Everything Old is New
Cowards Bend the Knee, The Manchurian Candidate and Suspect Zero
Okay, so we all know that Hollywood thrives on the unoriginal -- homages, remakes, sequels, adaptations and jes'plain rip-offs. This concept goes double for the summer movie season, where offering anything that doesn't remind an audience of something they've seen before is tantamount to commercial suicide. So what is a responsible moviegoer to do during these lean times? We can't just shutter ourselves up and wait for Oscar season. (Well, actually, I suppose we could, but...) The secret is to find those examples where the occasional feeling of deja vu is not a hindrance.
Which, in a roundabout way, brings me to Jonathan Demme's "The Manchurian Candidate". If there was ever a remake that looked like a bad idea from the start, this was it. Remaking a Cold War classic using a script co-penned by Dean Georgaris (who took credit for both "Paycheck" and "Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life") and with direction provided by Demme, a man who has done nothing of note since stammering out that Oscar speech and by the way, his last film was a botched remake... My skepticism, I feel, was well-earned. The only remake in recent memory that has inspired more apprehension in me was the "Dawn of the Dead" redux. But then, that turned out to be surprising in its not-badness. And so it went for "Manchurian" '04.
In fact, I was stunned at how much I enjoyed this remake. Truth be told, I'm not the biggest fan of the original -- granted, I think it's excellent, but I'd rate it probably a notch below where everyone else pegs it. It is, however, conceptually extraordinary, and to the writers' credit this new version plays with the concept enough to keep the film feeling fresh even as it consciously echoes its precursor. Hell, I'd even go as far as to say that (and this is moving into heretical territory) until the third act, it's on the same level as that 1962 classic. Denzel Washington does his thing in the Sinatra role, replacing Frank's shaken-but-confident characterization with an unsure and frightened soul. He looks like, at any moment, he might explode all over the place in a torrent of paranoia, which leaves the film's center off-balance and heightens the suspense of a story where we bloody well know the outcome. (Demme's excellent use of sound helps this along and more than compensates for the fact that his direction here is merely adequate.) Liev Schreiber, dare I say it, is even better in the role of Raymond Shaw than Laurence Harvey was. Schreiber brings a more tragic and human dimension to the role that I think is missing (by design, no doubt) from Harvey's stiff-necked portrayal of the unfortunate sergeant.
It's this new take on Shaw that most effectively demonstrates what I liked about this film -- like the new "Dawn of the Dead", it's a rare remake that's worthy of the word 're-imagining'. Demme and co. assume our familiarity with the material and, thus, are willing to tweak our expectations. (I'm thinking in particular of the chnages made to the lost-love plotline, which now functions less as a way to humanize Shaw and more as a sick joke.) Knowing that nobody fears Commies under the bed anymore, the villain of the piece has been changed to Big Business (with several bald-faced potshots at Haliburton in particular). While, as many have commented, this idea that corporate America is out to get us doesn't exactly feel like a revelation, it's still a bit shocking to see a big Hollywood release that is only slightly less far-left than "The Corporation". This goes beyond standard 'Hollywood liberalism' into gleeful satire. Too bad, then, about the third act; while still gripping, the removal of the Queen-of-Hearts reprogramming leaves the climax feeling more than a mite bit convenient. (Methinks Manchuria needed to invest in better technology before test-running it in the real world.) But this is still way better than it had any right to be. Moral of the story? I should probably stop pre-judging remakes.
"Suspect Zero" is not a remake, but it damn well might as be one -- imagine every forensic body-count thriller made post-"Se7en" left in the sun to melt until nothing but a bland, runny pudding was left. E. Elias Merhige attempts to cover up the crummy screenplay by directing the living hell out of it, but there's only so much Fincheresque obfuscation one can get away with before the overcompensation starts to grate. I never thought I'd say this, but Ben Kingsley gives a terrible performance here -- his bellowing one-track psycho poses more danger to the scenery than the characters. Aaron Eckhart, meanwhile, provides another example of why he should never play tortured good guys (don't we already have Thomas Jane for that?). If this isn't the dumbest serial-killer flick of the year, that's only because Angelina Jolie's script sense is No. 2 so she tries harder. Still, a movie wherein a supposedly untrackable serial killer not only roars around in the most conspicuous vehicle he could choose outside of a helicopter but is able to snatch kids and drive away in this contraption without making a sound while Mom is standing three feet away
deserves at the very least to be kicked in the wrinklies.
Also not a remake is Guy Maddin's brain-frying "Cowards Bend the Knee". Maddin's aesthetic seems to be "Dr. Caligari" as made by one of that film's crazed inmates. His expressionistic silent-film pastiches are accompanied by epileptic flurries of editing, bizarre title cards or dialogue and some of the damn strangest sights you ever laid eyes upon. "Cowards", my favorite Maddin film thus far, takes this aesthetic and goes just about as far as you can go with it; after this, Maddin may need to find a new shtick. Then again, if his imagination keeps firing on all cylinders, maybe not... even if his films eventually start to look indistinguishable from one another (which I hope doesn't come to pass), I'll still probably have a place in my heart for a man who can take blue painted hands, wax hockey players, lustful ghosts, a hair salon that doubles as a whorehouse and
an abortion clinic and an ice breast (an ice breast!) and, somehow, turn out a film that not only makes sense but has a bit of genuine emotional content to make it stick. This made me feel ecstatic. Maddin's alchemic ability to take old modes of expression and make them new enough to give you blisters is dizzying. There, I suppose, lies the heart of what I'm trying to get at -- pure originality is cool, but if you can use familiar materials and recycle them into something original then I'll still be your friend. That's all I ask.