Classic Review: The Silence Of The Lambs

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  The only horror film to win Best Picture, ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’ is terrifying because it’s truthful.

Review:  There’s “theme park” scary movies and then there’s true horror. ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’, the only horror film to ever win Best Picture, defines the latter class. It originates from the same real-life story as Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’. Instead of establishing distance from the psychopath, however, ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’ takes us up close and personal with not one, but two dangerous and terrifyingly realistic villains.

The most famous is Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter, a brilliant and seductive psychopathic psychologist played by Anthony Hopkins. He’s the most vile and convincing villain I have ever seen on film. FBI Agent Clarice Starling, excellently played by Jodie Foster, has to consult with the incarcerated monster to see if she can discover how to find a serial killer known as Buffalo Bill. Their interactions are not only the highlight of the movie, but some of the few perfect moments in cinematic history.

This is a brutal experience.  It is a descent into the darkest dungeons in the human spirit, into Tartarus.  It is a challenging picture that requires viewers of strong constitutions.  By not flinching, the filmmakers are putting us in absolute sympathy with Clarice; she’s vulnerable, naïve, and though she has an idea of where her journey will take her, it’s a horrifying ride that leaves her shaken.  Director Jonathan Demme takes the Hitchcockian ideal to its absolute limit, lets us chew through our nails and grind our teeth until the last logical moment, which results in a fantastic catharsis.  This isn’t a film for the faint of heart, and the weight of the thing goes beyond simple thrills.  Psychologically and philosophically, it sticks with you.  Every major religion has a theme of the descent into darkness and pain.  Consider the challenge of Christianity, as made by St. Paul, for believers to “crucify their flesh” — to endure the greatest suffering for the greatest reward.  ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’ is a filmic exploration of that challenge, both as a narrative (Clarice’s pursuit of Buffalo Bill) and as an experience.  Provided that viewers know what they’re after, ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’ is a uniquely rewarding film.

The philosophical theme of ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’ is that yes, indeed, monsters do exist, and to our horror, they’re people like us.  There’s something convenient about supernatural horror that separates the man from the monster, allows us the comfort given a victim, that when all’s said and done, history takes pity on the innocent.  Here, there’s no such comfort.  Instead, Clarice Starling discovers the bitter truth of how similar Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill really are to “normal” people.  Being human is a dangerous idea.  Within each of us, there’s a devilish potential that we only think we’ve successfully sublimated.  Inside our private hells, we keep monsters locked away, but what about the ones that seem so attractive that they can lure us in to their homes for some fava beans and a bottle of nice Chianti?

In an interesting contrast, let’s compare Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ with Jonathan Demme’s ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’.  ‘2001’ is a film about, literally, heaven, space, evolution and the divine potential of humankind.  It’s a hopeful journey through time with a strangely (for Kubrick) optimistic point-of-view.   ‘Silence’, however, is about Earth and things underneath it, like basements and pits and darkened rooms.  It’s about devolution, complex, civilized man’s disintegration into a cannibalistic hunter, the diabolical potential of humankind.  Perhaps this Halloween, for a unique double feature, you ought to watch both.

Cult Classic: Evil Dead II

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary: An awesome, fun dark comedy.

Review:  Around the time in ‘Evil Dead II’ that Ash strapped a chainsaw to his arm and, in the most awesome close-up of all time, uttered “groovy”, I realized that I wasn’t really watching a horror film.  But, being honest, I didn’t really mind; I was having too much fun.

All kinds of dark ridiculousness go on in this remake/sequel to 1981’s ‘Evil Dead’.  Ash (Bruce Campbell) must again face the evil forces of the Book of the Dead in an over-the-top display of special effects, shotguns, the aforementioned chainsaws, carnage, one-liners, and all the campy goodness you could ask for.  That’s what I like about this movie: It’s so delightfully silly, and that’s what makes it work.  If director Sam Raimi had tried to make a film more like the first ‘Evil Dead’, I think it would have seemed trite and much less entertaining by comparison.

I’d also like to mention that Bruce Campbell puts on one of the best performances of his career in this film.  Campbell is essentially the Marlon Brando of modern cult film-making, and, unfortunately, he may also be the most under-appreciated actor of his generation.  Anyways though, he does an absolutely terrific job in this picture.  He subtly makes his character go from dead serious to terrified to borderline-insane in a matter of moments as he encounters truly crazy supernatural phenomena, and he manages to do it all without making it frightening; on the contrary, it’s simply entertaining.  It’s the highlight of the film.

‘Evil Dead II’ is a well-done, funny, and very enjoyable film, as far as dark comedies go that is. For anyone into cult films, this is a must-see. As Bruce Campbell would say, this picture is simply “groovy”.

Classic Review: Halloween (1978)

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary: The film that jumpstarted the “slasher” pictures also happens to be the best.

Review:  There’s some argument about what the first “slasher” movie was. Some point all the way back to Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ in 1960, others believe it was 1974’s ‘Black Christmas’, and some, like myself, say it was John Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’ in 1978. The surprising success of this low-budget film was certainly what propelled the genre into mainstream popularity. And in all the years since, it remains the best and most frightening of the “slasher” genre.

There’s something wonderfully terrifying about being hunted. It’s a primal fear, deeply rooted in our ancient, primitive past that stays with us to this day. ‘Halloween’ works because of how it plays on this fear. At first our killer, the deranged masked murderer Michael Myers, is but a shadow out in the distance, and his prey, teenager Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis), can’t figure out if he’s real or just her imagination. But then, like some predator, Myers weaves his way back and forth, hiding in the shadows, getting ever so closer to his victims. And finally, in the last act of the film is when he at last gives chase in a murderous killing spree.

It’s this pacing that makes this film work. Unlike later “slasher” pictures, which fill to the brim with gruesome murders from start to finish, ‘Halloween’ takes its time, builds tension, and then delivers satisfyingly. The faceless, soulless, and seemingly unstoppable Michael Myers and his eerie presence in the film also instill much fear. A revolutionary character in his day, he is one of the great modern movie villains.

In the years since ‘Halloween’, many a “slasher” has been released. Some have been decent, others bad, and some downright awful. Certainly none have come close to the effectiveness of ‘Halloween’ though. I suggest future filmmakers in this genre look back to it to learn how to make their movies good.

Slumdog Millionaire

Stars:  **** out of Four

Summary:  Gripping, intimate, and ultimately hopeful, 2008’s Best Picture deserves its recognition.

D. Thats my final answer.

D. That's my final answer.

Review:  Yesterday evening, I went to go see the critically acclaimed ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, which has enjoyed great success in the past few weeks.  It’s made the rare move up the box office top ten, rather than degrading.  I had wanted to see it awhile back, but I’m glad I saw it when I did.

I saw it the night it won the Oscar for Best Picture.

I have had a distaste for the Academy’s decisions in recent history, snubbing great movies that deserved at least a nod (like, say, ‘Gran Torino’ or ‘The Dark Knight’), but I do agree that, out of the nominees, ‘Slumdog’ deserves the prize.  Granted, I only saw two out of the five hopefuls, but the only other Best Picture nominee that I wanted to see was ‘Frost/Nixon’.  For myself then, its only competition was ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’, which, ironically enough, is something of an antithesis of ‘Slumdog’.  ‘Benjamin Button’ is about death.  ‘Slumdog’ is about life.

Something else that struck me as particularly different was how conservative ‘Slumdog’ was, as contrasted with most modern cinema.  ‘Slumdog’, since it was shot in India, had to play by their rules to get past the censors.  Unlike Europe and the United States, India is a country that has not alienated its religious side.  As such, something approximating the U.S.’s Hays Code still exists.  The sexual aspects of the story, then, are told and shown in a way that does not titillate, but invites sympathy.  There is about one-and-a-half kiss(es) shown on screen, and the way it is played makes this act seem all the more intimate.  The conservative guidelines play right into the filmmakers’ hands.

Though the sexuality is, thankfully, subdued, the violence can still be disturbing.  Yet it is never gratuitous.  What makes the film earn its R rating is the tone, not the acts themselves.  I’ve seen worse in ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, but that film has a lighter tone than ‘Slumdog’.

As I said, the film was shot on location in India.  Entirely.  The landscape is naturally exotic, and the cinematography dynamically captures this feel.  We are immersed in the culture from the get go.  When we are on the streets, running with the slum children, we feel the energy of the chase, but when we are in a plain hotel room, we feel the staleness and restlessness through the camera.  I don’t think I can imagine a film about India again without thinking of the way this one was shot.  While I’m a bit old school in my preference of a steady, unblinking camera, the fast editing worked perfectly here.

The cast, nearly entirely unknown locals, was incredible.  I believed.  The bad guys were convincingly menacing (one reminded me of Ledger’s Joker, in a good way), the good guys honestly innocent, and the in-betweens reasonably conflicted.  It all played very nice.

This film won Best Score, as well.  That’s one of the few points I’ve got to disagree with the Academy about this film… I don’t think it deserved it.  The score is good, and works very well in the context of the film, but Thomas Newman’s score for ‘Wall-E’ was better.  So was the collaboration for ‘The Dark Knight’, my personal favorite score from last year, but it wasn’t nominated.  But I digress. What I will say about the sound editing is more favorable.  It’s got to be the best sound editing I’ve ever heard, barely topping ‘Wall-E’, which still has better sound design, an important distinction to make.

I’ve given this film a lot of glowing praise, and I think it deserves it.  I can’t say this was my favorite film of this past year.  I can’t say that I have a favorite anymore, actually, but it is definitely up there among the best I’ve seen.

What makes me the happiest about this movie is its undying optimism.  Some may accuse it of being unrealistic, but this is ironic to say in a culture that credits random chance with the creation of life.  I’d say chance and the odds are given too much power.  Some things, as ‘Slumdog’ says, are written.  I believe God looks out for the everyday man.  He gives grace to the humble, no matter who they are.  ‘Slumdog’ doesn’t clearly choose a religious stance, but it does point in the direction of a positive force or intelligence in charge of the universe.  It’s easy to say this is good for fairy tales, but if it isn’t true, what hope have we?  If there is no God, how can a “slumdog”, a poor kid with nothing but a street education, become a millionaire?  Or are we doomed to decay, to die without memory and without hope?  I’d rather believe there is a chance for a happy ending.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Stars:  ** out of Four

Summary:  Though excellent in almost every way, the second and third acts plummet so fast that it ruins the effect of a brilliantly played character’s curious case.

Hes not nearly this dull in the movie.  The rest of the movie is, though, so I guess its fair.

He's not nearly this dull in the movie. The rest of the movie is, though, so I guess it's fair.

Review:  For the 2008 Oscars, ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’ holds the most nominations, literally one in every category.  And for most of these, it absolutely deserves it.  The direction is phenomenal, the effects and performances pitch-perfect.

What prevents this good movie from becoming a great movie is a distinctly flawed story.

It all begins with an intriguing introduction, one so iconic that it could be used as the plot for an entire film.  That’s the story of a blind clockmaker, whose son goes off to fight in the Great War.  Tragicly, the son is killed in combat, leaving the clockmaker with one last goal.  He builds a clock for a train station in his native city of New Orleans.  When it is unveiled to the public, it ticks backwards, which causes some confusion and disappointment.  The blind clockmaker calmly explains that it represents his desire for time to work backwards, so that those who were lost so soon in the Great War could somehow return to their families.  After this unvieling, the clockmaker simply vanishes.

This story is told to us by a dying old woman named Daisy, who is lying in a hospital bed in New Orleans during the year 2006.  Attended by her daughter, Caroline, she asks of her to read an old journal aloud so Daisy can hear it before she dies.  What Caroline reads makes up the bulk of the film’s narrative.  It is the memiors of an enigmatic individual named Benjamin Button- who was, as he says, “Born under unusual circumstances”.  He has the mysterious, supernatural oddity of aging backwards.  The first third of this film, showing Benjamin’s days as an old-young man, is captivating.  This is the part of the movie worth watching, in my book.  Brad Pitt plays the vulnerable Benjamin, who remains naive and idealistic throughout his whole life.  The character he brings to the screen is amazingly well done.

Unfortunately, after Benjamin’s experiences in the Second World War, everything slows way down.  Benjamin remains as interesting as he used to be, but his character seems cheated and wasted by a story that is going in the wrong direction.  Not that the reverse aging is a problem; that’s not the issue with this story.  It is rather that the pure drama of the first act is quickly lost, traded in for a tragic romance.  It’s a shame that the romance was not captured well.

There is a lot of material in this movie. It makes it particularly hard for me to explain the problems I have with this movie.  My biggest problem is the ending, but that opens up a can-o-worms big enough for me to write a separate article about it.  I’ll probably compare its ending to another film, ‘Gran Torino’, which I felt handled itself much better and left you with a smile on your face.

I won’t discourage you from seeing this movie.  It is interesting, and quite entertaining at times.  You may like it better than I did.  To me, it shows a sort of hopelessness, which I didn’t like at all.  I think the part of the culture that ‘Benjamin Button’ reflects is a relentless, unfocused search for meaning, which eventually gives up and declares everything futile.  That’s not a good way to live.  That’s definitely not a good way to die.