DOASKDOTELL MOVIE REVIEWs of Quills, Hannibal, (Red Dragon, The Silence of the Lambs), Hannibal Rising, Shadow of the Vampire

Title:  Quills

Release Date:  2000

Nationality and Language: USA, English

Running time: 124 min

MPAA Rating: R

Distributor and Production Company:   Fox Searchlight

Director; Writer: Philip Kaufman, based on play by Doug Wrihgt

Producer: Julia Chasman

Cast:   Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet, Joaquin Pheonix and Michael Caine


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Movie Review of Quills

Based on the play by and written by Doug Wright; directed by Philip Kaufman; Starring Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet, Joaquin Pheonix and Michael Caine; Fox Searchlight Pictures; 9.0/10

First, The Quill is the newsletter of GLIL (Gays and Lesbians for Individual Liberty) and used to use the same clip-art quill-pen (in the movie narquee) as an informal trademark, and I must say that the coincidental metaphor of this play and film carries all the way: the capacity of the individual to speak for himself, explore the unknown region, and make his own thoughts, however disturbing, known to others. That whole free-speech concept is particularly American, it seems to me, and has been in the court on both sides of the ledger, from Internet censorship (the Communications Decency Act and the Child Online Protection Act, COPA, against which I am a litigant, to James Dale v. Boy Scouts, in which conservatives made a truly ironic ruling in favor of expressive association.  Indeed, it is interesting that a film obviously intended to explore the issue of free speech (and how to protect the “vulnerable” from it) seems to be largely financed in Britain and France rather than here.   

In the movie, however, the Marquis de Sade’s writings (Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue) are indeed presented as essentially pornographic. Perhaps they, for their time, they had the “redeeming social value” of getting people to question their beliefs—religious (Christianity basing its theology on the Virgin Birth as an oxymoron) and sexual, the “honest” mental exploration of sensuality and the hidden power of women. The film’s period-piece (early 19th Century France, during the Revolution and Napoleonic times) setup, mostly within the confines of Charendon Asylum, seems a bit confined, claustrophoic, like a stage perhaps—it can’t venture too far, so Sade’s cell or hospital room or whatever becomes a bathroom-turned-boudoir, filled with sexual sculptures at first, where everywhere there are quills or homemade quills (chicken bones) and bedroom sheets or his own clothes, his own mouth and tongue eventually—with which Marquis can continue to write despite attempts by the establishment to silence him. (The setup reminds me rather of Anthony Hopkins playing Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs.)   Silencing Sade is like taking a computer away from a hacker (as well as knocking him off the Net) as part of his sentence. . The 18th Century quill pen (e.g., like a fountain pen) and any hardcopy writing surface (clothing, human skin for tattoos or “body art”) map to a year-2000 personally-owned Internet domain. Silence won’t work.

The script does thoughtfully explore the issue of whether authors and publishers share the responsibility for crimes committed by impressionable people after exposure to violent (“bad for you”) books, video games, Internet sites, movies or other materials. This hooks up to another Fox 2000 film, Deliberate Intent.   

The young priest (Joaquin Phoenix) comes across as a curious character, a nice, upstanding young man and the films only anchor of syability for a while, struggling however with his own sexuality (with plenty of hints about the ban-against-married-priests controversy as well as the notion that many are latent homosexuals). Phoenix looks a bit soft-toned without his shirt; his disrobing seems to correspond to his own coming out of his spirituality and dealing with his own limitations in the flesh. At the end, of course (and after his tenderness leads to necrophilia), he falls, too.  Michael Caine, indeed perhaps Britain’s greatest actor (other than Hopkins), comes across as double-purposed as in The Cider House Rules. Geoffrey Rush, in all his unglory as an aging, nude Sade, will probably get an Oscar nomination for best actor, and Quills could get a nomination for Best Picture, as hard as it is for some to swallow. (Indeed, a lot of people walk out on movies like this if they don’t “know” in advance.)   

This film is being distributed at first in limited release as an “art film.”  It is extremely adult in content, officially a hard “R” but probably should have an NC-17.  And, as Roger Ebert has pointed out, the MPAA needs to define a genuine adult, non-pornographic rating which studios and theater exhibitors will not be afraid of, for films like this as well as Requiem for a Dream.   

HANNIBAL  (2001, MGM/Dino de Laurentis, 131 min, R, UK)

Let’s instantiate Hannibal.theCannibal for a moment.  This film (“Silence of the Lambs” II, all of this based on novels by Thomas Harris) is indeed a gore-fest in the “tradition” of Pieces, the all time Joe-Bob-check-it-out.  There are good movies about cannibalism: Eating Raoul, The Thief, The Cook, His Wife and Her Lover, even that tale about a decapitated head, Basket Case (or for that matter, Donovan’s Brain). Okay, Anthony Hopkins is chilling as someone more sociopathic, mean, and sadistic as Hannibal Lecter than Dahmer (the guy for whom Wisconsin had to improvise capital punishment) himself. “I’m planning on returning to public life.”  … Well, ex-pedophile and sole survivor Mason Verger (Gary Oldman), patriarch of the Vanderbilt Estate in Asheville, N.C. (no, not in real life—I’ve been there) is after him for revenge, to get him eaten up by wild boars.  I didn’t know that pigs can eat people—I took Babe seriously.  Well, that wonderful “climax” where Lecter has his dinner party—the turns this guy’s head into a Crate and Barrel crockpot, alive, and dishes out a bouillabaisse, to the victim himself and to the dinner company, after stir frying it as it in a supermarket. The poor guy, drugged on morphine, lets his smarts drift away into his own mouth and the stomachs of others before tuning out of this world—maybe he gets to come back as a vegetable in a sequel.  Yup, Hanninal returns to public life by hosting this dinner party—in Maryland--in which he serves his victim’s brains (the skullcap removed) while the victim is alive, as if it were a cheese soufflé casserole from a crockpot.   People actually threw up during this scene in some theaters (as they did for Pieces)—yet this hard R (some theaters are self-applying the NC-17 to keep their auditoriums defumigated) flick drew in $50 million its first weekend, as people really want to “see” it.  There’s other stuff too, like on-camera disembowelment. Born-again Verger looks bad enough, like a Roswell Grey rescued from the crash—so much happens when you lose face.

Ridley Scott (Gladiator) directed.  MGM and Universal funded this gore-fest together, but the MGM lion seems ready to eat other using similar trademarks.  This movie is definitely “bad for you.”

The Silence of the Lambs (1991, Orion/Image, dir. Johnathan Demme) advertised itself as “the major motion picture.” The novel by Thomas Harris is well known: a sociopathic psychiatrist (Hannibal Lecter) is imprisoned but helps as detective Clarice (Jodie Foster) hunts down another serial killer and locates a kidnapping victim in a well. The movie is graphic, particularly the scene where Hannibal breaks loose from his face mask and vampirizes a guard to death before having his mouth restrained again. That is a famous scene.

Red Dragon (2002, MGM, dir Brett Ratner) is a prequel to “Silence” with a similar story; here the criminal is the “tooth fairy” played in chilling fashion by Ralph Fiennes, who has his entire body tattooed. I know a young Minnesota actor who auditioned for that part.

Hannibal Rising (2007, MGM/The Weinstein Company/Dino de Laurentis, dir. Peter Webber, novel by Thomas Harrism Italy/France/UK, 117 min, R) is a prequel to the prequel. And with Dino de Laurentis, "you never know". Actually, this is an effective, though bizarre horror film (the opening shot is of a wild boar), that tries to combine the horror with moral and analytical statements about European history. The plotting loses its thread in the details sometimes, as the action gets telescoped so fast that it doesn't quite hang together.

Young Hannibal Lector (Aaran Thomas at 8) witnesses the abuse of his little sister in Lithuania before and during the Russian invasion on the Eastern Front in 1944. Apparently, the Nazis were cannibals, sexual predators and pedophiles, too. As a young man in the 50s France, Hannibal (Gaspard Ulliel), having excelled in school and in medical school at around 20 or so, is in a position to exact his vigilante revenge. We like him, and find ourselves rooting for him the way we would root for Perverted Justice in one of its Dateline predator stings. He looks delicate (one cheek has a mysterious dimple) and is falling in love with a girl (Gong Li) who had escaped Hiroshima. He starts his quest for revenge, even making a trip back to Lithuania (dealing with the Cold War Soviets). Although he looks like he would fight with his fingernails, he actually dispatches his enemies with increasing brutality, progressing from sabres and ropes to medical instruments, with erotic and sadomasochistic implications. He sometimes eats the cheeks of the victims. Finally, he encounters a former SS member (still loose from Nuremburg) in a bathtub, where a girl friend is shaving the SS member's chest for some kind of bizarre sexual ritual. This will offer Hannibal to opportunity to carve what amounts to a Scarlet Letter on the guy's chest in a climatic scene on a freighter. 

SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE (2000, Shadow, dir. E; Elias Merhige, 92 min, UK, R)

 In college, a chess pal wrote an English term paper on vampires.  Well, this horror comedy, produced by Nicolas Cage, is real fun. John Makovich is everyman, as the “producer” of  a roaring 1920s Nosferatu.  [According to American and English common law regarding right of publicity, an unauthorized “biography” of Dracula really could have been made without much risk, so the premise that leads to the name change to Nosferatu seems gratuitous.] Use a real vampire (Daniel Dafoe) to make a movie, let him kill off the staff (before the unions and guilds find out) and turn out a snuff film.  Bad for you, all right. There is a wonderful speech about movies as the ultimate art-form, the way to capture men’s souls. Schmaltzy music score and gorgeous Luxembourg settings.  From Lions Gate, not to be confused with MGM.       




Related reviews: Deliberate Intent


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