Films

Haute-Cannibal Cuisine

Brian D. Johnson February 19 2001
Films

Haute-Cannibal Cuisine

Brian D. Johnson February 19 2001

Haute-Cannibal Cuisine

Films

Brian D. Johnson

After sitting through Hannibal, I’m not sure if I should be writing a film review or a restaurant review—and not just because the story concerns a carnivore who enjoys dining out on human flesh. Experiencing Ridley Scott’s grandiose sequel to The Silence of the Lambs is like going to one of those restaurants with intimidating decor, overbearing service and presentation that upstages the meal. Scott dishes up spectacle the way gonzo gourmets erect pavilions of vertical food on a plate. Veering between classical elegance and campy exploitation, he mixes good taste and bad to create an extravaganza of glib horror. Of course, he uses nothing but the finest ingredients. In selecting prime talent, he could ask for no better flesh-on-thebone than Anthony Hopkins and Julianne Moore. Screenwriters David Mamet {State and Main) and Steven Zaillian {Schindler’s List) pitch in as overqualified sous-chefs. And like a good sommelier, composer Hans Zimmer provides sublime accompaniment. But despite some exquisite moments, Hannibal feels overwrought. Offering more show

than sustenance, it leaves you feeling both bloated and undernourished.

Arriving a decade after The Silence of the Lambs— and based on the 1999 novel by Silence author Thomas Harris—this is a more keenly awaited sequel than most. The original picture, which won Oscars for Hopkins and Jodie Foster, was a grisly melodrama that somehow received the imprimatur of Great Art. Under the cool direction of Jonathan Demme, it was undeniably chilling. Demme and Foster both knew when to stop and declined to do the sequel. Hopkins, however, could not resist a chance to play an unleashed Hannibal Letter. And in Ridley Scott—hot off the success of Gladiator—he found an eager impresario. While the first movie belonged to Foster, the second belongs to Hopkins. What was mosdy implied in The Silence of the Lambs becomes explicit in the sequel: Letter gets to act out what he could only describe in the original.

It is 10 years since the imprisoned Letter helped FBI agent Clarice Starling track a serial killer. Now, Letter has escaped custody and is enjoying a civilized life as a curator of Renaissance art in Florence. Meanwhile, Starling (Moore) falls into disfavour at the FBI after killing five people in a bungled shootout—which gives Scott an excuse to kick off the movie with a pitched gun battle. Starling is reassigned to track down Lecter. The real villains are a corrupt justice department official named Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta) and Mason Verger, a sinister tycoon who was grotesquely disfigured by Lecter. Played by an unrecognizable, and uncredited, Gary Oldman under pizza layers of latex, Verger wants to capture the cannibal and slowly feed him to wild boars.

Flannibal, meanwhile, is more hero than villain, a romantic avenger busy purging the movie of uncivil and unsavoury characters. Despite the mid-Atlantic accent, he comes from a long line of American redeemers who unleash righteous violence on the morally infirm, and we end up rooting for him. Hopkins makes a meal of the role that was a mere appetizer in The Silence of the Lambs. Whether licking an envelope with a lizardly flick of the tongue or sipping espresso from a silver demitasse in a Florentine piazza, he is the proverbial man of wealth and taste, a carnivorous equivalent to Anne Rices vampire Lestât.

Although the story begins and ends in the United States, the meat of the movie is the second act, which takes place in Florence. Giancarlo Giannini, his melancholy features now beautifully ravaged, turns in a jewel-like performance as an Italian police detective on Lecter’s trail. And Scott, filming magisterial tableaux of art and opera and sunburnt walls, is in his element; for a while, Hannibal almost feels like a period film, a Renaissance Gladiator.

But when the action shifts back to America, there is a palpable letdown.

After Giannini s luxurious subdety, we are stuck with the campy antics of Liotta. And the movie, which begins with a formula shootout, then takes time to bask in the Old World beauty of Dante, falls back into Hollywood cliché.

With scenes of graphic gore, Hannibal is more shocking, and amusing, than disturbing. It plays like a dinner party coproduced by the food network and the surgery channel. (Hopkins likes to point out that acting is not brain surgery, but in this role—as the ultimate Iron Chef—he proves himself wrong.) However, without giving anything away, it can be said that the movie loses its nerve with an undercooked ending that betrays the novel at the expense of its heroine. Moore, translucent with pale conviction, is a worthy successor to Foster, but her character gets pared down to a damsel in distress. Scott seems more interested in shooting operatic

Hannibal’s overcooked; two other tales dish up childlike romance

vistas of a police-car armada (echoes of Thelma and Louise) than exploring her psychology. And even before dessert arrives, there is a whiff of a franchise in the making.

Other films, briefly noted:

• The Million Dollar Hotel comes from German director Wim Wenders, whose work ranges from the unearthly brilliance of Wings of Desire (1988) to the documentary beauty of The Buena Vista Social Club. But his latest film is a dud. Jeremy Davies (Saving Private Ryan) stars as Tom Tom, an endearing half-wit who belongs to an asylum-like circus of outcasts living in a derelict Los Angeles hotel. While tumbling into a naive romance with a street angel named Eloise (Milla Jovovich), Tom Tom becomes a suspect in the death of a junkie artist who fell—or was pushed—from the hotel roof.

There is something vaguely sexy in the childlike scenes between Davies and Jovovich—imagine a blind date between Rain Man and Joan of Arc. But the others in the ensemble (which includes Jimmy Smits, Amanda Plummer and Peter Stormare) just seem foolish—a bunch of serious actors indulging themselves in a surrealist sandbox. And Mel Gibson, playing an FBI detective with a chrome neck brace, looks as awkward in this arty confection (produced by his own company) as he was wearing pantyhose in What Women Want. With money from Mel, and a story co-written by U2s Bono, Wenders has made a movie that appears to lack any kind of clear motive.

• Ratcatcher is another tale of childlike romance, but with far less pretence. Written and directed by Scotland’s Lynne Ramsay, this first feature follows the grim fortunes of a 12-year-old boy in the suburban slums of Glasgow. James (William Edie) spends his summer playing by a polluted canal among heaps of garbage that have been piling up during a sanitation workers’ strike. Secredy haunted by the accidental drowning of a friend, he finds comfort with a 14-year-old girl who is ritually abused by a gang of boys. And they fall into a tender, precocious relationship. Featuring mostly unprofessional actors, with accents so thick the dialogue is subtitled, Ratcatcher is realism at its bleakest: drainage-ditch drama. Its characters express affection by picking lice out of each other’s hair. But a dreamy optimism floats out of the squalor. For anyone who found Billy Elliot too cloying, here is a tale of a jug-eared kid from the British working class who will steal your heart without step-dancing all over it.