Friday, July 30, 2004


THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (2004, USA, Jonathan Demme, screenplay by Daniel Pyne & Dean Georgaris from 1962 George Axelrod screenplay and Richard Condon novel)
Pauline Kael said that the original 1962 treatment of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE might be “the most sophisticated political satire ever made in Hollywood,” and that it brought John Frankenheimer to life as a director. More than four decades later, Jonathan Demme comes back to life as a director at the helm of one of the finest and most inventive remakes ever to take the screen.

Calling a film “one of the great remakes of all time” sounds like faint praise indeed. Most celluloid retreads are bad ideas, badly executed. Either the first go-round wasn’t all that good to begin with – so why waste everybody’s time and money a second time? – or else it really was great, and the new version is at best a decent knockoff – so why bother? Rent the original DVD instead.

Not so with CANDIDATE. Rent the 1962 DVD, by all means – but only to see how dazzlingly inventive a remake can be. The further the story progresses, the more obvious it becomes that this really is the right movie at the right time – again. In 1962, with Cold War anxieties everywhere, McCarthyism a not-distant-enough memory and the Korean conflict a pretty good stand-in for the escalating troubles in south-east Asia, a movie about a war hero who’d been brainwashed by the Reds and placed like a time-bomb in the center of the American democratic process was close enough to plausible to send real shock-waves through a fearful nation.

In 2004, we’re again preoccupied with enemies on the home front, confronted with the very real threat of neighbors who may turn out to be terrorists, an anxiety that’s only compounded by an unsettling mistrust of governments and government agencies – not to mention multi-national corporations, who prove to be the real Bad Guys this time around. Now Manchuria isn’t a place, it’s an entity – Manchurian Global, a vast organization that buys and sells everything under the sun, presumably including private armies, biotechnology and the souls of politicians. We trust these men in suits like we trust the guys from Enron, or the organized crime families they are made to resemble. Pictures of burning Kuwait oilfields are to the Second Gulf War generation what Korean images were to almost-draftable Baby Boomers in ’62, and a street-level remake of “Fortunate Son” invokes that very specific, cynicizing Vietnam-era helplessness and rage. Our latest traumas get stirred up when video experts review security tapes of assassins making their way through metal detectors. This is a MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE for another fearful time, and it makes perfectly legitimate Cold War fears look almost na├»ve from the perspective of another four decades of trouble and disillusionment.

It’s eerie to revisit the highly-praised original – recently released as an affordable DVD – and realize that its scenario of covert manipulation and presidential assassination plots screened in America a year before the Kennedy shooting and the endless conspiracy theories it spawned. The savvy ’04 edition plays on all those fears and more: knowing references to lone gunmen and nuclear brinkmanship evoke Cold War worries that seem suddenly pertinent again, and one character makes a compelling (and troubling) argument when she says “Americans are terrified, and we can arm them” – with a war hero as Vice President. Set slightly in the future, the ever-present news reports ratchet up the tension with reports of international crises and War On Terror rhetoric, civil liberty suspensions, “touch screen voting” protests leading to security crackdowns, suicide bombers, and unexplained references to events like “Bloody Friday” and U.S. bombing raids on African countries pointing to an ever-edgier future.

There’s a deeper disquiet evident now that makes one nostalgic for the simple Sixties brand of paranoia. Back then, all Marco needed to do was bring forward some good rational arguments to the basically decent folks in Army Intelligence, they’d realize he wasn’t a nut after all, and right away they’d put him in charge of a co-operative team of military, CIA and FBI agents he could rely on to get the job done. These days, though, the suspicion runs deeper: even a war hero can never be entirely sure who to trust, and when he advises another troubled Gulf War veteran to take his concerns to the authorities, it sounds like very bad advice indeed.

Audiences who don’t know the original are guaranteed a tense and tricky ride, pretty much free of the gaping plot holes that usually mar these twisty suspensers. If you’re willing to suspend your disbelief to buy the admittedly goofy idea at the center of the story – “Sci-Fi Lite” in a Michael Crichton sort of way, no less implausible than the brain-washing premise of the original – the actual story mechanics and character motivations hang together remarkably well.

If you do know the original, chances are you’ll enjoy yourself even more. Apart from the fact that card games make only a token appearance, it is astonishing how many story elements are intact, how many of the memorable set pieces remain – though they’re almost always inverted or subverted somehow. The film begins with a barrage of recognizable touch-points to the original – character names and situations, slightly re-arranged or deftly adapted to the more-than-modern setting, a fireworks display of inventiveness along the lines of a Baz Luhrmann ROMEO + JULIET. The fresh-but-faithful approach is never more charming than in the Eugenie-Rosie dialogue, which comes straight from the original (in fact, it’s right out of the Richard Condon novel), right down to the Eldorado phone number she gives him, “the old-fashioned way.” In the early sixties, Senator Iselin dressed up like Abraham Lincoln: now, presidential candidates get carved into digital Mount Rushmores. We even get a nod in the direction of the “go jump in the lake” scene, with all the jokiness removed.

But just as we make this out to be a clever but essentially straightforward updating – perhaps a sort of reverent tribute by producer Tina Sinatra to Uncle Frank, who starred in the first edition – screenwriter *** takes a series of sharp, shocking turns and we realize everything’s up for grabs: the story heads wildly and unpredictably off in several of its own directions, and even when the old and new story-lines converge again in the final half hour, nothing means what it used to mean, because all the rules and roles have changed. Masterful.

Angela Lansbury was Oscar nominated for her portrayal of the character who, curiously and significantly enough, is never named, referred to only as “Raymond’s mother.” She played wonderfully against type, but even that fine performance is out-shone and out-nuanced by Meryl Streep, whose recent turns in ADAPTATION and THE HOURS mark something of a comeback for a first-rank actress who really never went away, but who again commands attention as a performer with incredible range and presence. She brings a flirty sexual energy to the role that makes just that much more sense of the novel’s Oedipal psychologizing, and she’s got the intellect to convince us that this woman can sway electoral strategy committees as readily as she can a son who mostly hates her. Her mix of sexuality and vaulting ambition is perfectly realized, just attractive enough to be all the more deeply repellant: Streep finds in Senator Shaw everything that would make for a truly great Lady Macbeth.

As her son Raymond, *** *** is at times uncanny in his resemblance to Laurence Harvey who created the role, but neither is this a carbon copy: *** finds more colors in his portrayal, and – also true for Denzel Washington over the much-appreciated Frank Sinatra – ultimately succeeds in creating a far more complex, believably human and even empathetic character than his predecessor.

The sound score is a marvel, often using collages of odd and out-of-context sounds rather than music to create a deeply disquieting atmosphere: disparate sounds suggest the thin walls and crowding of a tenement apartment, but aren’t anything quite that naturalistic, and if the ratlike rubber-on-steel squeaks of the Albanian scientist’s lab end up having a real-world source (or do they?), for the longest time they’re just disturbing squeaks and squeals. The film has loads of visual style, from the only-slightly-revved-up TV news graphics to the nods to other films and film-makers, from the Hitchcock look of the mom-and-son scene late in the movie (come to think of it, there’s more than a little Bates in the Shaws, isn’t there?) to the Coppola-pastiche of the “Your god is money” scene between Mom and the Manchurians, or the SEVEN-ish journal jottings of Corporal Melvin. (I wonder what other, deeper fears are being touched on with the MEMENTO-esque felt-penned reminders, in case of memory loss: the same fear that’s being played out in so many films this new millennium, from ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND to 50 FIRST DATES). And the “politics as show biz” themes of the Frankenheimer film – with its way-ahead-of-MTV editing of the nominating convention – comes into its own in this much-higher-tech 21st century treatment.

It’s a long time since director Jonathan Demme startled with his break-the-mold innovation that was AFTER HOURS, then claimed ascendancy with the stunning SILENCE OF THE LAMBS – a pot-boiler of a novel transmogrified into a brilliant motion picture. More recent projects failed to fulfill that early promise, and it seems nobody liked his most recent stab at retrofitting an old-model story, *** *** ***.

That all changes with THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. Demme gets entertaining, believable and multi-faceted performances out of all his actors, he layers sound and image with tremendous assurance and inventiveness, and in every way capitalizes on a brilliant screenplay. There’s endless attention to detail that may or may not be essential to the story, but makes a rich world for the story to live in: the Elvis impersonator at the library computer terminal, Sidney Lumet’s cameo as a political pundit, beautiful presidential daughters hauled in to help campaign.

I don’t suppose this movie is telling us anything about politics, war or corruption we don’t already know: it’s entertainment, not groundbreaking political commentary. In one of the summer’s other newsy flicks Michael Moore sets out to instruct, and ends up (at best) entertaining and provoking: CANDIDATE sets out to entertain, and ends up unsettling us far more than we might have expected.

We’re too knowing to be surprised by anything this movie has to say. But that’s not necessarily a flaw: it’s not here to teach, it’s here to play. The thing is, what it’s playing on is our fears. And they’re real enough.

When one character asks if there were casualties, another replies “There’s always casualties in war, sir.” And I could only think of what somebody else said: that in war, the first casualty is always the truth.

A timely movie indeed.


Some second thoughts after posting this one. Darn those 15-hour deadlines. The ending of the new film just isn't right. The last thing in the world I want to do is give the least hint about the ending of a film that is so thoroughly about story, secrets and surprise, so that's all I'll say - except that it is very much of its time, and falls far short of the original. 'Nuff said.

Available at Videomatica1962 and 2004

Originally published at Christianity Today Movies

Wednesday, July 07, 2004


No man fears to kneel before the God he trusts. Without faith, without belief in something, what are we?

If you don't expect much from summer movies, this one may not disappoint. And if that sounds like faint praise, I'm afraid it's all I can muster.

KING ARTHUR sets out to tell the true story behind the Arthurian legends that are familiar to most of us only through movies and children's books, and while its claims to history are pretty questionable, I got a kick out of seeing bits and pieces of the well-known stories juggled around and fit into an unexpected historical context.

Even though the setting is primitive celtic instead of shining-armour medieval, we start spotting unusual twists on familiar stuff right away. There's Arthur – some folks call him Artorius – and half a dozen knights, some with familiar names like Galahad, Tristan (though I don't think Isolde ever shows up) and Lancelot. Merlin gets name-dropped pretty quick, Arthur's sword gets called Excalibur, and eventually we even get a convincing enough rendering of the sword in the stone business. We even get a damsel-in-distress Guinevere (a feisty and fetching Keira Knightley, the best thing about the movie) – and though she definitely fits the "fair maiden" bill, this warrior princess is more Lucy Lawless than Vanessa Redgrave. Kinda fun.

The idea here is that the knights of the round table are Roman conscripts, the sons of fierce warriors who were the only survivors of the empire's military campaigns in Sarmatia – think Afghan horsemen and you won't be far wrong. Nearing the end of fifteen years service protecting Roman interests in the south of Britain, these boys want only their freedom. It's time to go home.

Turns out the Romans are feeling pretty much the same way. It's half past 300 AD, and the empire is a bit over-extended. After decades of fending off nasty northern natives who paint themselves strange colors – think BRAVEHEART and you won't be far wrong – and now faced with Saxon hordes who've invaded the north and are bent on the destruction of everything non-Saxon – think orc-wannabes and you won't be far wrong – the Romans are wondering whether discretion might not be the better part of valor, and maybe it's time to head back to their Mediterranean villas.

On the day of their promised release from service, Arthur (played by a humourless Clive Owen) and his not-so-merry men are handed one last assignment: go to the heart of enemy territory and rescue a Roman family, one of whom is destined to be a great leader in the Roman church. It's practically a suicide mission, but Arthur is a soldier under orders – and a committed Christian, interestingly enough – and his men are the only ones capable of carrying out the assignment. So off they go.

It's a bad sign when you keep thinking of other films that are "just like" the one in front of you. It's a worse sign when each movie you think of was a lot better than the one you're actually watching. In the early stretches, as we see this Dark Ages Magnificent Seven ride to the rescue, arrayed in various picturesque formations – seven is a good number for that kind of thing – there's some pretty nifty soldier banter amongst Our Heroes that begins to distinguish one amazingly gifted warrior from the next. It's sort of SEVEN SAMURAI, transported to the wilds of ancient Britain instead of the wild west of not-quite-so-ancient America. One problem: this kind of movie depends on well-drawn, interesting characters who we come to care about as they carry out their various heroics, but in KING ARTHUR, most of the character development that starts out so promisingly – Bors (Ray Winstone) is particularly well drawn, and the soldierly comraderie convincing – falls completely into the background once the main plot kicks in.

You see, when Arthur and his posse find the folks they're supposed to evacuate, they can't bring themselves to leave the family's serfs and slaves and such to be slaughtered by the savage Saxons. Of course it's impossible for the seven of them to safely transport all these village people to safety, pursued by the blood-thirsty enemy soldiers, but they can't leave these defenceless people to be slaughtered.... And then you think, no, this isn't Kurosawa or Sturges, it's Fuqua, and isn't this just TEARS OF THE SUN GOES TO SCOTLAND, without the passion?

There comes a point where the Roman-led forces stare down the fur-clad barbarian hordes, and I could only think that even though the tables were somewhat turned, we'd seen this before. When I got home I found out screenwriter David Franzoni also penned GLADIATOR, and I remembered where.

Enough already, you get the idea: for all its claims to be offering a fresh spin on the Arthur legends, this bit of summer bombast is mostly a massive cinematic recycling project. If you're content simply to get out of the summer heat and settle in for some more-or-less diverting riffs on about twenty familiar story ideas, you'll have a reasonably good time. There's lots of chilly mountain scenery, including a pretty cool (if ultimately improbable) showdown on a frozen lake. There's plenty of Legolasian archery, great horse riding and stirring adventure music, and all kinds of neat fighting (though the obligatory climactic battle scene ends up being a confusing mess that makes you realize how well-thought-out and well-directed the battle scenes were in THE LAST SAMURAI. Or LORD OF THE RINGS, for that matter. But the less comparison made with Tolkien the better...)

Most intriguing – and, when all's said and done, most disappointing – is the fact that KING ARTHUR also tries to deal with spiritual and philosophical issues. I don't want to give too much of this away, since part of the movie's interest lies in figuring out what's going on with the central character himself, but let me say that Arthur is torn between loyalty to his men (Central Asian conscripts), service to his country of allegiance (Rome), and an inescapable sense of identification with their enemy (the land and the people of Britain). It is to the movie's credit that the religious life of each of these groups is an important part of their identity, and I was fascinated to see that Arthur himself is passionately committed to serving the Christian god, even when he stands alone in that belief. Historical theology students will be intrigued at the medallion of Pelagius that Bishop Germanius finds in Arthur's quarters, but I'm afraid in the end that the character's – and the film's – spirituality ends up being mostly a way to talk about far more conventional themes of freedom, earthly and political.

That's the problem with the whole movie: it nods in the direction of tons of potentially interesting developments of plot, theme and character, but doesn't bother to follow through on any of them enough to pay off. It could have been a pretty good movie – heck, it could have been a dozen pretty good movies – but it settles instead for being merely good enough.

Originally published in somewhat different form at Christianity Today Movies
Available at Videomatica