Thursday, August 24, 2017

REVIEWING THE HANNIBAL LECTER SAGA PART FOUR; HANNIBAL RISING

2007's Hannibal Rising is the black sheep of the franchise. It was poorly received, badly reviewed, and struggled to make its budget; Rising came off looking like a hack job cash in. Was it, though? I initially passed on the film, because that was the very impression I got. On top of that, no Hopkins. So I didn't get around to watching Rising until this year and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Directed by Peter Webber from a screenplay by Thomas Harris himself, from his own novel, and starring Gaspard Ulliel, Gong Li, Rhys Ifans, and Dominic West. Hannibal Rising hit theaters in February 2007 and didn't inspire much love from the critics and by the end of its nine week theatrical run had made much less than the previous two films had on their opening weekends. Why it didn't connect with fans, I can't understand. The film is visually very beautiful; shot in Prague, Webber did an excellent in taking advantage of his sets and surroundings and wound up hiding a mean spirited horror film in a foreign character drama. The cast is solid and had a strong screenplay to work with. Harris did another great job of creating characters we want to invest in and while the idea of prequel may inspire eye rolls in some, at least it was Harris himself that wrote it.

One of the things that I appreciated about Rising is the fact that it really dispelled the notion of a 'psychological thriller' and was more of a slick horror film, with some really nice influences from classic horror and noir films. It's a very classy movie too, while still being one of the bloodiest entries outside of the TV series.

Ulliel as Lecter and Li as Lady Murasaki are fantastic. They have great chemistry and tell a very interesting love story. Ulliel really shines in the role, giving a strong performance that, again, is a bit of a throwback to a classic era of film. He plays Lecter as the driven and mad medical student who experiments with sodium thiopental on himself to unbury hidden memories of his childhood trauma and the fate of his baby sister Mischa. This sets him on a path for revenge against five Lithuanian Nazi collaborators. Hot on Lecter's trail is Dominic West as Inspector Pascal Popil, who suspects Lecter for a string of brutal murders. The Lecter we see inRising is much closer to Mads Mikkelson's portrayal on Hannibal, and the story of Rising plays heavily into season three.


Rising is a perversion of the hero's journey, the way Lecter overcomes steep obstacles to become one of cinema's great monsters. It's more action heavy than any of the other films and deserves to be rediscovered, now that we've reached its ten year anniversary. For my money, it's got a better ending than Scott's Hannibal and is a more entertaining film over-all than Red Dragon and perhaps the strongest cast since Silence of the Lambs. I wouldn't mind seeing a follow with Ulliel in full Hannibal the Cannibal mode in the 70's, but I suppose that's what we have Hannibal the series for, which hopefully will be getting a fourth season soon.



Sunday, August 20, 2017

MY HEROES HAVE ALWAYS BEEN MONSTERS PART 50; KING KONG

I was barely eleven months old when the 1976 remake of King Kong, directed by John Guillerman, was released, so in a way I feel like I grew up on Kong as much as Star Wars, Jaws, Godzilla, and Batman. All of which consumed my life for as far back as I can remember, to the point that all my earliest memories are tied to seeing these things on television or having the toys. I remember being about four and sitting on my grandfather's lap watching that '76 Kong on television. It starred Jeff Bridges, Charles Grodin, and Jessica Lange. Kong was terrifying and nightmarish in a way that Godzilla wasn't. I'd seen the more kid friendly Godzilla films on TV in the afternoons, he was clearly supposed to be a hero. The way Kong pursued Dwan (Lange) and raged against his would-be captors was so visceral and menacing I could barely take it. I remember shaking and not wanting to keep watching, but my grandfather hugged me and told me it would be ok...Ok meant Kong getting blasted off a building and crashing to the ground and dying miserably. It was tragic and heavy and nothing I was ready to process.

Then again, I was obsessed with my King Kong view finder and I wanted a Kong toy for my Godzilla toy to fight. Even though it scared me, I couldn't wait to watch it again. I think it's weird that Kong scared me so much when Jaws or Alien didn't scared me at all.

That '76 Kong really isn't scary in any way shape or form. In fact, it's pretty cheesy. The effects don't
hold up too well and it's melodramatic. Still entertaining, mind you, but I've never understood in subsequent viewings how Kong scared me and Quint getting bloodily chomped by a great white or an alien bursting from Kane's chest didn't. Regardless of all that, as a monster I loved Kong.

Seeing actual Kong films in the pre-internet/pre-VCR days wasn't always easy. The only one I caught before 1986's King Kong Lives was 1962's King Kong vs Godzilla, which I found rather boring, truth be told. Both monsters were far too good for such a lackluster film. Fortunately, King Kong Lives was much more fun, serving as a follow up to the '76 Kong, with Guillerman returning to the director's chair.

Lives stars Linda Hamilton (Terminator) and opens ten years after the last film with Kong in a coma and getting open heart surgery. The film is pretty funny, though often unintentionally, and features a giant female ape for Kong to chase around. Like it's predecessor, its pretty cornball and not half as awesome as the previous year's Godzilla 1985.

By the time I saw Lives, I was already starting to dip my toes into the horror genre, for real. I always made the distinction between horror and monsters. I sympathized with Frankenstein's creature and was scared to tears at the sight of Jason Vorhees. So I was at a point where I was less and less forgiving of the sillier moments of Lives.

My school library had a book about classic monsters of film and it was the source where I learned all
about the Universal classics, as well as The Fly, The Thing (the original), The Blob, the original Godzilla, and the original Kong. Reading about the first Kong film really fired up my imagination. Kong could be a scary character in the  right hands and these humorous takes I had seen up to that point were just not cutting it.

Around the time of Lives, I got the box of horror and war comics I've talked about in previous editions of My Heroes Have Always Been Monsters. Weird War from DC Comics was an amazing title, featuring the likes of GI Robot and Frankenstein and the Creature Commandos. The greatest story I read out of all those comics was a short feature called "The Hand Of Glory."

"The Hand Of Glory" was about a fighter pilot who lived in the shadow of his war hero brother. This pilot served during peace time and dreamed of the hand of glory, of his time coming. One day his squadron is scrambled and they're sent to New York City. Everyone is confused, what's happening in New York?? Our hero continues obsessing over the hand of glory right up to the point of his plane being crushed by the giant hand of Kong! The End.

I LOVED that story. Finally, a Kong story worthy of the character. It was the scariest most menacing version of Kong and he was really only on one page of a story that was probably five pages long. In a way, I think most of my early stories, probably into my twenties, was me trying to capture that shock I experienced with "Hand Of Glory." (Note; I have been unable to find reference to this damn story anywhere on the web. If anyone can help me out...)

The next logical move was to rent the original 1933 King Kong. Featuring the beautiful Fay Wray and incredible stop-motion animation, Kong was a visual treat, if a bit boring story wise. I loved that it was not as cheesy as the 70's and 80's versions and took the story more seriously. One thing I really took exception with, though, was the line, "It was beauty killed the beast."

Bull shit.

It was bullets and a glorified carny that killed Kong, not AnnKong, and the '76 and '05 remakes, that Denham didn't get crushed for his arrogance. To me he was the real villain. And he got away with it.
Darrow. She was as much a victim of Carl Denham's hubris as poor Kong. That line was Denham passing the buck and not taking responsibility for the fact that he led an invasion into a foreign land and stole a living wonder and treated it like a monkey with an organ grinder. I find it a grave mistake on the part of the writers and directors of the '33

The '05 remake was something to be excited about, fresh off the Lord Of The Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson tackled the Kong story backed by the WETA SFX team. Jackson loved Kong and this was a passion project and it shows. As creature features go, Kong '05 is a masters class in filmmaking. The fully CGI Kong looks incredible, as does most of the CGI in the film, with the sole exception of a horribly rendered brontosaurus stampede, that should have been left on the cutting room floor. Starring Naomi Watts, Adrian Brody, and Jack Black, Kong was funny, touching, exciting, and just really cool. Not to mention, a nice left turn from the Tolkien world Jackson had been consumed with. Previously he had done some amazing gore films (Bad Taste, Dead Alive), a twisted and perverse puppet movie (Meet The Feebles), and a touching bio-pic/romance/crime story (Heavenly Creatures). Kong is the closest Jackson has been to making a horror film since Dead Alive and is probably the definitive version of the classic story.

But then there's this year's Kong; Skull Island. Starring Samuel L Jackson, Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, John C Reilly, and John Goodman, Skull Island is everything I wanted in a kick ass King Kong movie. Tied to 2014's American Godzilla and serving as a precursor to 2019's Godzilla vs King Kong, Skull Island reestablishes Kong's story for a modern era without melodramatics. There's no "beauty killing the beast," it's intruders going where they aren't welcome and getting their asses handed to them by a living protector god .

Skull Island calls to mind Francis Ford Coopola's Apocalypse Now a lot (I know I'm far from the first person to point this out), from it's Viet Nam opening to Jackson's Col. Packard who at turns is Martin Sheen's Willard and Marlon Brando's Kurtz, to the pounding rock and roll soundtrack, and even the characters going up river to complete their mission. Hell, John C Reilly basically stands in for Dennis Hopper. None of which is accidental, I'm sure. For me, this marriage of a truly kick ass, dark Kong story with one of my all time favorite films is just cinematic Heaven. Spider-Man Homecoming is probably the only other movie this year that was as much fun and well made, so far (we still have Thor Ragnarok and Justice League coming).

Skull Island has a lot going for it outside of referencing Apocalypse Now, it also carves out some Cannibal Holocaust reference!) My absolute favorite shot in the film shows a stone faced Jackson staring down an oncoming Kong while one of his soldiers runs past him engulfed in flames. It's a dark, haunting, gorgeous shot. Auteur level stuff, really.
really neat new territory for exploring Kong's story in a larger context, while still respecting the '33 source. Kong is savage, emotional, and intelligent. As a CGI character he can elicit strong emotions in the viewer (much like his '05 counterpart). The action comes fast and the devastation is insane. While not gory, there is a strong suggestion of gore and the film overall is insanely violent. (Look out for the

Legendary Pictures, where Kong and Godzilla now reside, has the aforementioned Godzilla vs Kong and Kong 2 coming in the next few years. In his near 90 year history, right now is the best time to be a Kong fan.



So, hey! Welcome back to My Heroes Have Always Been Monsters! 50 chapters! It's been almost a year since the last chapter, which is the longest gap I've had since I launched Stranger With Friction back in 2012. The wait for Part 51 won't be nearly as long, in fact I'm taking on Shocker vs Horror Show (aka House III) this October. In the mean time, check out my Heroes Have Always Been Monsters Pinterest page.   Thanks for coming or for coming back and keep watching the skies, nerds!