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Film critic David Edelstein

Film critic David Edelstein reviews Red Dragon

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Other segments from the episode on October 4, 2002

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 4, 2002: Interview with Bill Paxton; Review of Ken Peplowski Quartet's new album, "Lost in the Stars;" Interview with Roy Lichtenstein; Review of the film "Red…

Transcript

DATE October 4, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Bill Paxton discusses his directorial debut for the
film "Frailty"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, sitting in for Terry Gross.

Today from our archives, actor Bill Paxton. His films include "A Simple
Plan," "One False Move," and the big-budget pictures "Twister" and "Apollo
13." Earlier this year, Paxton made his debut as a director with the thriller
"Frailty," in which he also starred. The film is now out on video and DVD.
Paxton plays a man who recently lost his wife and is raising his two sons.
One night he has a vision, which he shares with his two boys.

(Soundbite of "Frailty")

Mr. BILL PAXTON (Actor): The end of the world is coming. It's near. The
angel showed me. There are demons among us. The devil has released them for
the final battle. It's being fought right now. But nobody knows it except us
and others like us.

Unidentified Boy #1 (Actor): I'm scared, Dad.

Mr. B. PAXTON: There's nothing to be afraid of, tiger. We've been chosen by
God. He will protect us. He's given us special jobs to do. We don't fear
these demons. We destroy them. We pick them up one by one and we pitch them
out of this world. That's God's purpose for us. The angel called us God's
hands.

Unidentified Boy #1: So we're like superheroes?

Mr. B. PAXTON: That's right. We're a family of superheroes that are going to
help save the world.

MATT O'LEARY (As Fenton): Well, Dad, that doesn't make any sense.

Mr. B. PAXTON: I know it sounds that way, son, but it's the truth.

BIANCULLI: After sharing this vision with his sons, Paxton, guided by the
vision, kidnaps and brings home several people whom the angel says really are
demons. For the greater good of the world, he kills them with an ax. He asks
his son to help him with the murders. The younger son has faith in his father
and his visions. The older son is sure his father has lost his mind, but
loves him and is afraid to turn him in.

Terry spoke with Bill Paxton last April when "Frailty" was in theaters.

TERRY GROSS, host:

Since "Frailty" is about a father who has these visions...

Mr. B. PAXTON: Yes.

GROSS: ...and he really believes that an angel has come to him and told him
to kill people who aren't really people; they're demons...

Mr. B. PAXTON: Destroy demons. Yes.

GROSS: ...and he takes the message to heart and starts killing people...

Mr. B. PAXTON: Yes.

GROSS: ...were you afraid when you made this movie that a lot of Christians
would be very angry and take it as an affront against fundamentalists in
particular, or Christians in general?

Mr. B. PAXTON: No. I didn't make this movie to offend anyone's personal or
religious beliefs. This movie is not the gospel according to us, the
filmmakers. This is a `What if?' movie. And it deals with some fundamental
belief issues that deal with the Old Testament. But it also deals with the
idea--see, for me "Frailty" is a family tragedy, and even though you don't
know till the end of the movie what is kind of true and what is false and who
is good and who is evil, I always saw it as a familial tragedy. And whether
this God, this Old Testament deity, came to this man or not, still the final
result was chaos and destruction of a beautiful family.

I guess I was always disturbed by certain stories in the Old Testament. See,
again, I was raised in the Catholic Church, and I guess it was more about
Jesus and, you know, loving one another. I think to me the movie ultimately
is really about the folly of man's ego when he ordains himself to be God's
executioner or punisher. I didn't make the movie to be controversial. I
really kind of made it 'cause I thought it was a good Gothic kind of Grimm
fairy tale.

GROSS: This is just a very practical question.

Mr. B. PAXTON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Your film "Frailty"...

Mr. B. PAXTON: Yes.

GROSS: ...starts with the credit sequence.

Mr. B. PAXTON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: A lot of films nowadays, the credits don't come till the end of the
movie, or maybe they come five minutes into the movie. Just on a practical
level, how do you decide where you want to put the credits?

Mr. B. PAXTON: Actually the images we did were from a collection of master
detective magazines that I collected. They're mostly from the '30s and '40s
and '50s. And they...

GROSS: These are still photographs that...

Mr. B. PAXTON: These are still photographs.

GROSS: ...you see in the opening sequence.

Mr. B. PAXTON: And it gave us a chance to set the tone...

GROSS: They're kind of crime scene photographs.

Mr. B. PAXTON: Crime scene, kind of rural crime scene photographs, just
something that, you know, you're seeing a guy, you know, pointing into the
lake, or you see an arrow in the woods and it's pointing to a mound. And it
just--it's something like what was that? What happened there? And this movie
has to do with the whole kind of idea of kind of murder out yonder, stuff that
takes place beyond the city limits where, you know, people are isolated and,
you know, things can go undetected for, you know, a long time, and the
desolation of people kind of being separated.

GROSS: Since you play a father in "Frailty," tell us about your father.

Mr. B. PAXTON: I'm very close to my dad. I was raised in Ft. Worth, Texas,
and I come from a family of four kids. And I have an older brother and a
younger brother and a younger sister. And when I was a kid growing up in Ft.
Worth, my dad loved movies and plays. And obviously it affected, you know, my
life's career. But my dad loved to go to movies, and he would take me and my
older brother, Bob, downtown to Ft. Worth. That was where there were like
three kind of main old movie palaces. I remember The Palace, the Worth and
The Hollywood. My dad would never take us to a Disney film. If we wanted to
see something like that, then we had to go to a Saturday matinee. My dad
liked to see--these were probably not R-rated movies, but, you know, movies
like the Bond films and different things. I remember seeing "The Ipcress
File" and "Hush...Hush Sweet Charlotte" and some of those. And when we'd come
out of the films, he would talk about the artifice of the films. He'd say, `I
really liked the lighting or the props or the camera work or, you know, Sean
Connery's tailor.' And in a way, at first, we thought, `What in the hell is
he talking about?' And then after a while, we started kind of digging the
artifice, and we would discuss it. And I guess from an early age, I was aware
of the illusion of filmmaking, and I've always loved the illusion. I've
always loved, you know, the idea of image-makers and, you know, creating these
other worlds that are fabricated.

GROSS: What did your father do for a living?

Mr. B. PAXTON: My dad worked for his father in a family-run hardwood lumber
business. They were hardwood wholesalers out of the Midwest. It started in
Kansas City back, oh, before the First World War. And after World War II, my
dad and his brothers went to work for their dad. My dad--there was a yard in
Chicago, and eventually after he married my mom, he moved down to Ft. Worth,
Texas, because there was a yard there as well. And he traveled, mostly
calling on the trade, cabinet makers and musical instrument makers. He loved
people and he loved art. Over the years, he's kind of been my greatest
resource. He sent me books like "Simple Plan" and "Lords of Discipline" when
they were still in hardback and said, `Hey, they just sold this to the movies.
You ought to go in there and try to see if you can do this.' And he's...

GROSS: Well...

Mr. B. PAXTON: ...been a great inspiration to me.

GROSS: I understand that one of your father's dreams was to act himself.

Mr. B. PAXTON: Yes.

GROSS: And he actually has a small part in the movie "A Simple Plan" that you
starred in.

Mr. B. PAXTON: Yes, he does. Yeah.

GROSS: And I thought I could play this scene.

Mr. B. PAXTON: Oh, terrific.

GROSS: Let me introduce the scene. Jump in if I don't have any of the
details...

Mr. B. PAXTON: Yes.

GROSS: ...straight. OK. In "A Simple Plan," you, your brother and a
friend--and your brother's played by Billy Bob Thornton--the three of you
stumble on this small plane that's crashed outside of town.

Mr. B. PAXTON: Yes, in the snow.

GROSS: And there's millions of dollars...

Mr. B. PAXTON: That's right.

GROSS: ...in this plane, and you decide to keep the money.

Mr. B. PAXTON: Yeah.

GROSS: So, you know, all kinds of terrible things happen. But anyways, while
you're struggling with this guilt, because you know you're doing something
that goes against your nature, but you're going to keep the money anyways,
you're working in this feed store, and a customer walks in. You're very
distracted. A customer walks in and complains that he thinks maybe he was...

Mr. B. PAXTON: He's been overcharged, yes.

GROSS: ...cheated, yes.

Mr. B. PAXTON: Oh, yes.

GROSS: And the customer is played by your father.

Mr. B. PAXTON: It is.

GROSS: Here's the scene.

(Soundbite of "A Simple Plan")

Mr. JOHN PAXTON (As Mr. Schmidt): You listening to me, Hank? Every Monday,
I come down here, buy two bags of feed, regular as clockwork; two bags a week,
four times a month. That's eight bags I'm supposed to be billed for. I don't
know how else to get through to you.

Mr. B. PAXTON (As Hank): Well, December started on a Monday, Mr. Schmidt,
so there were five Mondays in the month. So you came in here five times...

Mr. J. PAXTON (As Mr. Schmidt): Are you telling me there were five
weeks last month?

Mr. B. PAXTON: No, sir. I'm telling you there were five Mondays.

(Soundbite of telephone ringing)

Mr. B. PAXTON: Excuse me. I got it. Yeah?

Mr. BILLY BOB THORNTON (As Jacob): Hey, Hank, it's me.

Mr. B. PAXTON: Hang on a second. Listen, check that calendar over there if
you don't believe me, sir.

GROSS: That's Bill Paxton and his father, John Paxton, in a scene from "A
Simple Plan." What's the story behind the scene?

Mr. B. PAXTON: Well, there's a few stories. I mean, my dad sent me this book
when it was a hardback, and I think it'd only been out about four weeks. This
is a debut novel by a great writer named Scott Smith. And he sent it to me
and he said, `You won't be able to lay it down. It's got a lot of hair on
it.' I don't know what that means, but that means it's good, especially
coming from my dad. I sat down to read this book. I could not lay it down.
I called my dad after I read it, and I said, `Dad, I'll never get to play this
part. It's a brilliant part, but I'll never get to do it. I think there'll
be a lot more prominent actors who will be lining up to do this.'

And over five years, I watched other actors who were slated to do it, but for
one reason or another, the film kept capitulating, and eventually, I kind of
won the role by default, one of the greatest roles I ever got to play. I go
up to Starr Production. Sam Raimi directed the picture. And we started
production actually in northern Wisconsin, but the production office I landed
in was in Minneapolis. I walk into the production office to see Sam, and I'm
looking up at the wall, and they usually put, you know, the actors' 8-by-10s
on the production office wall. And, you know, there's Billy Bob, there's
Bridget Fonda, Brent Briscoe, there's my dad, there's Chelcie. Wait a second,
what's my dad doing up there?

Now my dad--I've got to back this up a little bit. My dad retired from the
lumber business about 10 years ago and basically said, `I've really always
wanted to be an actor,' and I said, `Oh, my gosh. You mean, my life's work is
just some continuation of your fantasy?' And anyway, he had written Sam Raimi
a letter and said, `I've always admired your films and I was wondering if
there are any small parts that I'd possibly be right for?'

GROSS: And he didn't tell you he was doing that.

Mr. B. PAXTON: And he didn't tell me that. And Sam, a real gentleman, said,
`Well, I liked your dad's letter, so I thought I'd give him a chance.' And I
said to Sam, `Well, he'd better be good.'

GROSS: Was it bizarre to work opposite him in a scene?

Mr. B. PAXTON: It was very bizarre, very bizarre. And I realized, you know,
he's an older guy and he was kind of falling into a rhythm with his lines, and
so I had to kind of shake him up a little bit, and I said, you know, `Come in
and give me the business like you give it to me as Bill, you know.' Like my
dad will want me to send an autographed picture to some guy at an auto body
shop, and boy, he will fax me, he will call me, he will just rail me till I
take care of it. And so I said, `Give me some of that,' and I kind of got him
worked up, and I kind of gave Sam the signal to be ready to go. And so once I
thought I had a good froth worked up with my dad, they rolled the cameras, and
he really nailed it.

BIANCULLI: Bill Paxton speaking last spring with Terry Gross. "Frailty," the
actor's first film as a director, is out now on video and DVD. We'll more of
the interview after this break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to our interview with Bill Paxton, the star of
big-budget films like "Twister" and "Apollo 13," and independent films like
"One False Move" and "A Simple Plan."

GROSS: Now I want to play another scene from "A Simple Plan," and again, in
this movie, your brother, played by Billy Bob Thornton, and a friend, come
upon this plane that's crashed, a small plane, and there's $4 million there.
You decide to keep it; although your character knows that it's morally the
wrong thing...

Mr. B. PAXTON: Yes.

GROSS: ...but you do it anyways because it's too irresistible. And there's
just one bad...

Mr. B. PAXTON: Regrettably, yes.

GROSS: ...consequence after another that happens as a result of keeping this
money, and you have to keep covering up things. You have to cover up that
you're keeping the money and then you commit a murder, and you have to cover
up the murder, and one bad deed leads to another bad deed.

Mr. B. PAXTON: Once you start digging that hole, the more you dig, the deeper
you get in.

GROSS: Right. Now in this scene, your brother, who's kind of a little
mentally slow and socially slow--your brother, played by Billy Bob Thornton,
has asked you to meet him at the farm that your parents used to own.

Mr. B. PAXTON: Poignant scene.

GROSS: Yeah. And in this scene, you know, you've already both murdered
somebody. Your brother's asked to meet you at the farm. It's now broken
down, in total disrepair. Your brother tells you that he'd actually like to
buy back the farm and live there. Let's hear the scene.

(Soundbite of "A Simple Plan")

Mr. B. PAXTON: Jacob, farming--come on. You don't just buy a farm. You've
got to work it. You've got to know about machinery and seed.

Mr. THORNTON: I know that.

Mr. B. PAXTON: No, you don't. Fertilizers, pesticides, herbicide, drainage,
irrigation, the weather. Come on, you don't know about any of that stuff.
You're going to end up just like Dad.

Mr. THORNTON: Why do you think he ended up like that?

Mr. B. PAXTON: I'll tell you how he ended up like that. He had two mortgages
riding on the place. He couldn't make the payments.

Mr. THORNTON: Where do you think the money went, huh?

Mr. B. PAXTON: He was a bad businessman.

Mr. THORNTON: Where do you think the money went? No, you think he spent it
all on the farm? I'll tell you exactly where the money went. Four years of
college, bud. Yeah. Didn't you ever think about how he paid for that?
Didn't that ever occur to you?

Mr. B. PAXTON: No. My tuition was...

Mr. THORNTON: Listen, I'm supposed to get the farm. What do I get? I'm
supposed to get the farm.

Mr. B. PAXTON: Jacob, you've got the whole world. You can...

Mr. THORNTON: I don't want to hear that.

Mr. B. PAXTON: You can go anywhere you want.

Mr. THORNTON: This is what I want. This is where I want to be. This is my
home, Hank.

GROSS: That's Billy Bob Thornton and my guest, Bill Paxton, in a scene from
"A Simple Plan."

Mr. B. PAXTON: That's a very poignant scene, the idea that the brother,
Jacob, wants to stay and fix up the old farm. I think for a lot of guys like
the character that Billy plays--and women of the same, you know,
background--there's something about their childhood that they want to go back
to; whereas most of us grow up and we move on and, you know, we have memories
of our childhood, fond or indifferent. But, you know, we realize as we mature
you have to kind of let things go and move on. But many people get stuck in
the past, and it's such a poignant thing when he wants to fix up the old farm.
That movie is an intensely personal film for me because my relationship with
my older brother Bob, who is one of the great gentle lambs of the world, but I
think in his heart of hearts, he wishes we still all lived on Indian Creek
Drive in Ft. Worth, Texas. And he's had a tough adulthood and been through a
lot of stuff. And I drew off of that relationship. So for me, being in the
movie was--again, it was very, very personal.

GROSS: In what other ways does he remind you of the brother in your movie?

Mr. B. PAXTON: Well, he has the same kind of sly sense of humor, my brother,
and he has kind of a penchant for saying, you know, the appropriate thing at
the awkward moment. And actually, I had Billy talk to my brother on the phone
several times, and he drew his character from my brother as well as kind of
the innocence of his own relationship and the innocence of his own children.
He was kind of playing that innocence in the role.

GROSS: Did you feel a responsibility to guide your brother in the same way
that your character feels a responsibility toward his brother in the movie?

Mr. B. PAXTON: Yeah. I've been very involved in my brother's life. He's
kind of my closest sibling in many ways, just because physically, we grew up
together, we went to camps together, and after his accident when he was 24...

GROSS: What accident?

Mr. B. PAXTON: He was in a car accident and lost most of his eyesight, and he
had had emotional problems before then and just compounded everything. He
came up and lived with me in New York City. I was struggling. I remember I
was working as a doorman at the Paramount Theater up in Columbus Circle there,
and we lived in kind of a one-room flat with my girlfriend down in the East
Village, and those were kind of tough times, but we look back and we laugh
about them now. We've always been close, my brother and I.

GROSS: Now you were in the remake of "Mighty Joe Young" a few years ago.

Mr. B. PAXTON: Yes.

GROSS: I grew up watching that film over and over. I lived...

Mr. B. PAXTON: God, I did, too!

GROSS: Did you? I lived in New York, where on "Million Dollar Movie" they'd
show the same movie all week.

Mr. B. PAXTON: Yeah. I remember. I mean, they'd show the marquee, the
Million Dollar Marquee.

GROSS: Yeah. So "Mighty Joe Young" was on just all the time, and you know,
`Joe, Joe, no one can hurt you now,' and...

Mr. B. PAXTON: And what a surrealistic movie. You know, I guess that because
of the success of "King Kong," RKO wanted to try to capitalize on that
franchise. But how do you capitalize on it when Kong dies in the first film?
I mean--so they came up with this new concept of this other, you know, this
smaller, you know, giant gorilla, "Mighty Joe Young."

GROSS: Smaller and more family-oriented.

Mr. B. PAXTON: Yeah, yeah, exactly, although when you watch that movie now,
you realize just how politically incorrect it was, the way they're throwing
those lions around in that nightclub scene and the way, you know, the guy's
feeding Joe the liquor and getting him all agitated. They wouldn't let you
make a movie like that today.

One of the highlights for me was the idea that I was getting to reprise the
role that was played by the great cowboy actor Ben Johnson. Ben, I got to
meet years ago in a little movie called "Back to Back" that starred Apollonia.
And Ben Johnson was in it and an actor named Luke Askew, who plays the sheriff
in "Frailty"; he plays the villainous sheriff. And we were down in Arizona at
the bottom of the Superstition Mountains, shooting in a little town called
Apache Junction; it's where Elvis shot "Charro!" years ago. That was...

GROSS: Where else have I seen the sheriff? I didn't see "Back to Back," so
where else would I have seen him?

Mr. B. PAXTON: Luke Askew was in my movie "Traveller" that I produced.
Luke...

GROSS: I saw that. OK, maybe that's it.

Mr. B. PAXTON: And he played the head of the Gypsy clan that I was a part of.

GROSS: Oh, maybe that's it.

Mr. B. PAXTON: But he is a--no, he was a very well-known actor. You would
have remembered him from movies like "Easy Rider"...

GROSS: Oh!

Mr. B. PAXTON: ..."Cool Hand Luke," Pat Garrett in "Billy the Kid," "The
Great Northfield Minnesota Raid," "The Green Berets," "Hurry Sundown."

GROSS: Oh, OK.

Mr. B. PAXTON: But he was very outspoken, kind of a Southern intellectual,
raised a lot of hell, got himself, I think, kind of blacklisted in a way, but
one of the most intelligent actors I've ever worked with. And I've kind of
been on a crusade to kind of see him make a comeback. And I love Luke, and
Luke actually gave me the idea for making the angel more of kind of an
archangel with a flaming sword.

GROSS: Well, I thought he looked like Kirk Douglas.

Mr. B. PAXTON: He did. Yeah, I wanted to go for that kind of "Spartacus"
kind of look.

GROSS: Yeah, exactly.

Mr. B. PAXTON: Absolutely.

GROSS: "Spartacus" era, right, yeah, absolutely.

Mr. B. PAXTON: Yeah. Yeah, and there's these old, vengeful angels from the
Old Testament. When they showed up, it wasn't a good thing. You know, you
read passages like, `We were afraid to gaze upon its countenance.' And
usually when, you know, these angels showed up, something nasty was about to
go down. You know, they did kind of God's dirty work, so to speak.

GROSS: Well, Bill Paxton, thanks so much for talking with us.

Mr. B. PAXTON: A pleasure, Terry. Thank you.

BIANCULLI: Bill Paxton speaking earlier this year with Terry Gross. His film
"Frailty," in which he does double duty as director and star, has just been
released on video and DVD.

I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

(Announcements)

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Music from "Lost in the Stars," the new CD from the Ken Peplowski
Quartet. Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews it. Also, we hear
from the late pop artist Roy Lichtenstein. A new book from the National
Gallery of Art collects some of his prints. And David Edelstein reviews "Red
Dragon."

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: New Ken Peplowski Quartet CD, "Lost in the Stars"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli.

Early in his career, clarinetist and saxophonist Ken Peplowski toured with the
orchestra of Buddy Morrow playing the music of swing band leader Tommy Dorsey.
He also played Dixieland in New York and was a member of Benny Goodman's last
band. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says Peplowski's new CD has some more
modern touches, but he still keeps close ties to jazz's past and to his own.

(Soundbite of music)

KEVIN WHITEHEAD reporting:

Clarinetist Ken Peplowski on "Piece No. 8" from a series of vignettes by
Morton Gould called "Benny's Gig," Benny as in Benny Goodman. Peplowski
doesn't sound like Goodman, but there are similarities, in his tight control
over the instrument and a sound as bright and clear as a chilly morning.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: Ken Peplowski has been recording for years, but his new album
"Lost in the Stars" shows him off especially well. He's got a good band,
sparked by the fine drummer Lewis Nash, good original tunes by members of the
quartet and some classic songs that haven't been done to death. The
arrangements are simple enough to let the players develop the material without
interference, and jazz can always use an eloquent clarinet player. On
ballads, Peplowski spends a lot of time rummaging in the horn's lower range.
He gets a full and resonant sound to make you hear clarinet as a long, hollow
pipe. This is from Kurt Weill's "My Ship."

(Soundbite of "My Ship")

WHITEHEAD: I like the sturdiness of Ken Peplowski's clarinet sound, but I
wouldn't call it warm exactly. Sometimes he gets a more intimate sound on the
bigger tenor saxophone. On pianist Ben Aronov's "Lament," he evokes Stan
Getz's romantic streak. "Lament" also shows how closely the band can track
him while just staying out of his way.

(Soundbite of "Lament")

WHITEHEAD: That's Greg Cohen on bass. Ken Peplowski can turn up the heat on
tenor sax, too. A piece accompanied by just bass and drums recalls Sonny
Rollins' epic trio recordings of the 1950s and '60s full speed ahead with
drummer Lewis Nash at the throttle.

(Soundbite of "Sleep")

WHITEHEAD: That tune is "Sleep," big band leader Fred Waring's theme song
from 1923. A few things about Ken Peplowski suggest he's happy to live in the
musical past. His deepest roots still lie in the 1930s swing era, which may
explain the slight sense of emotional distance I hear in his playing. It's a
bit like he's painting new landscapes in the style of the old masters. It's a
stunt in a way, but a respectable one. A new canvas in an old style can still
look might good up on the wall.

BIANCULLI: Kevin Whitehead writes for the Chicago Reader and the Chicago
Sun-Times. He reviewed "Lost in the Stars" by the Ken Peplowski Quartet.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Movie "Red Dragon"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

"Red Dragon" is the new movie adaptation of Thomas Harris' first thriller to
feature Hannibal Lecter, the ferocious, anti-hero of "The Silence of the
Lambs" and "Hannibal." The movie stars Anthony Hopkins, reprising his
Oscar-winning performance for the second time, and is being advertised as the
first installment in the Hannibal Lecter trilogy. David Edelstein has a
review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN reporting:

Thomas Harris' novel "Red Dragon" was filmed once before in 1986 by Michael
Mann who had to change the name to "Manhunter" because the studio thought "Red
Dragon" sounded vaguely Japanese. It featured "CSI's" William Petersen as the
ex-FBI profiler Will Graham and Tom Noonan as the deformed serial killer
Francis Dolarhyde who enters the houses of suburban families while they sleep.
It also featured the Irish stage actor Brian Cox in the peripheral but
thematically central role of Hannibal Lecter, the cannibalistic madman who'd
nearly killed Graham some years before and who was now being consulted as some
sort of psycho-killer emeritus.

"Manhunter" wasn't a hit, but it was shown on TV a lot after "Silence of the
Lambs" became a phenomenon, and after last year's "Lamb" sequel, "Hannibal,"
made hundreds of millions of dollars, someone at the Dino De Laurentiis
Company decided that this particular udder could be give another squeeze, that
people would line up to see the same story again with Anthony Hopkins doing
his Lecter number.

The new director, Brett Ratner, does one thing spectacularly. He demonstrates
what a great and seminal movie "Manhunter" is. His "Red Dragon" tells the
same story with many of the same lines--the best ones are straight from the
novel--and that story is good enough to carry you along. It has a fun, new
Lecter prologue and a new climax with a twist that sends the audience home
happy, but it's otherwise a thoroughly lame piece of movie making. It doesn't
get under your skin. It won't haunt your dreams. It won't change the way you
think about this serial killer obsession that has strangled our culture for
decades. The movie is an arms-length experience. Before I say why, let's
listen to the picture's unhaunting central scene in which the imprisoned
Lecter taunts his old adversary, Graham, played now by Edward Norton.

(Soundbite of "Red Dragon")

Mr. ANTHONY HOPKINS (As Hannibal Lecter): You stink of fear and that cheap
lotion. You stink of fear, Will, but you're not a coward.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HOPKINS: You fear me, but still you came here. You fear the shy boy, yet
still you seek him out.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HOPKINS: Don't you understand, Will? You caught me because we are very
much alike. Without our imaginations, we'd be like all those other poor
dullards.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HOPKINS: Fear is the price of our instrument, but I can help you bear it.

EDELSTEIN: We're very much alike? Excuse me? This Bella Lugosi look-alike
and this gangly twirp with his `awe, shucks' demeanor? I don't think so.

When Brian Cox's Lecter said that line in "Manhunter," it was palpably true.
He and William Petersen had the same morbid sadness, and so did Tom Noonan as
the killer. That name Dolarhyde suggests a Mr. Hyde born of sadness. He was
like Petersen and Cox stretched out. But the three actors in "Red Dragon"
inhabit different histrionic universes. That's not a small point in a story
in which each character is obsessed with getting into the heads of the others.

Edward Norton can be a good, nervy actor, but his reedy little tenor doesn't
begin to suggest the unsavory depths of Graham. Ray Fiennes would have been
more interesting, but he's been cast as the killer. Partly because of how
he's photographed and directed, his psychosis has no mythic component. When
he travels to The Brooklyn Museum to eat the Blake painting that inspired his
red dragon persona--that's right, I said to eat it--he might as well be
munching a burrito.

Ratner aped some of Jonathan Demme's visual strategies from "Silence of the
Lambs," but Demme was coming from a bustling ensemble universe of such movies
as "Melvin and Howard" and "Something Wild." His close-ups of Lecter were so
terrifying because they seemed to rip the fabric of his humanist universe.
Anthony Hopkins, by now, is running on pure ham. He's such a seething little
extrovert it's like a vaudeville act.

You're probably thinking I'd rather talk about "Manhunter" than "Red Dragon,"
and my answer is, `Yeah, that's true.' In part, it's because Ratner, who has
little talent that I can discern, has publicly disparaged Michael Mann. But
more than that, it's to point out "Manhunter's" astonishing influence. It led
to "CSI" and "John Doe" and "Profiler" and "Millennium" and all the other
movies and TV shows that didn't just borrow from Thomas Harris' plot, they
borrowed Mann's moody underpinnings.

After this, thrillers would not only get fetishistic about autopsy rooms and
elements of forensics, they would fixate on that single haunted protagonist,
someone who would wander fresh murder sites and stare at glossies of victims
and relive the slaughter from the killer's point of view, someone who would be
able, at a terrible cost, to plunge deep into a psychos-roiling psyche.

"Red Dragon" is just another gory freak show. But "Manhunter," that ushered
in a new era, the age of empathy for the devil.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for the online magazine Slate.

(Soundbite of music)

(Credits)

BIANCULLI: For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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