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Nathaniel Rogers

of Film Bitch

Recently, while nearing the original Silence of the Lambs box office dollar take, Hannibal's marketing team suddenly switched advertising tactics. Instead of a serious, epic, must-see sequel to one of the country's most acclaimed films... they were now selling a big blockbuster black comedy. Commercials and newspaper ads were highlighting the films macabre comedy and dinner party denouement. Given the long lasting love directed toward the original, the sequel's box office hopes were never seriously in doubt, but the film's critical standing was. For once, a studio and marketing team felt oddly compelled to tell the truth in order to both continue selling tickets and to achieve some degree of critical longevity. It might work. The recent switch to "macabre comedy" status will possibly reel in those final few who stayed away due to mixed reviews, and it may help the film's critical status. Those opinion makers who first saw it as a comedy tend to have given it the warmest reception. Now the studio, director Ridley Scott, and all involved can claim that making a dark dark comedy was always their collective intention. They can chant " Those who panned it... didn't understand it."

It's a smart tactic. As a serious dramatic sequel, Hannibal doesn't work. The plot is overly fussy, for one. The plotline is fairly straightforward as long as it stays in Italy, but the star's foils, Clarice Starling and Mason Verger, muck things up considerably. They both have entirely messy stories, rife with plot holes and improbabilities. By the time all three characters are united, the film is positively baroque. It doesn't once resemble anything that might happen. But more crucially, it doesn't once resemble anything that might have followed the austere Silence origins. Amidst the eccentric and busy plot lines, the performances are not crucial, so it's not surprising that they're lacking the considerable depth of those in the original. Julianne Moore, Anthony Hopkins, and Gary Oldman are acclaimed actors all, but this is primarily a director/production designer three-ring circus type of event. The characterizations are clearly afterthoughts.

And finally, considering we're in the thriller/horror genre, it must be said: The film is not scary. For all its gore (the pig sequence is truly disgusting) it lacks the sense of menace and dread that permeated the '91 film. In short, as a straight-up sequel it fails to match the original in any way. As a spectacle, something director Ridley Scott excels at, or as a black comedy, it works a little better. I would still question how well. But nevertheless, classification in this manner is the only chance of Hannibal being more than a footnote to Silence of the Lambs. It's OK. It's sometimes funny; it's not boring. But it can't really be classified as a great matter how truthful the spin gets.

Meanwhile, over at the arthouse, a smarter and more topical dark satire (featuring one of Silence of the Lambs' original cast) is opening with much less fanfare. Series 7 may lack Hannibal's gargantuan production budget, but it has richer ideas. A hit at the Sundance film festival, Series 7 is a fictional TV marathon of the latest reality TV craze, "The Contenders." The Contenders is now in its seventh season (hence the title). The show pits average citizens against each other in a life or death game of kill or be killed. The movie is the brainchild of writer/director Daniel Minahan who did time in tabloid TV and brings a dead-on understanding of the genre to the proceedings. It's a shocking comedy that points to the audience's bloodlust in a far more clever way than anything you'll see in Hannibal. (This is in fact, a rather hot theme at the movies recently, since Gladiator, another Ridley spectacle, also took a feeble shot at it.)

It's difficult to implicate an audience while simultaneously entertaining them, and the movie, though very funny and smart, doesn't always work Considering the film's structure, it inevitably feels a little repetitious. I also got the sense that the director's gambit of a climax set in a movie theater might not work for everyone, but it worked just fine for this audience member. All in all though, Minahan's high wire balancing act works.

The film is helped considerably by a fine cast. Each principal actor helps to make the film accessible and turns in memorable portrayals. Glenn Fitzgerald is striking as Dawn's former boyfriend and current competitor. Mary Burke is deadpan and a little frightening as the religious 'empathetic' nurse Connie.

But it's in the lead performance that Minahan has struck gold. As the series' reigning champion, Dawn "Bloody Mama" Lagarto, Brooke Smith is marvelous. Though Ms. Smith has usually been relegated to small roles, she does tend to make lasting impressions. She was particularly memorable in Silence and in Vanya on 42nd Street (opposite Hannibal's Julianne Moore.) Given a rare chance at a lead role, she is ferociously on. She's funny, moving, and realistic, despite the outrageous premise. Her voice is pitch perfect. She has completely mastered the sound of real people who are trying to be themselves on camera - just a shade too aware that they're on television. It's a turn of comic inspiration and actorly precision. I hope it nets this talented actress other challenging roles.

Series 7 has an avertising budget that is Lilliputian in comparison to the overall media attack of Hannibal. Word of mouth will have to do. I'll start gabbing about it now. If you see a trailer or notice a print ad for the film, opening slowly across the country, the narrator will ask "Are you game?" Your answer should be "Yes".

CineScene, 2001


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