Tag: The Manchurian Candidate

It’s your pre-Father’s Day Blu-Ray/DVD Round-Up

The DVDs and Blu-Rays have been piling up. So, it’s time to go through a bunch of them, with a bit of extra attention paid to movies that might appeal to dads, though I suppose moms might like some of these as well.

* Playwright George Kaufmann famously defined satire as “what closes on Saturday night” and these days you might as well define political thrillers as “what doesn’t get greenlit unless a bunch of big stars really want to do it, and then bombs.”  “The Manchurian Candidate” is both political thriller and a satire and it didn’t fail at the box office, though it was kept out of circulation for nearly twenty years after its initial release for reasons that remain somewhat mysterious to this day.

I’m hardly alone in feeling this is probably the best political thriller ever made and possibly the second best political satire after “Dr. Strangelove.” Long after the end of the Cold War which spawned it, it’s continues to resonate with our political culture and it’s title still gives peoples the willies. Just ask John McCain.

Directed by John Frankenheimer and based on a novel by the mordantly comic suspense novelist Richard Condon of “Prizzi’s Honor” and “Winter Kills,”, you might know that it’s the story of what happens when a Soviet/Red Chinese brainwashing unit gets its hands on a group of captured soldiers, including Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey, who makes aloof bitterness very cool), the highly estranged step-son of a Joe McCarthy-like senator. Frank Sinatra does maybe his best acting work as a traumatized fellow soldier who realizes something might be up because of some very strange and very bad dreams he’s having — and the fact that he keeps calling the unpleasant Shaw “the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.”

It’s a brave blend of politics, off-the-wall black comedy (what was called “sick humor” back then), suspense, and borderline Jacobean classical tragedy. Frankenheimer had a knack for making political material work dramatically, and also for drawing out strong performances. Janet Leigh (“Psycho“) was perfect as the female love interest, who was written so oddly by Richard Condon and screenwriter/playwright George Axelrod that many have theorized she’s actually an operative of some sort — an idea capitalized on in Jonathan Demmes’ disappointingly morose 2004 remake. The greatest casting coup here, however, is Angela Lansbury’s absolutely chilling turn as Raymond Shaw’s hated extremist Washington-hostess mother. She wasn’t the only less-than-pleasant character Lansbury ever played, but there’s something about what happens when actors who make a career largely playing nice people play extremely not-nice people that can be electrifying.

I also can’t resist mentioning the fight scene between Sinatra and Henry Silva as a North Korean spy, which Frankenheimer was often proud to mention was the first use of martial arts fighting styles in an American film. Seeing it again, it’s not only more brutally effective than I remembered as Sinatra and Silva all but destroy Laurence Harvey’s Washington apartment, but — especially in the initial moments when Sinatra instinctively begins fighting the Silva character without even knowing who he is — it’s pretty obvious to me now that it had to be one of the main inspirations for the terrific first fight scene in “Kill Bill, Volume I,” in which Uma Thurman and Vivica A. Fox lay waste to a Pasadena living room.

The Blu-Ray is, by the way, not a deluxe restoration, but it includes all of the excellent features that earlier DVDs have included and the print has been kept in excellent enough shape that a new restoration isn’t really necessary. It looks great. Super highly recommended, though pricey.

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A chat with Alex Gibney

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There’s no doubt that Alex Gibney is on a historic roll as a documentarian. Within only a few years, he’s been involved with probably the largest number of popular and influential documentaries of any single human being not named Michael Moore. Those works would include the outstanding “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” and the equally strong, and Oscar winning, “Taxi to the Dark Side,” about American use of torture in the “war on terror.” Gibney has also made his share of more historically themed documentaries, including “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.” He was also involved as a producer in two of the other most important and controversial documentaries of recent years, the Iraq-war expose, “No End in Sight” and “Who Killed the Electric Car?”

If Gibney’s past output is hugely impressive, however, his upcoming list of films is dizzying. At the recently wrapped Tribeca Film Festival in New York, he premiered as a “work in progress,” a new and apparently very revealing, look at former New York state governor, attorney general, and Wall Street watchdog Eliot Spitzer and the sex scandal that drove him from office. He also has a segment in the upcoming film version of the super-hot bestseller, Freakonomics, as well as new films about two very different cultural legends: bicyclist Lance Armstrong and author/super-hippie Ken Kesey of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Merry Pranksters fame.

There’s also the recently completed “My Trip to Al-Qaeda” and the film Gibney was promoting at his publicist’s L.A. office one recent afternoon, “Casino Jack and the United States of Money.” It’s a work of amazing journalistic detail that also works very hard to be lively and accessible.

Jack Abramoff is

 

Even if I felt that Gibney didn’t quite master that “accessible and lively” aspect too consistently this time around, his “Casino Jack” reviews so far have been great overall. He’s certainly a filmmaker to be reckoned with and one with an outstanding body of work behind him and much, much more to come. Not my idea of a lazy person.

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Unclean! Unclean!

As if the whole Michael Jackson thing wasn’t already starting to make me feel vaguely icky in a Robert Altmanesque kind of a way, we have something that takes the Hollywood squirm factor to a possible new height. Via a particularly lively “Today in Film Bloggery” post by Christopher Campbell comes word of a New York Post report that Michael Bay is supposed to have admitted to have had “Transformers” star Megan Fox audition — or perhaps “audition”– by allowing him to tape her washing his Ferrari. (What, he couldn’t afford the handwash on Santa Monica and La Brea?)

Now, there’s plenty of reason to be skeptical here, but I was already getting a good hate on the noxious and apparently proud-to-be-dickish director from stories like this. And, even before that, based on his work and press interviews, I steadfastly refuse to believe Bay’s claim (reportedly refuted by DNA testing, which Bay disputes) that he is the illegitimate son of director John Frankenheimer. The director of the best political thriller ever made, 1962’s “The Manchurian Candidate,” as well as numerous other films including “The Train” and “Ronin,” Frankenheimer was mightily skilled at combining character and thought with brilliantly coherent action sequences that could actually be understood. He was a model of integrity as a filmmaker and, as far as I can tell, as a man. Could Bay really have lost the genetic lottery so badly?

On a related note, Christopher Campbell’s previous film blog round-up deals with the controversy set-up by the trailer for Megan Fox’s next film, a horror comedy written by screenwriter Diablo Cody of “Juno” fame, one of the more celebrated and despised scribes to come around the film world in some time. The red band trailer below (a sexually specific F word, a bit of light gore, plenty of innuendo and plenty of Ms. Fox being much more sexy and interesting than I’ve seen here elsewhere) should give you some idea of what the shouting is about. All I know for sure is that I’ll think it’s a classic compared to “Transformers.”

George Wallace

This review will appear on the very same day an African-American man will become President of the United States. While the media is constantly reminding us of the historic nature of that fact, what many younger readers may not realize is that only three and a half decades back, a man running on a more or less openly racist, and specifically anti-black, platform was a serious candidate for President — running in the very same Democratic party that would eventually nominate Barack Obama for the highest office on earth.

“George Wallace” is a savvy and darkly engrossing, if often slow and heavy handed, television biopic that takes a circuitous path in tracing the long career of the despised and beloved four-term Governor of Alabama and four-time Presidential candidate of various parties, George C. Wallace (Gary Sinise). We first meet Wallace in 1972 as the avid, middle-aged husband to a beautiful and very sexy young wife, Cornelia (Angelina Jolie). At the same time, a racist state trooper forces Archie (a “composite” character played by Clarence Williams III), a convicted killer and Wallace’s trusted African-America valet, to wear handcuffs at his mother’s funeral.

George Wallace

After his fateful encounter with four bullets that day, we meet Wallace again as the younger and far more liberal political protégé of anti-racist populist governor “Big Jim” Folsom (Joe Don Baker). Though Wallace is a skirt-chasing, semi-absentee father and husband to his steadfast wife, Lurleen (Mare Winningham), the real darkness only comes four year later when Wallace is defeated in his first gubernatorial bid by an opponent supported by the terrorist Ku Klux Klan. Seeing no alternative – losing an election is equivalent to losing his life – Wallace swears that he will “never be outn*ggered again.” He is true to his words and, within a matter of years he is the nation’s most notorious racist pol, blocking the doors of the University of Alabama rather than allowing a pair of black students to enter and “mix” with white students, and uttering his most quoted line: “…I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

“George Wallace” is a look at history from the side of a well-deserved loser, and for those portions of the picture where director John Frankenheimer takes a dispassionate, even satirical (though deadly serious) approach, it is strong stuff and very much in line with the liberal director’s professional and personal legacy. A genius at creating smart political thrillers, and a participant in history himself as the man who drove Robert Kennedy to the Los Angeles hotel where he was assassinated, the director – never a grand-stander – allows himself to directly reference his own past via recreating one of his signature shots.

A key scene begins with Sinise/Wallace making a speech as a black and white monitor shows his TV version – a near identical view to the shot that introduces the McCarthy-esque Senator Iselin (James Gregory) in Frankenheimer’s 1962 masterpiece, “The Manchurian Candidate.” It’s not just stylistic messing around. Having sold his soul for political riches, George Wallace is a man in two halves. At times, he seems to be working hard to persuade himself that racism is correct and we’re never sure just how much he believes his own statements.

It takes time for Wallace to realize that the peaceful message of his bitter enemy, Martin Luther King, is far stronger than the cattle prods and water cannons of Alabama’s police departments, or the combined hate and fear of his state’s white majority. Actually, it takes a long time, plus a deadly church bombing claiming the lives of four innocent schoolgirls, plus a crippling bullet in the spine causing ongoing physical pain, plus the loss of two loving wives, before he can begin to admit he might have been wrong and begin to ask for forgiveness – and even then, no one is really sure of how much genuine remorse Wallace ever felt. (An uncomfortable interview with the real George Wallace in Spike Lee’s 1997 documentary, “4 Little Girls,” speaks directly to that point.)

As powerful as some sequences really are, a lot of things don’t really work in this Emmy and Golden Globe-winning telefilm. It would be tempting to blame all of the problems with “George Wallace” on the script by veteran TV scribe Paul Monash and George Wallace biographer Marshall Frady, but, though I might quibble about the need to create the character of Archie, it’s actually a good piece of work overall and the cast is for the most part sensationally good. It’s Frankenheimer’s directorial choices that occasionally fail. Most annoyingly, he clings excessively to Gary Chang’s florid score, ruining several scenes with unneeded and lackluster music.

The director also missteps in his decision to allow actor Clarence Williams III — a charismatic performer best known as Prince’s dad in “Purple Rain” and Linc of TV’s “The Mod Squad” — to portray his fictional valet as perpetually near tears of suppressed rage and remorse. Though Williams is superb, this choice renders the man as a stand-in for African-American anger, rather than as someone whom the governor might believably mistake as his Stephen Colbert-esque “black friend.” It’s harder to fault much relating to Sinise’s award-winning performance as Wallace, but at times he, too, is allowed to slink into excessive morbidity. (There’s also the matter of a bizarre and distracting continuity error regarding Wallace terrifying withered legs in a bathtub scene later in the film, followed quickly by a shot in which Sinise’s very normal legs are visible.)

However, it’s absolutely impossible to fault any choice made regarding the performances of the two female leads. Mare Winningham’s put-upon Lurleen Wallace is no plaster saint, but simply a very nice person deeply in love with a questionable man. And, not at all surprisingly, a perfectly cast 21 year-old Angelina Jolie steals all her scenes in just the right way as Wallace’s (mostly) devoted, fun loving, and highly-sexed second wife. The superstar-to-be lends a bit of much needed air to the film’s dour later scenes.

The supporting cast is also mostly a help, especially Joe Don Baker as the larger than life, slightly corrupt, Big Jim. Later on in the story, Baker performs a terrifying emotional 180 as, ill and broke, he begins a scene begging for a raise in his ex-governor’s pension, and then with the slightest prompting launches into excessively, but fully justified, rage at how Wallace has abused his responsibility by playing on the very worst in his supporters. It’s a brief tour de force from an underrated actor.

Also, while it’s not really a big part, fans of “Deadwood” will get a kick out of William Sanderson as faintly sleazy Wallace “kitchen cabinet” member T.Y. Odum – not a million miles a way from the similarly monikered, similarly obsequious, hotelier, E.B. Farnum. (I shouldn’t even mention it, but fans of another kind of viewing entirely will spot Ron Jeremy making the briefest of appearances as a pro-Wallace Boston hardhat.)

All in all, “George Wallace” might be a too portentous for its own good, but it is still a solid, worthwhile historical entertainment. It was also the start of a late career renaissance for Frankenheimer (his next project was the acclaimed action picture, “Ronin”). For the long time director with the well-known liberal and humanistic values and a special skill at portraying righteous indignation, it’s an apt return to the concerns that drove one of the most singular and skilled directors in Hollywood history. It’s also a sobering reminder of just how long it has taken for the United States to merely start to put its long history of bloody racial injustice behind it.

Sadly, the film’s two-disc release only contains one extra: the 20-minute video short, “Vision and Conflict: Collaborating on the Wallace Saga,” which combines interviews with Frankenheimer (who died unexpectedly in 2002) with “making of” material from the original production and new interviews with Gary Sinise, Angelina Jolie, Mare Winningham, the director’s wife, Evans Frankenheimer, and others. The video combines some interesting glimpses of the filmmaker’s at times combative working style, with some very nice reminiscences from the stars, all of whom seem to have developed surprisingly close attachments to the late, underrated director.

Intriguingly, the right-leaning Sinise was on the verge of the forming a production company with Frankenheimer, which could have resulted in some interesting films, or at least some good arguments. And for everyone who has suffered through one or more of Frankenheimer’s less acclaimed films — I’ve managed to miss most of them, somehow — it ends with a very wise statement from Frankenheimer: “Sometimes the movie god smiles on you, and sometimes the movie god defecates on you, and when the movie god defecates on you, there’s very little you can except try and get out of the way.”

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