Month: May 2013
I hate to start off any article like this, but, “So, after seven years of waiting, Arrested Development is back and…” Of the plethora of articles regarding Netflix’s revival of Arrested Development, there have been primarily two angles: the “binge watching” angle and the “fan control/pandering” angle, the latter of which permeated discussion when the equally short lived and similarly cult enjoyed Veronica Mars got “Kickstarted” for a feature film. Reeling the two together is, at least with regards to previously existing material, fan expectation. It does not necessarily boil down to whether the wait itself was worth it, but if any of it was worth it. And I can say is, with some bumps down the road notwithstanding, that the fourth season of Arrested Development is mostly a pleasure.
Fox’s short lived sitcom about “a wealthy family and the one son who had to keep them all together” was notable for its critical praise, its unique structure, its pop culture commentary, its deliberately lucid style that often oscillated between straight forward and self aware, and its depressingly low ratings and subsequent early cancellation. With a stellar cast and some of the sharpest writing on a sitcom ever (Tina Fey has said that the show is, something along the lines of “exhaustingly funny”), it quickly gained cult status. We have since learned, with the advent of Twitter, Tumblr, and other online communities of that ilk, that cults are demanding. The fans, who can quote every episode and reenact running gags, balk at the premature cancellation of the series, and thus demanded a film or a revival of some sort. Rumors of a film adaptation or continuation floated around for years (and still continue to do so), but it was finally announced that a new season of the beloved show would return, airing exclusively on Netflix.
Neither the exclusivity of how the show was airing, nor the “all at once drop” of 15 episodes, helped temper people’s expectations or even my expectations. Devotees of the show were up at the early hours of the day (3am EST), ready to see if the show they had rewatched thousands of times was really coming back the way they’d hope.
The answer to that “un-question” is “Sort of”. There are fifteen episodes, each focused on a specific character’s story arc, often catching the audience up on what they have been doing since the show ended in 2006. So, while the show is now all focused from episode to episode on various primary characters from the series, the structure itself is very “Rashomon like”. It all leads up to one event, Cinco de Cuatro. And therein lies one of the primary issues of the new season.
Leading everything up to one event as well as playing catch up with all of the characters inherently creates narrative problems when it isn’t done well. And with a sitcom, the show’s quality is prone to even more problems. Thus, the new Arrested Development is primarily plot focused, with something so intricate that one might consider not binge watching. With the various connections that are made between characters, events, timelines, etc., time is needed to fully digest and perhaps even revisit later (something I will surely do over the summer). This isn’t a bad thing, but the plot focus and the multiple perspectives give a very specific type of pacing that makes it feel as if the jokes were kind of second thought. But this new focus on intricacy creates, what feels to me, like a very different feeling than one we are usually used to when watching Arrested Development. The show was always kind to its plotting, with a nice quick pace, but the focus was more on running gags, both verbal and visual, and tying those jokes into the plotting so it seemed complex and exhausting. The plots themselves were hardly all that complicated, but the show was so well written that you would never realize it. In Season Four, you become very aware of how plot focused the show is and how much effort that’s being put in making it the “revival to end all revivals”. And that self awareness, which is completely different from the usual meta quality the show has, is something that undermines the season’s quality. It’s like have fifteen different starting points all going to the same destination. Sometimes that’s okay, but sometimes it becomes unwieldy and cumbersome.
With the character focused episodes, it provides a rather uneven experience. Character based episodes often mean that not all of the characters will appear in all of the episodes. This is and of itself isn’t a bad thing, but the character focus specifically shows, again, that the writing, as complicated as it is, is all about the destination. The labyrinthine path it takes to get there has bumps in the road, which means that there are a few episodes (perhaps more than a few) which are disappointingly weak. Tone, structure, and jokes. But the great episodes in the fourth season, the ones that remind you why you love the show so much and why you’re such a cultist for it, pepper Season 4’s episode run, thankfully.
The show’s gloriously meta quality seems to have changed ever so slightly. Aided by camera work, “flashbacks”, nods to other shows, self awareness, and the general style of the sitcom, time has allowed the show to soak in some different cultural juices. It feels self aware, but a different self aware, like a very close cousin to the show. New technology, changes in political atmosphere, and even the shift in how sitcoms themselves are structured on television have created something a little new and refreshing, if slightly jarring. Of course, the longer running time and the nods to Netflix as an entity at all certainly are factors of the mild shift in tone, but it doesn’t feel wrong.
One of the interesting things about coming back to a universe you know so well but haven’t been to in a long time, at least in terms of new stories, is that it feels like coming back to a town or your high school for a reunion. I felt this way about Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: same place I enjoy visiting endlessly on DVD with the trilogy, but it seemed so different seeing the film in theaters. Something similar happens here: you know all the characters, but they’re doing something new and unexpected, and for that I commend show runner Mitch Hurwitz and the writers. All the actors slip into their roles as if they were part of their skin, so that is certainly a joy to see. In its ability to feel like something new, Season 4 succeeds. Sameness and something that would inevitably pander to longtime fans would be just that: pandering. It would be nothing to give the show new life. It would be, in essence, frivolously dull.
However, as aforementioned, the show’s weakness is its focus on plotting and it seemingly second thought jokes. The jokes are, at times, just not that funny. Occasionally they’ll underplay their hand, losing a good beat or punch line, and other times they’ll overplay it, going too far when the horse is dead and the punch line bombs. But, what Season 4 does superbly is utilize the familiar jokes in new ways. As writer Alexander Huls noted, the jokes serve dual purpose: fan service and compounding of “what the show has always done”. One of the greatest things about Arrested Development, aside from its postmodern approach to the sitcom, is how it uses it running gags. They’re not just for ha-has, but the running gags are linked to the characters, not exactly giving them significantly more depth, but giving the characters senses of place and specificity. From “I blue myself” to “I’ve made a huge mistake”; these jokes are indispensably linked to the show and the characters. With the running gags appearing again in Season 4 in new ways, it proves once again that the Bluths aren’t just well written characters, but flawed, funny human beings.
The evolution of the well known characters is certainly interesting: for instance, this is the first time I have not loathed Will Arnett’s G.O.B. Playing out the show in real time has really allowed the characters, and the writers, to flesh out the characters in different ways, allowing them to mature in others, and keeping them in… arrested development. Of the stand out performances, Jessica Walter’s unscrupulous matriarch Lucille Bluth and David Cross’s oblivious and sexually ambiguous Tobias Funke are especially the highlights.
After such a long wait, how does Season 4 size up? Temper and adjust your expectations and you should be fine. It’s not a reproduction of the first three seasons, but something new and fresh. There are some considerable weaknesses, such as the structure and pacing, but Arrested Development is once again a culturally fundamental staple of sitcom history. Binge watching, though, is not totally recommended. With a new, enigmatic narrative, digestion is needed to really enjoy the show. This time around, the Bluths may not have nailed it, but it still remains a satisfactory experience.
P.S. Someone should really do a medical study on what binge watching does to the mind. You know, besides melting it.
I have a confession to make: Sometimes, I don’t go into a film with an open mind. I know, I know, it’s like I’m breaking a code of ethics for film buffs or film critics. This happens for a couple of reasons: a) I don’t get out that often, so I have to be deliberately selective of what I see (I only seen 12-20 theatrical releases a year), and I often choose what I think I’m going to enjoy the most, or at least what I’m going to get the most out of; or b) I have had strong reactions from the director’s previous work (or screenwriter or actor, but usually director). Case in point, I went in to The Great Gatsby with as closed of a mind as you could probably get. I was going to “hate watch” it, essentially. I was more than ready to detest whatever Lurhmann had done to bastardize F. Scott Fitzgerald’s text. Again, this sound completely horrible, but, so be it. I was, however, in for a couple surprises. But, I guess the most surprising thing about Gatsby is… I didn’t hate it.
I hate the director. I have a personal vendetta against Baz Lurhmann after William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! I have a physical aversion to his “bigger is bigger is better”, “style is absolutely everything” mentality. I have tried to watch the two aforementioned films numerous times and I have only gotten through them twice each (total viewing counts: RJ: 4; MR: 6). With the exception of his fabulous debut, Strictly Ballroom (which had all the right kinds of theatricality); I have found Lurhmann to be the “Michael Bay of pseudo-postmodern mainstream filmmaking”. His ideas look good on paper, sometimes even swell; the re-appropriation of a tragic love story set in Miami gangland while retaining the original text? Cool! The retelling of La Boehme as a musical utilizing contemporary pop music to weave the story? Superb! But, for me, it all crumbles away in execution, most notably in editing and cinematography. Lurhmann’s flare for theatricality manifests itself through his editing and camerawork, where he is more reliant on a hyperkinetic, MTV borne method of rapid cuts, oversaturated colors, and swirling camera movements. I probably would not have as much of an issue of these things actually looked visually palatable, but Lurhmann often goes so overboard that I become physically nauseous watching it. Not only does this style of filmmaking get in the way of storytelling and distract from what is occurring with the characters, it is ostentatious and I cannot tolerate it. In essence, Lurhmann does not know when to say stop. It, thus, makes it seem as if he does not actually understand visual language or the language of film. It seems random and aberrant. But, finally, in several moments of his newest film, his take on Fitzgerald’s high school consecrated novel, he steps back and takes a breath to look at some of the grandeur of what he can produce.
As I am sure that everyone reading this has read The Great Gatsby as some point in their lives, I shall not bother giving any type of summary beyond this: Fitzgerald’s book, through its ambrosial prose and decedent setting, desired to critique the deliciously sinful lifestyle so many people lived and/or chased during the 1920s and did so by creating two of the most fascinating characters in American literature: Nick Caraway and Jay Gatsby.
Now, it did not surprise me much at all that the first third of the film was wildly visual and self-satisfied in its anachronistic use of music. So, during that first third, I kind of just rolled my eyes during some moments, but I realized, halfway through, that what I was seeing was not making me ill. This, I think, is growth! Nevertheless, Lurhmann’s attempts at duding up his film with CGI art deco, augmented building and settings, rapid editing, dizzying camera work, and his usual trademarks did everything I expected them to: look flashy and distract from what was going on in the film. When Gatsby takes Nick out for the first time in his car, so many cuts were made that one has to continually mentally re-orientate themselves as to where the car is, thus almost ignoring what Gatsby was saying in his rather expository monologue. Isn’t the point, though, to be as entranced by what Gatsby is saying as Nick is?
Speaking of whom, Lurhmann employs a totally unnecessary framing device for the film’s narrative. We find Nick, morose and austere and a resident at an asylum due to severe anxiety and alcoholism, this after the events of the book/film. His psychiatrist tells him to write about his experiences, since he can’t “talk” about them. And so he does. I cannot recall who said it, but a friend of mine on Twitter said that voice over narration should not merely describe what a character does or has done; good narration gives insight into what just happened. On paper, Nick’s first person narration makes sense; on film, it does not. Even separating one’s self from the book, the narration suffers from textbook “telling, not showing”. Much of the nuance of the story and characters is reduced to Tobey Maguire’s half-baked voice over (he really does sound stoned and/or falling asleep). In this way, it feels, occasionally, like a visual audiobook and not a film. Many things are described in such detail that it robs the opportunity for the actors to embody an element of their character, or for the camera to subtly hint at something visually and dramatically. You here Nick describe everything that is going on, constantly interrupting the story, causing several scenes to become long, drawn out affairs, almost going against what Lurhmann usually does. As workable and exceptional as Gatsby’s third act is, it becomes almost excruciatingly “accurate” with the novel because so much of it has this narration. At least the cast is “good”.
I put that in quotation marks for a reason. I commend the entire cast, with the exception of Tobey Maguire, for some spectacular performances. While not as deeply vapid as I expected, Carey Mulligan’s turn as Daisy Buchanan was lovely, her voice emulating money just as Fitzgerald had written. Tom Edgarton epitomizes the hulking, aggressive nature of Daisy’s husband, Tom, in an almost frightening way. Relative newcomer Elizabeth Debicki is absolutely divine as Jordan Baker, asserting her presence on the screen with a dose of gossip and a trace of “masculine” strength. Tobey Maguire is, on the other hand, pretty boring and banal, despite his role as Nick Caraway being crucial to the story. Only in a few moments of the film do you get to see the wide-eyed wonderment, naiveté, and childishness of Nick. Too often, though, Maguire sounds bored and kind of ghostly. You could make the argument, though, that because everyone basically overacts their way through the film that they are epitomizing the façade of wealth and class Fitzgerald so strongly tackles and criticizes in the book, but that is one of the primary issues. Because every actor seems to fit the descriptions given by Fitzgerald in the book to a T at times, it feels much like a one note performance through much of it. It seems that they are playing more of an outline of the character than actually making the character their own, bringing it to life, and truly making it memorable. Mulligan can capture that subtle quality about Daisy seemingly with ease, but only momentarily does her heartbreak, vapidity, and vulnerability seem more like the words on the page just transliterated onto the screen. Edgarton may look, talk, and walk like Tom, but rarely does he transcend that character. Nearly everyone seems trapped in a mentality dictated by a high school class where everyone lists out what qualities the characters have, as opposed to glancing at those qualities and then going with their gut feeling to make it something to be remembered.
Nearly everyone except Leonardo DiCaprio. His performance as Jay Gatsby may not be perfect, but only in him do you get both an achingly real quality to what Fitzgerald was writing about as well as a performance that goes past that and dives into Gatsby’s emotions as DiCaprio may see it. His desperate, play acted persona seems believable enough to accept him in the role, but fake enough to know there is something else lurking underneath the tailored suits and polished shoes. The nervousness, anxiety, desperation, ostentation, and corruption (emotion and moral) all ooze from DiCaprio’s pores performance effortlessly. This might be, dare I say it, one of DiCaprio’s most memorable roles. *runs and hides*
With DiCaprio’s success as Gatsby, the film’s second strongest aspect is its second a third act. Perhaps exhausted from the “whirlwind” he took us on so early in the film, Lurhmann actually takes a step back, giving both he and his audience a rest and allowing the film to become almost traditional and by the book. The ostentation of the director never fully disappears, but not only does it become more tolerable, it becomes somewhat pleasant. The distraction of the film’s visual aesthetic takes a back seat to characters doing things that could be filled with meaning; to settings that, while entirely artificial looking, at least make sense; and to a story being told. Not necessarily well, as Lurhmann continues to have very little idea about cinematic language, but “okay”. He does an okay job, when the day is done. There are a couple of truly spectacular scenes in the film, notably when Jordon, Nick, Gatsby, Daisy, and Tom are in the city in a hotel room. In this scene, you can see that Lurhmann may have finally matured in his ability to frame things as a benefit to the story, not just to look good or impressive. The tensions steadily rise, and the room is given dual jobs: claustrophobic prison for Tom and Gatsby, and the rest of the group, and large, kind of expansive arena for the former pair. Close ups detail the rage and the duel like nature of the scene; long shots show it as an ornate cell, reminiscent of Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel. Edgarton and DiCaprio bring their A-game to the scene, and in a moment of pure ferocity out of Gatsby, one is reminded of the pained, pathetic creature lurking somewhere in Gatsby’s soul. If this is what Lurhmann can do, a scene where what the actors are doing is more important than how quickly it can change from shot to shot, then I might have to rescind my vendetta.
The music, though, that is something else. I get why Jay Z is produced the soundtrack. Because he can be called “Jay Gat-Z”! Get it? Okay, I’m sorry. However, Jay Z’s personal life only reflects the most surface value of the text and of Gatsby’s aspirations and chase for the American Dream. He’s a success story, and someone whose big name and often good sonic choices might be eye catching for people interested in the film. It comes as absolutely no surprise that the most anachronistic thing in the film is the music. There are other things, sure, like the digitally rendered locale of the entire film (Film critic David Ehrlich commented that the film is less of “a period piece. more like a semi-colon… piece.”), but the music is the most buzzed about, I would surmise. Because, in what world does one marry Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and a track by will.i.am in the same scene? Apparently, in Lurhmann’s world. That said, a good portion of the music used in the film makes sense within its context. Party scenes feature tracks like “Bang Bang” by the aforementioned Black Eyed Peas alumnus, which samples the Charleston and “A Little Party Never Killed Nobody” by Fergie, which alludes to a line in the book, and these scenes work. They make sense, and they are occasionally even fun and worthy of a foot tap. Emeli Sande’s take on Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” is rearranged as a big band, cabaret track and used just prior to Gatsby’s first meeting with Daisy, and it’s the haunting sound of Sande’s voice coupled with the whining, futile brass that gives that brief scene its power. Even Lana del Ray’s “young and Beautiful”, which becomes a musical motif throughout the film, echoes hauntingly through Gatsby’s vast mansion and smartly describes the hollowness of Gatsby’s lust for Daisy. But it’s when other tracks are used, like Jay Z’s own “100$ Bill” and even the revamped “Back to Black” performed by Andre 3000 and Beyoncé, that the anachronism doesn’t actually make sense in the film and feels more like a big name throw in. These tracks that don’t quite fit in the movie sound like they belong on a disc of music “inspired by the film”, instead of being used in it. It creates unevenness in the film’s tone, which is ironic considering the director. The biggest disappointment, in my personal opinion, is the use of Gershwin’s opus “Rhapsody in Blue”. While it is always nice to hear it used at all, its use becomes somewhat redundant in the film’s two scenes where you hear it: first, when we finally meet Gatsby, and second, when the gang, so to speak, travel across the Queensboro Bridge. One use of the song would make sense; two makes it redundant, especially because the sections that are used as so close together in regards to the chronology of the track itself. That said, the music as a whole did not bother me. Its attempt to make the issues discussed in the film relevant to a contemporary audience in a very “it’s what’s happening today” is not exactly successful, but at least it doesn’t sound bad.
One of the most surprising disappointments to me, though, was the 3D. For all the justification and defending Lurhmann did for his choice to make the film in 3D, it was not particularly spectacular. Although the film’s titles begin to create a sense of depth by gradually becoming a long, narrow hallway of art deco-like graphic design, much of the 3D was, I suppose, underutilized. There wasn’t so much as “sense of depth and place” as there was the understanding that an actor was either standing in front of another actor or a piece of furniture, or that an actor was standing in front of a blue screen, and, in most cases, both. Besides darkening the hues of Simon Duggan’s cinematography, never does one get the feel of just how excessive this piece of the Roaring Twenties was, or how enormous Gatsby’s mansion is. The wide open spaces don’t make you feel like you’re there, just like you feel like you should be feeling like you’re there. While their intentions are “noble”, Werner Herzog and his Cave of Forgotten Dreams or Wim Wenders and his Pina, Lurhmann might not know how to fine tune the technology enough to make it feel worth sitting through. Cave of Forgotten Dreams shows the extensive space of cave paintings, while Wim Wenders shows both the far-reaching depth into a stage as well as the illusive details of the dancers’ bodies and how they move. Gatsby sometimes uses “fun” effects (ashes, writing on the screen, the Green Light, etc.), but none of it justifies the premium ticket price.
The parties look good. But where the film fails in the biggest sense is there. Lurhmann may show just how excessive and decadent that period may have been, but little attempt is made to make as incisive a criticism of such an era as was made in the book. It all looks nice, but it’s all vapid. The justification for “what did expect other than ‘style over substance’?” is no excuse for the film to actually be that way. It attempts to show that falseness of class and sophistication, but does little to go beyond just showing it. It doesn’t peel away at those layers to reveal the true corruption of the ‘20s.
So, I didn’t hate The Great Gatsby. I didn’t even revile it. I did not feel the sense to cry at how awful it was. It wasn’t a hot mess or a train wreck, but it was still mediocre. Despite being very faithful to the book it’s based upon, The Great Gatsby may represent, as some have said, the film that fails to capture the true essence of the book. I probably would have preferred a less accurate version of the film had it been able to convey the nastiness of the novel better. One wonders to what extent Lurhmann grasped the book’s themes enough to adapt them into a satisfying film. The film’s anachronism didn’t bother me, and even the later parts of the film had me genuinely enthralled, but too much of the film was uneven. What worked, worked well, and what didn’t work really didn’t work. The most captivating aspect was DiCaprio’s performance, but beyond that, we may have to continue beat on against the current, hoping for someone to get Gatsby definitely right for once.
NBC’s Hannibal is not your average mystery show or procedural. It’s not even your average television show. It is cinematic in the best ways possible, aesthetically, narratively, and its primary characters are novelistic in how well they are written. What sets Hannibal apart from shows like Law & Order, CSI:, and NCIS is not necessarily its high production value, but how it’s never about the killer and always about the killer in any given episode. The show is as much as representation and visual metaphor for who Dr. Hannibal Lecter is as a character as anything: it plays mind games with you. And it may be the best show that NBC has aired in years.
Developed by Pushing Daisies helmer Bryan Fuller (which is, for the record, one of my favorite shows of all time), Hannibal works as a partial prequel to Thomas Harris’ novel Red Dragon. Though inherent to the television format, the show is episodic; it still sprawls like a good book, or even better, a great film. But, the characters and stories in this show are not married to either Harris’ source material or to Michael Mann’s film adaptation Manhunter, or even to Jonathan Demme’s seminal thriller The Silence of the Lambs. Sort of like the rebirth of a comic book hero or a character of a big budget franchise being rebooted: this is a new and fresh interpretation that at once utilizes its source material for inspiration yet diverges from it to give the story, and the characters that inhabit it, new life. So, Fuller smartly uses things only mentioned in passing in Red Dragon as some of the focal points for each episode, such as some of the killers his good guy, Will Graham, must track down. Yet he changes the sexes of some of the characters, making tabloid reporter Freddie Lounds and psychiatry professor Dr. Bloom women. Does this change matter? Yes and no. Yes in that these characters are well written, insightful, intelligent, etc. No, in that the change does not inherently affect how good the characters are. Every divergence that Fuller makes, however, enhances the story. It makes one wonder, however, that since the series is working in chronological order, prior to the events of Red Dragon mind you, if it should actually follow the story to a point where the show will become a serial adaptation of the novel.
The most striking thing about the show, though, at least what immediately springs to mind is how it looks. It might be the best looking show on television, at least on one of the major networks. The cinematography is atypical for a television series, even a good television series. Its precise use of colors, texture, slow motion, etc. is more reminiscent of two things: a show you would find on pay cable, like HBO or Showtime, or of a very specific kind of genre show (but a good one), like the teen-noir Veronica Mars. In some ways, the visual aesthetic of Hannibal is marriage of the mind of both Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter: sinister but exact in its filming, as Will would have it, and artfully, psychologically executed as only Lecter would have it. I say psychologically because so much of what is on screen recalls myths, literature, opera, film, yet connected into the dark interiors of the mind and subtext of such elements. Its visual style could be compared to the gorgeousness of the films of Park Chan-wook: Bergman-esque in its ties to psychology and morality, but painted so expertly on film.
But so much of what makes the show interesting not how gorgeous it is, but how set it is on seeping into your mind long after the episode has ended. Hannibal is, in this way, the perfect representation of its character, Hannibal Lecter. It wants to play the same mind games with you that make Dr. Lecter such an enticing character to begin with. It creeps into the psyches of all of its characters, peering into the nooks and crannies of the mind. Hannibal is less concerned with catching the killer the way a normal procedural show would and more concerned in analyzing and deconstructing what makes that episode’s killer tick. It is also supremely invested in understanding how its two characters, who will, if the chronology continues, begin a cat and mouse game, and how their minds work.
For Will, this is done explicitly. By introducing Hugh Dancy’s character immediately as “on the Autism spectrum” and closer to “Asperger’s”, the audience is given some sort of identifier. But when the cinematography and the scene itself jump into exactly what Will is thinking – that’s when the show gets interesting. Although the weakest aspect of the show is probably its dialogue (which sometimes tries too hard to be either meaningful and/or eerie), the phrase “this is my design” does work strongly within context. Graham is characterized not stereotypically via lack of social cues, a la The Big Bang Theory, but by genuine empathy, which is executed by the “design scenes”. To visualize exactly what is in Will’s mind is an interesting tactic to get the audience to empathize with will. His empathy manifests itself in the recreation of the crime, but not as a third party observer, but as the killer themselves. With the swinging, swooshing of a clock or metronome hand, each of these Design scenes has a particular tempo which they follow. It’s all precisely executed and shown, again, showing exactly how matched Graham and Lecter are together. Dancy portrays Graham with achingly powerful subtlety, never overplaying his hand either in the drama department or in the tortured soul department. Look deep into the character’s past in the novels and Graham is a damaged person, but while this damage is retained for the show, there’s less exposition and not the same back story. Instead, the show is the opportunity to explore Will’s mind.
The character of Dr. Hannibal Lecter has been written about and analyzed, certainly, and enough is known about the character where it seems that reinventing him would be fruitless. What else is there to know or care about him? On the contrary, Lecter’s complexities as a sociopath cum psychiatrist offer all the analysis one could ever want. The issue is, anyone playing him who is not Anthony Hopkins, who won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1991 for his portrayal of Lecter in Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, will unfairly draw comparison between the new comer and iconic performance. Hopkins went on to play Lecter again in 2001’s Hannibal (directed by Ridley Scott) and again in 2002 in the prequel Red Dragon. Gaspard Ulliel will probably never be remembered for playing the brooding ninja in Hannibal Rising (you know, since no one ever remember that film exists), and Brian Cox, though giving a fine performance in Mann’s Manhunter, will be left in the dust behind Hopkins. It is Hopkins’ flamboyancy that has defined the character, a man who is unquestionably the smartest man in the room, even when he isn’t in the room. Always steps ahead of everyone else (except, perhaps, Will Graham prior to Red Dragon), but his persona has always made him the least likely suspect, even if has committed the crime. Who would ever think that someone who has a photographic memory and a penchant for sketching, a fine taste for French cuisine, all the knowledge of art, classical music, and personality disorders anyone could possess – who would ever think that that man was a sociopath, never mind a cannibal and murderer?
It’s the ability to capture the audience’s attention in the most exotic way that makes Lecter so appealing. At some points, even though you know Lecter is probably pure evil manifested as hyper-intelligent, you don’t care. You would love to have a conversation with him. That is how Hopkins portrayed Lecter for three films. Cox’s performance is significant more restrained, almost in a “barely there” quality to those who have been exposed to Hopkins before, but he taunts William Peterson’s Will more overtly and more like a bully than we would have assumed Lecter would, based on Hopkins’ performance. So, who, in this whole wide world, could possibly play Hannibal Lecter and leave us with an impression that does not include the phrase, “well, he’s not as good as Hopkins, but…”? Mads Mikkelsen.
The Cannes Best Actor winner for Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt is best known for portraying Bond’s first nemesis in the 2006 reboot Casino Royale. His Le Chiffre was the much needed character that could outsmart Bond while leading the secret agent on into thing that Bond knows best. After years of the same formula, Mikkelsen’s confident portrayal was exactly what the series needed, and the perfect foil to Craig’s cocky, born-again Bond. He was also in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising as a nameless one eyed destroyer and in Susanne Bier’s After the Wedding as a man returning to the home he grew up. So, this man has had a rather varied and prestigious career, better known to critics for his strong portrayals in his native Denmark than for anything really American. But Mikkelsen’s versatility and ability to channel all the right characteristics without ever really bringing Hopkins to mind, well, that’s the sign of a great actor.
Mikkelsen, as evidence by Casino Royale, is good at mind games. And since the show is so reliant on playing those kinds of games with its audience, it is thus important that they acquire an actor that can do the same thing. Mikkelsen is thus able to seem sophisticated, intelligent, and completely confident. Rather, he embodies those qualities that Lecter is known for. The winning trait of Mikkelsen’s performance, though, is the fact that he always looks like he’s sizing you up for multiple purposes: competence, intelligence, and how tasty you’ll be when he serves you as the main entrée. Mikkelsen’s ability to get under the audience’s skin is perhaps the strongest quality of the performance, but it is accentuated by the fact that he’s able to perform this without being compared to the way Hopkins did it. Mikkelsen’s brand of psychosis is not Hopkins. He has been able to make Lecter his own. So, while the advantage to his performance is that there’s no comparison to other Lecters, to one issue is that, at times, Le Chiffre comes to mind. That is, primarily, because of the recognizable accent and, sometimes, the fact that both were known for their mind games. But Mikkelsen’s performance is bravura I just almost wrote “Lecter” instead of “Mikkelsen” at the beginning of the sentence. He has truly made the character fresh again and delicious to watch on television.
So much of the show, though, is focused on the minds of Will and Hannibal, so much so that you can sometimes not tell whose mind the show is investigating. Sometimes, it’s both at once. But that’s what makes the show unique: rare are the shows that care less about “solving the mystery” and more about deconstructing the psychosis and the motive. This method of storytelling, where sometimes the killer doesn’t even “matter” in the conventional sense, makes the series far more interesting than it may have played out normally. Instead, it sprawls cinematically, more like a mini-series on HBO than a regular television show (violence and all). Added by the inherent chronology that the show is following and the canon it is rewriting, watching each week is not like watching an episode of a television series; it feels more like seeing another chapter of the story unfold, filled with atmosphere, dramatic irony, and deadpan humor.
Each episode of Hannibal is named after a course in French cuisine. And so, it follows, each episode becomes tastier and more succulent to watch. With standout performances from the cast and incredibly smart writing, Hannibal is one of the most pleasing things on television. But it’s Mikkelsen’s superb performance, its high production values, and mind games that make the show worth a watch. How often does a show taunt you and get leave you stunned long after the show is over? It leaves a taste in your mouth that’s at once piquant and yet unsettling. It’s the most tempting thing on television today.
Please, NBC, pick it up for another season.
Sometime during the early to mid-1990s, Ang Lee, who had not yet won either of his two Academy Awards for Best director, made food about film. Or film about food? Actually, though, the three films that were included in the delicious thematic trilogy were about the role of the father. Loosely known as the “Father Knows Best” Trilogy, the films were Pushing Hands (1992), The Wedding Banquet (1993), and Eat Drink Man Woman (1994). The films illustrate the clash between traditionalism and modernism in regard to ‘family values”. (It might be fair to say, if a little mean, that Ang Lee has as many daddy issues as Steven Spielberg.) This last entry of the film, however, contains one of the most mesmerizing scenes not only in films about food or Asian cinema, but cinema itself. Its ability to make the audience salivate alone is reason to watch the scene on a loop, as well as its insight into one of the main characters of Lee’s film.
The film begins with a cavalcade of people on their motor bikes and in their cars making their way to work in the noisy city of Taipei. But off in a more serene area is our Father of the film, Mr. Chu. In this short scene, almost everything you would ever need to know about Chu and his daughters is somehow displayed, even if his daughters are never on screen. But what makes it so enticing is how simple it all seems. Lee’s direction is a notched into a high gear that is beautifully subtle, high gear in the way that Mr. Chu’s character appears on screen and, without saying a word, seems fully formed from the very first frame he is in.
Mr. Chu, portrayed by Kuei-Mei Yang, is preparing for Sunday dinner, which for his family is a weekly tradition. His experience as a master chef is portrayed in the deftness of his movements. There’s no trace of unsureness or even struggle. For him, this is all part of the routine. There are barely any hints of fatigue or worry, despite the film’s subsequent storyline. Cooking is what he has put his heart into, and you can see it with every movement. It is cooking that brings him joy, as the audience sees a smile rise on his face and a jaunty movement of the knife as he minces meat on the cutting board.
What else is it that makes this scene so transfixing? Is it the food itself and its representation of lost tradition? How the food will come to be the much needed bridge between the traditionalism of Mr. Chu’s upbringing and the modernism of his daughters, now going off to live their own lives? Or is it because it looks so damn tasty? Actually, I believe it is not only both of these things but a third element: Ang Lee’s direction. Lee, who also wrote the screenplay, is most assured here, watching as Mr. Chu prepares dinner. It is when he is observing food and its function that he works best, as evidenced by the film itself (which utilizes film as a passing metaphor for aforementioned clashes ‘taste’), as well as his countless other films that use food as a focal point of communication and connection. From the Thanksgiving dinners in The Ice Storm and Brokeback Mountain to the titular Wedding Banquet, Ang Lee exerts his filmmaking expertise most often through food. This scene in Eat Drink Man Woman thus resonates so deeply with viewers because the preparation means something to Mr. Chu.
Sunday dinner is essentially the only time that Mr. Chu gets to talk to his daughters: the eldest is a religious school teacher nursing a broken heart; the middle is a savvy airline executive, and the youngest works at Wendy’s. Throughout the film, the girls are illustrated by their inability to really communicate their thoughts through words. The only way they can truly articulate themselves is the best way and the way they learned how to do that; through food. And even though they hate Sunday dinner, where ideas and ideals of the girls must be deferred to that of their father, it is their chance to awkwardly establish that they are grown up and must move on. (Note the juxtaposition of the kind of food that Mr. Chu makes and his youngest daughter makes. How much different could you get?)
Such is the precision that this scene is directed that even the knives give insight to both Mr. Chu and the culture he is so married to, out of tradition. My Chinese teacher at school noted that Asian cooks, particular of Chinese cuisine, are known for having entire walls of knifes, each with used with specificity. That Mr. Chu can be so precise with food is an interesting aspect of he and his family: food is his language, but when it comes to grilling his daughters about their lives, he doesn’t know which way is up. Yet, the sound, the sight, and, yes, even the smell of his work at hand is proof that he can communicate to his daughters. Perhaps the over smoked food might be less of an indication of his age and more an allusion to how weary he is as a father, not as a chef. Smoking food is, like cooking in general, often serves a precise function in terms of taste, which in itself relates to the soul and to the emotion. With food so structurally integrated into the narrative as a representation of language and emotion, the connotations of smoked or overcooked are thus indicative of Mr. Chu’s character and the secret he is carrying.
Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman is one of my very favorite films and yet I hear no one ever talk about it, not even on best of decade lists. It is in this film that Lee grasps how food serves meaning in life, and it is executed with simplicity and beauty in the opening scene: an example of mastery in two professions.