The Manchurian Candidate (Demme, 2004)

Jonathan Demme’s scathing remake of The Manchurian Candidate is one of those rare films that gets better with age, growing more politically poignant with each exposed cover-up, corrupt politician, and devastating corporate malfeasance. Upon it’s 2004 release, the film seemed too paranoid, maybe even loony for digging so relentlessly into the wide-ranging corruption choking democracy in the post-9/11 Bush-age. Now, Demme’s dynamic and often brilliant thriller feels like one of the most relevant films of the last decade, a diabolical examination of a cracking national ideology that’s not paranoid enough.

From the waving American flag pushing the opening credits into oblivion, Demme positions devoted but conflicted Army Officer Ben Marco (Denzel Washington) on the fringes of disjointed perception and horrifying reality. Marco’s quest to find the truth is more about alleviating his own interior monologue than unveiling an international act of treason, but the evolution of his momentum inevitably begins to represent a growing national outrage. Ideological symbols and political platforms construct a distrustful landscape brimming with faux nationalism, shunning the American everyman in favor of global power. The razor-sharp pacing, the nuanced mirror performances by Washington and Liev Schreiber, and Demme’s schizophrenically reflective mise-en-scene organically feed into Tak Fujimoto’s river of sharp hues, creating a cinematic stained-glass window awash in menacing red, white, and blues.

The Manchurian Candidate confronts the very essence of what it means to be a conflicted American in the modern age, the varying degrees of devotion to country and self and the greedy capitalistic center controlling us all. But Demme’s film isn’t anti-capitalism or anti-government, just pro-justice. The Manchurian Candidate is one of the few genuinely entertaining and sophisticated Hollywood films that is also a political manifesto on corporate greed and manipulation, a dual level for those willing to measure morality on film. But beneath the technical genius lies a brimming anger for the smug indifference of those willing and able to live in a selfish fantasy of their own design, a veritable Candyland hallowed by the real “evildoers”. For this telling dichotomy, Demme’s textural powder keg is nothing short of revelatory.

Screening Log: 1/26 – 2/2

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Bright Star (Campion, 2009) – Wonderfully romantic and tender, with certain passages so lovely that Keats’ words and Campion’s visuals seem to merge together. The contours of clothing and textures of nature parallel Abbie Cornish’s hauntingly nuanced turn, the finest female performance of 2009. She breathes a genuine devotion into a woman combatting social limitations and interior emotional bursts. A masterpiece.

An Education (Scherfig, 2009) – Oscar came calling today, so I had to catch up with this critical darling. Perfectly banal and predictable melodrama with a fine lead performance and little else. The conflict has no edge, no complexity, and leads to the only obvious coming-of-age conclusion. A fine turn by Olivia Williams, who gives the film some life in key scenes, has been predictably overlooked.

Julie and Julia (Ephron, 2009) – Maybe it was my foul mood, but Ephron’s breezy, satisfying slice of culinary whimsey hit the spot. Even though she was nominated for an Oscar, this film proves most critics take Meryl Streep for granted. As Julia Child, she gives just another one of her countless great performances, transcending the mediocre and plodding narrative with a revelatory passion for scene-chewing joy.

The Escapist (Wyatt, 2009) – Potent British grit and grime, with not a single exterior shot to alleviate the cramped, compounding pressure of the story. The fine cast compliments a strange flashback structure, yet the singular trajectory lacks the needed punch and conflict to make this a classic genre film.

Collapse (Smith, 2009) – Purposefully alarming and striking, freely spraying bullets of damning material at countless worthy subjects. But this film’s explosive ordinance only takes us so far, and by the end credits the slew of conspiracy theories and projections dissipative into the either. Philip Glass’ musical stylings seems to have influenced every modern documentary score, and it’s getting old fast.

Silkwood (Nichols, 1983)

Karen Silkwood was a nuclear power plant employee, potential whistle blower, and union organizer who died suspiciously after agreeing to meet with a reporter from the New York Times to discuss contamination and faulty medical practices occurring at her workplace. Meryl Streep plays Silkwood as a midwestern gal of grit and sass in Mike Nichols stirring film adaptation, giving the doomed heroine a genuine sadness throughout her multiple exposures to plutonium, criticism from fellow workers, and separation from her crumbling family. Silkwood doesn’t break the mold for this particular sub-genre, but it’s a grueling personal ordeal and Nichols instills a disturbing ambiguousness to the treachery involved, painting Karen into corner after corner, showing an isolated woman trying to transcend society’s indignation for her growing ambition. The performances from Streep, Kurt Russell, and Cher are all top notch, but we should expect nothing less from the director responsible for so many great performance-driven films (Postcards From the Edge being my personal favorite).

Lions For Lambs (Redford, 2007)

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It’s not enough for Hollywood to simply make films about the various layers of the Iraq conflict by pandering to one side of the political aisle or the other. In my mind, to be successful the productions dealing with this complicated and wide-ranging topic must engage the complexities of the matter (social, economic, militarily) in a meaningful way, attempting at the very least to initiate a dialogue between contrasting views, opinions, and stereotypes that might clarify the muddled air. Easier said than done. Only Haggis’ In the Valley of Elah comes close to putting a personal face on the human cost of the war (admittedly within a blatantly Hollywood construct), while countless others (Redacted, and now Lions For Lambs), diligently preach at the very worst moment to do so.

Director/Star Robert Redford’s foray into the political hotbed of Iraq consists of three interlocking stories, taking place at the same time, and showing various points of view on the situation. Meryl Streep’s veteran journalist candidly interviews Tom Cruise’s smug GOP Senator, Redford’s wise professor professes to a smart but wasteful student, and Derek Luke and Michael Pena’s special forces team gets shot down implementing a new plan of attack in Afghanistan. All are connected by policy, history, and (in)action, although none of the three stories thankfully overlap.

Redford’s cliff notes version of our current quagmire revels in the obvious points of interest, chasing its tale around the issues just like the impotent policy makers it wants to expose. The most devastating and ultimately interesting theme in Lions For Lambs is the idea of wasted youth, via apathy and war. However, the film’s overhanded jockeying for respect/honor unfortunately limits the scope of these strong ideas, making for a very ordinary and compulsory examination of familiar tragedy. But then again, subtlety has never been Redford’s strong suit as a director.