Archive for July 2004

The Manchurian Candidate (2004)

July 30, 2004

Nobody plays solitaire in Jonathan Demme’s new rendition of The Manchurian Candidate, and I wondered why until I reflected on the meaning of the card game in the original 1962 film, wherein a brainwashed soldier was triggered to kill by the sight of the queen of diamonds. In 1962, red didn’t just mean blood; it meant commies, and the red queen was … well, let’s not spoil anything. Today, communism isn’t a big worry; terrorism is, and, for some of us, the bigger worry is a government that takes away our rights in the name of fighting terrorism and does deals with corporations that profit handsomely from military operations. Thus, in the remake, the puppetmaster is not Manchuria but Manchurian Global, a Halliburton-like outfit represented by three shady guys, including a stogie-waving Dean Stockwell.

How does the new Manchurian stack up to the old? For some, nothing can replace John Frankenheimer’s original, so far ahead of its time that it was considered a lurid paranoid fantasy until JFK was shot and the ’60s started getting weird and scary. Under Frankenheimer’s rock-solid direction, Frank Sinatra actually bestirred himself and gave a performance, and the script included many winking, cynical references to the way things really worked (such as the way the McCarthy-esque senator comes up with the magic number of 57 communists). Both films, I think, need to be viewed within the context of their times, and Demme’s Candidate is, if anything, more relevant to 2004 than Frankenheimer’s was to 1962 (in retrospect the older film seems more prescient than relevant).

After a few questionable moves (including his previous film, the flop remake The Truth About Charlie), Demme puts on his game face and remembers the instincts that led him to fortune and glory with The Silence of the Lambs. His Manchurian Candidate honors the original in every way — mainly by being its own reckless beast, powered by unstable, off-center camerawork (and many, many huge, staring-right-into-the-back-row close-ups). Demme’s filmmaking has lost none of its jazz, and some of the uglier moments — like the flashbacks and dreams, glimpses of medical mutilation and horror — rival the creep-out factor in Silence. His casting remains as quirky as ever, too; it’s a kick to see Demme regulars like Charles Napier, Tracey Walter, and even Robyn Hitchcock in an $80 million Paramount thriller opening in almost 3,000 theaters.

Denzel Washington takes the Sinatra role, as war veteran Ben Marco (this time it’s Desert Storm rather than the Korean War), who has been having odd dreams about a soldier in his unit, Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber, doing his best to out-icicle Lawrence Harvey). Washington is one of those actors Alfred Hitchcock would’ve loved — he projects decency and intelligence, so we believe him when he starts talking crazy, even when no one else does. Marco has doubts about Shaw’s heroic actions in battle, not to mention Shaw’s domineering mother (Meryl Streep, enjoying herself sinfully), who’s grooming him for the vice-presidency. Along the way, Marco encounters such oddities as skin implants, Jeffrey Wright as a stammering veteran with walls full of anguished scribblings, and Kimberly Elise as a supermarket cashier who might be overqualified for the job.

I can only hint and suggest from here, but suffice it to say that if you’ve seen the first Manchurian Candidate, you don’t know how the new one ends (I approve of the change, and it works well with the Oedipal subtext, which Demme and his writers ratchet up a bit). I don’t think the words “Democrat” or “Republican” are spoken in the film, but this is still likely the most electrifying political movie made in this country since Oliver Stone’s JFK (and yes, that includes Fahrenheit 9/11). What effect, if any, will it have on the presidential election? I don’t know, other than maybe making a few impressionable moviegoers scrutinize Kerry and Edwards, looking for the red queen behind Edwards. The not-very-subtle parallels to Halliburton won’t make Bush supporters happy, and the implication that politicians who talk the little-guy talk are really in thrall to the fatcats probably isn’t what the Kerry campaign wants people to muse on, either. Like the original, this Manchurian Candidate is an equal-opportunity troublemaker.

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Catwoman

July 23, 2004

Catwoman, a stylish piece of kitten-with-a-whip empowerment pulp, is much better than it had to be and a lot better than many Internet critics, eager to hate it, wanted it to be. It doesn’t scale the perverse heights of Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, in which the punishing spark between Catwoman (played then by Michelle Pfeiffer) and Batman launched a thousand leather-fetish theme parties. Nor does it indulge in the over-the-top satire of Daniel Waters’ famous unfilmed Catwoman script (widely perusable online). It’s more of an athletic you-go-girl fable in the tradition of the Charlie’s Angels movies, in which what the heroine does and how she looks doing it are equally important. I was almost disappointed by how solid the movie is — I’d expected it to be a laughable campfest, but it stays just this side of the ridiculous.

Halle Berry’s Patience Phillips follows in the pawprints of Pfeiffer’s earlier character: she’s a put-upon wage slave toiling for a chilly, remote mega-executive who has her killed when she learns too much. It’s a decent starting point for a franchise (if this turns out to be one), and we learn that there’s a long line of Catwomen dating back to ancient Egypt; perhaps other actresses can step in for future Catwoman adventures — my top five would include Fairuza Balk, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Julianna Margulies. Berry, playing her second African-American superheroine, gives Patience the necessary cringing awkwardness that turns into a feline avidity once she’s resurrected by a mysterious cat named Midnight.

Hooking Patience up with a good-hearted cop (Benjamin Bratt, who has the heroic jaw to be a passable Batman stand-in) makes for some amusing cat-and-mouse games — he’s supposed to be on Catwoman’s trail, but, like so many clueless people in superhero movies, never recognizes the superhero’s eyes or voice. I wish Catwoman’s attraction to him were tied into her new cat identity a bit more, though, and it might’ve been fun to have her fall for a bad-boy type that the cop would have to compete with for her attention. The movie oversells the cop’s decency a bit — he’s shown telling schoolkids to “be the good guys,” for Christ’s sake — but I guess that’s so the script won’t come off as man-bashing.

The official villains — the husband-and-wife king and queen of a cosmetics company, which makes a beauty cream that has addictive and disfiguring side effects — feel a little ripped off from the first Batman movie, in which the Joker tainted various products with Smylex. But it brings Sharon Stone (as the company’s over-the-hill supermodel) back into the fold as an ice bitch, for which we can be grateful. There’s more than a little self-aware bitterness in Stone’s performance; maybe she’s acting out some resentment at having been elevated to a sex goddess and punished for it in the same stroke. After a string of nondescript roles that coaxed some good work out of Stone but seemed like conscientious attempts to go “serious,” it’s good to see her being bad again. Camille Paglia should approve of the performance.

Catwoman was directed by a former visual-effects whiz named Pitof, whose previous feature, 2001’s Vidocq, was a baroquely entertaining murder mystery (it finally made it onto American DVD under the title Dark Portals: The Chronicles of Vidocq). Pitof has an eye for bold comic-book imagery, such as when Catwoman prowls the night in her leather get-up, silhouetted against the city lights or the moon (always full, of course). A few of the action sequences, especially a headache-inducing motorcycle ride, are way too choppy for my tastes, and computer animators still haven’t figured out how to make a CGI cat move convincingly. The effects work best in the subtler moments, when Patience is walking around her apartment dishing about her cop boyfriend and hopping up on countertops and furniture with a feline grace. But most of the movie is fast and fun, and undeserving of the critical hissing it’s getting in some quarters. It must be time for a Halle Berry backlash, or maybe some people are still uncomfortable with a $100 million summer film placing a heroic African-American woman front and center.

I, Robot

July 16, 2004

Here’s Isaac Asimov back in 1989, predicting how we’d be living in 1999:

Increasing computerization and robotization are going to decentralize the world. The fields will allow everybody to absorb and retain information, while passing on the three classifications of undesirable labor — the dull, the dirty, and the dangerous — to robots and computers. This will give us more time for more creative endeavors.

It’s almost touchingly naïve; who has more time for creative endeavors, or uses the time for that if they have it? The late science-fiction godhead (and all-around scholar) Asimov had a definite robot fetish; he coined the word “robotics,” and he produced a sizable chunk of fiction on the subject of artificial intelligence. Some of his robot stories were collected in the book I, Robot, and Harlan Ellison wrote a legendary (and unproduced, though published) screenplay adaptation. With the release of the new movie calling itself I, Robot — decidedly not based on that screenplay — Ellison must be grinding his teeth and Asimov spinning his way to China through his grave.

Making a Will Smith action flick called I, Robot is a little like making a Bruce Willis vehicle in which he heroically saves a bunch of people during the Dresden bombing and calling it Slaughterhouse-Five. Smith is known as Del Spooner here, but he’s essentially just this year’s variation on himself: a cocky, tough, wisecracking cop (or agent or pilot) pitted against this summer’s sci-fi menace. Which, in this case, is a robot that seems to have disregarded the Three Laws that all robots are programmed to follow. (The short version: Don’t hurt humans, allow them to be hurt, disobey human orders, or allow yourself to be destroyed.) An elderly robotics guru (James Cromwell) ends up as lobby pizza — did he fall out his window, or was he pushed? And if he was pushed, who else was in the room with him? Nobody except a curiously emotional robot named Sonny (voice by Alan Tudyk).

It’s apparent fairly early on that this I, Robot won’t detain itself with questions about AI ethics or philosophy. It starts as a whodunit, with Spooner as the bitter cop with a murder theory, which no one believes because he has an Issue With Robots. We’re meant to side with him, because the robots’ defense team includes dry-ice programmer Bridget Moynihan and corporate honcho Bruce Greenwood, who I expected to be addressed by a concerned robot: “You are in serious danger of being typecast as a callous Stupid White Man. For the safety of your career, please proceed in a calm fashion to the nearest Atom Egoyan casting call.”

The movie is at least a bit less annoying than director Alex Proyas’ previous two genre attempts, The Crow and Dark City, both of which have won unaccountable cred in goth and techno-geek circles. Where is his much-vaunted “poetic vision” when he really needs it? Proyas keeps the action percolating, but really there’s not much anyone can do with scenes involving throngs of coolly malevolent robots converging on a crowd of scrappy Chicagoans. I looked at the robots at each turn and could see only computer-generated images, not plausible constructions of metal and plastic occupying real space. Even Spooner, part metal himself, doesn’t escape the impersonal march of the narrative. He goes through the usual paces — the Give Me Your Badge scene, the I Love My Grandma scene, and even, God help us, the I’m Rescuing a Cat scene.

I’m actually divided about the movie’s use of the title I, Robot. It’s going to irritate Asimov fans, but it might — just might — point younger readers towards the stories, and it’s given Bantam an excuse to re-issue the book in an attractive new hardcover edition. I wish I were optimistic enough to believe in an Asimov resurgence, though — my feeling is that the target audience is busy with Harry Potter books and X-Men comics — and Asimov’s own vision of 1999 haunts me after having seen this film. Yes, computers have made it easier to make movies like this, in which thousands of robots leap and twirl and fight. They sure haven’t done much for creative endeavors, though — not on the evidence of this screenplay.

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy

July 9, 2004

The best comedies tend to happen when an inspired comedian takes pen to paper and follows an obsession. Steve Martin did it with L.A. Story, Dan Aykroyd with Ghostbusters, and Mike Myers with Austin Powers. These films feel as if they needed to happen — as though they’d been nagging their creators for years, from the moment Aykroyd first got interested in the paranormal or Myers saw his first Carnaby Street movie. Will Farrell must have fond memories of the blowhard news anchormen he saw in his childhood, because he and director Adam McKay have crafted an affectionate backhanded tribute to deluded ’70s machismo in Anchorman — a movie generally without the delirious comic heights of the aforementioned classics, but still a detailed and bizarrely specific portrait.

Ron Burgundy (Ferrell), an awesomely self-satisfied San Diego anchor, seems to have been born just at the right time to enjoy what’s left of white male privilege in the ’70s (his coif and mustache certainly wouldn’t fly in any other decade). He lives the life of a swinger and a rock star, lovingly tended by his news team (ladies’ man Paul Rudd, crude hee-hawing David Koechner, and serenely oblivious Steve Carell). Yet this alpha male is also a lonely man, with only his beloved dog Baxter warming the other side of his bed. Like Austin Powers, Ron talks the ladykiller talk far better than he walks the walk. His life is disrupted, for better and worse, when the ambitious Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) arrives at Ron’s news station with an eye on the co-anchor position. Ron has other positions in mind.

Some of Anchorman is the kind of giddy, nonsensical stuff that can only emerge from a genuinely deranged comic brain. The Daily Show‘s Steve Carell, who scored the biggest laughs in Bruce Almighty, scores again here with each cheerfully surreal statement. There’s a street rumble between several competing news teams that seems to be there just to show off a bunch of cameos, some of which haven’t been spoiled in the trailer — the only one conspicuously missing here is Owen Wilson. And there’s another first-rate cameo in a scene wherein poor Baxter is endangered. I wished for a bit more comic lunacy, though. When it’s established that Ron will read anything that appears on his TelePrompTer, the movie doesn’t do nearly enough with that premise — Mike Myers would’ve taken that and run giggling with it.

Still, it’s an affable enough comedy (though not quite the side-splitter some Internet critics are hyping it as), with a well-judged soundtrack of ’70s chestnuts — the news team’s impromptu rendition of “Afternoon Delight” is the best use of that inanely libidinous ditty I’ve seen since The Rules of Attraction. Will Farrell steps firmly into the so-retro-they’re-stylin’ shoes of Ron Burgundy, selling the character with a kind of manic throwback integrity. Ron doesn’t know how foolish he is, and that’s the joke, but Ferrell also gives him an added consciousness — somehow, Ron senses, there must be more to life than pool parties and high ratings. “This is the same party we’ve had for the last ten years! Which is in no way depressing!” laughs Ron over a Scotch. In some corner of his mind, Ron is ready for his own era to end; he’s ready for the Veronica Corningstones to come in and share the party. So is Veronica, played by Christina Applegate with the same hey-I-didn’t-peak-in-the-’90s avidity she showed in The Sweetest Thing. Ferrell, in handing her a major role in what’s sure to be a summer hit, proves a keen judge of undertapped talent.

There’s no real way to tell if this is true¹ or just the sportive cast and crew putting us on, but one of the more interesting factoids bandied about in the Anchorman press junkets is that so much material was filmed that they’ve got enough footage for an entire second movie just from the outtakes. (This would explain why so much of what’s in the trailer isn’t in the movie.) The plan, they say, is to put out a 2-disc DVD with this “second movie,” Wake Up, Ron Burgundy, included as an extra. Maybe Owen Wilson will show up there.

¹Yeah, it was true.

Before Sunset

July 2, 2004

At the end of the small, enchanting Before Sunrise (1995), Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), who have randomly met and had one of those long, lyrical nights of talk and love, promise each other that they will meet back in Vienna in six months. The follow-up film, Before Sunset, will tell you whether they did or didn’t meet up, but far more important is who they became. The Before films, as they will probably come to be called, were both directed by Richard Linklater, an amiably and gently experimental filmmaker who specializes in small moments that reveal more than most big-budget Hollywood movies do. Linklater was 34 when he made the first film, 43 when he shot the second. He was already pretty mature and smart about relationships nine years ago, but Before Sunset shows an even deeper maturation.

Jesse, it turns out, is a published novelist; his book This Time, based on his own experiences in the first film, has come out to acclaim and decent sales (probably a warmer reception than Ethan Hawke’s own stabs at fiction have gotten). Concluding a reading and Q&A at a Paris bookshop, Jesse spots a familiar face across the room — Celine, who has come to listen and who, it so happens, has read the book and approves. “I don’t usually like romantic stuff,” she says, “but, um … it was well-written, though!” Almost immediately, they fall back into their old verbal rhythms from nine years ago. They enjoy each other’s company, but something is eating at both of them. Nine years have taken a toll; they’ve lived a lot of life since they were moonstruck 22-year-olds on holiday in Vienna, and they are different people now. Their reunion brings this home rather painfully.

Celine works as a political activist, and her more relevant life (in Jesse’s view) puts his comfortable novelist’s life to shame. She can’t keep a boyfriend; he is married with a son, and we learn, a little conveniently, that he isn’t terribly fulfilled in the marriage. But the question in Before Sunset is not whether Jesse and Celine will get back together; as in the first film, Linklater is much more interested in how the two relate to life now, which areas of their soul have been toughened up and which have remained soft and vulnerable. These films are too stubbornly garrulous and too probing to settle for storybook romance. Before Sunset is like revisiting an old favorite novel in which, unbeknownst to you, a new epilogue has been added. We’re more than happy to hear Jesse and Celine talking again.

The pair wander around Paris, parrying on such topics as sex, politics, and expectations of life. Anyone expecting a conventional plot, as some people at the screening I attended apparently were, will grow restless: Linklater gives you the moments that happen when other movies aren’t looking. Before Sunrise, filmed when both Hawke and Delpy had a little more meat on their bones, was a delicate ode to the passions of mind and heart. Hawke and Delpy look skinnier here (particularly Hawke, who borders on gaunt), as if the indulgences of their student years had been carved away. They don’t act here so much as exist within the characters they have created. The movie is smoothly filmed in “real time,” following the two through talk and silence, yet never dragging.

Before Sunset is a gemlike minimalist triumph — deeper and more provocative than its predecessor, which had the questions of youth on its mind. The new film has no answers, and suggests that questioning minds will never stop. I have to agree with the many fans of both films: These two flawlessly shaped movies are sufficient for me, but the prospect of Jesse and Celine running across each other again in 2013 is undeniably alluring (as long as the entire creative team returns). Linklater could have an art-house franchise here comparable to Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy or François Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel series. If he’s satisfied with these bookend Sunrise/Sunset films, though, so am I.