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Meryl Streep gets ready for her Basic

The Manchurian Candidate
Review written by: Alex Sandell

How much you like 2004's remake of The Manchurian Candidate depends on how much you know about political events and how tolerant you are of Hollywood remaking classic films.  I've never been a member of the "remake haters" club, as evidenced by my recent positive reviews of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Dawn of the Dead

As long as the movie isn't a shot-by-shot remake (see 1998's horrendous Psycho), I'm more than willing to give it a chance.  Some fall flat on their faces -- including Paramount's earlier summer 2004 remake, The Stepford Wives -- but others put a current spin on old material, offering something both nostalgic and new.  The Manchurian Candidate seamlessly splices moments lifted from the classic with filmmaking and screenwriting that is distinctly 21st Century.

In 2004's Manchurian Candidate, Communists have been replaced by corporations and the Korean War has been traded for the War on Terror.  A lot of work has gone into making this allegorical thriller feel as topical as possible.  I left my car, where I was listening to a speech from the Democratic Convention and walked into the theater, to witness a pseudo-Democratic convention.  The Manchurian Candidate is as fresh as if it were filmed yesterday. 

Will its use of current events hurt the film's longevity?  Most likely, but the movie is two hours of quality entertainment made for an even more paranoid American than the one we had during the Cold War.  An America whose citizens are as afraid of an odd looking stranger walking in their neighborhood as they once were of a nuclear bomb.  And this "War on Terror" the fools in the White House and morons in Congress started is going to make the 100 Years' War look relatively short.

In the meantime, political junkies will have a lot of fun with the jabs the film takes at the gullibility of the news' media and the buying and selling of whorish politicians.  From Saudi Arabia to John Kerry to Halliburton, the movie rarely stops to take a breath from drawing parallels between its fictional world and the world we reside in.  Sometimes it comes uncomfortably close, giving the film a sense of dread that will most likely only be noticed by the politically conscious.  Altering the meaning of "Manchurian" in the title from the Manchurian Communists in the original film to the Halliburton-ish "Manchurian Global," is particularly effective and adds some realism to an oftentimes fantastical film.

Director Jonathan Demme does his best to keep the film entertaining for the apolitical with his snazziest directing since The Silence of the Lambs.  The dream sequences are frenzied, distorted and disturbing.  Imagine the close-up shots of the moths flying under the fluorescent lights in Lambs.  Demme achieves the same sense of dread with the flashbacks and nightmares in The Manchurian Candidate

The movie is blessed with an incredible cast.  Meryl Streep vamps and camps it up as Senator Eleanor Shaw (imagine Hillary PMS-ing 24/7).  Liev Schreiber manages to be scary, frightened, threatening and vulnerable, all in the same scene.  Denzel Washington gives one of his most compelling performances of his career as Ben Marco.  The fear his character is feeling washes over the audience.  It probably would have been even more effective if the product placement placers would have let him put down the Raman Noodles and No-Doz for more than a couple of minutes at a time. 

The movie isn't perfect.  When one character goes all Norman Bates with "yes, mother" type comments, it becomes cringe-worthy.  It's fairly predictable throughout (although there are so many surprises, you probably won't see one or two of them coming)The dialogue is occasionally covered in more cheese than the nachos sitting in your lap.  But when a crawl on Denzel's television screen reads: "Big-Mart expected to have 40-trillion first quarter" and goes on to talk about "Big-Mart" going global and cutting worker wages across the board, I couldn't help but laugh at the shot presumably taken at Wal-Mart. 

The Manchurian Candidate is a successfully multi-layered film.  In some ways the movie is like a "Choose Your Own Adventure."  Some will see it as a thriller. Others will view it as social satire. Almost all will be entertained.

Agree? Disagree? Have questions?  Comments?  Email this critic at alex@juicycerebellum.com

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