The Manchurian Candidate (2004)

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*. This is not a successful film.
*. Which is nice in a way, because it lets me play one of my favourite film parlour games: What went wrong? After all, they had some talent (Demme, Washington, Streep),a big budget, and the idea of updating John Frankenheimer’s classic 1962 original for the twenty-first century wasn’t a bad one. So where did they mess up?
*. I have to go with the usual suspect in such cases, which is the screenplay, for which Daniel Pyne was reportedly paid a million dollars for a first draft. Which is apparently the going rate for a big production like this, but still.
*. What’s wrong with the screenplay? For starters, the original story is updated, but not made any more plausible. I don’t believe in brainwashing, but it seems slightly more credible than the idea of computer chips implanted in the skull that can be activated by remote, turning the host into a zombie.

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*. The worst thing about the script though is that I had no idea what was going on. Aside from Meryl Streep as Bad Mommy and Simon McBurney as Atticus Noyle (which I thought must have been a name pulled from a Bond movie, but which is actually an anagram of Khigh Dhiegh’s Yen Lo from the original) the bad guys are just a bunch of nameless, faceless corporate suits. And what is their plan anyway? “A stronger, safer, more profitable world”? Isn’t the Manchurian Global Corporation already rich and powerful enough? Don’t they already control the government? When Senator Jordan describes Shaw as potentially “the first privately owned and operated vice president of the United States” isn’t he a bit behind the times? Or was this a dig at Cheney?
*. In the “making of” featurette Pyne expresses his opinion that Manchurian Global aren’t the bad guys. Instead, he sees Streep’s Eleanor Shaw as playing that role. But this doesn’t make things any clearer. I sort of understand what Manchurian Global is trying to do, but what’s Eleanor’s angle? Is she a super-patriot? I thought she was working for Manchurian. Does she just think they aren’t playing hard enough to win? So what does Pyne mean by distinguishing the two?
*. Oddly enough, on another one of the featurettes Streep says that she didn’t see her character as being a villain. Confusion? Ambiguity?
*. Then there’s the matter of the ending. What happens? Marco gets shot in the chest and the next we see him he has his head shaved and his arm in a sling. Is anything going to happen to Manchurian Global? Some bad publicity and then what? What about Atticus Noyle? Where did he disappear to?
*. I’ve heard it said many times that you can’t compare a remake to the original, especially after the lapse of some forty years. But why not? Of course a slavish repetition of any original, whether of a movie or a song, is pointless. There are always going to be changes. But we expect them to be changes for the better.
*. The most celebrated part of Frankenheimer’s film was the brilliant brainwashing sequence, and one would have thought that Demme would be pulling out all the creative stops in trying to outdo it here. But he doesn’t even try. Instead we get some boring, and confusing, sequences cheaply thrown into the mix. I couldn’t even figure out what was going on. Where was it all taking place? An island in the Persian Gulf? What was with the women with the markings on their faces? According to Demme they are “figments of the imagination” created by Dr. Noyle during the brainwashing, though for what purpose? Is there a difference between the shoulder implants and the brain implants? Why even bother with the former? And Shaw’s trigger is just hearing his full name spoken aloud? Wouldn’t that make him rather vulnerable to false activations?
*. Another standout sequence from the first film was Shaw’s murder of Senator Jordan and his daughter. Pyne “didn’t want to go anywhere near that,” and didn’t, but again the comparison works to this film’s disadvantage, where Shaw simply flips Jon Voight’s kayak and then drowns his old girlfriend. Pyne wanted something “that was beautiful and simple.” What he got was something dull, and (given how Shaw is wearing such nice clothes as he walks into the lake) silly as hell. Apparently the idea was to conflate the scene from the original when Shaw jumps into a lake due to an inadvertent trigger, but it makes no sense here.

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*. Denzel Washington is very good playing a confused, and confusing, character. Streep is decent as the power-hungry mom, but there’s none of the surprise that Angela Lansbury brought to the original because Streep never seems entirely trustworthy. As for Liev Schreiber, he appears to be trying a bit too hard to channel Laurence Harvey. Why?
*. I’ve never been that high on Jonathan Demme. Here he seems uninterested in what he’s doing, and surprisingly lost when it comes to building suspense. I don’t know where his head was at.
*. Who is Delp? Who is funding whatever research it is he’s doing?
*. The television news coverage doesn’t look right at all. How hard would it have been to just steal the template of any one of a dozen cable news shows? I’ve never seen a text-scroll angle across the screen on a slant like that before.
*. What was the first film to show a psycho’s apartment walls covered in drawings, pictures cut out of magazines, and graffiti? I wonder how realistic it is. Aren’t some people with mental illness excessively neat and tidy? In a film, however, it can all be used as a convenient way to explain what is going on through pictures.
*. Everything drags, a feeling that is exacerbated by the confusion in the plot. After a while it just seemed like it was never going to be clear what was going on so I stopped caring. And yet at the same time you know the point the film is working up to and you know all the stages that will have to be gone through to get there. Yes, there’s a small twist on the original here, but even that’s unconvincing.
*. The problem with all these incredibly intricate conspiracy plots is that you don’t even have to take one step back before you start wondering why the conspirators are going through so much trouble to arrange things in such a complicated way when they could get what they want in far simpler, less risky ways. Why not just hire some lobbyists, or pay a candidate off? Corporations do it all the time.

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