Sunday, April 13, 2014

Red Dragon


When shooting wrapped in Pisa, the grips loaded all the equipment onto a veritable caravan of trucks for the trek up the Arno to Florence. We had some night shooting to do there for a sequence early in the film. My character, Toni Soprano, during a long psychoanalytic session with her therapist, Doctor Duchess Malfi, describes her feelings towards her life of crime metaphorically, as a run through deserted narrow, cobblestone streets with ancient buildings looming overhead. In order to get a proper Italian flavor for this, the producers decided that my soliloquy should be illustrated with my running in the dark from the Pitti Palace, across the Ponte Vecchio, past the Uffizi and the Bargello to the Duomo. Figures from my life such as my mother, Lydia, and my partner in crime, Carmelina Coloratura, will loom at me out of the fog and the shadows to add to the feelings of menace and being trapped by circumstance. The whole sequence is being scored with Dean Martin's That's Amore in order to keep that whole Italian ambiance going.

The night of the shoot was quite warm. The crew had all sorts of smoke and dry ice machines set up en route to create atmosphere. I ran as best I could in the four inch Manolo Blahnik's the costumer had given me to wear, but kept tripping over the hem of my diaphanous gauze trench coat and losing the matching fedora. Fortunately the extras, a whole host of little people under 3'6" dressed in identical red plastic slickers, would retrieve it before it could blow into the river. (The director says they're to represent the unconscious desires of my id). We eventually got all the shots, even if Norma Desmond kept forgetting her cue to leap off the back of the Donatello Perseus in the Loggia as I passed by.

After shooting, we were all invited to a screening of a new film about one of Florence's more famous residents, Dr. Hannibal Lecter.  The film, Red Dragon, is a prequel to the 1991 classic, The Silence of the Lambs which won all five top Oscars that year, only the third film to do so after It Happened One Night and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. That earlier film was based on the second of the novels of Thomas Harris featuring the brilliant, but diabolical killer psychiatrist. It's success led to a further sequel, Hannibal, filmed last year with Anthony Hopkins reprising his famous role and, as that film was a monstrous financial success, Hollywood decided to bring Hopkins back a third, and hopefully final time, with a new adaptation of the first novel, Red Dragon, which had been filmed before as Manhunter by Michael Mann in 1986.

Red Dragon opens in 1980 with Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) still at large, practicing forensic psychiatry in Baltimore. We first spot him enjoying the epicurean pleasures of the symphony and a dinner party following (a sly nod to events described in The Silence of the Lambs). He appears to be a successful bon vivant, working with FBI agent Will Graham (Edward Norton), on a series of ghoulish murders that may involve cannibalism. As Graham and Lecter meet late one night to discuss the case, Graham slowly comes to realize that the man he is seeking is Lecter. A fight ensues and Lecter is captured and imprisoned. Graham, wounded in the fight, retires to Florida where he repairs outboard motors and makes goo-goo eyes at his wife, Molly (Mary-Louise Parker).

FBI Behavioral Sciences boss Jack Crawford (Harvey Keitel), comes to Florida to lure Graham out of retirement. There's a new serial killer on the loose, dubbed 'The Tooth Fairy' after signature bite marks, who is killing whole families on a lunar calendar. The next full moon is approaching and the bureau is stumped. Graham reluctantly agrees to return for the case. In order to catch the killer, he needs some forensic psychiatric help and he reluctantly seeks out Lecter for his insights, not knowing that Lecter is in correspondence with and possibly encouraging, this new monster.

Meanwhile, we meet the Tooth Fairy, aka Francis Dolarhyde (Ralph Fiennes), a photo technician with a seriously warped personality, a grandma fixation, a devotion to the art of William Blake, and a decaying private nursing home. He's feeling compelled to commit his crimes by forces within he doesn't understand. He's also falling for his co-worker, the feisty, if blind Reba (Emily Watson). His attempt at a real relationship is seriously screwing with his head and he's starting to fall apart. As Graham's insights and methodical police work bring him closer, Dolarhyde becomes more and more imbalanced, leading, eventually, to a climactic confrontation between the two.

Ted Tally, who won an Oscar for his adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs, penned the screenplay for this film and it is remarkably faithful to Harris's novel. (Manhunter took a number of liberties with characters and plot.) It assumes familiarity with Lecter from the previous films, but will be understood by those who do not have a background, and lays out the plot and characters in clear, concise and unimaginative ways. As Hopkins is the star, his part has been beefed up considerably. Tally has also tried to recreate the heart of the prior film by creating a number of tete-a-tete scenes for Graham and Lecter in the style of the Clarice Starling/Lecter scenes. Unfortunately, they don't work. When the dynamic was between an older man and a young woman, they were horribly creepy. When it's an older man and a middle aged man, they're just kind of there.

Hopkins now inhabits the role of Lecter like a comfortable overcoat. He's so at ease with it now that it keeps lurching towards self parody. At times, I kept waiting for the punch line as if it were some sort of extended Saturday Night Live skit. Flashes of the brilliance of the first film are there, but he has no Jodie Foster to play off this time around. What he does have is Edward Norton. Norton is a fine actor, but he's miscast as the world weary Graham. He's too boyish and energetic. (William Petersen, in Manhunter, was a much better choice.) Norton comes off as a boy scout who got lost on the way to the jamboree which is not what is needed.

The best scenes in the film feature Ralph Fiennes as Dolarhyde. Fiennes, a fearless actor, managed to find something in Dolarhyde's physicality and strength that make him nearly explode off the screen. His scenes in the nude with a full body tattoo might have been ludicrous with a lesser actor, but he makes them work through sheer force of will. He also has a couple of strong supporting players to work with in Emily Watson, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as a slimy tabloid reporter. Watson is great in her somewhat clich├ęd role, but the film makers can't think of much to do with her other than rehash Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark.

Brett Ratner, the director, is no Jonathan Demme. Scenes are executed in a workman like fashion, but there's nothing special about the film that would make it bear repeated viewings, unlike Silence of the Lambs. He has little in the way of visual style or ability to treat actors as anything other than pawns in advancing his plot - but what does one expect from the director of the Rush Hour films?

In toto, if one cannot get enough of Hannibal, Red Dragon is worth seeing. It's a reasonable adaptation of the novel, but Manhunter (where Hannibal is portrayed by British actor Brian Cox) is a better film.

Squeaky flute. Painted grandma. Gratuitous Anthony Heald. Even more gratuitous John Rubinstein. Watercolor eating. Shattered mirrors. Home video credit sequences. Gratuitous crazed journal entries. Anaesthetized tiger. Burning wheelchairs. Superglue abuse. 

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