Archive for The Manchurian Candidate

Brainwashed

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 16, 2016 by dcairns

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Jonathan Demme seems like such a smart and likable fellow, and for a while there his films were really something to look forward to. I can’t explain the one-two punch of remakes THE TRUTH ABOUT CHARLIE (CHARADE recycled, confirming what SABRINA should have proven: don’t mess with Audrey Hepburn vehicles) and THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE in the early years of this century. Despite cameos by the likes of Anna Karina, Agnes Varda and Charles Aznavour (TTAC) and Robyn Hitchcock, Al Franken, Roger Corman and Bruno Ganz (TMC), they are weirdly UN-COOL movies, lacking the charm of the old and the freshness of the new. All the fun stuff (Karina as a chanteuse? Sure, if you’re offering!) is incidental, decorations on a dead tree.

I finally watched TMC on a whim — I picked up the DVD for £1 in a charity shop, then found to my chagrin that it was on Netflix anyway, started watching it, got bored, decided to some back to it and found it was deleted, so my disc came in handy after all. So, I freely confess, I watched it piecemeal, which is arguably not giving it a fair shot. But I think I’d have had the same problems with it regardless.

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Weird seeing Jon Voight as the liberal. But weirdly natural seeing him upside down underwater. Why is that? Then I realized: for some time now, Jon Voight ALWAYS looks like he’s upside down underwater.

I really like John Frankenheimer and George Axelrod’s original — this piece concentrates on its many flaws, but I hope succeeds in bringing out why it’s ultimately so satisfying. The 2002 version, I thought, was going to attempt to be a political update for the War on Terror, but even though Axelrod’s script for the original did not name political parties and Daniel Pyne and Dean Gorgaris’ does, the movie seemed irrelevant. Oddly, it ought to have deeper resonance now, with the idea of a puppet president, but since Demme’s Manchuria is a corporation not a foreign power, it’s the Frankenheimer that feels more of-the-moment… prophetic, even.

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Sci-fi implants just don’t have the resonance of brainwashing, something we can still somewhat believe in. So we don’t believe in the device, and the Evil Corporation feels like a standard movie trope, not an impassioned political stance. It’s like Demme’s response to the Bush administration was to come out against Webscoe, the Evil Corporation from SUPERMAN III.

Everything about Demme’s film is perfectly decent. So instead of Frank Sinatra’s moving, anguished performance, we get Denzel Washington’s perfectly decent one. Instead of Frankenheimer’s taut, surrealism-inflected visuals, we get Demme’s perfectly decent filmmaking. Where Laurence Harvey imbued his brainwashed “war hero” with that rather hateful quality Harvey always had, combined with spectacular good looks, Liev Schreiber gives an exceptional performance made less affecting because, with his odd, features, he’s much more obvious casting as a Man Without Appeal. He’s like a thin George Bancroft whittled from cork.

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Actually, maybe he’s meant to have appeal because the script makes a few changes, so that Schreiber is a vice presidential candidate who stands to get the top job, while Washington is the one who’s been programmed as an assassin. This actually makes a kind of narrative sense, or it would if it led us to a satisfying and disturbing conclusion. But a dark, scary ending would have turned this into a clone of THE PARALLAX VIEW, so it has to have a wishy-washy happy ending, making heroes of the FBI (who have received a surprising amount of positive PR from Demme’s career).

Streep is the highlight. I’ve come round to Streep, if not to her movies.

 

The Abuses of Enchantment

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Mythology, Television, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 14, 2016 by dcairns

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So, yes, Fiona is in a dark place — each morning we don’t know what level of anxiety and/or depression to expect. Good days are not as good as they ought to be, but are very welcome because the bad days are almost unendurable. This can make film viewing strange and risky — we both hugely enjoyed the John Cromwell PRISONER OF ZENDA but the teary conclusion was difficult for Fiona: “It’s too horrible!” she cried, a reaction the Ronald Colman swashbuckler has probably not often provoked.

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INTO THE WOODS is something I just clicked onto on NetFlix because I saw it was there and I’m trying to get a decent amount of use out of Netflix as long as I’m paying for it. (I did the same with Jonathan Demme’s pallid remake of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE and was watching it in short bursts when the bastards deleted it on me.) I should have been warier but my main experience of Sondheim’s musical was decades ago when I watched a televised stage version. This was sort of diverting but of course I had the feeling of being too far away from the action all the time. Televised stage stuff has gotten a lot better and if it helps subsidize the theatre then it’s nice I suppose, but it’s not the real thing.

Still, this is, in principle, the sort of thing I ought to enjoy — what had put me off was not liking CHICAGO much. A friend had said “It’s brilliantly cut,” but it turned out he meant “There is a lot of cutting in it,” which is not the same thing. Some of the transitions are clever but the dances were slashed into an incoherent fruit salad, impossible to tell who was where and if it was really them at all. (Richard Gere, I’m looking at you — or am I?) Maybe Harvey Weinstein is to blame.

Anyhow, I missed out on the intervening films — except now I realise I didn’t, because Marshall did a fairly anonymous job on PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES, which I saw for my sins. I’m cheered to report that INTO THE WOODS is pacey without being frenetic, shots are allowed a chance to make their mark and sometimes do more than one thing, and the design is lovely in a fairytale way, never quite breaking with convention but then maybe it shouldn’t. Letting this Disney film look like a Disney film is the best way to allow the play to be subversive.

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Script is credited to James Lapine but he is surely not responsible for the VO, which is clumsily written (subject and object get jumbled) and which mainly just describes what we can already see. You don’t do that: that’s Page 1 of the Billy Wilder rulebook. Narration is for things we don’t see. It’s being used as a kind of glue here, to unite the fragmented stories, and to replaced the character of the storyteller deleted from the stage version, which is fine, but it just needs to be good English and to serve some purpose other that descriptions for the visually impaired. I suspect it’s been added by a producer or director, since I certainly hope nobody gets paid money to write this badly. If someone at the top wrote it, nobody would be able to say “This is not good, clear English and it’s not saying anything we need to hear.”

If Lapine DID write the VO, he wrote it in half an hour during post-production while in a very bad mood.

The cast is generally good. Johnny Depp is basically a cameo, in wacky mode, giving it a kind of imprimatur since he was Sweeney Todd. Meryl Streep is really good (apart from a strangely underpowered rendering of “I was just trying to be a good mother,” a killer line which everyone seems to have decided, inexplicably, should not be funny), and it’s the song where we see a sympathetic side to the witch that set Fiona off. Controlling mothers… something perhaps Fiona and Sondheim have a shared understanding of. Emily Blunt is pretty amazing, getting unexpected laughs and being a real human in the midst of all this make-believe. Agony, rendered by Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen, is properly hilarious.

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Some of Marshall’s ideas don’t work. Using a time-stop device so Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) can sing On the Steps of the Palace, moving about while she’s supposed to be stuck in tar, is more confusing than helpful. The palace itself is a dingy stone medieval edifice, a slab of masonry with no Disneyland about it, not what the situation seems to demand.

What I only vaguely remembered from my viewing of the stage/telly version is the bold way Sondheim and Lapine weave disparate stories together and create a great pile-up of happy endings at the halfway mark, then methodically smash them all to bits like a bratty child with a toy box, working out some issues. Which is what INTO THE WOODS is about, really. The compromises the play has gone through in reaching the screen are essentially formal, and the challenging refusal of fairytale happiness is, unexpectedly, intact and potent. Disney has actually decided not to Disnefy.

A One-Way Ticket to Pakulaville

Posted in FILM, Politics, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 31, 2015 by dcairns

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I watched THE PARALLAX VIEW, directed by Alan Pakula — excuse me, Alan *J* Pakula — because I figured it might serve as a surprise entry to Seventies Sci-Fi Week —

— one should always have Surprise Entries. I remember reading the line-up of a season of science fiction films programmed by David Cronenberg, and they were ALL surprise entries, from Robert Wise’s HELEN OF TROY (“Indistinguishable from FLASH GORDON” — nice try, but FLASH goes like a train — maybe SIGN OF THE CROSS would be a better fit) to TAXI DRIVER (“A better version of BLADE RUNNER than BLADE RUNNER.”)

— you see, I was remembering the Parallax Test scene and thought it was a movie about brainwashing, but I think that scene is probably just testing the subject’s emotional responses to words and images. It’s not the full Ludovico. To be a science-fiction film, the movie would have to take the speculations around Lee Harvey Oswald and Sirhan Sirhan and spin them into an elaborate speculative fiction. And the speculation would have to be based on altering present conditions. The Manchurian Candidate does this. It’s based on the way captured Americans were “brainwashed” — ie tortured into submission, in reality — during the Korean War, but it speculates that somebody could be mentally adjusted and become an unconscious assassin, a human bomb waiting for a post-hypnotic suggestion to trigger detonation. That phenomenon had never been witnessed — so far as we know — so the Condon book and Frankenheimer-Axelrod film could be termed sci-fi.

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THE PARALLAX VIEW instead shows an organisation recruiting subjects who would make suitable lone gunmen, based on their psychological profiles, and also supplying patsies. No such organisation is known to exist — apart from possibly the CIA and a few organisations like it — but it certainly COULD exist. No adjustment of present social conditions or our understanding of scientific principles or our mastery of scientific techniques would be necessary for this film to come true.

Now I just scared myself.

The reason I misremembered the movie, which I have seen several times, is that it’s somehow elusive in the memory. And a little hard to concentrate on, as if the Hitchcockian, paranoid thriller were a slightly inapt match for Pakula’s offbeat, observational style (and we should maybe refer to the director as Pakula-Willis, since cinematographer Gordon Willis is such a central, essential contributor to Pakula’s best work). The script is by David Giler and Lorenzo Semple, with uncredited assist by Warren Beatty’s close buddy Robert Towne.

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I had forgotten some good stuff — Hume Cronyn plays by far the best character (almost the only character, after Paula Prentiss’s one scene). I had forgotten there’s a hyperbolic barroom brawl that wouldn’t look out of place in a Hal Needham movie. I remembered that there was a car chase that’s similarly out-of-place. But the good action stuff is when Pakula defies genre by sitting the camera well back and calmly watching, chin resting on knuckles, as a human life is snuffed. The skirmish atop the Space Needle at the start, and the floundering fight in the flooding river, a huge damn venting a wall of spume in the background. The documentary distance adds a sense of reality, and therefore danger. (Obviously Pakula is doing this partly so he can cover up Beatty’s substitution by stunt double Craig Baxley — excuse me, Craig *R* Baxley — but the point is he makes a stylistic feature out of it.)

A different kind of distance afflicts our relationship with Warren Beatty’s character, a classic seventies alienated douchebag — Beatty cheerfully plays his more obnoxious traits to the hilt. The fact that he spends very little time in the movie with anyone he can relate to at all makes it a little hard to see him as other than an articulated shape. And I think the film has a hard job recovering from the Parallax Test in the middle, since it’s such a tour-de-force. We go from a montage masterpiece back into what is merely a very  good movie. And nobody seems to know who is responsible. Don Record did the title designs and seems to have had a role designing it. John W. Wheeler edited the movie as a whole. Did they collaborate or was the whole sequence farmed out to Record?

It reminds me of Chuck Braverman’s amazing opening sequence to SOYLENT GREEN, which IS a seventies sci-fi movie.

Now go do what you have to do.