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"The Manchurian Candidate"

Directed by Jonathan Demme.
Written by Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris.  2004 screenplay based on the 1962 screenplay by George Axelrod.  Both properties based on the novel by Richard Condon.
Starring Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep, Liev Schreiber and Kimberly Elise.
Release Year:  2004
Review Date:  7/31/04


I have seen the Frank Sinatra version of "The Manchurian Candidate" (naturally, I haven't read the book), and I loved that film, a story of paranoia and brainwashing that had me going till the end, thanks to a plot twist late and generally the best performance I have seen from both Sinatra and Angela Lansbury, playing the crazy obsessive mother of the Candidate in that film, played by Laurence Harvey.

I generally don't like it when people mess with the classics, but when Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep signed on to do a remake, I was intrigued...still, I thought it wouldn't be any better than that 1962 classic, so why bother?  Now I see why they bothered; the 2004 update is one of my favorite films of the year.

Directed by Jonathan Demme ("The Silence of the Lambs"), the word "taut" kept popping in my head because even though I know what is supposed to happen in this film, Demme does a great job of keeping you on edge throughout.  The plot has been modernized but is essentially the same.  Major Ben Marco (Washington) has been having these strange dreams from his time spent in Kuwait; he was the leader of a unit that was ambushed, only to be saved by a reclusive Army consultant named Shaw (Liev Schreiber).  This is important, mostly because you are told early on that Shaw seems to have nothing in the way of combat skills, yet he suddenly has the skills to shoot down two enemy choppers and defeat a small band of armed assailants.

Fast forward to the present (which, in this movie, is four years from now):  Shaw, a two-time seat winner in Congress, is tapped to be the running mate for a presidential nominee for the Republican party in 2008.  Marco, still with the military as a consultant, has been suffering paranoia for years and decides to look for answers as to how Shaw could have risen so quickly to power.  Lots of people try and get in his way in a search for the truth, including Shaw's mother (Meryl Streep), a former senator that is hell-bent on getting her son into the White way or the other.

(Sidebar--Personally, I loved the way the actual party is never identified in the film...but, from the sheer number of red states on the CBS electoral board in one shot to the black vice-president of the in-office party, I made a guess and said that the bad guys are Republican.  So, sue me.)

From the credits forward, I still can't think of something in "The Manchurian Candidate" that I didn't like.  Washington is his usual self, and he plays the Mel-Gibson-in-"The Conspiracy Theory" bit quite well.  Schreiber has always been reliable; normally a heavy or a bit player in his other roles, he is quietly affecting as the lost soul of Shaw.  He has a couple of really just beautiful moments where he realizes that he has nothing but what his mother says he's got; the funny thing is, I always loved how the Shaw character (in both movies) doesn't seem so much brainwashed as just a mama's boy, and knowing adults that did something because their parents told them to do it is a reality that has nothing to do with being spoon-fed mind-warping medication.

But, the pivotal role in "The Manchurian Candidate" is supposed to be the mother, and Streep is brilliant here.  (Of course, when is Meryl Streep ever bad?)  From an early speech profiling why her character's son would be the best person for the vice presidential nomination, to a spooky and uncomfortable scene with mom and her handsome, half-naked son, Streep is absorbing, diabolical, and believably insane at times, and it all works.  Lansbury was nominated for an Oscar for her part in 1962; I don't think Streep will be, but she pinch hits as well as anyone could have imagined.

The filmmaking is strong here as well; again, the pacing and suspenseful elements are great.  Acting by all of the players is solid; the collection of supporting parts by Jon Voight, Miguel Ferrer, Kimberly Elise (as a store clerk that has, well, a lot more to do with the plot than that sounds), and many other familiar faces (three alone from the TV show "24", from my count) make "The Manchurian Candidate" look professional from all angles.  The cinematography is magnificent, and I was impressed with the decision to go with mostly close-up, static shots of characters as they talked to one another...watching all of them--particularly Washington--stare into the camera is mesmerizing.  The score keeps you on edge, and while there are no sudden scares the music keeps you waiting for something to happen, even when there's not much going on.

I was very surprised when I walked out of the theater; "The Manchurian Candidate" doesn't top the original but it does stand side-by-side with other great political thrillers of the last 20 years, easy.

Rating:  Opening Weekend


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Bellview Rating System:

"Opening Weekend":  This is the highest rating a movie can receive.  Reserved for movies that exhibit the highest level of acting, plot, character development, setting...or Salma Hayek.  Not necessarily in that order. 

"$X.XX Show":  This price changes each year due to the inflation of movie prices; currently, it is the $9.50 Show.  While not technically perfect, this is a movie that will still entertain you at a very high level.  "Undercover Brother" falls into this category; it's no "Casablanca", but you'll have a great time watching.  The $9.50 Show won't win any Oscars, but you'll be quoting lines from the thing for ages (see "Office Space"). 

"Matinee":  An average movie that merits no more than a $6.50 viewing at your local theater.  Seeing it for less than $9.50 will make you feel a lot better about yourself.  A movie like "Blue Crush" fits this category; you leave the theater saying "That wasn't too, did you see that Lakers game last night?" 

"Rental":  This rating indicates a movie that you see in the previews and say to your friend, "I'll be sure to miss that one."  Mostly forgettable, you couldn't lose too much by going to Hollywood Video and paying $3 to watch it with your sig other, but you would only do that if the video store was out of copies of "Ronin."  If you can, see this movie for free.  This is what your TV Guide would give "one and a half stars." 

"Hard Vice":  This rating is the bottom of the barrel.  A movie that only six other human beings have witnessed, this is the worst movie I have ever seen.  A Shannon Tweed "thriller," it is so bad as to be funny during almost every one of its 84 minutes, and includes the worst ending ever put into a movie.  Marginally worse than "Cabin Boy", "The Avengers" or "Leonard, Part 6", this rating means that you should avoid this movie at all costs, or no costs, EVEN IF YOU CAN SEE IT FOR FREE!  (Warning:  strong profanity will be used in all reviews of "Hard Vice"-rated movies.)

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All material by Justin Elliot Bell for SMR/Bellview/ except where noted
1999-2009 Justin Elliot Bell This site was last updated 01/08/09