Friday, July 22, 2005

This Week In Movies

1. I ♥ Huckabees

When this came out, I figured it would be a pretentious piece of trash. Who sells their movie as an "existential comedy"?!? Douche bags, that's who.

The movie itself, though, is pretty entertaining. I wasn't sure what to expect, and while it's artsy-fartsy, the ideas it presents are legitimate. It's not pseudo-intellectual meandering, it's actual intellectual meandering. And that's pretty much what we do with our main characters... we meander in and out as failure strikes them in separate ways. Nihilism and existentialism are mortal enemies throughout the film, but in the end it doesn't seem to matter. Everyone reacts differently to their problems, but the fact that they all seek the same answers in the wake of those problems is what binds them together. I don't know how much I cared about the characters in the end, but the resolution is fairly clear, just so long as you’re satisfied with something simple.

Anyway, the acting was superb. and given how talky it was, it was extremely entertaining given how talky it was. It wasn't hilarious, but it was definitely witty, and even had some quality slapstick here and there. I'd like to watch it again to try and figure out the connections a little better before passing final judgment. But as it stands, I think it’s just as worthy as any of the other entries in the emerging “twenty characters, linked by fate, coincidence and circumstance, experience life-altering events together” genre of movies. Huckabees is closest in nature toMagnolia, but I wouldn’t say either is better than the other.

2. The Manchurian Candidate (2004)

I would have expected this movie to be dry and soulless... hardly. In fact, amidst the modern rash to remake perfectly iconic movies, this one stood out to me as the most unnecessary. The original Manchurian is the ultimate political thriller. It was dated, to be sure, but how could Jonathan Demme expect to improve upon it? He was asking for trouble.

This movie goes to show why Demme's in the movies and I'm not. He may not have improved upon it, but he definitely matched it. The updated story, where the conspirators are corporate instead of Communist, turns what had been a dated tale of conspiracy into a modern day 1984-ish paranoia horror story. Though the science remains far-fetched, the principles involved are extremely palpable. And the heightened sense of paranoia makes this movie tailor-made for Demme's trademark p.o.v. close-ups (where the actor delivers his/her lines directly to the camera)... seeing a face peering back at you, occupying so much of the screen, is discomforting.

The acting is phenomenal, just like you'd expect from the folks involved. Denzel is his usual perfect self. Meryl Streep might be the only actress who could challenge Angela Lansbury as the most manipulative, bitchy mother on the planet. And Liev Schreiber is the ideal choice for a modern Raymond Shaw... blank, sinister, presentable and sensitive at the same time, keeping us guessing about him until the very end. The support (particularly Jeffrey Wright) is uniformly excellent.

Just to really nail how wrong I was about this remake, I now believe this is precisely the kind of story that ought to be remade every few decades or so. The themes from the original Richard Condon novel are still relevant today, as Demme proved. I wouldn't complain if they made a Manchurian this good every 30 years.

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