Lecter’s 2nd Course: Another Clarice … Are You Stalking Me?

Lecter’s 2nd Course: Another Clarice

He-e-e-e-e’s back!

Dr. Hannibal Lecter, everybody’s favorite cannibal, comes out of retirement in Hannibal , a sequel to The Silence of the Lambs so gory and

gruesome it makes the original seem like a preschooler’s bedtime story. His

fondness for human livers garnished with fava beans has been replaced by a

passion for brains freshly removed from the cranium and lightly sautéed.

Anthony Hopkins, who won an Oscar for licking his lips at

the sight of a blood clot, is once again the fiendish chef, his own tongue

planted firmly in cheek as he jokingly promises “the next course is to die

for.” Jodie Foster, who also won an Oscar, does not return as fearless rookie

F.B.I. agent Clarice Starling. She turned down the sequel after reading the

script, declaring it too disgusting, and was replaced by Julianne Moore. Ms.

Foster is not called the smartest actress in Hollywood for nothing. When you’re

right, you’re right- Hannibal is

pretty sick stuff. It is also pointless, more contrived and less original than The Silence of the Lambs . (So was the

book by Thomas Harris.) Having said all of that, I must admit I still found it

obscenely riveting, like watching a suicide in slow motion.

It’s been 10 years since Hannibal the Cannibal escaped from

that maximum-security asylum for the criminally insane, and 10 years since he

made Agent Starling a media star. In the interim, she’s gone down in the Guinness Book of World Records as the

F.B.I. agent who has shot and killed more criminals than anyone else-a label

that has landed her in a lot of hot water with her superiors in the F.B.I. and

the Justice Department. But in the decade since her special relationship with

the world’s most lethal monster led to the capture of serial killer and master

wacko Jame Gumb, she has never forgotten Hannibal. He, in turn, has never

stopped obsessing about her. As the program notes to Hannibal teasingly suggest, “He is still her most terrifying

nightmare. She is still his fondest fantasy.” Ah, love. Boris Karloff and Elsa

Lanchester couldn’t explain it in The

Bride of Frankenstein , so how can I?

Hannibal is about

the effects of that special, twisted interaction. When this film opens,

Starling is under fire for aggressive use of force in crime busts after gunning

down a lady drug czar holding a baby in her arms. Fired and disgraced, her

career in ruins, Starling focuses her energy on tracking down Hannibal. She has

to stand in line. Another archfiend wants

to reach the insane Hannibal first. He is the sixth and only surviving victim

of the cannibal’s carnage, a disfigured billionaire named Mason Verger, whose

face was eaten away by Hannibal and who has devoted his life to seeking revenge.

(Gary Oldman adds another memorable portrait to his gallery of weirdos, this

time mutilated and defaced beyond recognition, like a cross between John Hurt’s

Elephant Man and Jim Carrey’s Grinch.) “He’s always with me,” he mutters,

gumming his words through a rubber hole in his scarred face where a mouth

should be, “like a bad habit.”

The object of all this affection, meanwhile, is discovered

in the plush, unguarded gilt of Florence, where he works as a museum curator

among the Tuscan frescoes and delivers brilliant lectures about Italian

history, with gleeful emphasis on disembowelments and hangings. But you can’t

keep a good villain honest and stress-free long. Skulking through the shadows

of Florence after dark in a long black overcoat like Jack the Ripper, Hannibal

soon longs for the good old days and once again wants to “taste the enemy.” The

enemies on his trail include an ambitious

Italian detective (Giancarlo Giannini), who seeks the $3 million reward

for his capture; a gaggle of Sardinian gangsters employed by Verger; a corrupt

Justice Department honcho (Ray Liotta) looking for his own 10 minutes of

tabloid fame; and Clarice herself. The rest of the movie catalogs the

diabolical ways Dr. Lecter disposes of them, one by one, in savage, bloodcurdling

tortures. I wouldn’t call Hannibal

the perfect date movie.

While Anthony Hopkins fails to find anything fresh in Lecter

beyond clicking his teeth and staring into his victims’ eyes with soothing

words, like a dentist before he reaches for the drill, Julianne Moore makes

Clarice an entirely new creation. The similarities between her and Jodie Foster

are closer than you might think. They’re the same kind of dedicated

risk-takers-accomplished, cool, sharply focused, attractive and vulnerable, but

with a hard edge that warns “Don’t mess with me.” Ms. Moore says she accepted

the challenge despite Ms. Foster’s association with the role because she wanted

to work with Mr. Hopkins. Unfortunately, they appear in separate sections of

the film and don’t meet face to face until the final scenes. Without the

introspective direction of Jonathan Demme, they’re pretty much on their own.

Mr. Demme, who won historic acclaim for The Silence of the Lambs , has been replaced by Ridley Scott, who is

more interested in blood and horror than character and plot. He doesn’t seem

comfortable with people talking and analyzing, and the scenes in the forensics

lab that were so important in the first film now feel like the director’s

passing time nervously to fill in gaps. He’s really in his element when people

are being thrown to a horde of flesh-eating wild boars, with close-ups of heads

chewed and arms ripped out of their sockets.

David Mamet and Steven

Zaillian ( Schindler’s List ) are the

two scriptwriters. They’re not amateurs, but somewhere along the way the

decision was made to throw the movie to sensationalism and the hell with logic.

(We don’t believe for a minute that even a crack agent like Clarice would

handcuff herself to a human demon with a talent for ripping off a woman’s face

with his bare fangs.) The plot is forced, and the finale is so unsatisfactory

it almost seems played for laughs. The last 10 minutes, which critics are

begged not to reveal, are so nauseating and over the top they defy description

anyway. Giggling nervously in moments of suspense comes naturally to audiences

who don’t know whether to laugh or scream, but this time the slaughterhouse

brutality is so depraved it’s preposterous.

On the plus side, there

is Ms. Moore’s unruffled calm, the beautiful cinematography (Italy has never

looked more alluring) and an interesting comment on how America turns serial

killers into celebrities (Lecter’s copy of The

Joy of Cooking sells for $16,000 at auction). Dark and unsavory stuff, even

for cannibals, Hannibal may not repeat

the overwhelming success of its 1991 predecessor, but it won’t go unnoticed,

either. Bring smelling salts.

Are You Stalking Me?

Panic , a plodding

independent film that has been making the rounds of the festival circuit, is

worth seeing simply for William H. Macy’s portrayal of an unobtrusive,

nondescript, perfectly ordinary man who seems normal and dull in every way

except his work. He gets paid to kill people. Married, and the father of a

6-year-old son, he was taught to be a gun for hire at an early age by his

tyrannical father (Donald Sutherland), but now he’s in a rut. He wants to

retire and leave the family business. A passive hit man who has never stopped

to question how passionless and routine his life is, he’s desperate to escape

his father’s evil control, but doesn’t know how. So he turns to an analyst

(John Ritter) for help, only to discover that his next victim is the shrink

himself. Panic sets in, for

understandable reasons.

Like most debut films made by writer-directors weaned on

television, Panic has no sense of

timing or pace, and the dialogue provided by Henry Bromell ( Chicago Hope ) is so banal I feel

compelled to share an example with you:

“Are you stalking me?”

“No, why would I be stalking you?”

“Because you’re screwy.”

“You have nice feet.”

“Wanna come in?”

The interesting thing is the way it shows the business of

murder as a job as boring as accounting. Professional gun merchants sell

weapons from their car trunks while they discuss their H.M.O.’s, and

“contracts” are as casual a lunch topic as the merits of the Lexus versus the

BMW. The excellent cast includes Tracey Ullman, Barbara Bain and Neve Campbell,

and it’s a pleasure to watch Mr. Macy work out the nuances in such an agonized

role, but after Analyze This , Grosse Pointe Blank and The Sopranos , the idea of killers in

therapy has grown stale. This one isn’t played for laughs, but should have

been.

Two Words: Dianne

Reeves

One question I am always

asked: Who is the next Billie, Sarah, Ella, Carmen or Lena? I can now answer in

two words: Dianne Reeves. She sings and swings like all of them put together.

Sultry, savvy, unique, adventurous, with a range that flies off the Richter,

she’s the hottest thing in jazz. On Valentine’s Day, she’ll prove it once again

with a one-of-a-kind concert at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall at 8 p.m. to

celebrate the release of her spectacular new Blue Note CD, The Calling-Celebrating Sarah Vaughan .

The CD is quite the most volcanic eruption of music I have

heard in a very long time, a compilation of songs recorded in the past by

“Sassy” herself, in which Ms. Reeves puts her own spin on lush ballads like “If

You Could See Me Now,” “Key Largo” and “Speak Low,” as well as blazing big-band

blowouts like “Lullaby of Birdland” and “I Hadn’t Anyone Till You” (on which

she is joined in a swinging vocal duet by jazz trumpeter Clark Terry). She’s

accompanied by a 42-piece orchestra that shifts effortlessly from throbbing

strings to a Count Basie blast, and the arrangements are out of this world.

The three-octave range

Ms. Reeves displays on the salsa-tinged Brazilian classic “Obsession” is like

nothing you’ve ever heard before, and she miraculously makes the tiresome “Send

in the Clowns” sound like a fresh discovery, underscoring the familiar melody

with pastel echoes that embrace the joy of jazz. Using pauses and spaces the

way Bill Evans traded eights on the keyboard, she can sing out the words on “I

Remember Sarah” in saxophone-like torrents, or lag behind the beat in order to

stretch key words or syllables into emphatic notes with Sisyphus-like defiance,

reshaping the melody while holding and bending notes long beyond the bar in her

richest contralto tones.

Elegant, supple, graceful, sensually ripe and phrasing with

ecstasy, she gives me what Ethel Waters used to call “the mean shivers.” Her

power to meld the sheer, happening rapture of jazz and the romantic sweep of

popular singing literally erupts on every miraculous cut on this new CD. All of

this, and more, makes for the perfect valentine on Feb. 14, and who needs

another box of Godiva anyway?