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Posts Tagged ‘Philip Seymour Hoffman’

So, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls; here we are again for the third of our annual visits to the Hunger Games franchise. I just had an interesting discussion with a somewhat like-minded friend down the pub, who expressed surprise that I was even going to see this film, revealing that he hadn’t thought it to be my cup of tea. ‘What, you think I don’t like big-budget Hollywood SF movie?’ I said, my face probably assuming a fairly distinctive expression.

‘You think it’s SF?’

‘Well, yes, of course – what do you think it is?’

‘Young Adult.’

‘Yes, but Young Adult SF.’

Oh, how the evenings fly by when we get together, especially when I start going on about The Hunger Games’ place in a long lineage of things like (say it together with me) Battle Royale, Rollerball, and The Year of the Sex Olympics. Anyway, my point was ultimately that if all Young Adult movies (is that even a proper genre?) are as sophisticated and cynical as the Hunger Games series, then there’s no call to be snotty about them.

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This time around we are treated to the fairly unwieldy title The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -Part One, for the adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ final book has been chopped in two. (Rather mysteriously, Collins is credited for ‘Adaptation’, while two other bods have their names on the script. Hmmm.) This isn’t the only unwieldy thing about the film, which has most of the strengths and weaknesses of its predecessors, but at least it’s reasonably short.

One problem is that the film seems to be made with the dedicated fanbase in mind (is there much of a fanbase? The coffeeshop was running a marathon showing of all three films this week, but I’ve no idea how many turned up for it). As before, there’s no recap or reprise from the previous film, we’re just dumped into the action, and it took me quite a while to remember exactly who everyone was and what they were up to. This was irksome, and if you haven’t seen the other two I suspect you will never work out what the hell is going on.

Anyway, stubborn bow-wielding knitwear-lover Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is still ensconced in the separatist enclave of District 13, her home region having been devastated in the uprising that broke out at the end of the second film. The rebel leadership (various genuine luminaries like Julianne Moore, Jeffrey Wright, and the much-missed Philip Seymour Hoffman) have the plan to use her as a symbol of rebellion against the Capitol and nasty old President Snow (Donald Sutherland). She signs on, in the understanding that her sometime love-interest Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) is sprung from Snow’s clutches. Naturally, Snow is using Peeta to issue various statements undermining Katniss and the rebel cause.

As you may have surmised, there aren’t actually any Hunger Games in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part One, but to my mind this was rather to the film’s benefit, as the games were by far the least interesting bit of the second film. This one builds on the strengths of the second, especially in its bleakness and the sophistication of its politics.

Once upon a time this sort of ‘heroic rebels versus evil empire’ kind of film would have been about just that – plucky underdogs triumphing due to their own essential virtue and the rightness of their cause. The Hunger Games is savvy enough to recognise that things do not work this way: this film is all about the media management of the rebellion, which is presented as being absolutely crucial to both sides. We first see President Snow objecting to having to call the rebels ‘rebels’, and a word with more satisfactory connotations is soon found. Katniss’ allies are not interested in her as a person, but as a symbol to the masses they are trying to bring into the conflict.

She is, in short, much more useful as a propaganda aid than as a warrior, and when she is sent to the barricades of the rebellion she is accompanied not by a team of soldiers but a camera crew. In a fiendishly clever bit of scripting, no sooner does she meet the people she is supposed to inspire than she finds herself having to lie to them: the subtext is clear. She is, in short, being manipulated by her superiors just as Peeta has become a mouthpiece for the regime.

This is all surprisingly sharp and impressively cynical for a major release aimed at teenagers: the film is all the more timely, given how much it recalls the high premium placed on media-management in recent conflicts in the Middle East. The bombed-out, shattered landscapes of Mockingjay are horribly reminiscent of any number of news reports from Iraq, Libya, or Syria, and Snow’s doleful threats that civil war can only end in unimaginable slaughter and suffering sound depressingly plausible. I can’t quite see where the happy ending at the end of the next film is coming from; I hope the writers don’t completely cop out on all this good work.

This is all so engaging that you really don’t notice the slightly soapy teen romance angle of the story, nor a few somewhat improbable plot developments. The fact that this is really just the first half of the story means that there isn’t actually that much action in it, and hardly any of that features Jennifer Lawrence herself. Lawrence’s ability to maintain a career as both a bona fide box office star and an acclaimed actress is impressive, and it’s a shame that here she has a largely passive role, spending a lot of her time staggering about looking appalled at whatever atrocity the bad guys have committed most recently. Other senior members of the cast are much luckier: Moore, Hoffman, and Sutherland are all clearly having a ball scheming away at each other.

The Hunger Games is one of those series which rather impresses me while I’m watching it, but doesn’t exactly linger in the mind once I’ve finished. Maybe it’s just expectations management – the level of intelligence and grit in most SF franchises is somewhat lamentable – but it seems to me that these films are always much smarter and more surprising than they have any right to be. I just hope the concluding episode doesn’t let the side down; there are grounds here to be hopeful, I would say.

 

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As I may have commented, summer is turning into Autumn, and as it does so the pure blockbusters are being replaced by more measured, serious films: perhaps not quite awards-bait of the first order, but certainly beginning to tend in that direction. Which leads us to Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man: a classy and thoughtful drama, but also a genre movie of sorts – an espionage thriller, to be precise.

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Events unfold in Hamburg, which may perhaps tell you that this is not the most glamorous spy movie ever made. Central to proceedings is the ursine, world-weary figure of Gunther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a somewhat-disgraced spymaster now responsible for monitoring possible Jihadi activity in the city following the September 11th attacks (which were apparently planned in Hamburg). Quite apart from the difficulties of the job, he has to contend with his opposite numbers in the German police, who have a rather different perspective, and the American intelligence establishment, who naturally take an interest in his activities.

The film opens with the unorthodox arrival in Hamburg of Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a Chechnyan Muslim and terrorist suspect, who – it would seem – has arrived in the city intent on making contact with a somewhat shady banker (Willem Dafoe). But why? The police want Karpov taken into custody straight away, but Bachmann insists on maintaining surveillance. Through the agency of an idealistic young lawyer (Rachel McAdams), Karpov succeeds in making his supposed intentions clear – his father deposited a vast sum of money in a German bank, and now Issa wants to withdraw it and use it to make a new life for himself outside of Russia. Bachmann is forced to conclude that Karpov presents no immediate threat to European or American society – but that doesn’t mean he can’t be useful in his own way…

There is, of course, a bigger picture going on here, and that picture would most likely be of wheels within wheels (with possibly a few more wheels inside them, for good measure). The plot of A Most Wanted Man is complex and really does demand your attention, but it is very much to the credit of Corbijn’s direction and Andrew Bovell’s script that the story remains clear throughout, without being overly simplistic.

As espionage thrillers go, this one is heavily pitched towards the dramatic end of the spectrum: the setting and general tone of the thing somewhat recall Paul Greengrass’ Bourne movies, but the action sequences which punctuated those films are almost entirely absent here. Instead, there is a much stronger emphasis on character and performance, as you might expect given the quality of the cast. Many glowing tributes were paid to the talent of Philip Seymour Hoffman following his death, but seeing him in a film like this one really brings home what a remarkable actor he was, as this is one of his most striking feats of chameleonism – you’re never in any doubt as to who you’re looking at, but his voice, mannerisms and body language are all utterly unrecognisable. He dominates every scene he’s in – the whole film, really.

Bachmann is not a conventional hero – he is cynical, abrasive, and quite prepared to manipulate and bully those around him to achieve his goals. I suppose you could argue this is another story about the brutality of antiheroes, but Hoffman manages to humanise him to the point where he is sympathetic. A moment of treachery to which Bachmann is subjected near the end of the film is shocking, until you realise he has employed very similar tactics himself throughout the story.

These kinds of shades of grey persist throughout. It seems like every major character is in thrall to the vicissitudes of their past, still brooding over some kind of personal wound or regret. Even McAdams, who initially seems like the film’s only idealist, is implied to have only taken up her calling out of a desire to rebel against her traditional upbringing.

This initially looks like it’s going to be a film about Islamophobia, with the agencies’ undefined fear of who Karpov may prove to be set to force them into actions as extreme as any as those they are trying to prevent – the Nietzschean theme of how you battle monsters without becoming one yourself. There is, I suppose, an element of that in the film, but I think in the end it is much more about the inevitability of history repeating, and the fact that everyone is caught in its coils. It is an impeccably-made and thoroughly engrossing drama, and if it lacks that mysterious X factor which might have made it a serious contender for Oscars and more, it is still a powerful and thoughtful film.

 

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You could spend happily spend forever pointing out all the things The Hunger Games series is derivative of, and come to think of it I indulged myself quite a bit when I was talking about the first film. So let’s just say Year of the Sex Olympics, occasional bits of Star Trek, and Battle Royale one last time and move on to considering the new movie on its own merits.

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The hefty lead-times involved in a movie this size mean that Gary Ross has been replaced as the director by Francis Lawrence, a prolific creator of music videos but someone really lacking in a significant movie CV. These movies are basically a licence to print money anyway, so all it really takes is a safe pair of hands, I suppose.

Anyway, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (one of the increasing number of films that doesn’t bother with a title card until the end credits) is very much what it is, which is one of the middle films in a blockbuster genre adaptation franchise. (As is pretty much obligatory these days, the final volume is being chopped in two to maximise the bottom line to increase viewers’ pleasure.) By this I mean that it assumes most of the audience will not only have seen the first film, but watched it recently on DVD, because there isn’t what you could call a recap of the events of part one.

Jennifer Lawrence again plays Katniss Everdeen, a young woman who when asked to describe herself opts for ‘Stubborn – good with a bow – that’s about it.’ I think she’s forgetting ‘fond of knitwear’, but that’s just me. Having won the titular games in the first film, she and co-winner Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) – not stubborn, not much good with a bow, basically just blandly good-looking and a bit dull – are coming to terms with the realities of life as victors. They are celebrities, but more than that, the manner of their victory has made them symbols of dissent against the autocratic government, as embodied by nasty old President Snow (Donald Sutherland).

For complex and slightly subtle reasons, Snow manages to persuade Katniss that preventing an uprising against the authorities requires her and Peeta to maintain the fantasy of the romance they simulated during the games, and do her best to avoid stoking the flames of dissent. Of course, events prove this to be quite difficult, and Snow comes to realise that the cult of personality surrounding games victors is a threat to his own position: the games weren’t intended to produce heroes, but that’s what’s happening (oops, forgot one: it’s a bit like the original Rollerball, too).

So, with the aid of new games director Plutarch Heavensbee (good grief, these names), played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Snow hits upon a wheeze which will probably kill all these symbols of opposition – and even if it doesn’t, Katniss’s reputation as a good citizen will likely take a major hit. He decides to stage a champion-of-champions version of the hunger games where only previous winners will compete.

It takes quite a long time for the film to reach this point, and another quite long time for the various pre-games rituals and games themselves to play out. The result is a film which, to be perfectly honest, felt to me to be rather longer than was strictly necessary, especially when so much of the second half is more-or-less a retread of the same material from the first film – all right, so they’re in a jungle rather than a forest this time, and things get spiced up a bit by the introduction of acid gas, homicidal baboons, and so on, into the proceedings, but even so.

I thought the first half of the film was by far the more interesting, anyway, dealing with the realities – both political and personal – of The Hunger Games’ world with a surprising level of sophistication and subtlety. Contrasts are repeatedly drawn, between the fantasy of the viewing channels and the reality of life in the various districts, between the personae Katniss and Peeta adopt for their fans, and who they really are, and so on. This section of the film is surprisingly subtle and cynical, in many ways, and it doesn’t feel the need to belabour the audience with the points it is making.

Then again, it did occur to me that The Hunger Games may be the most dystopian piece of SF ever to form the basis of a modern blockbuster franchise: this is a horrible, brutal world, and we are shown absolutely as many details of it as the 12 certificate will permit. My main criticism of the first film was that it just wasn’t vicious and shocking enough: I do not make that same criticism here. The parallels with the days of the Roman Empire are not made with a great deal of delicacy, but that doesn’t stop them being effective.

So this is, at least in part, a very competently made and rather thoughtful piece of SF. However, it felt to me like a potentially very good film bashed out of shape by the need to be part of a franchise. We don’t get a proper opening, as it follows straight on from the first film and doesn’t bother to introduce the characters, and – especially irksomely – it doesn’t really have a proper conclusion, opting instead for a cliffhanger into the forthcoming part three.

And I still think the fact that the film is consciously pitching to as broad an audience as possible is a problem. Everything, from the plot to the characters, is just a little blanded out or soap-opera’d up in an attempt to make it as palatable as possible. As a result none of the cast really get the material they deserve to show their full abilities, and this is a real shame when performers like Jennifer Lawrence and Philip Seymour Hoffman are sharing scenes. (Also particularly good this time around are Jeffrey Wright and Jena Malone as two of Lawrence’s rival competitors – Toby Jones, on the other hand, has landed himself a plum spot in the cast list but barely appears.) Then again, I suppose you could argue that people like Hoffman and Lawrence aren’t cast in this kind of film to give brilliant, subtle performances, they’re here to give a glossy genre movie a bit of credibility and gravitas. (We really should be honest that, both here and in the X-Men films, Jennifer Lawrence really is slumming it in return for a fat paycheck.)

There were a lot of things that I liked about The Hunger Games: Catching Fire – the cast do the best they can, the production designs are pleasing, and the generally horrible tenor of the whole thing is sort of refreshing. I wasn’t so impressed by the structure, as I said, and the soap-opera love-triangle romance elements felt a bit laboured to me. Some of these negatives will no doubt get fixed for part three, while others I’m sure will be with us for the duration. For the time being, though, this is one big franchise which doesn’t feel like it’s outstaying its welcome or presuming too much on the audience’s goodwill.

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Sometimes you go to the cinema because there’s a film on you particularly want to see, sometimes you go because there was a trailer that looked sort of interesting, sometimes you go because the saturation-bombardment of publicity is inescapable and the film in question is a major cultural event. And sometimes you go to the cinema just because you want to go to the cinema, and what you go to see isn’t necessarily very important.

I tell you, folks, much as I enjoyed Trance last week, a lot of the films around at the moment really leave me sort of cold, which is a surprise as some of them are big-budget genre fantasies of the kind that once would have been right up my alley. But, truth be told, the likes of Oz the Great and Powerful and Jack the Giant Killer really don’t appeal right now, and so – somewhat to my surprise – I found myself going to see Yaron Zilberman’s A Late Quartet.

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I believe this is one of those movies enjoying what always seems to me like an eccentric release, by which I mean that it became available in theatres, on DVD, and for download at round about the same time. The theatre release probably qualifies as counter-programming, given the preponderance of big dumb movies for young people. That said, I sense a degree of uncertainty as to whom A Late Quartet is aimed at from its supporting programme – no actual cinema trailers at all, while the adverts preceding it appeared to be aimed at, to say the least, a broad demographic: one for spot cream, one for a cruise company, two connected with the dangers of degenerative eye disease and one for Wrestlemania 2013.

There’s only metaphorical wrestling in the movie itself, which is concerned with the activities of a long-established and celebrated string quartet, based in New York City. On cello is the patriarchal figure of Christopher Walken, while playing the viola is his adopted daughter, Catherine Keener. Keener’s husband Philip Seymour Hoffman is second violin, and Walken’s brilliant former student Mark Ivanir is first violin. As you can see, the ties that bind the four musicians are nearly as close as those of a family – only compounded by the fact that Ivanir is giving Keener and Hoffman’s daughter Imogen Poots private tuition – the difference being that their activities require, if anything, a greater degree of harmony than that of a comparable group of blood relations.

But hidden tensions between the different members of the group are suddenly articulated when Walken discovers a sudden deterioration in his technique is due to the onset of Parkinson’s disease: he will soon lose the ability to play to the necessary standard. Who should replace him? Should he even be replaced at all? With the future of the quartet suddenly in flux Hoffman takes this opportunity to voice his desire to play first violin at least some of the time, something the obsessively perfectionist Ivanir vehemently objects to. And so on, the relationships of the foursome rapidly becoming strained, to say the least.

Perhaps it’s the Manhattan setting, but it seemed to me that this movie isn’t a million miles away from the kind of thing Woody Allen’s based his career on for the last two and a half decades – the personal and professional tribulations of a small coterie of affluent metropolitans. However, and I say this with all due respect and affection for Allen, A Late Quartet is a much more impressive and satisfying movie than anything he’s done recently. Partly this is because the unfolding of the plot is intelligent and convincing, with the different threads interacting subtly and plausibly, but also because this film doesn’t have the occasionally-uneasy throwing together of comedy and drama that marks some Allen movies. This movie is measured and consistent, restrained and classy almost all the way through (although a scene where Hoffman appears to be having a very nice time while a lithe flamenco dancer sits on him is slightly incongruous).

My musical experience is, of course, limited (currently trying to master Bat Out Of Hell on the ukulele, should anyone be interested), but all four actors make very convincing virtuoso musicians, and the film does a good job of suggesting some of the demands of this kind of career and the sacrifices involved. But it works as well as it does because they are superb in bringing these characters to life as real people – this film doesn’t have the biggest cast, but everyone in it is brilliant.

You don’t necessarily expect affecting humanity from a Christopher Walken performance, but he makes for a touching vulnerable figure here as he comes to term with the loss of the central element of his life. No-one else in cinema delivers a monologue quite like Walken does, and he gets a couple of crackers here. That said, he’s by no means the central character, and  – if I’m pushed – I’d have to say the acting honours go to Philip Seymour Hoffman, who is as compelling as usual as a man unwittingly in the midst of a midlife crisis. Admittedly, he is doing the kind of ‘wounded bear’ character we’ve seen from him before, but this is still a Rolls Royce display of screen acting.

But there really isn’t very much wrong with this film in any department. Some of the general arcs of the plot are, to some degree, predictable, but not to the extent that the film becomes dull or hackneyed. The ending manages to give a sense of closure without being unrealistically tidy or glib, which is a neat piece of storytelling before one even considers what it may be suggesting about the power of music or its true hold over the main characters – but then this film is a class act throughout. A thoroughly engaging and really impressive drama.

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Honestly, what kind of a proper bio-pic do you call this? Not a single goatee beard to be seen, no-one gets the matter of their tissues compressed to the point of death, and there’s no mention of Axos or the Sea Devils, let alone the Toclafane and the Untempered Schism. I ask you, whatever is the world coming to?

Oh, hang on: word in from the legal department is that Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is – and I think emphasis is required here just to cover ourselves – not supposed to be the life story of anyone, living, dead, or regenerated. Glad we got that sorted out. It is, of course, a high-octane personal drama very much in a similar style to There Will Be Blood.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, who at the start of the film is serving in the US navy towards the end of the Second World War. With customary deftness and economy, Anderson establishes that Freddie is a deeply troubled soul – whether due to his experiences in the service or not is not explored – with a number of serious issues. He drinks, he is socially awkward, and he has a fixation with sex. He is also prone to outbursts of violence. All of this ultimately results in him becoming a homeless drifter.

However, at this point he falls into the orbit of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a self-styled writer, explorer, physicist and theoretical philosopher. Dodd is the leader of a movement known as the Cause, offering a programme to help people deal with the traumas inherited from former lives (there’s a bit of reincarnation involved, apparently) – which is nevertheless, according to Dodd, rigorously rational. In fact it’s so scientific, it’s like science with an extra -ology! [Cut that out – much too risky – Legal Department]

Dodd takes a shine to Freddie (partly due to to Freddie’s special recipe for cocktails, which includes paint thinner) and Freddie joins the Cause, initially as an enthusiastic follower. But it soon becomes apparent that the relationship between the two men is one of unhealthy co-dependence, and hardly guaranteed to help either of them cope with life’s travails…

Well, there has been some talk that Lancaster Dodd is based on L Ron Hubbard, the sometime SF writer who founded the Church of Scientology, which may explain why Tom Cruise and John Travolta, amongst others, are conspicuously absent from the cast list here. (There have been claims that Hubbard told his peers in the SF community that writing was a mug’s game and the quickest way to get rich quick was to invent your own religion, but this sounds like a shocking calumny to me and I would never believe a word of it [Nice try, let’s see if it works – L.D.]) The film does a cheeky sort of dance on this topic, and Anderson has gone so far to say that Hubbard inspired Dodd, but the film is actually about drifters and seekers in the aftermath of a war, with the cult angle being entirely incidental. Is Dodd (and therefore, really, Hubbard) presented as a charlatan? The film comes very close in a few places, I have to say.

People occasionally suggest to me I should become the leader of my own cult – quite why I’m not really sure, and I’m equally uncertain I  want to know – but having seen The Master I don’t think I have the stamina for it anyway. Possibly I am being over-influenced by Hoffman’s portrayal of the Master, which is the latest in a long line of monumental performances he has delivered in films for Anderson and others. He is quite simply magnetic, and eerily plausible on every level. But he is very nearly matched by Phoenix, who is also utterly convincing as Freddie, albeit in a slightly different way: Hoffman’s turn is one of great subtlety and precision, while Phoenix has a much showier and more physical role. Watching the two of them together in this film, as they frequently are, is spellbinding stuff, although I think – when and if the Oscars are handed out – Hoffman comes out slightly ahead on points.

This is that kind of awards-conscious movie: classy, challenging, and thoughtful. It’s certainly not the sort of film you go to see just to relax and have a nice time – the film is fairly unflinching in some respects. In many ways it reminded me of Anderson’s last film, There Will Be Blood, another burningly intelligent and brilliantly made film built around a great central performance – but one which, for me, struggled in terms of its actual narrative.

It’s the same here, really, particularly the ending – it seems intentionally oblique. Once again, the impression is one of the actors being encouraged to do their thing, with Anderson recording their work with his usual skill – but no real sense of an actual story in mind. Possibly I am wrong and just too dim. And, to be sure, the performances, direction, and photography make this film extremely compelling and satisfying for much of its length. It’s just that, once again, Paul Anderson doesn’t quite deliver the complete package.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published October 17th 2002:

He’s back in the public eye again, even when confined to his prison cell: a literary phenomenon, a cultured gentleman, and an iconic figure of the dark side of humanity and its most depraved appetites. But that’s enough about Jeffrey Archer, let’s focus instead on the infinitely more amiable Dr Hannibal Lecter, back on the big screen once again in Brett Ratner’s Red Dragon.

In Ratner’s movie Edward Norton plays Will Graham, a retired FBI agent who formerly specialised in the profiling of serial killers. He’s persuaded to take on one more case by his boss (Harvey Keitel) – two families have already been slaughtered by an unstable psychopath (Ralph ‘Mr Sunbeam’ Fiennes, who should really think about doing a comedy or something – although if the results are anything like The Avengers, maybe not) with another set of killings due in a matter of days. As time ticks away Graham agrees to draw upon the assistance of a brilliant forensic psychologist – the only drawback being that he’s currently incarcerated in a secure facility for the criminally insane, put there by Graham himself years earlier…

It’s hard to get past the idea that this is simply one last attempt to cash in on the popularity of Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of Hannibal the Cannibal. Red Dragon is the second film version of Thomas Harris’ novel in sixteen years, the first being Michael Mann’s Manhunter (the two films actually share some of the same behind-the-camera personnel), a clinically stylish thriller featuring Brian Cox as Lecktor (sic). Cox made a big impression in what was a fairly small part, because Lecter is very much a marginal figure in the story as written.

Red Dragon retells the story in an approximation of the style of Silence of the Lambs – it makes much use of the iconography of Jonathan Demme’s film, recreating Lecter’s cell, the image of him in the mask, and concludes with a pointless foreshadowing of the 1991 movie1. But above all it makes as much use as it possibly can of Anthony Hopkins. This isn’t very much, though, and it’s one of the film’s major problems. When Lecter’s not on the screen things often seem a bit dry, and you impatiently await his next appearance – but when he does appear, Hopkins’ startlingly camp and rather over-the-top performance, while magnetic to watch and very funny, does seem rather out-of-place in a movie that’s trying to sell itself as a straightforward psychological thriller.

Hopkins virtually steals the movie, and you get the impression he was heartily encouraged to. But Fiennes is also very good in a complex role, as is Emily Watson as a girl he befriends. (The two younger Brits seem to have modelled their performances on that of the great man, inasmuch as none of them ever seems to blink, and the array of fixed, glassy eyeballs rather reminded me of The Muppet Show). Norton spends rather too long talking to himself and wandering around crime scenes to be really engaging as the hero, and Keitel’s part is horribly underwritten and two-dimensional. It falls to Philip Seymour Hoffman to keep the US end up with a nice turn as a sleazy reporter.

The plot is quite engaging, though the climax seems a bit contrived and there are a few implausibility’s – about half way through Graham and Crawford make a mistake that has quite horrific consequences, but no-one, not them, not their superiors, not even the media, seems particularly bothered by this. But it’s neither especially scary or suspenseful, and Ratner seems a rather limited director – his main achievement is to keep a film with some very nasty subject matter down to a box-office-friendly 15 certificate (fantastic actor though he is, the most disturbing sight in the film is that of Hoffman in his y-fronts). Its finest moment by some way is the opening, a piece of black, grand guignol comedy reminiscent of a Vincent Price horror movie – but one that’s over all too soon.

Actually, this has much more in common with the horror genre than that of the thriller. Lecter is a fantastical figure, refined, aloof, fearsomely intelligent, his only weakness being his dietary peculiarities. Is there really that much difference between him and the horror icon for much of the last century, Dracula? I don’t think so. Fiennes’ character, on the other hand, is depicted as almost superhumanly strong and resilient, deformed, haunted by an abusive female relative, and drawn helplessly to a young blind girl: there are echoes there of both Frankenstein’s monster and Norman Bates (himself a split personality, a condition with its own fantastical mirror in the form of the werewolf). These are old friends in new skins, and a sign of where this movie is really rooted.

The other way in which this is a very traditional horror film is that in it, evil is presented as being synonymous with sexual ‘deviancy’. Norton must choose between traditional family life and the twisted world of the serial killers for which he has such an uncomfortable empathy, as embodied by Lecter – whose effete, preppy turn of phrase and double entendres (‘I’d love to get you on my couch’ he simpers to Graham at one point) mark him out as the ultimate predatory gay, looking to either turn or destroy his happily married adversary. Fiennes’ character, on the other hand, specifically targets the traditional, nuclear family and is portrayed as a shy, repressed mummy’s boy (another vaguely unpleasant gay stereotype) whose possible redemption comes in the form of a decent ‘normal’ relationship with a woman. Did the film-makers intend to include this homophobic subtext in their movie? I don’t know, but it’s not exactly deeply buried and I’m surprised it hasn’t drawn more criticism.

Unpleasant or not, hackneyed or not, it’s still the most interesting thing about Red Dragon. This is a reasonable thriller, with some good performances, and I quite enjoyed it (though I still think Manhunter is by far the better film). But as a film that’s being marketed and will be judged as an addition to the Lecter franchise, it’s inevitably disappointing. An entirely new outing for the doctor might have been a better idea – but as Hopkins has announced himself retired from cannibalistic service, we’ll never know.

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