Tag Archives: Daniel Von Bargen

Revisiting Jonathan Demme’s The Silence Of The Lambs on the big screen

I got the chance to see The Silence Of The Lambs on the big screen last night and was very curious to see if it held up as I had only seen it once before, when I was like fifteen and on VHS no less. Well. This has to be one of the most airtight, hair raising, gorgeously produced psychological horror shows ever made and it really, *really* pops in a darkened theatre. I remembered bits and pieces, some of the iconic interplay between Anthony Hopkins’s Dr. Hannibal Lecter and Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling as well as all the freaky pervo stuff with Ted Levine’s Buffalo Bill and had retained the general atmosphere. I *knew* I loved this film already but getting to see it in that environment of the theatre with focused, uninterrupted absorption really reminded me not only of what a masterpiece this is but also why it’s important to see films theatrically to begin with.

From the moment we see Clarice running through those misty Quantico woods to that final extended shot of Lecter strolling down that street in the Bahamas this is fluid, brilliantly edited, first rate storytelling and the one aspect that stands out most to me is the way the characters relate to each other psychologically. Scott Glenn’s Jack Crawford handpicks Clarice in this assignment for a reason. Hannibal takes an immediate and intimate interest in her for a reason. Clarice toughs out the terrifying aspects of this case and taps into her own vulnerability for a *reason.* We the audience are never told exactly what these reasons are but they’re clearly spelled out in each mannerism, each glance, each performance, there for us to find and digest each in our own way. There’s a reason this film crushed the Oscars, the acting awards in particular. Hopkins lingers over every scene like a cobra, his voice that of an icy river and the horribly calibrated intellect behind it scarier still. Foster shows the wounded orphan in Clarice, toughened up by years of hardship and her training at the academy, all her innermost qualities brought out by Lecter’s presence in a relationship that’s hard to classify. “The worlds more interesting with you in it” he assures her later in the film and we silently beg to know what’s going on in his head. Levine is every bit as scary as we remember, finding the human notes in this egregious monster and making him one of the most iconic serial killers in cinema. Glenn is buttoned down and unassuming as Crawford but we slowly see from his acting that it’s a ruse and he’s as sharp as any of them under that well kept veneer. The rest of the cast are carefully picked and include the likes of Kasi Lemmons, Charles Napier, Tracey Walter, Daniel Von Bargen, Anthony Heald, Frankie Faison, Brooke Smith, Diane Baker, Roger Corman, George A. Romero and Chris Isaak all doing great work.

One sequence in particular demonstrates how well this film holds up and why it should be seen on a big screen, and it’s where Lecter escapes from federal holding, dodging dozens of agents, SWAT operatives and sheriffs along the way. It’s an extended scene full of law enforcement lingo shouted breathlessly, a sneaky elevator roper dope, bloody special effects, desperate mustering of FBI forces to stop him all set to Howard Shore’s exceptionally creepy and exciting score. All that plus Jonathan Demme’s tight, succinct direction make a sequence that just hums along and showcases the film’s firm grip on horror, suspense, police procedural, editing, music and overall storytelling. They don’t get much better than this.

-Nate Hill

Snow Falling On Cedars

Snow Falling On Cedars is an interesting one, but I can’t say I mean that in much of a good way. I’ve rarely seen a film that focuses so intently on atmosphere, incident and specific isolated scenes and kind of leaves it’s own overarching story in the dust, or rather snow. That’s okay if you’re making a mood piece or deliberately impressionist film that doesn’t need the lucidity of a clear narrative, but that this is not. Its one gorgeous looking film though, shot by Robert Richardson who really earns the Oscar nom, full of looming boreal scapes, whirling blizzards and rustic homesteads. Set in the Pacific Northwest during a particularly tumultuous pair of timelines in the 40’s and 50’s, it sees the plight of a small coastal fishing village when a mariner is found dead, entangled in nets near his own boat. The local Sheriff (Richard Jenkins) discovers this, prompting a trial in which an accused fellow fisherman (Rick Yune) is prosecuted by an annoying shark (James Rebhorn) and defended by a German American (Max Von Sydow). Now, the accused is also part of the Japanese community residing nearby, and it being sometime after WWII, it’s not a very great period of history to be Japanese in the States, casting a dark glow over the trial before it’s even begun. Ethan Hawke plays the reporter with whom the accused’s wife (Yûki Kudô) has a lasting and deep romantic involvement with. Sound complicated? It is, but really shouldn’t be. The film chooses to tell the story in a meandering, out of time nature and as such it’s almost impossible to tell what’s going on at any given time. What’s more, the relation between Hawke and Kudô, although deeply touching and wonderfully acted by both, has little to do with the trial and murder mystery and as a result much of the story feels like a slog through snowbanks with no reward on the other side. Other actors make appearances, like Sam Shepherd as Hawke’s publisher father, James Cromwell as the trial’s overseeing judge, Celia Weston and her deplorable Scandinavian accent, Daniel Von Bargen, Anne Suzuki, Akira Takayama and others but they’re sort of swallowed up by the scattered hollowness of a story that should mean more, and should cut deeper based on the effort put into this production. And what a good looking film, I’ll give it that. Robert Richardson’s cinematography is breathtaking, somehow vast yet contained at the same time as we see life in the northwest unfold, attention to period detail immaculately kept up. The score by James Newton Howard is a swell of orchestral emotion and a strong point too. This film would have been so much more affecting if it spent more quality time on the central relationship between Hawke and Kudô, the latter of which gives the best performance. The matter of Japanese people being carted off to internment camps is handled realistically and gives us some of the film’s strongest scenes, these actors also steal the show with their obvious heartbreak and theft of dignity. But who really cares about the murder trial when there’s so much else going on in the big picture that’s more fascinating? So much time is spent in that dark courtroom discussing details of an event I had no stock in with the film as a whole, and if your narrative has that effect on even just one person, well.. that’s a problem. Perhaps the novel is different but I’m not really sure what they were going for here in the film, from both an editing and story focus standpoint. I left with an admiration for the technique used, the photography and atmosphere achieved is something to be proud of, as is the romantic angle. Everything else left me as cold as that falling snow.

-Nate Hill

Simon West’s The General’s Daughter

The General’s Daughter is one of those films that’s well acted and staged enough from a technical standpoint that the excessive, overcooked script, self righteous snark and needlessly perverse plot could almost be forgiven. Almost. This is a lurid, sweaty southern gothic military murder mystery, and as amazing as that sounds, it’s actually quite an unpleasant piece to sit through. Based on a book by Nelson DeMille (crown prince of airport novel thrillers), and directed by Simon West (Con Air), it’s given the subtlety of a sledgehammer and the nuance of a rogue missile. At least the acting is decent, starting with jumped up John Travolta as a private investigator called to a military base after the daughter of a powerful General (James Cromwell) is found dead on the property in… a compromising way. The suspects are lined up neatly like ducklings and include the General’s faithful aide (Clarence Williams III), an arrogant high ranking officer (James Woods, practically assaulting the dialogue), another officer on base (Timothy Hutton) who went to Westpoint with her and naturally the General himself. Travolta is joined by another investigator (Madeleine Stowe) who he has a romantic history with, because of course he does. They’re threatened by unseen assailants here and there, and stalled by a local redneck Sheriff (the late Daniel Von Bargen) who has it in for him. The investigation gets so weird, convoluted and messed up that it’s a wonder the writers could even keep track of their own work when scotch taping the third act together. When the inevitable flashbacks show up to tell us just what happened to her, we wish we didn’t know. The poor girl, played by Leslie Stefanson, is humiliated, brutalized and murdered in a way that’s miles beyond bad taste, totally unnecessary to show in graphic detail other than for the film to reiterate what a miserable display of ‘too much’ it is in every category. The scene doesn’t even stand to serve her character arc either, as we’re informed she has a history in S&M type shit. The depravity is there simply to exist on its own and turns a relatively run of the mill thriller into something deranged. It’s a spectacle, you won’t be bored, it’s well mounted and acted by a solid cast, but is it a good film? Nowhere close.

-Nate Hill

John Woo’s Broken Arrow

When Hong Kong action alchemist John Woo mixes up his gracefully brutal aesthetic with big budget Hollywood high gloss, the results are an irresistible flavour. While not quite the balls out, blitzkrieg masterpiece that Face/Off is, his military gong show Broken Arrow is still one walk on the wild side of stunts, explosions, overblown madness and maniacal behaviour from John Travolta, who seems to be amping up the histrionics in double time just to cover Nicolas Cage’s shift this time around. He’s a navy pilot psycho called Deakins here, an unstable traitor who hijacks a volatile nuclear warhead and holds congress hostage, giggling like a schoolgirl the whole time. It’s up to his trainee and former partner Hale (Christian Slater) to hunt him through Death Valley where they’ve crashed, causing as much pyrotechnic commotion as possible and prep for the inevitable one on one smackdown that’s neatly foreshadowed by an opening credits boxing sequence between the two that’s an appetizer for the adrenal glands in prep for the chaos to follow. The action is fast, fierce and extremely violent, as is the amped up macho banter between the two, but Travolta really takes the role and sails off the charts into the ‘here there be dragons’ realm of acting reserved for only the most memorably over the top performances in history. “You’re fucking insane”, Slater sneers at him; “Yeah! Ain’t it cool?” Travolta smirks back with a face that would be straight if not for the knowing glint in his eyes. Park ranger Samantha Mathis helps Slater in his quest to bring the lunatic down, and there’s an impressive laundry list of character actors rounding out the military faction including Howie Long, Delroy Lindo, Frank Whaley, Bob Gunton, Chris Mulkey, Daniel Von Bargen, Vondie Curtis Hall, Jack Thompson, French Stewart, Raymond Cruz and Kurtwood ‘Red Forman’ Smith. Hans Zimmer does the score here and it’s an undervalued composition in his canon, a chromed up tune that drips cool and hurtles alongside the action awesomely. Woo has had some dodgy luck in Hollywood since (Mission Impossible 2 and Paycheck are painful), but this is one of his best stabs at the Western style of action, brought to eccentric life by Travolta’s oddball psycho and full of crazy ass action spectacle.

-Nate Hill

Philip Kaufman’s Rising Sun


Philip Kaufman’s Rising Sun is a high profile murder mystery set atop lofty political echelons, but it’s less about the murder itself and more doggedly focused on the culture clash between American and Japanese business factions, as well as the two detectives caught up in the whole hectic, East-scraps-West mess. A lot to cover in one film, but this one keeps its head afloat and then some, with a whip smart script based on a novel by Jurassic Park architect Michael Crichton that was libelled as ‘Japan bashing’ (this was in the 90’s, imagine the snowflake storm it’d garner in our day). It apparently toned down some aspects, but either way, it’s not only a searing detective story, but one set against a backdrop of fascinating urban and metropolitan anthropology. Sean Connery bites into one hell of a role as John Connor (not a T-1000 in sight asking his whereabouts, they’re slacking), a veteran legend of a cop with deep ties to Japanese culture, having spent many years there, married to a Japanese woman as well. He’s partnered with Web Smith (Wesley Snipes), lively enough to poke fun at Connor’s guru-esque patronizing, but with enough of a head on his shoulders to adapt in waters that are anything but calm or familiar to him. Their case? On the eve of a giant mega deal between two corporations representing both soil, a mysterious prostitute is found murdered in a Japanese high rise. Laser disc footage may yield the killer’s visage, and may not. A super racist LAPD detective (Harvey Keitel, volatile and riled up) is anything but help. The suspects? A sleazy US senator (Ray Wise), a Japanese mystery man (Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa) with one foot in business and the other, suggestively, in organized crime. The list goes on, and doubles back on itself multiple times. Not only is the investigation riveting, the buddy cop banter between Snipes and Connery, both funny and grounded, is just so engagingly well drawn, and tense inter-company espionage thrills throughout all the acts. The cast deepens, with fine work from Steve Buscemi, stern Daniel Von Bargen, Tamara Tunie, Stan Shaw, Mako, Kevin Anderson and gorgeous Tia Carerre as a quick witted tech expert who assists the dynamic duo in deciphering that pesky 90’s laser disc, and the incriminating secrets therein. Not your garden variety police procedural, buddy cop flick or social commentary, but rather unique variations on all three, amalgamated into a film that demands patience and focus, but rewards with a great story. 

-Nate Hill

A Civil Action


A Civil Action is a quiet, sobering tale of gross corporate evils and one lawyer with the stones to stand up to it all. John Travolta can be the skeeviest slimeball, the most affable Everyman, terrifying arch villain or unwavering hero in his work, he’s just that adaptable. His character here is a small time lawyer in a four partner firm that can barely afford a collective pot to piss in, and are in dire need of a case. In a local county, there’s suspicion of a factory dumping lethal toxic waste into the nearby rivers, causing the death, illness and birth defects among many children. Problem is, it’s a ruthlessly expensive case that could bankrupt their entire firm, and the rival lawyer (Robert Duvall) is an Ivy League bigwig who could bury them. Travolta is steadfast though, calmly and methodically tackling one obstacle at a time with compassion for the victims, determination to smoke out the corruption and a reserved charm that puts the film in a relaxed yet pressing groove. The cast here is absolutely unreal as well. Standouts include James Gandolfini and David Thornton in heartbreaking turns as blue collar workers affected by these misdeeds, Dan Hedaya as a malicious perpetrator, William H. Macy and Tony Shaloub as Travolta’s firm partners, Daniel Von Bargen as a belligerent witness, as well as further work from John Lithgow, Harry Dean Stanton, Zelijko Ivanek, Mary Mara, Sydney Pollack, Stephen Fry, Paul Ben Victor, Michael P. Byrne, Josh Pais and more. It’s never too hectic though, despite having so many characters and being a courtroom drama, a sub genre usually steeped in fire and brimstone melodrama. There’s a sad, quiet aura to the proceedings here. The damage is done, and all these people are looking for is a little recognition, compassion and a settlement to ease the strife thrown at them by a very callous and uncaring bunch of people. Travolta is the harbinger of catharsis, a warmhearted man who gets invested in so deep that it isn’t about the money anymore for him, it’s about helping those in need. Powerful, understated stuff. 

-Nate Hill

B Movie Glory: Scam


Scam is a breezy, Miami Vice-esque TV movie that no one saw. Nothing remarkable, but the cast has fun with the seedy crime thriller plot, and no doubt got to vacation in the Caribbean locale where this was filmed between takes. Christopher Walken never misses a beat, even in inconsequential fluff like this, and he’s fun here as shady FBI agent Jack Shanks, who is stalking a couple scam artists working the local beat. Gorgeous Maggie (Lorraine Bracco) lures men out of bars, spikes their drinks real good and then her and her violent boyfriend (Miguel Ferrer) rob the poor fuckers blind. Walken is wise to their act and entraps her for his own agenda, which involves lifting sensitive floppy disks from the clutches of a nasty crime lord (Daniel Von Bargen). Seamy, sweaty and oh so sleazy, it’s pure early 90’s cheese that has aged not too shabbily. Bracco and Walken have sexy chemistry, while Ferrer’s rabid dog thug livens things up, as does a wonderfully over elaborate, sun baked plot. Good times. 

-Nate Hill