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Hannibal Rising

Hannibal Rising posterBack in the mid to late 1980s Thomas Harris, Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Demme created an icon of horror/thriller cinema, Dr Hannibal Lecter, in the film version of Harris’ book Silence of the Lambs. While the part had been played arguably with more truth by Brian Cox in Michael Mann’s Manhunter and would swiftly become something of a pantomime villain/anti-hero in Hannibal and Red Dragon, Hopkins first take on the character remains mesmerising.

Why then, nearly 20 years later, Harris decided it would be a good idea to explore the background of Lecter is probably not much of a mystery as it was clear there was ‘gold in that there cannibal’, however as a character there was never a need.

Starting in Lithuania in the final days of the Second World War and then shifting to early 1950s France, Hannibal Rising fills us in on the troubled youth that created the ‘monstrous’ Lecter (we know he’s monstrous because they take the time to explain and state this in some detail).

Orphaned with his sister following a Soviet/Nazi micro-battle in a Lithuanian forest, the pair (children of a wealthy, castle owning, family) are taken hostage by mercenaries in the depths of the winter of 1944/45 and it’s not long before the mercenaries resort to cannibalism, eating the aforementioned young girl, before Hannibal is rescued and eventually (and surprisingly easily given post-war travel restrictions) ends up in France in his late teens, meeting his wealthy and exotic Japanese aunt, discovering an intense need for politeness, a love of sharp objects and enrolling in medical school.

Hannibal Rising - Gaspard Ulliel

Ulliel as Lecter

From there this becomes a pretty standard revenge story, Lecter has a special set of skills and he will find those who ate his sister and he will kill them.

I apologise if this feels like spoilers but, as is often a problem with prequels, there is little tension and mystery here as we come in knowing two things; one, that Hannibal is a murderer on a grand scale and two, that he survives at least as far as his 60s or 70s as seen in Lambs and Hannibal.

The fact of this being an effective thriller then is rendered impotent from the start.

So what of it as a horror, as it is also billed? Well, despite a few expectedly brutal but often somewhat over cooked (pun intended) murders, it’s not really very horrific. Any element of psychological horror that was Lecter’s initial raison d’être is absent and the violence really isn’t as graphic as one might expect. The camera, for the most part, cuts away from the actual truly horrific moments, though if shown they would have been simply revelling in blood and guts for the sake of it so it was a bit of a lose-lose.

Hannibal Rising - Gaspard Ulliel and Dominic West

Ulliel and West as Inspector Popil

Despite featuring a couple of actors who we know are or seem capable, none of the characters have the ring of truth and there really is no one to root for here. Hannibal, played by Gaspard Ulliel, is stuck between villain and anti-hero and lumbered with the same pantomimic ticks of Hopkins later performances making it very hard to accept him as the ‘good guy’.

Dominic West’s detective meanwhile, apparently investigating war crimes both general and specific, has nothing like enough depth to really even feel like a presence let alone a threat to Hannibal in the form of Will Graham or Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling.

Then there’s the question of an antagonist. Who can stand up as worse than, or make us rally behind, a sociopathic, cannibalistic, mass murderer? Well the answer isn’t Rhys Ifans’ Lithuanian mercenary come French human trafficker with a range of dubious accents – unfortunately that’s all we get.

Hannibal Rising - Rhys Ifans and Gaspard Ulliel

Ifans as Vladis Grutas and Ulliel

As the film reaches its unbalanced and uninspired climax, with a few additional psychological quirks to try to complete the pointless picture of the creation of ‘Hannibal The Cannibal’ (as he doesn’t like to be called), Hannibal Rising almost entirely fails to be anything worth watching.

As Netflix offers the options of this or the Mads Mikkelsen staring TV series Hannibal I’d go with that choice as, despite being cancelled after only three seasons due to low ratings, it is far superior and the nearest thing to being anything as good as Silence of the Lambs or Manhunter you’re likely to find.

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The Elephant Man

The Elephant Man posterAs I write this I seem to have begun a little David Lynch season for myself so there will no doubt be a few direct comparisons here to Lynch’s first film, Eraserhead, as I take a look at his second, a film that on paper couldn’t be much more different, the real life story of Joseph (here John) Merrick, aka The Elephant Man.

From the opening it felt a bit like we might be heading back into Eraserhead territory as we are greeted, following the titles, by a nightmarish monochrome montage with Merrick’s mother, an elephant and a noisy discordant soundtrack.

After this though it settles down, for the most part, into a more conventional period drama type piece charting Merrick’s (John Hurt) life from being seen in a ‘freak show’ by Dr Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) to being taken into the London Hospital and what happens from there.

Of course the rightly most discussed aspect of The Elephant Man is John Hurt’s performance as Merrick. Almost completely subsumed in prosthetics that are, for the most part, entirely convincing, Hurt’s portrayal is masterful, eliciting real emotion through his eyes, movements and slurred voice in truly effecting manner.

In many ways it is this performance that anchors the connection to Lynch’s other early features as Hurt’s Merrick is, like Henry in Eraserhead, something of a wide-eyed innocent being bombarded by the world around him.

The Elephant Man - Hopkins and Hurt

John Hurt and Anthony Hopkins

Added to this his growth as a young man has slight links with Kyle MacLachlan’s performance as Paul Muad’Dib Atreides in Lynch’s adaptation of Dune.

The film is something of a double-header as Hurt is accompanied throughout the story by Hopkins as Treves and, while far more conventional a piece of acting, it is equally impressive as Hopkins is when he wants to be.

Stylistically Lynch makes some interesting choices throughout the film, as you might expect. The monochrome photography, ably executed by Freddie Francis, works excellently to add to the Victorian period feel and is clean and crisp in a way that shows real detail while allowing shadows to lurk where necessary and create an unsettling atmosphere, particularly in the first and third acts.

Added to this the tone of the film switches expertly throughout from moments of melodrama to serious cinema to almost Hammer Horror to nightmarish reminiscent of the industrial apocalypse of Eraserhead. Lynch manages these changes of aspect so they don’t clash but cause a great effect on the viewer in a way rarely seen in mainstream cinema.

The Elephant Man - David Lynch

David Lynch on set of The Elephant Man

Building to an entirely satisfying climax The Elephant Man concludes on a more sedate dream-like montage which I couldn’t help but notice bears a strong resemblance to the opening images of Lynch’s next film Dune, which set my mind spinning with ideas.

On top of all this it fires ideas in the mind of the viewer around the meaning of human dignity and human rights that, while they aren’t fully explored, are clearly intentional and, like much of Lynch’s work, give the film a life long after it has ended, certainly a hallmark of a great film in any situation.

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Thor: The Dark World

Thor: The Dark World posterHave Marvel Studios jumped the shark?

Unfortunately, despite the general success (both commercially and in terms of enjoyment) of their so-called Phase One films, if Thor: The Dark World (aka Thor 2) is anything to go by, then they might just have.

Where their previous films had been entertaining romps with good stand alone stories all with enough moments to link together into the superhero mash-up The Avengers (which admittedly hasn’t stood up well to repeat viewings), Iron Man 3 even started their post Avengers series in fine style, but unfortunately Thor seems to have taken a step away from fun and lost almost everything that made the past films what they were.

The plot, what there is of it, involves the return of dark elf Malakith (a pointlessly underused Christopher Eccleston) attempting to take his revenge on Odin (Sir Anthony Hopkins) and Asgard and get his hands on a super weapon while Thor (Chris Hemsworth) wrestles with loyalty to his life in Asgard and his love of Midgard (Earth) and, more specifically, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) all while Loki (Tom Hiddleston) acts like a petulant teenager, but seems to have most of the fun.

Tom Hiddleston as Loki

Tom Hiddleston as Loki

The main problem the film seems to have is trying to, at once, cater to fans who’ve been through the whole Marvel Universe saga to date, as well as more casual viewers who will be coming to this as a stand alone story and this gives the whole thing an oddly unbalanced feeling.

That is combined with a story that feels simply meaningless as Malekith never really seems to be as bad as Odin tries to make out (though I was left with impression Hopkins didn’t really even understand most of his dialogue) so there isn’t really any point where there is a real, effective, antagonist as the best in the series so far, Loki, spends most of the film locked in a box brooding.

Hiddleston and Hemsworth

Hiddleston and Hemsworth

That said, Tom Hiddleston’s performance stands head and shoulders above the rest as he genuinely seems to be actually acting, rather than just turning up making the actions and saying the words, and you get a sense of the mischief that is the very nature of Loki. While the rest of the film features some fine actors, particularly Portman, Hopkins and Stellan Skarsgard, none show their worth as, for the most part, their roles are simply underdeveloped stereotypes (even more so than in past) and, more so, none really seem to care about being there.

As ever with a big budget blockbuster the special effects do generally look impressive but, in the battle scenes, there are points where the nearest comparisons I could make were Michael Bay’s Transformers and Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel as the characters become totally lost in a pointless, nonsensical, spectacle that loses what little emotional momentum the movie might have had.

With Marvel Phase Two rolling on with Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain America: Winter Soldier in the near future I hope Thor: The Dark World is merely a blip in an otherwise largely admirable series, but it has knocked my previous confidence and excitement in the studio.

Ben Kingsley

Ben Kingsley

The Blu-ray release of Thor: The Dark World does feature one major saving grace in the form of the ‘One Shot’ short film All Hail The King featuring the return of Ben Kingsley in his role from Iron Man 3, this has wit, charm, fun and adventure far surpassing that of the main feature, despite all being set two or three rooms in a prison, and hints at some interesting developments to come for the Marvel Universe – I just hope this is more representative of what is to come from the studio than the over blown, underplayed turkey on the front of the box.

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