterly dismal until the brilliant Inception came out, and I'm not afraid to say I think Inception is the better movie and will last longer (even if Social Network has a smarter script). But Inception isn't gonna win Oscars -- it's science fiction and science fiction never wins big Oscars ever, no matter how good it is. The next good movie that came out was Scott Pilgrim vs the World and it made no money and got no praise from any respected critic because the movie was understandable only if you are under thirty years old and I suspect won't be praised until people my age get of "respectable age" and can look back and reminesce about it. Wall Street 2 is a sequel, Oscar hates sequels. So The Social Network. So yes, while its worthy of praise, it's not gonna change movies or blow your mind or anything. Its just these critics know a weak year at the Awards when they see one and need to be associated with praising a possible Best Picture long before its nominated.

But getting back to the point. The Social Network is good, very good. It's very talky, very fast, and very emotionally intense, even if all those emotions are much more understated than say an Al Pacino movie. If you're looking for a good, enjoyable, night out at the cinema, go see it. You will like it. You might even like it on Facebook. A site which I now feel weird about being on the same way you feel weird about breathing after someone calls your attention to the exact process by which your body does it.