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A SIERRA NEVADA
(MICHAEL MADSEN & JOHN SAVAGE).
This is bad science funded by rich people!
Director Jonathan Demme has had a long 30 year career of directing mediocre movies. In he 1970s he made the SO Bad They're Good CAGED HEAT and Crazy Mama, followed by weak attempts at comedy and serious film-making. In the 1980s he made the good enough, Melvin and Howard and Married to the Mob, followed by weak attempts to enhance the listening pleasure of a Spaulding Gray monologue (Swimming to Cambodia), and the awful to worse Something Wild.
Then in 1991, Jonathan made THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and wowed us all. He followed that up two years later with the heart breaking Philadelphia, then sank into mediocrity again. The thing you could deduce about Jonathon's directing is, when he has a great script, he makes a great movie, and when he has a weak script he makes a weak movie. As a story teller - a director - he cannot tell the difference.
In THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, Demme brings all of his years of directorial experience to bear and, in terms of camera angles and his trademark technique of actors looking directly into the camera - at us - and speaking, it is flawless.
The story begins in 1991. There, we are told through narration, during the battle of Kuwait, a unit of nine men were surprised by an ambush. If not for the bravery of one corporal, Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber: SCREAM [all of them], PHANTOMS, THE SPHERE, THE SUM OF ALL FEARS), the entire unit would have died. At least, that's what Major Ben Marco (Denzel Washington: THE BONE COLLECTOR) is telling an audience of boy scouts.
A shaky visitor to the lecture turns out to be an old war buddy of Major Marco, Al Melvin (Jeffrey Wright: D-TOX). In fact, Al was a part of the very mission in Kuwait that was rescued by Raymond Shaw. The problem is, he's been having nightmares, lots of them, every night, and is starting to think that perhaps Raymond didn't save them. This unnerves Major Marco because he's been having the same types of dreams. In fact, he's secretly on medication.
Meanwhile the former Corporal Raymond Shaw has been doing quite well over the years. As a successful senator, he is being groomed for the position of vice-president. Groomed being the correct word since the one who is grooming him is his domineering mother, Eleanor, played with bubbly threat by Meryl Streep (SILKWOOD, DEATH BECOMES HER). A quick peek into Raymond's personal time reveals an incomplete man. Raymond is satisfied to sit and stare at nothing, waiting for someone to tell him something. That such a man could be so popular with the voters would seem unlikely if it wasn't for the fact that he turns unnaturally alive when the cameras point toward him. In public he is intelligent, charismatic, and decisive. One might say he's puppet-like.
A look into Marco's life reveals that he lives pretty much the same way as Raymond. In public Marco is a squared away upright and crisply uniformed soldier. But in his apartment, he shares Raymond's stasis of life right down to their nightly bowl of ramen noodles (why is never explained). Both men live their private time as if waiting for the next command: except Raymond has someone to take care of him. Marco has the Army, but they aren't in on the secret thing that happened to Marco's unit and so his lifestyle is left to deteriorate. Marco can't even get a date when the woman is nearly throwing herself at him.
Both men also have rare glimpses, moments alone, when they realize that all isn't as it seems.
Al Melvin left the Army, has no one to look out for him, and so has devolved into little more than a street citizen. He lives in a tiny flop house hotel room and draws maddening pictures on his walls and in his notepads. But left alone, he has also had more time to consider his nightmares and his disturbing thoughts, and piecing the shards of truth together is driving him to the edge of insanity.
Raymond belongs to one political party, and his mother belongs to the other. Though no party is ever named, we the audience are mallet-beaten into clarity by the ham-handed exposition provided by a TV Commentator, played by Al Franken, who goes into an overly long tirade that pretty much touches every liberal polemic that he has ever uttered to trash the conservative side.
The effect is one of popping you right out of the film. It's such a stupid move that you have to wonder what the hell the producers were thinking? What next in political thriller remake land? ON THE BEACH with Michael Moore as Bridie? FAIL-SAFE with Rush Limbaugh as Buck?
At this point the movie stumbles into parody from which, despite excellent performances from Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep, it never recovers. And yet the acting and direction is too serious to create an atmosphere of satire, leaving many of the funny moments unintentional.
So much time is taken from the movie and plot to go into repetitive exposition on the nature of the operation, the technology behind it, the ones who developed the technology, the corporation behind it, why they did it, and how they trained the soldiers into accepting it. Unless your name is Dale Gribble, you probably won't buy into it. And if you don't, then the rest of the movie falls apart into a blow by blow propaganda flick.
Cliché time starts off with the beating-the-ground-where-the-horse-died "Evil American Corporation". Hollywood latched onto this crutch back in 1939 with Stagecoach and hasn't let go since. Evil American Government and Evil American Corporations by Capitalists* have evermore remained the Kool-Aid response to any script's vast sucking plot hole of "Why?"
As if an Evil Corporation weren't enough, this weak device uses the standard carrier attachment of bad guys with British accents. The Evil Scientist, Atticus Noyle (Simon McBurney) has a secret lab, wears a sharp part in his hair reminiscent of Adolph somebody, and is never seen without his labcoat: like the mad doctor he is. Oh, and by the way, his character is actually supposed to be a mad doctor.
"Sir! If making mutant animals spliced with humans is crazy
So on the one side we have this mad doctor, Atticus Noyle (Simon McBurney: KAFKA)
Fucking Facepalm, man!
On the other side, we have Marco,
So by another extreme stroke of fortunate luck, this scientist has the training to help Marco fill in the missing pieces of his investigation.
Other snicker-worthy moments came with the amateurish abilities of the spies.
At one point, Marco realizes he is being spied upon when he sees a blinking red light from behind an air vent!
Now never mind the fact that you can go down to your local electronics store and choose from a wide assortment of tiny video cameras that don't have the tell tale red blinking light. But even if these spies, due to - I don't know, cutbacks in funding? - have to resort to home video cameras with a red blinking light, nobody - none of them - would think to cover the stupid light with, say, electrical tape?
Finally, the name of the Evil Corporation itself: Manchurian Global (yes, there were more giggles)? I mean, a supposed patriotic all-American company named after a province in Communist freakin' China???
There are so many more holes that you could use this bonehead film as a trivia game. Invite your friends over to watch and pick it apart Mystery Science Theater 3000 style.
THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE lives in a weird vacuum of a world where, apparently, politicians cannot be bought off for any price, hence the decades, and huge amounts of money, required to control and guide a solitary man into a position of high political office.
The blame falls on the writers, Daniel Pyne (PACIFIC HEIGHTS, THE SUM OF ALL FEARS) and Dean Georgaris (LAURA CROFT TOMB RAIDER: THE CRADLE OF LIFE, PAYCHECK), who have made these kinds of mistakes in their previous scripts. Blame also to Director/producer Jonathan Demme, and Producer Scott Rudin (REVENGE OF THE STEPFORD WIVES, FLATLINERS, PACIFIC HEIGHTS, JENNIFER 8, SLEEPY HOLLOW, THE STEPFORD WIVES , THE VILLAGE), who cannot seem to stop themselves from making these dopey mistakes.
Despite the fine acting from all mentioned (John Voight in a wasted role, likewise Liev Schreiber who largely plays an automaton) and numerous cameos from Demme favorites, this movie stumbles to a sappy Hollywood ending. Superficial and sloppy, holy crap but this movie sucks!
Two Shriek Girls
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