Thursday, November 26, 2015

Brief thoughts on some recent viewings:

The Silence of the Lambs. I hadn't seen this since the days when I used to watch movies on VHS from my local library, so a re-watch of one of the seminal serial killer movies seemed necessary. Unlike a lot of 80s and 90s movies that nabbed attention and tons of awards, this one holds up really well, for fairly obvious reasons. No matter how many times it's referenced, copied, or simply talked about, Anthony Hopkins iconic role as Hannibal Lector can't get old, in part because that's true for just about every Hopkins performance, and also because Lector is ultimately used for just a small portion of the film's two hours and uses every minute he gets to make every word seem vital. Then there's Jodie Foster, who manages to make Clarice Starling's intensity seem both a natural part of her wired self and a put-on to enable her to deal with a terrifyingly dark serial killer kidnapping mystery. And finally there's Jonathan Demme's direction. It still stands as an anomaly in his career that mainly consists of oddball comedies and music documentaries, and yet there's always been a darkness lurking in his movies (he's also comfortable with shocking violence-see that last part of Something Wild), and his work here suggests an unleashing of that part of him. But no one denies the expert craftsmanship on display here. If there's any reason for backlash it has to do with ethical problems. For example, both Dave Kehr and Jonathan Rosenbaum found it to be "morally indefensible." This largely has to do with Lector and the way the film turns him into a kind of hero. Larger implications concern an American fascination with serial killers and the way they're sometimes lionized by the public. I don't think this is blatant enough in Lambs though to warrant full on disapproval. Lector's dramatic escape, for example, could just as easily be read as the movie turning into a horror movie as it is a way for the audience to side with and root for him.

Bright Star. I remember watching the Michael Phillips/AO Scott period of hosting At the Movies and Scott referring to Bright Star as porn for lit students. I'm not sure, but maybe that sort of held me back from seeing it all these years. In any case, I finally saw Jane Campion's historical drama about John Keats and loved it. Anyone who likes Keats or is a Romantic poetry buff in general will get a kick out of seeing Ben Whishaw portray the iconic poet, but it's the other characters in the film that really make it the wondrously complex and moving film that it is: his love interest and muse, Fanny (Abbie Cornish), and Charles Brown (Paul Schneider) his roommate and writing fellow. The film is just as much about these two characters as it is about Keats, and its when it focuses on the dynamic between the three of them that it's at its best. There's a scene when they're all walking through the grey, wintry woods and fueled by jealousy and insults that was one of the most stirring moments of drama and beautiful pieces of acting I've seen in some time. 

Road House. Big dumb Patrick Swayze 80s classic, a film that revels so much in its stupidity that it's hard not to get a kick out of. If the movie had strained for any sort moral seriousness then it would be offensive, particularly because it imagines a world that only consists of bars, aggression, and monetary interest, and where ultimately violence is the way to solve problems. "I want you to be nice," Dalton (Swayze), a super smart and super skilled bouncer hired to restore order to a rowdy bar near Kansas City, explains to the staff. "Until it's time to not be nice." In the world of the film, there really isn't much room for niceness, which essentially reduces Dalton's motto to a call for bloodshed. And the film embraces this wholeheartedly, with the final third of the picture becoming a surprisingly gruesome and bloody affair. It might have worked better though if Swayze were more the action star he's trying to emulate here. He's no Schwarzenegger and no Stallone, in part because he's here just as much if not more for the ladies seeking his looks and charm as he is for the male audience seeking machoism. 

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