I recently watched Jonathan Demme's 2004 remake of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. I've seen the original 1962 version several times and it's a film I hold in high regard. The remake updates the basic plot with a few new wrinkles for the 21st century and is, generally speaking, a slick, well-made political thriller.
But I have a major problem with the key plot device of the narrative and I'm going to have to discuss in detail the end of the film here in order to make my point.
In the film, Bennett Marco (Denzel Washington), a veteran of the Gulf War, has been brainwashed to act as a political assassin. In the original film, Frank Sinatra played the part of Marco but he did not act as an assassin. That duty fell to Sgt, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey). Here, Shaw, as played by Live Schreiber, is another war hero who is positioned to be the vice-presidential nominee on an unnamed political party's ticket. Meryl Streep plays Shaw mother's (Angela Lansbury played the part in the original), a U.S. Senator, who will stop at nothing to see her son propelled into a strategically vital political position.
Shaw receives the nomination as vice president for his party at the convention and he's joined on stage by his mother. They stand alongside the presidential candidate whom Marco has been brainwashed into shooting. Instead, Marco overcomes his programming and shoots both Shaw and his mother with one bullet, effectively eliminating the real threat to the country.
It's a neat twist ending but I'm left wondering, what was the point of Marco shooting the presidential candidate in the first place? We're only at a political convention. The men have just been nominated. The ticket hasn't won a general election and neither man has taken an oath of office and been sworn into their respective duties. So why shoot a presidential candidate at this stage of the campaign?
Would Shaw automatically become the presidential candidate by default? Or would the delegates at the convention have to place into nomination another candidate for the position? Even if Shaw was somehow placed at the head of his party's ticket, it doesn't guarantee that he'll be elected in November. Wouldn't it make far more sense to wait until Shaw and the presidential candidate are elected and sworn in, before killing the new president? That's the only way I know of to put Shaw into office through a legal, constitutionally mandated succession of power.
If anyone has any insight into this question, I'd like to hear from them. Sure it makes for great political theater and high drama to stage an assassination at a major convention but from a logistical point of view, if making sure that the brainwashed Raymond Shaw ends up in the highest office of the land, it just wouldn't accomplish that goal.
Still, Demme delivers a well-crafted and very well acted film. Denzel Washington is superb as a broken man slowly uncovering the truth about his past, Schreiber is a stolid war hero, a blank slate upon which the evil schemes of others have been imprinted and Meryl Streep is almost-but-not-quite over-the-top as the power hungry mother who dominates her son in every way.
As a rule, I don't think remakes are necessary. Certainly not in the case of this material. The original MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE was an excellent film, superbly directed by John Frankenheimer. It's very much a product of the Cold War era in which it was made. Demme's film doesn't make any noticeable improvements on the material, merely some cosmetic changes. The plot is still essentially the same.
So, why spend all of that time, talent and money to redo something that was damn near perfect the first time? Couldn't all of that effort been put to good use on something new, fresh and original? The argument in favor of remakes like this used to be that the majority of today's moviegoers aren't familiar with the original, that it's an old movie in black and white with actors and actresses who are all dead and the material needs to be freshened up for a new generation.
That may have been true at one point but it's not true any longer. Anyone of any age who has any interest has access to the original version of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. They don't have to wait to catch it on television or to see it at a revival house. In 2014, the 1962 MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE is a click away, ready to be downloaded or streamed wherever and whenever anyone wants it.
So, the film is more accessible today than it has ever been. That eliminates the argument that today's audiences don't have access to the original film. The question (and problem) becomes, do they want to become familiar with it or will they prefer this new iteration which itself will probably be redone yet again in another twenty-odd years.
All I know is that while Demme's film is well made and entertaining, I still prefer the original version.
Tuesday, December 30, 2014
Sunday, December 28, 2014
Friday, December 26, 2014
Wednesday, December 24, 2014
Monday, December 22, 2014
Thursday, December 4, 2014
I finished reading MAJIC MAN by Max Allan Collins the other night. This 1999 mystery novel is the 11th Nate Heller adventure. The latest in the series, ASK NOT, was published 2013.
Nate Heller, for those who don't know, is a private detective who gets involved in several of the most high profile real life murder/mystery cases of the 20th century. Throughout the series, Heller interacts with almost everyone who was anyone in America between the 1930s and the 1960s. Politicians, gangsters, movie stars, cops, government agents, presidents, cabinet members, newspaper columnists, military officers, etc. Heck, you name 'em and if they are in any way connected to a famous crime or unsolved mystery, Heller's met 'em. He's a gumshoe Forrest Gump investigating the seedy underbelly of the twentieth century in novels that are film noir meets The History Channel.
I've read four of the Heller novels. The first, TRUE DETECTIVE was published in 1983 (I read it way back when). It involves the assassination attempt in Miami on President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Chicago's Mayor Cermak. BLOOD AND THUNDER (1995, Nate Heller #8) is about another political assassination, this one that of Louisiana governor Huey P. Long. And FLYING BLIND (1998, Nate Heller #10) reveals what really happened to legendary aviatrix Amelia Earhart.
MAJIC MAN finds Heller involved with the near-mythic "flying saucer" crash that occurred in Roswell New Mexico in July 1947. The bulk of the novel takes place two years later, in 1949 with Heller interviewing as many witnesses to the "crash" as possible. The more people he talks to, the more it appears that there really may have been aliens involved in the incident. Or were they?
Heller interacts with Secretary of Defense James D. Forestal, President Harry Truman, columnist Drew Pearson, Air Force officer Jesse Marcel and about a dozen other real people. He also discovers a secret organization within the U.S. government known as Majestic Twelve. The truth about Roswell is finally revealed but not before lives are lost.
MAJIC MAN is a first rate page turner. Collins has done his homework well and he sticks to the historical facts of the case. His portrayals of real people are accurate, as are his descriptions of period clothes and cars. Heller wisecracks his way through a twisted case of government cover-ups, ex-Nazis, a beautiful femme fatale and more. If you love mysteries, if you love history, check out MAJIC MAN. You'll love it. I sure did.
Wednesday, December 3, 2014
From 1970 to 2000 (a span of thirty years) I managed to see almost every film that won a Best Picture of the Year Academy Award. I missed a few here and there but I had a pretty good batting average. Heck, most years, I took pride in having seen all five of the films nominated for Best Picture.
But my movie going went into decline at the turn of this century and since 2000, I've seen only five Best Pictures of the Year: GLADIATOR (2000), MILLION DOLLAR BABY (2004), THE DEPARTED (2006) NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007) and finally, about a month ago, THE HURT LOCKER (2009). That's five films out of fourteen. I've yet to see A BEAUTIFUL MIND (2001), CHICAGO (2002), THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING (2003), CRASH (2005), SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (2008), THE KING'S SPEECH (2010), THE ARTIST (2011), ARGO (2012) and 12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013). I'm sure I'll eventually see most of these films except for THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING. I'd sooner scoop out my eyeballs with a dull spoon than watch any of the six Tolkien based films that have thus far been produced.
I spent a buck on a used DVD of THE HURT LOCKER at the thrift store awhile back, figuring what the hell, if this movie's no good, I'm only out a dollar. It turned out to be a very good movie indeed. Was it the best film of that year? Well, it was certainly better than DANCES WITH SMURFS, er, AVATAR, which was also nominated that year.
THE HURT LOCKER details the exploits of a three man Explosive Ordnance Disposal team during the Iraq War. The men are counting down the days until their tour of duty is up and they can return home. At least, two of the men are. The other, Sergeant First Class William James (Jeremy Renner) lives his life on the edge 24/7. He's the best of the three men, fearlessly walking into danger to disarm bombs and other threats. He lives on the adrenaline rush of danger, the thrill of being a split second away from devastating injury or death. He's so addicted, he can't function without some kind of threat to face down.
The other members of the team, Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) are good at what they do also, which is providing support and cover to James while he's defusing bombs. But these men are scared by their jobs, wrung out by the stress and fear and just want to survive long enough to go home alive and in one piece.
The structure of the film is episodic in nature. The men find themselves in several different potentially deadly situations throughout the film. All of these sequences are brilliantly filmed and edited to achieve maximum suspense and impact. Director Kathryn Bigelow puts us right alongside James, Sanborn and Eldridge and lets us feel the heat and the sweat, the suffocating claustrophobia of the bomb suit, let's us taste the bright metallic tang of fear that these men experience on almost a daily basis.
Following an excruciatingly suspenseful final episode with a suicide bomber, the men are sent home. James returns to his wife and infant child but he has no clue how to operate and survive in the relative peace and calm of the real world. He's in one piece physically, but he's so broken on a psychological level that he simply can't exist without the constant thrill of danger. He signs up for another tour of duty and goes back into the Iraq theater of war at the end of the film.
THE HURT LOCKER received nine Academy Award nominations including: Best Picture (winner), Best Director (Bigelow, winner), Best Original Screenplay (Mark Boal, winner), Best Sound Editing (winner), Best Sound Mixing (winner), Best Film Editing (winner), Best Actor (Renner), Best Original Score and Best Cinematography. Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win an Oscar for Best Director, beating ex-husband James Cameron who was also nominated for directing AVATAR. Jeremy Renner went on to star as the ace bowman Hawkeye in THE AVENGERS and THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON while co-star Anthony Mackie appeared as Sam Wilson/The Falcon in CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLIDER.
THE HURT LOCKER is an outstanding piece of film making. It's extremely well made, well acted and well written. It shows us a side of modern warfare that the average person has no conception of. The men who put their lives on the line to defuse bombs in a war zone pay a high price. They may survive but they'll never be the same. Highly recommended.
Tuesday, December 2, 2014
"I can't get with any religion that advertises in POPULAR MECHANICS"-Woody Allen, ANNIE HALL (1977)
You didn't have to be crazy to be a pulp fiction writer in the early twentieth century but it didn't hurt if you were. Consider the life and career of Texan Robert E. Howard (1906-1936), creator of Conan the Barbarian and other sword and sorcery heroes. Howard was, by all accounts, crazier than a shit house rat but boy, that sum bitch sure could write. He's one of my all time favorite yarn spinners and it's a shame that he took his own life at the astonishingly young age of thirty.
L. Ron Hubbard, another pulp writer, was apparently crazy too. Crazy like a fox. A prolific wordsmith of marginal talent, Hubbard hacked out (figuratively and literally) a career in the pulp jungle of the '30s and '40s. He wrote a few novels in addition to the hundreds of stories he churned out in a variety of genres. But Hubbard's career really took off when he wrote DIANETICS and subsequently founded the Church of Scientology.
Scientology's "theology" is based on a story told by Hubbard that wouldn't have appeared out of place in the pages of the pulp science fiction magazine AMAZING STORIES. But this yarn along with other writings by Hubbard, became the basis for a worldwide church that is staggeringly wealthy and powerful.
All of this and more is meticulously detailed in GOING CLEAR: SCIENTOLOGY, HOLLYWOOD & THE PRISON OF BELIEF (2013) by Austin based writer Lawrence Wright. I finished reading this one about a month ago and it's one helluva read. Wright, a Pulitzer Prize winner for THE LOOMING TOWER (2006), bends over backwards to present as fair and balanced a portrait of Hubbard and Scientology as possible. He conducted dozens of interviews and offers a revealing peek behind the scenes of this highly secretive religion.
What emerges in the pages of GOING CLEAR is the story of Hubbard, who appears to have been a pathological liar and control freak with delusions of grandeur. Those delusions were ultimately fulfilled however by the creation of his church of Scientology which brought him untold wealth and power. Scientology comes off as a group of not-so nice people doing extremely questionable things. The leaders of the church seem obsessed with courting such Hollywood stars as John Travolta, Kirstie Alley and, most importantly, Tom Cruise. Having a big name actor serve as the public face and spokesperson for Scientology seems to lend an air of credibility and respectability to the church and the leadership will go to any extremes to keep Tom Cruise front and center. And happy.
The leadership also indulges in punishing members for mistakes, subjecting them to treatment that some frat houses wouldn't condone during pledge week. Members are made to suffer and suffer some more when they don't pass their "audits". The church is also extremely vindictive and litigious when it comes to any negative portrayal in the media. The church leadership has filed countless law suits against their "enemies" and have resorted to other strong arm tactics including blackmail and coercion.
Criminal acts and terroristic behavior abound in the pages of GOING CLEAR. Wright and a small army of attorneys (most of them from THE NEW YORKER magazine) faced off against the current church leader David Miscavige during the writing of this book. Screenwriter and director Paul Haggis, who spent years in Scientology, is now out of the church and served as one of Wright's main sources of information. There are many other people, former church members, who speak out in the book as well.
GOING CLEAR is a fascinating book. It reveals everything you ever wanted to know about Scientology and then some. It's not a pretty picture although, to be fair, many people have benefited from the religion over the years. It's the people who have been abused by the church that make up this extremely compelling, eye-opening, page turner of a history of a man and his followers. GOING CLEAR was a finalist for the National Book Award for Nonfiction and was shortlisted for the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award. The book is currently being adapted into a documentary by HBO and is slated for release at the Sundance Film Festival in 2015.
HBO had 160 lawyers review the film out of fear of litigation by the Church of Scientology.
Sunday, November 30, 2014
I watched GUNS AT BATASI (1964) for the first time the other day and enjoyed it. Although the DVD copy I have is from the 20th Century Fox "War Movies" collection, it's hard to classify this film as an actual "war" movie. It does involve military forces and armed conflict but it's not set during any actual historical "war".
The story takes place in an unnamed African country during the then present day (1964). The country has recently been granted its' independence from Great Britain. There's a provisional government in place and British troops are still in country, training the natives to serve in what will eventually become their own national military.
But the situation is fraught with tension. A revolutionary group stages a coup against the brand new government. There are supporters of this group within the military and they soon seize control of the military base at Batasi. They order the British soldiers there to surrender their weapons and stand down. And that's when things take a turn for the worse.
A British Sergeant Major (superbly played by Richard Attenborough) refuses to back down. He's been posted to British colonies and military bases around the globe over the course of his military career but he's never been in a combat situation. He sees the current situation as a chance to uphold his military training and loyalty to the crown and, just possibly, to cloak himself in the glory of battle.
Attenborough and his men (a small handful of other officers) use their officer's club as a fortress against the rebels who eventually issue an ultimatum: surrender their weapons or be killed. To show that they mean business, the rebels bring in two giant cannons and point them at the building. Against a ticking clock, Attenborough and one of his men sneak out and blow up the guns only to find out that everything has been resolved between the new, revolutionary government and the British foreign office. Peace is restored but Attenborough is transferred back to England due to his insubordination.
GUNS AT BATASI is an intelligent, well written (Leo Marks, Marshall Pugh and C.M. Pennington-Richards adapted the novel Siege of Battersea by Robert Holles) drama. Director John Guillermin keeps things moving and slowly ratchets up the tension between the British officers and the rebel soldiers. He gets good performances out of a solid cast which includes Jack Hawkins, Flora Robson and Mia Farrow. Although set in Africa, GUNS AT BATASI was filmed entirely in England. A great deal of the "action" takes place indoors with scenes in the embattled officers' club having an air of claustrophobic unease and dread. A minor film but a good one. Thumbs up.
Thursday, November 27, 2014
Well, I'm glad I finally got that out of my system.
Until a few nights ago, I'd never seen a Terence Malick film. The mercurial (and sometimes Austin resident) filmmaker has a reputation for making beautifully shot, incredibly cerebral films. He also rivals the legendary Stanley Kubrick for producing a small body of work over an extremely long period of time. Consider his filmography: BADLANDS (1973), DAYS OF HEAVEN (1978), THE THIN RED LINE (1998), THE NEW WORLD (2005), THE TREE OF LIFE (2011), TO THE WONDER (2012) and KNIGHT OF CUPS (2014). That's seven films over a forty year span.
I finally watched my first (and most likely, last) Terence Malick film the other night. BADLANDS ran on TCM and I recorded it and watched it. I'm not certain of this, but I'm willing to bet good money that some 1973 film reviewer used the words "lyrical, poetic" in his or her review of BADLANDS. "Lyrical, poetic" in a film review are code words for "has no plot". BADLANDS has a plot (sorta). It's a beautifully shot film (three cinematographers worked on the film: Tak Fujimoto, Stevan Larner and Brian Probyn), well acted (the young Martin Sheen and even younger Sissy Spacek are both very good), glacially paced film about two young lovers/killers on the run in the 1950s.
Except that there's no dramatic tension, no sense of urgency, no blackly comic buzz to the whole affair. BADLANDS goes nowhere and takes it own sweet time in getting there. You want a good young lovers/killers on the run film? Check out THEY LIVE BY NIGHT (1948), GUN CRAZY (1950), BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967) or THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS (1974), any one of which is infinitely better than BADLANDS.
Based on the true story of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate in 1958, Martin Sheen channels his inner James Dean into his portrayal of Kit, an insane young man who kills several people throughout the course of the film, all for no apparent reason. Kit is no thief who kills in the commission of his crimes. He's a thrill killer without the thrill. Spacek is Holly, a borderline retarded young woman who accompanies Kit on his cross country spree after he shoots her father (the great Warren Oates, who is sadly under used here). The two live a fairy tale existence for awhile, setting up a tree house in the woods where they become a Swiss Family Robinson style little family. But the law soon stumbles upon them, Kit shoots and kills the police officers and they're on the run again. They're eventually captured. Kit is executed, Holly receives probation.
As I said, the film is gorgeous to look at and well acted but that's about the only nice things I can say about BADLANDS. It's a pretentious art film and I hate pretentious art films. I don't think I'll bother to see any other Malick films. I'll add him to my list of filmmakers to avoid along with David Lynch and Quentin Tarrantino. Thumbs down.
Tuesday, November 25, 2014
It is stuck in my memory that I saw THE BLUE MAX (1966) at the Varsity Theater on The Drag when it was first released. It was a Sunday afternoon matinee. Don't know why I can remember that. I just do. So it's somehow fitting that I recently watched this film for the first time since 1966 the other afternoon. And yes, it was on a Sunday.
THE BLUE MAX, with a screenplay by Ben Barzman and Basilio Franchina from the novel by Jack D. Hunter, tells the story of one Corporal Bruno Stachel (George Peppard), a German army infantryman at the beginning of World War I who yearns to become a fighter pilot and, more importantly, an ace (20 kills) along with the accompanying Blue Max medal of honor. He joins a German squadron where he immediately sets out to prove himself in air combat at any cost. He lies about his first kill and butts heads with both his commanding officer Hauptmann Otto Heidermann (Karl Michael Vogler) and the resident ace, Willi von Klugermann (Jeremy Kemp). Stachel is from common stock which makes his desire to equal and better his aristocratic squadron mates even stronger.
Stachel's exploits soon catch the eye of General Count von Klugermann (the great James Mason) and his wife, Kaeti (the breathtakingly beautiful Ursula Andress). The count sees Stachel as playing an important part in a propaganda campaign to win the hearts and minds of the German people by showcasing the achievements of a commoner among the aristocracy. Kaeti, on the other hand, just wants to sleep with Stachel. They do so but it's a relationship that will soon lead to Stachel's downfall. Stachel eventually earns the highly coveted Blue Max but when the count learns that he won it by cheating, he lets Stachel fly a dangerously unsafe new, experimental aircraft with disastrous results.
THE BLUE MAX is a big, old-fashioned (it's got an intermission, anyone remember them?) epic war movie. Director John Guillermin does a great job with the action both on the ground and in the air. Shot in Ireland by cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, THE BLUE MAX has a terrific score by Jerry Goldsmith and spectacular flying sequences with stunt pilots and vintage aircraft putting on a dazzling show. Peppard is a bit stiff but I've always liked the guy. Mason is, as usual, superb and Andress is simply too gorgeous for words.Thumbs up.
Monday, November 24, 2014
I took a chance on A FINE PAIR (1968) (when it showed up on TCM a few days ago) based solely on two things. The first was the film's description which read something like " a New York City police officer is blackmailed into helping a sexy cat burglar pull off a jewel heist". The second was the fact that said "sexy cat burglar" was played by the one and only Claudia Cardinale. The beautiful Italian actress has always been a favorite of mine and I figured anything with her in it was worth a look.
A FINE PAIR is an Italian film, directed by Francesco Maselli with a score by the legendary Ennio Morricone. The beginning of the film takes place in New York City and it's odd to see an American city in a foreign made film. The action quickly moves to Continental Europe where the rest of the film takes place. But the cinematography is grainy and murky throughout and everyone's dialogue appears to have been looped in during post-production. As a result, A FINE PAIR, lacks the polish and slickness that other Hollywood produced romantic comedy caper films such as CHARADE had.
But it's not a bad little film at all. Rock Hudson is the NYC police captain who is pulled in by Claudia Cardinale, a young woman he's known since she was a child. He's friends with her family, a large Italian clan in which all of the men are police officers. Cardinale comes to New York and seeks Hudson's help. She tells him that a "friend" has stolen some jewels from the home of a wealthy couple who are on a cruise. She convinces him to help her replace the stolen loot before the owners return and discover them missing. Hudson agrees and they're off to the German Alps to figure out how to break into a virtually impenetrable fortress like house.
Hudson comes up with an ingenious way to defeat the state-of-the-art (for 1968) security system and while he's replacing the jewels (fake, of course), Cardinale steals the real ones. Afterwards, Hudson is turned on by his new life of crime and wants to accompany Cardinale on her next caper. But she wants to go straight. Or does she? The two fight and split up and it's a game of who's conning who before they're finally reunited at the end.
A FINE PAIR is light weight, breezy and fun. It's no masterpiece but I enjoyed watching it. Heck, I'd watch Claudia Cardinale read the phone book.