Wonder what Hannibal Lecter (Gaspard Ulliel) was like as a boy? Well even as a youngster he had a keen interest in (eating) human anatomy but as we see in Hannibal Rising he wasn’t born a cannibal. It all started in World War II Lithuania where a young Hannibal is left an orphan after he watches his whole family die at the hands of war criminals. In the eight years that pass only the hope of revenge has kept him afloat. After escaping the orphanage at which he was bullied Hannibal finds his uncle’s Japenese widow Lady Murasaki (Gong Li) who lives in a similarly lonesome state. They strike up a very close bond in which she helps him tap into the memory of his family’s death--most importantly and painfully his young sister’s--while he more or less let’s her live. Not the case for those who wronged him but hot on Hannibal’s murderous trail is a French inspector (Dominic West) who both sympathizes with and greatly fears the madman-child Lecter. And given that Anthony Hopkins has thrice played a grown-up Hannibal and Brian Cox once everyone should know how this prequel ends. With Anthony Hopkins having lent his unmistakable visage to his now iconic Lecter no actor would be given a fair chance to do the same for a young Hannibal. Ulliel (A Very Long Engagement) often tries his darndest to contort his makeup-scarred face so that it alone will frighten viewers but an actor either looks like a psychopath or doesn’t; Hopkins with the utmost respect looks like a straightjacket escapee whereas Ulliel looks like an over-exerting actor. Forced scowl aside he’s creepy as a near mute in the movie but it’s almost impossible to believe that this is the young man who would go on to become Hopkins’ Lecter. Li (Miami Vice) looks incredible and easily 20 years younger than her actual age. She does what she can with her mysterious and emotionally stunted Lady Murasaki but it’s an odd character to begin with. In a supporting role Englishman West (HBO’s The Wire) adds a needed subtle performance and fits well alongside the past lawmen in the Hannibal series and Rhys Ifans as a villain continues his trend of unpredictable role choices. Hannibal Rising is astonishingly the fifth installment in a franchise that truly lost its luster after Silence of the Lambs and the neglected Manhunter. Of course the franchise is only kaput if the latest doesn’t make enough money but this should have been stopped years ago—at least as a movie series. As novels the saga is much more sustainable because author Thomas Harris who makes his Lecter screenplay debut with Rising can get away with murder (no pun intended). But while Rising is far from over the top director Peter Webber (Girl with a Pearl Earring) and Harris can’t make the movie nearly as tense as any of its novel or film predecessors. Webber is an editor-turned-director and it shows: The film is masterfully shot by Ben Davis (Layer Cake) and put together by the director but once Webber gets down to the movie’s blood and guts (pun intended this time) he can’t deliver much excitement at all. Ultimately Webber takes his restraint too far.
With a diverse range extending from bubblegum early rock 'n' roll hits like "Splish Splash" to American pop standards like "Mack the Knife" to Vegas show-stoppers like "Hello Young Lovers" to self-penned war-protesting folk tunes like "Simple Song of Freedom " Darin certainly has a compelling story arc chasing fame and fortune from a young age because of a serious heart condition that makes an early demise inevitable. Darin manages to defy the fatal odds against him and emerges as a top-selling singing sensation and even an Oscar-nominated actor while his hard-driving never-say-die odyssey through celebrity includes romance with the gorgeous young matinee idol Sandra Dee (Kate Bosworth) and surprising revelations about his past. Yet like the title of one of his hits "More " nothing ever seems to be enough for the singer who must learn how to truly live in the midst of his seemingly packed life until he finally succumbs to his heart disease at the age of 37.
We know what you're thinking: didn't Bobby Darin hit it big in his early 20s? How the heck in his mid-forties is even Mr. Two-Time-Oscar-Winner going to pull that off? Well Spacey does and he doesn't. Sure he's too old to be literally believed as the early Darin but the film's clever framing sequence and fourth-wall-breaking techniques tell the story as though Darin is looking back at his life and "plugging in" the more mature version of Spacey-as-Darin throughout--and it helps that Darin is not as recognizable an icon to today's audiences as say Elvis or Sinatra. With that nifty feat accomplished Spacey is more than up to the task of capturing the singer's "I want it all yesterday" temperament as well as his distinctive vocals. Darin purists may have preferred that the film used the singer's actual tracks but given that Spacey insisted on singing the songs himself his vocal mimicry is as convincing as can be imagined. Bosworth (Win a Date With Tad
Hamilton) is as poodle-skirt-cute as Sandra Dee should be and adds a nice touch of Hollywood actress insecurity as well. However the vast age difference between Bosworth and Spacey is a tad creepy and their chemistry as both lovers and fighters doesn't really combust on screen. Supporting players Caroline Aaron and Bob Hoskins come close to stealing scenes even from the likes of Spacey--and that's as high a compliment as can be bestowed.
Even if you are a fan of Spacey or not his cinematic execution while not entirely razzle-dazzle in the non-musical sequences is quite competent making the most of the era's settings--especially old Hollywood and the lush lounge environs Darin prowled. Nods also go to the film conventions of the time. His deft direction combined with his always-engrossing performance manages to overcome and liven up the screenplay's often considerably lame dialogue. And those musical sequences! Whenever the story starts to meander Spacey cleverly slides in a 50s-style song-and-dance number or swinging lounge lizard set to goose up the proceedings.
In this Britney-and-Beyonce-obsessed age 'tis a wonder anyone other than an art history buff knows who Rembrandt is let alone that other Dutch painter guy--what'shisname Vermeer. In fact very little is known about the 17th-century painter who died in debt at 43 and left most of his works including his most famous of a young girl wearing a pearl earring shrouded in mystery. Girl With a Pearl Earring is director Peter Webber's adaptation of the 1999 Tracy Chevalier novel that spun a gauzy fiction about the painter's unrequited obsession with a young maid who became his muse and the subject of said painting. The maid in question is Griet (Scarlett Johansson) whose tilemaker father's accident forces their family into poverty and her into servitude--and it's no picnic. Morose henpecked Vermeer (Colin Firth) hides in his studio away from the household which includes the puffy and pampered wife (Essie Davis) he keeps eternally pregnant; her tyrannical domineering mother (Judy Parfitt) who brazenly solicits work for Vermeer from patrons like rich lecher Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson); and a multitude of Vermeer brats. Full-lipped and nubile the servant Griet becomes the artist's secret obsession--he spies on her cleaning his studio teaches her about painting (or at least how to make his paints) and seduces her while painting her portrait behind his wife's back.
With little dialogue to speak Johansson's Griet is a study in silence. Her wide-eyed earnest stares and Mona Lisa smile do the talking for her proving a picture certainly can say a thousand words. She may get more attention for Lost in Translation but this is her vehicle. Johansson's quiet understated performance makes the others look that much more overstated--Wilkinson's vulgar mustache twirling art patron for example and Davis's jealous and ranting Catharina Vermeer for another although they too are very solid turns. Firth's Vermeer fades into the background surrounded by these big personalities understandably and fittingly so; he's the brooding artist who'd be far happier left alone to gaze upon his subject. Although the master and the servant never do much more than exchange looks the sensual energy between them is palpable.
This movie is beautiful absolutely stunning--it's as if cinematographer Eduardo Serra saw Vermeer's life through the artist's eyes and that vision comes through in exquisitely framed and lit shots. Some scenes--of young lovers walking along a tree-lined canal in fall light beaming across the girl's face as she cleans the studio's beveled windows--are literally breathtaking. Just as an artist's work is tactile so does this film feel--in the sounds of a heavy knife chopping vegetables and a spatula grinding pigment into paste…volumes are spoken in the clean white crispness of Griet's bonnet. First-time helmer Webber occasionally allows the camera to hang too long (a lip-licking scene in extreme close-up for example) but he creates a fully enveloping period and confidently leads his cast through this fairly thin story. You can pretty much guess what you're in for with a movie about a 17th-century Dutch master; knowing that if there's any criticism to be made it's that the pic feels every bit of its 95 minutes long. A lovely score by Alexandre Desplat also deserves a mention although it sometimes overwhelms scenes with unwarranted portentousness.