Review: “The Witch”

If it wasn’t clear by now, I’m a pick-your-moments kind of guy.  If I made a 10 Commandments of Storytelling, Thou Shall Pace Thyself would be very near the top.  It’s a commandment that Robert Eggers’s “The Witch” breaks, though there’s certainly escalation.  The final 15 minutes or so are a wild and grisly ride.  And yet…I couldn’t help but feel tired and rundown by the film.

In 1630s New England, William (Ralph Ineson) and his family are banished from a Puritan Christian community.  They take up residence on the edge of some very spooky woods.  Will characters in horror movies never learn!?

The Witch family

While the farmer’s eldest daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), is watching his infant son, the boy goes missing.  We see that he was taken by a witch and mashed into jelly.  (I wish I were joking — that’s an image that won’t leave my head anytime soon.)  After the boy’s disappearance, the fabric of the family comes undone.

There are some interesting storytelling choices here.  The film boats some tricky language for any actor, especially young ones.  But the cast handles it very well.  Fans of “Game of Thrones” will recognize Kate Dickie as William’s wife, Katherine.  Like on the HBO show, she plays another religious zealot.  In addition to Taylor-Joy’s Thomasin, there are three other children: Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and a pair of rambunctious — that’s a polite word — twins played by Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson.

Actors copy

For the majority of the film, it feels like everyone is shouting and hissing through bared teeth.  Not without reason, but it all gets a little monotonous.  The film drains its emotional stores long before it’s over.

Alfred Hitchcock defined suspense as the audience having information that characters do not.  His example involved a bomb under a table.  We the audience know it’s there, but the characters having a conversation at that table do not.  I’ll come back to Hitch in a moment.  As Devin Faraci pointed out, a lot of witch stories are structured as mysteries.  Is there or isn’t there?  I’m thinking of “Rosemary’s Baby,” one of my personal favorites.  But here, Eggers shows us that there is in fact a bomb in the woods.  And all the family’s squabbling about God’s will and what it all means is distressing in the best sense, because they’ve got much bigger problems.

“The Witch” is not constructed like most horror movies.  Few and far between are the jumps scares, and they usually involve something pretty ordinary — an ax going through a block of wood.  (So much wood chopping!)  Still, the atmosphere is thick and Eggers rings unease out of the ordinary like a goat shifting its gaze.  The goat, by the way, is Black Phillip, and he’s the best.

Black-Phillip-Large-Header_1050_591_81_s_c1

One of my favorite sequences involves young Caleb in the woods.  He comes across a cabin…and its occupant.  There’s a great use of subjective camera — we slowly track into this mysterious woman as she stares right into the camera’s lens.  I literally shuffled back into my seat.

And then we come to that bloody climax.  What follows is a series of decisions that read like someone bolding, italicizing, underlining and then circling a phrase to make sure that we really, really get the point.  Additionally, the film travels in stock witch imagery which is never more true than the final moments.  It descends into camp for a film that has otherwise had a deficit of it.  (A deficit in camp…can a film have that?)

None of this makes “The Witch” a bad film or even mediocre.  It’s just not a great one.

Have you seen “The Witch?”  What did you think?  Comment below!

Review: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

After much anticipation, it’s finally here: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”  Apologies for the delay in my review.  It’s a busy time of year, and I wanted to see the film for a second time to parse out my thoughts.  Plus, with the film having been out for over a week and having made enough money to fill 10 battle stations, I figure it’s safe now to talk about some spoilery plot points.

I’ve already written about what this universe means to me, so the big questions is:  Does director JJ Abrams’s “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” live up to its galactic hype?

Pretty much.  And that’s no easy feat.  Let’s dive in!

starwars-banner

From the title crawl, you know you’re in good hands.  “Luke Skywalker has vanished.”  Whoa!  No taxation or trade routes here, huh?  (I can see your eyes glazing over already.)  The film opens with the remnants of the Empire, now the First Order, attempting to intercept a map to Luke.  Squash the last remaining Jedi and there will be little hope for the Resistance.

A resistance pilot named Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) hides the plans in his BB-8 droid before he’s captured by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a disciple of the Dark Side.  The BB unit rolls through the dunes of the desert planet Jakku until he comes across Rey (Daisy Ridley), an independent and resourceful scavenger waiting for her family to return.

rey-bb8

Meanwhile, Kylo Ren learns what the droid is carrying.  A conscience-stricken stormtrooper (John Boyega), nicknamed Finn, helps Poe escape.  The two crash on Jakku in a TIE fighter.  Believing Poe to be dead, Finn finds his way to civilization, or the backwater planet’s version of it, where he meets Rey.  After a skirmish with the First Order, the two board the Millennium Falcon.  (I know the Force works in mysteries ways, but talk about coincidence!)

star-wars

The Falcon is picked up by none other than its former captain and co-pilot, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew).  We learn that Rey believed Luke Skywalker to be a myth.  Han informs her and Finn that Luke went into hiding after a Jedi in training was seduced by the evil Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis).

That pupil was Kylo Ren.  In one of the film’s most stirring scenes, he prays to the helmet of Darth Vader.  “I feel it again…the call to the Light…Show me again, the power of the darkness, and I’ll let nothing stand in our way.”  Just as Luke was tempted by the Dark Side of the Force, Kylo is tempted by the Light.  And why shouldn’t he be?  He’s Han Solo and Leia Organa’s son.

kylo-ren

Now, if a lot of this seems familiar — a droid carrying secret plans, a young person on a barren desert planet with aspirations for something greater — that’s by design.  Similar to this year’s “Creed,” this is as much a soft reboot as it is a continuation of the saga.  Would I have liked a little more daring and originality in the story department?  Absolutely!  Given JJ Abrams’s track record — I’m looking at you, “Star Trek Into Darkness” — I was pretty nervous about fan service, but the callbacks didn’t bother me much.  With one huge, planet-sized exception.  I’ll get to that later.  There certainly isn’t anything as eye-rollingly awful as Anakin Skywalker creating C-3PO.  (Sorry, I’ll try to stop referencing those.  They’re painful for me too.)

One of the things this film, the first in a new trilogy, needed to do was set up a cast of compelling characters.  And in that regard, “The Force Awakens” is aces.  Oscar Isaac’s Poe has all the charisma of a 1930s swashbuckling movie star.  Think Errol Flynn.  I loved that John Boyega’s Finn was allowed to be scared out of his mind and in over his head.  Few things are duller than a hero who’s completely and utterly confident in their abilities.  If they aren’t concerned for their own well-being, why should we be?

It’s a testament to the film that I wasn’t twiddling my thumbs while waiting for the original cast to show up.  But even they deliver…mostly.  Carrie Fisher doesn’t do much with the very little she’s given to do.  But Harrison Ford — I haven’t seen him this engaged by a part in years!  This is a far cry from “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.”

han-and-chewie

The two MVPs are undoubtedly Daisy Ridley’s Rey and Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren.  Much has been made about Rey being too perfect, which is to say she excels at everything she does.  She’s a good pilot and mechanic.  She’s strong with the Force and can more than hold her own with a lightsaber.  While I can’t argue that she doesn’t have many defeats (if any at all), I profoundly disagree that the character, as a result, is uninteresting.  Rey is filled with longing and doubt, fear and incredulity at her own abilities.  Ridley owns the role.  There are some wonderfully evocative, dialog-free moments.  When we meet Rey, she sleds down a sand dune after acquiring some scrap.  A fighter pilot helmet strapped to her head, she wistfully looks out at the empty desert landscape.

And then there’s Kylo Ren.  All too often, studios — I don’t wanna name names so let’s just say Schmarvel — are content to prop up empty, soulless, uninteresting villains to give their heroes something to hit.  Not this guy.  Unlike Darth Vader, he’s still in flux — a villain that hasn’t quite hatched from his cocoon.  His impenetrable mask and Driver’s icy delivery hide an interior that’s filled with uncertainty.  A petulant young man, he’s prone to violent, lightsaber-swinging outbursts when he doesn’t get his way.  From the moment he stepped on screen and stopped a blaster bolt from hitting its mark, I knew I was in for a treat.

(Seriously, the sound design in this film is incredible.  The Force now has an audible presence, as though the air flexes when it’s in use.  It feels more powerful and dangerous than it ever has before.)

Though the film has its dark passages, JJ Abrams and co-screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt imbue it with a sense of humor.  It’s maybe the funniest entry in the series.  I get a chuckle just thinking about BB-8’s lighter thumbs-up.  Abrams is known for his acrobatic camera, but he and DP Daniel Mindel dial it back here.  We’re allowed to appreciate the scale of this universe, whether it’s a star destroyer eclipsing a moon or Rey dwarfed by the massive engines of a vessel.  Abrams also made good on his commitment to return to practical effects.  Though puzzlingly, there are a couple poorly executed CGI characters. Still, I enjoyed the assortment of puppetry, make-up and animatronics bringing the corners of many scenes to life.

Now for that troubling bit of fan service.  The First Order has a super weapon not dissimilar from the Death Star, though it’s much bigger as the film eagerly points out.  This monstrosity has been carved out of a planet and has the power to destroy entire star systems.  Complete with an easily exploited weakness, the new baddies seem incapable of learning the lessons of the Empire.  Not being revealed until the mid-point, this Starkiller Base barely has a screen presence.  Its annihilation of five planets is met with a shrug rather than a shriek.  Contrast that with the harrowing destruction of one planet in the original “Star Wars.”  Every time the film cut to this storyline, I felt the otherwise brisk pace come to a grinding halt.  While many of the tropes and archetypes feel lovingly constructed, this truly seems like filmmakers going through the motions.

starkiller-base

“The Force Awakens” never achieves the storytelling efficiency of the original “Star Wars” trilogy, especially the first two entries.  In many respects, it feels like the most episodic of the films, even more so than “The Empire Strikes Back” and its infamous cliffhanger ending.  Many questions are left dangling, right down to the tantalizing final frames.  (Luke!)  Though it may be a little frustrating, I suppose we are in that era.  It feels like a backhanded compliment to say that this latest entry is better than the prequels, but it’s way better.  JJ Abrams and company have done a good job setting up the board for grand chess master Rian Johnson.  I am very excited to see where he takes the story in Episode VIII.

What did you think of “The Force Awakens?”  Did the fan service elements bother you?  Comment below!

Review: “Spectre”

I was really enjoying “Spectre,” the 24th film in the James Bond series, for the first hour and a half.  Had it ended there, this would be a positive review.  But it didn’t.

It’s hard to talk about this film without delving into spoilers, so I’m not even going to try.  You’ve been warned!

spectre-banner-2

Sam Mendes, responsible for the previous (and best) entry, “Skyfall,” returns to the director’s chair.  He brings his fluid sense of action and a knack for making sure every penny of the budget shows up on screen.  The film opens in Mexico during a Day of the Dead celebration.  Mendes and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema craft an elaborate long take which follows James Bond (Daniel Craig) as he tracks a target through the festivities.  I suspect friend of the blog, Ben, would call this an embodiment of the Bond experience:  exotic locations and grand spectacle mixed with intrigue.

As things are wont to do in this franchise, everything goes to hell.  Bond finds himself running from a collapsing building and then chasing his target right into a departing helicopter.  (So much running!  Where’s Tom Cruise when you need him.)  Here we have a spectacular blend of what looks to be location photography and a gyrating set, the actors rolling and bouncing inside, as 007 tries to take control of the aircraft.

Bond discovers that he’s embroiled in a larger conspiracy involving a nefarious organization known as Spectre.  After learning that a former nemesis, Mr. White, has ties to the group, he pays him a visit.  In an attempt to gain leverage over the man, Bond vows to protect his daughter Madeleine (Léa Seydoux).  Simultaneously, M (Ralph Fiennes) is wrestling with Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott), a member of the British government trying to coalesce intelligence organizations from several countries into one massive, Orwellian security group.

Now, things aren’t all expensive tuxedos and vodka martinis during the first half of the film.  There’s some eye-rolling dialog like, “As you know, 007, [insert something that Bond clearly does know but we the audience don’t].”  And poor Dave Bautista (more on him later) and Monica Bellucci are completely wasted as a henchman and Bond girl respectively.  But it isn’t until shortly after our hero meets up with Madeleine that that delicious vodka martini ends up all over that nice tuxedo.

Lea

Few and far between are the Bond girls that develop any real connection to James.  That’s certainly attempted here, but the film doesn’t lay the groundwork.  By the end of “Spectre,” we’re to believe that Bond would give up his double-0 license for a life with Madeleine, but we’ve no reason to think their relationship is any more special than the countless women he’s shagged.  Frequent callbacks to Vesper Lynd, perhaps the best Bond girl in the series, don’t help.  She was smart, resourceful and complex in her own right.  We saw her relationship to Bond develop in “Casino Royale.”  Not the case here.

Now we come to the film’s other crippling problem.  The head of Spectre is Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz).  He is and always has been the franchise’s big bad.  The Joker to Bond’s Batman.  The Moriarty to his Sherlock.  That Waltz is playing Blofeld will come as a surprise to no one who’s even a casual Bond fan.  But the film certainly wants it to.  Hiding his identity, we initially know him as Franz Oberhauser.  Franz is a brother of sorts to James Bond.  After the death of Bond’s parents, Franz’s father looked after him, and Franz felt that James supplanted him in the eye of his dad.  So he killed his father, faked his own death and took the name Blofeld.

Wait, there’s more…

“Spectre” retcons so many elements from the previous three films.  As it turns out, Blofeld has been Bond’s puppet master for all his life.  He’s responsible for everything that’s happened during Craig’s run.  All those baddies worked for Spectre.  In addition to making the universe that much smaller (even Auric Goldfinger avoided the mantle of Spectre), this is lazy, lazy, lazy writing.  Instead of constructing a worthwhile villain or setting up the evil organization in the previous entries, the filmmakers trot out a fan favorite (with tired daddy issues to boot) and hang the plots of “Casino,” “Quantum” and “Skyfall” on him.  He says to Bond at one point, “I’ve really put you through it all these years.”  If you say so.

Without any emotional stakes or character investment, the back half of this film feels tedious.  It dives head first into most of the Bond clichés the Craig movies have spent ribbing, but they feel half-assed, like the director’s heart isn’t in it.  Bautista’s Mr. Hinx is a completely unremarkable henchman.  He’s got metal thumbnails, a fact that I needed to be reminded of after my screening because they’re such a non-entity, which he uses to gouge out a foot soldier’s eyes.  And he’s dead by the middle of the film.  You remember Oddjob and Jaws.  You remember their names.  (I had to look Mr. Hinx up.)  You remember their quirky character traits, Jaws for his nasty chompers and Oddjob for his lethal propensity for hat throwing.

spectre-dave-bautista

Not once, but twice, this film falls into the elaborate scenarios that Bond always escapes from.  The first is a torture scene with a series of small drills and James’s head.  The second is an escape sequence.  Blofeld sends Bond on a chase through the bombed out MI6 to find Madeleine.  If he can’t find her in three minutes, they’ll both be killed when the building is completely leveled by another bomb.  This sequence left me wanting to scream, “Just kill them!”  Same old villain falling for the same old tricks.

As another friend of the blog, another Ben, put it, “I can see what they were trying to do.  They wanted an updated version of the cheeky, kitschy fun of the late Connerys.  Watches, quips, muscle men, countdowns.  That could be fun in small doses.  But to build an entire film on those references isn’t borrowing classic fun from the franchise’s past.  It’s inviting back all the problems of banking on those references to captivate an audience, or even keep them vaguely involved.”

Is “Spectre” as bad as “Quantum of Solace?”  Not quite.  It’s got too much polish for that.  But it was a lot easier to slap a tourniquet on “Quantum” and brush it off.  This one, thanks to its ties to the other films, ain’t gonna be that easy.  Stir it or shake it up, I hope the producers do whatever they need to right this ship.

Have you seen “Spectre?”  What did you think?  Let me know in the Comment section!

Review: “Sicario”

I’ve got it. The next big trend in physical fitness. All you need to do is watch Denis Villeneuve’s “Sicario,” once a day, every day, and the pounds will melt off in no time.  From its opening moments, depicting a raid on a drug house, the film is sweaty-palms suspenseful.

sicario poster

FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is part of that raid.  Soon after, she’s recruited into a task force, which includes Josh Brolin’s Matt Graver and Benicio del Toro’s Alejandro Gillick.  They’re to take down a major drug kingpin in Mexico.  Kate, unsure of whom to trust even on her own team, realizes she’s swimming in dark and dangerous waters.

The main cast — Blunt, del Toro and Brolin — are really strong.  Brolin, with his wry smile and reluctance to give up information, generates a lot of nervous laughs.  But del Toro is the MVP.  In one of my favorite moments, shortly after we (and Kate) have met him, he’s sleeping on an airplane and his hand starts to twitch and then he wakes with a start.  The smallest suggestion that under the enigmatic and menacing exterior, there’s a lot of pain and sadness.

sicario-benicio

Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay doesn’t provide Blunt’s Kate with a whole lot of background or even agency, but that’s why you cast one of the best actresses of her generation.  In an early exchange, we learn that she’s divorced and doesn’t have kids.  No family attachments.  (How’s that for foreboding?)  Throughout the film, she often finds herself on the losing end of conflicts, which is a little unusual for mainstream audiences.  I didn’t mind it so much, as it felt emblematic of the drug war itself.  It’s a losing battle.

sicario-emily

The action setpieces have a real sense of presence.  Explosions aren’t accompanied with the standard fireball.  They’re concussive forces, throwing our heroes to the ground.  Kevlar vests don’t keep characters free from harm.  Bullets still knock the wind out of them, leaving them gasping for air.  Interrogations aren’t performed with a lot of flapping and yelling but cold and quiet intimidation.  I’ve never witnessed a real explosion, been shot at or interrogated — knock on wood — but these moments felt refreshingly absent any trumped up Hollywood conventions.

Indeed, the film achieves all this without resorting to cinema verite techniques (handheld camera, extensive film grain, etc.).  I’ve talked about Cinematographer Roger Deakins on the blog before, and I can’t overstate his skill and artistry behind the camera.  In what’s sure to be one of the shots of the year, a group of gunmen are preparing for a dangerous trek underground at sunset.  As they move across the barren desert landscape, their silhouettes appear against the nearly-night sky and slowly sink into the dark horizon.

sicario-roger-deakins

Deakins and Villeneuve employ a lot of helicopter shots, particularly as the task force is driving across the border into Mexico for a mission.  Being a fan of “The Shining,” I couldn’t help but think of the opening moments of Stanley Kubrick’s film as Jack Torrance drives to the film’s haunted hotel.  The effect here is similar, as we watch from on high as our characters navigate into trouble.

Due to its blistering intensity and pessimistic worldview, “Sicario” isn’t going to be a film for everyone.  But if you’re willing to take the ride, I think the craftsmanship and strong performances are definitely worth your time.

Have you seen “Sicario?”  What did you think?  Comment below and thanks for reading!

Review: “Mission Impossible – Rogue Nation”

No school like the old school.

Much has been written about Tom Cruise’s stunt work in “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.”  Hell, if you’ve caught the trailer or poster — or any piece of marketing, really — you’ve seen him hanging off an airplane during takeoff.  And that’s how the film opens!

Rogue poster

Director and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie’s packs the fifth entry in the “Mission: Impossible” series with old school touches.  Beginning with the plane stunt and continuing to Joe Kraemer’s delicious big band score.  It sounds as though he took a page from John Barry’s Bond music from the 60s.  And maybe the “Mission: Impossible” TV series.  (Though aside from the main theme, I’m not especially familiar with the music for the show.)  

The movie’s standout setpiece, in a Vienna Opera House, is a loving nod to Alfred Hitchcock and “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”  I love how our understanding of the players, their motivations and allegiances develop throughout the sequence.  The power dynamics — who’s on top, who knows what —  are constantly in flux.  And it only benefits from the ongoing performance, the operatic music underscoring the action while our heroes and villains struggle to remain quiet.  It’s a marvel of suspense filmmaking.

Now you might be saying, “Okay, the action’s great, but how’s the plot?”

Well, you’ll notice I haven’t given a plot summary, and that’s because it follows a pretty well-trodden path — Ethan is looking to put a stop to an elusive criminal organization known as the Syndicate.  There are enough twists and turns (and yes, convolutions) to keep things interesting.

“And the characters?  Are they enough to sustain a full feature?”

They are.  Just enough.

Ethan is as doggedly determined as ever, which is not to say the character is without fear.  This is a critical element that gets us invested in his success.  Just because he can navigate these life threatening situations, doesn’t mean he wants to.  Simon Pegg’s Benji, an analyst, has a bit more zeal this time, as he wants to contribute beyond sitting at a desk and punching some buttons.  

simon pegg

But the MVP is newcomer Rebecca Ferguson.  She plays Ilsa Faust, an agent who might be working with the Syndicate.  Or maybe not.  Her motivations and whose side she’s on generate a lot of the movie’s non-setpiece pleasures.  And she handles the action and fights scenes with aplomb, doing a lot of her own stunts.

Seriously, if this woman isn’t the break out star of the year, I’ll strap myself to the outside of an airplane.

rebecca ferguson

A few have criticized the last act of “Rogue Nation,” calling it out for being not quite up to snuff.  When you open as spectacularly as this movie does, where do you go from there?  It’s a complaint I’m certainly sensitive to, I just don’t think it applies here.  Yes, the spectacle in the third act is dramatically reduced, but the emotional stakes are amplified. The character threads, specifically concerning Benji and Ilsa, come into play in spectacular fashion.

This film has something for all action fans.  Setpieces with enormous scale, intimate fights and riveting chases.  It’s absolutely a film to be appreciated on the big screen.  McQuarrie’s quick cutting communicates maximum velocity without ever sacrificing geography.  The stunt work, largely performed by our main cast, injects the film with authenticity and makes us root all the more for our characters. 

“Mission Impossible – Rogue Nation” is in theaters now.  Have you seen it?  What did you think?  Comment below.

Review: “Inside Out”

With 2015 half over, I thought I’d review my favorite film of the year so far, “Inside Out.”  It’s in wide release and making a killing, so if you’re one of the few who hasn’t seen it, there’s still a chance.

Oh, how I love Pixar!  From 1995 to 2010, the studio produced an almost unimpeachable run of animated features.  In the intervening years, their output has been a little rocky with sequels and prequels such as “Cars 2” and “Monsters University,” but “Inside Out” is an absolute return to form.

First thing’s first, it’s got a fantastic premise.  We follow young Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias) and the emotions that govern her life:  Joy (Amy Poehler, who should probably be in every Pixar film), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Fear (Bill Hader).  Lead by Joy, these anthropomorphized figures reside in Riley’s head and work together to balance her emotional existence.

inside out emotions

The film chronicles an important time in Riley’s life, as she struggles with her family’s move from Minnesota to California.  It’s not an altogether original story idea, but that’s hardly a liability for the film.  The internal workings of her mind, as rendered by director and co-screenwriter Pete Docter, are bursting with creativity.  There are core memories, the Train of Thought, islands that represent the tenants of Riley’s personality, Dream Productions, and one of my favorites…Abstract Thought.  After being separated from Headquarters, Joy and Sadness travel though the latter, where they’re reduced to flat geometric shapes and finally simple lines.

INSIDE OUT

Though the humor is on point throughout — including a hilarious end credit sequence that delves into inner emotional workings of some other characters — “Inside Out” sees Pixar return to its darker storytelling impulses.  Not since the harrowing third act of “Toy Story 3” have I felt as emotionally invested in the fate of our characters.  As Joy and Sadness travel through the recesses of Riley’s mind, they watch her personality islands crumble and fall.  Joy’s plight, just wanting to see Riley happy, is genuinely heartrending.  So too is the end of the film.

joy is sad

Lately, it seems the studio has kept its stakes low and manageable, but “Inside Out” sees Pixar pushing them to their brink. And it’s a welcome relief. Too often, animated and family films are content to play it safe. Pixar ventured out of the sandbox, and the trip was worth the risk – they reminded characters and audiences alike what it means to grow up.

Have you seen “Inside Out?” Comment below!

Review: “Hannibal” (Seasons 1 and 2)

If you’re like me, you’re a little nervous about projects that involve Dr. Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter.  Don’t get me wrong, “The Silence of the Lambs” was an integral part of my development as a film nerd, but “Hannibal” and “Red Dragon?”  Not so much.  I didn’t even bother with “Hannibal Rising.”  Between the sequel and two prequels, it seemed the boogeyman of my teenage years had been whittled down to a punch line.

Well, until now.

hannibal and skull

Bryan Fuller’s “Hannibal,” which is based on the book by Thomas Harris and has its third season premiering tonight on NBC, brings the character back to his menacing roots.  A far cry from the grubby realism of Jonatham Demme’s “Lambs,” the show adopts a surrealist approach.  This is evident from the very first scene of the first episode, where Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) investigates a murder.  Gifted — or cursed — with hyper empathy, Will’s able to see into the scene of a crime.  He assesses what was done and how.  We watch as a pool of blood retracts into the victim and breath re-enters her body, only to see her killed again, Will standing in as the murderer.

This approach is pretty unique, particularly for network television, and it feels wholly appropriate for a franchise in which one character convinced another to swallow his own tongue.  Will’s visions fuel some of the show’s creepier images.  His relationship with Hannibal is visualized as a black stag — a motif that’s poignantly used in the final moments of Season 2.  Will sees Hannibal himself as a Wendigo, a half-man-half-stag.  One of the show’s more chilling (and darkly comic) moments comes when Will envisions the Wendigo taking the stand in a courtroom.

wendigo

Speaking of unsettling, Brian Reitzell’s Ligeti-inspired score is a real highlight.

But let’s get to the main event: Mads Mikkelsen as Dr. Lecter.  I’d only seen Mikkelsen as one of the baddies in “Casino Royale,” but he’s a revelation!  His Hannibal is harder to read than Hopkins’s, playing his cards close to his chest while secretly making his puppets dance a sick charade.  Like many great monsters, he’s got a hell of an introduction.  At its worst — which is still better than most — “Hannibal” is a standard procedural complete with wise-cracking investigators, but the titular character’s reveal halfway through the first episode was the moment I went all in.

One of the series’s real strengths is the pairing of Hannibal and Will.  Dr. Lecter has a deep fascination with this man who’s become his patient, and Will’s hyper empathy allows him to appreciate Hannibal’s eccentricities.  There’s almost a romantic edge to their relationship, and I love how it takes on tragic dimensions by the end of the second season.

will and hannibal

The main thing I could see driving viewers away is the gore.  While there are passages that make “Silence of the Lambs” look like Disney, I’m not sure the squeamish would come to the show in the first place.  And the carnage is displayed…dare I say it…beautifully.  Most striking might be a human totem pole discovered on a beach in season one.

totem pole

Also, the food cinematography, disturbing as that sounds, is sensational.

“Hannibal” struggles with ratings — maybe because of its violent content or surrealist approach — but I sincerely hope you’ll check it out.  At the risk of fanboying, I’m so glad this show exists.  Not only is its non-traditional approach a breath of fresh air, but its revitalization of a pummeled pop culture icon is really exciting.

So long as you have the stomach for it.