241 posts categorized "Criterion Collection"

October 30, 2023

THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS — SHOCKTOBER!

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ColeSmithey.comEd Gein's legacy of a body-flaying serial killer, which also provided Hitchcock’s “Psycho” with its inspiration, gave novelist Thomas Harris the unsavory elements he used to build “The Silence of the Lambs.”

The fact that director Jonathan Demme turned Ted Tally’s screenplay adaptation into a masterpiece of film horror reflects an array of ingenious choices: fully developed characters, exquisitely fulfilled by the actors in each of their roles. The unusual storyline boasts two sets of opposing protagonists and antagonists.

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Jodie Foster’s character, FBI trainee Clarice Starling, makes for a highly empathetic central character. Headstrong yet engaged in a constant battle of insecurity, Clarice isn’t about to squander the opportunity to track down a serial killer known as “Buffalo Bill” when Agent Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, assigns her to interview convicted serial murderer Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins, in an iconic role).

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“Hannibal the Cannibal” is the ultimate anti-hero. A hyper-intelligent former psychiatrist and highly skilled painter, Dr. Lecter has been laying in wait for a visit from someone like Clarice, whom he can mentally dissect and manipulate. Lecter knows his chance to kill will come again. The audience knows it too. However, unlike our disgust at Buffalo Bill’s crimes, which targets overweight women whom he murders for their skin, we secretly want to see the charmingly malevolent Dr. Lecter in action. Hannibal’s alternately cheerful or crass demeanor has a knowing wink about it that Anthony Hopkins milks for every drop of diabolical ingenuity available.

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The bizarre mentor/apprentice relationship that develops between Clarice and her criminally insane subject makes for a compelling mix of visceral —almost sexual — tension and dark humor. For all of her naiveté, Clarice is perfectly capable of matching wits with the demented doctor, even though it takes her some practice to get it right.

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Anthony Heald’s Dr. Frederick Chilton is a petty bureaucrat whose ambitious political goals put him at odds with Clarice. His character presents a different type of villain. Even Clarice’s trusted FBI mentor Jack Crawford fails to come through when Clarice most desperately needs assistance. She is always on her own.

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“The Silence of the Lambs” is indisputably dynamic in every technical detail. Jonathan Demme uses high camera angles to create chilling visual compositions. The film constantly seems to change direction. A tense subjective sequence seen through Buffalo Bill’s night-vision goggles ramps up the suspense with an organic filmmaking technique that puts the audience temporarily inside the mind of the killer. For a few brief moments we, know the fear of the would-be victim and her lurking attacker.

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The effect is petrifying.

Winner of five Academy Awards, “The Silence of the Lambs” is the only horror film to ever sweep the Oscars.

Rated R. 118 mins.

5 StarsColeSmithey.com THE BLOOD OF DRACULA
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October 29, 2023

THE HONEYMOON KILLERS — SHOCKTOBER!

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Groupthink doesn't live here, critical thought does. This ad-free website is dedicated to Agnès Varda and to Luis Buñuel.

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“Ray kissed them, Martha killed them. They turned a Lonely Hearts Club into a slaughterhouse.”

The salacious tagline for “The Honeymoon Killers” was a tabloid-styled ad almost as incendiary as the 1983 New York Post headline “Headless Body In Topless Bar.”

The film’s original title (“Dear Martha”) was far too pedestrian for writer/director Leonard Kastle’s roasting of Americana values, tortured attitudes regarding sexual expression, and nostalgia-riddled romanticism of the masses.

Honeymoon Killers

Check out the scene where Ray’s new bride belts out “America the Beautiful” from a bubble bath while Ray and Martha empty her purse in the next room. The filmmakers are merciless with a roiling subtext of satirical statements and deadpan counterpoint.  

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Never mind that Kastle and producer Warren Steibel fired Martin Scorsese as the film’s original director after 10 days because Scorsese seemed to spin wheels. Nonetheless, a couple of sequences that Scorsese directed remain in the film.

Cool.

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The movie is based on the real-life exploits of a pair of money-hungry serial killer lovers. Kastle’s eerie crime drama follows Alabama-born nurse Martha (played with brooding hostility by Shirley Stoler) and her Elvis-haired Latin gigolo boyfriend Ray (Tony Lo Bianco).

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Opposites attract.

Martha is a zaftig woman with lust, greed, and jealousy in her heart. Ray is a handsome, suave Rudolph Valentino-inspired con man. Between his Latin accent and always-polite demeanor, Ray makes every woman he meets feel like the only woman in the world. The partners-in-crime pose as siblings while Ray conducts marriage proposals with unsuspecting widows who the couple eventually kill in order to steal the women’s life savings and life insurance. Naturally, things get complicated, messy, and nasty.

Honeymoon-killers

Made in 1969, "The Honeymoon Killers" presaged elements of David Lynch's filmic approach, and clearly informed John McNaughton's similarly-themed stomach-churner film "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer." Romantic dysfunction never looked so banal, brutal, and ugly as it does here. Kastle’s dry documentary style is as inspired by Cassavetes (“Faces”) as it is by Frederick Wiseman's films (see “Titicut Follies”). The real Martha Beck and Ray Fernandez were executed by electrocution on March 8, 1951. 

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This is a raw crime drama exploitation movie that compares favorably to Richard Brook’s adaptation of Truman Capote’s “Cold Blood” (1967). Kastle employs a similar docu-styled editorial approach to the narrative and to its noir filmic compositions. The filmmaker allows social subtext of ‘40s era America to bubble up. When she's fired from her nursing position, it gives Martha opportunity to take the moral high-ground to authority; she indignantly announces her recent marriage like a diva in full bloom.  

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The picture’s naturalistic black-and-white noir compositions are augmented by a stark soundtrack punctuated with Gustav Mahler’s anthemic classical music.

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“The Honeymoon Killers” was the only film Leonard Kastle made, and he poured all of his talents into a picture that comes across as a labor of love. François Truffaut famously called “The Honeymoon Killers” his favorite American film.”

Rated R. 108 mins.

5 Stars COLE MONSTERCozy Cole

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October 28, 2023

PAN'S LABYRINTH — SHOCKTOBER!

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Groupthink doesn't live here, critical thought does. This ad-free website is dedicated to Agnès Varda and to Luis Buñuel.

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ColeSmithey.comColeSmithey.comGuillermo del Toro Relishes the Horrors of Childhood

ColeSmithey.comIn discussing the leftist political themes of "The Devil’s Backbone" and "Pan’s Labyrinth," gothic horror maestro Guillermo del Toro responds by condemning what is considered "normal" because "normal creates inadequacy immediately." The transplanted director from Mexico embraces abnormality and moral ambiguity in "Pan’s Labyrinth." It's a film he wrote and directed as a deeply personal treatise on the defense mechanisms of a child dealing with war and death. "Pan's Labyrinth" is a surreal and dark fairy tale about resistance and sacrifice from the point of view of a resourceful child.

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Ofelia (played with immeasurable grace by child actress Ivana Baquero) is uprooted with her ailing pregnant mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) during Franco's 1944 postwar Spain to go live with Ofelia’s stepfather Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez) of Spain’s Civil Guard. Mother and daughter arrive at an abandoned rural mill that Vidal has converted into a military headquarters to oppose the local "maquis" freedom fighters. Ofelia momentarily escapes the farm’s oppressive ambience to explore an old garden labyrinth where she meets a peculiar faun (Doug Jones) who acts as a mentor. The strange creature assigns Ofelia three tasks to prove her royalty as a princess.

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Ofelia's dark fantasies of fairies and monsters are matched by the savage hostilities incited by Captain Vidal’s obsessive reign of power. The hideous but friendly faun gradually becomes beautiful as Ofelia fulfills his commands of obtaining a key from a repulsive toad, visiting a pale monster with eyeballs in the palms of his hands at a banquet from which she must not eat, and releasing the blood of an innocent. This is thought-provoking stuff that del Toro presents with fluid attention to detail. You couldn't hope for a more visually lush experience.

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After the film’s premiere in Cannes del Toro said, "In this movie, I think the fascist is more terrifying than any of the creatures Ofelia encounters in her fantasy. I feel that the more humanist point of view is the one that I like. I love "Beauty and the Beast" by Jean Cocteau. I love "Frankenstein" by James Whale. I like "Night of the Hunter."

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Taking into account del Toro's stated influences, you can see where each have an impact on the film he has crafted from every angle. Here we have gothic horror combined with fantasy in a purely original way that nevertheless breathes with a sense of tradition.

Screen Shot 2024-06-07 at 1.12.53 PM

"Pan’s Labyrinth" is set at the end of World War II when the Spanish resistance still had a fighting chance against Franco’s regime if allied support arrived in time. The movie works intriguingly opposite Steven Soderbergh’s "The Good German" as a phantasmagorical reflection of an underground reality seething beneath the scorched and bloody soldier-inhabited earth above.

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Guillermo del Toro is a bold creator of modern fairytales in the tradition of the Grimm Brothers, as mixed with a healthy sprinkling of Greek mythology. In planning his films, the director draws colorful drawings of the creatures he will bring to life, such as the mandrake root that Ofelia places in a bowl of milk-and-water beneath her mother’s bed to cure her sickness and protect her unborn child.

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As del Toro points out, "There is a mythology that you can grow a baby out of a mandrake." Mandrake is another name for ginseng, but del Toro proposes the plant was traditionally born under the gallows at the feet of hanging victims who spasmed as they died. "You had to look for it under a full moon with a black dog and wear protection on your ears because, when the dog digs for it, the mandrake screams and the dog dies. And if you don’t have protection, you die." The childhood desperation that permeates his dramatic sensibility is elevated by del Toro’s sincere devotion to imaginary belief systems rooted in cycles of nature.

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Del Toro says, "Pan’s Labyrinth" is an adult movie about being a kid. My favorite kid movies are "The 400 Blows," or "Au revoir, les enfants" by Louis Malle or "The Tin Drum." None of these are movies that I would play along with "Chicken Little" for my daughters, but they are movies, nevertheless, about childhood."

Add "Pan's Labyrinth" to that list.

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Rated R. 120 mins.

4 Stars ColeSmithey.comCozy Cole

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