Every time I see a movie, I come out of the theater thinking I should write up my reactions and post them to lj. Then I never get around to it. But I saw two movies this past weekend, and thought I would try to make the effort.

Both are recommended. (Except for . and mrs. ctate shouldn't see The Manchurian Candidate.)

Directed by: Paul Greengrass

The reviews said that this was a brisk, lucid, and highly engaging thriller, and they weren't wrong. Matt Damon returns as Robert Ludlum's amnesiac super-assassin, Jason Bourne. While Bourne is minding his own business in a coastal village in India, events in Berlin are about to disrupt his life: a fairly routine CIA cash drop is intercepted, and both agent and the seller are murdered. The Russian assassin who does the job leaves a fake fingerprint at the scene, incriminating Jason Bourne. After that, the same assassin arrives in India to kill Bourne, but no one can kill Jason Bourne.

From there, the movie whisks Bourne to Naples, to Berlin, and to Moscow, ending in the brawniest car chase I've seen since John Frankenheimer's RONIN. In between, there's a lot of cat and mouse action, with Joan Allen as a CIA officer who mistakenly thinks she's the cat and Bourne the mouse. Bourne is mainly on a mission to figure out what the hell is going on: why he was nearly killed in India, why the CIA thinks he was in Berlin. Along the way, he manages to pick up a few more pieces of his missing memory and atone for past sins.

Matt Damon does some nice work, portraying a man whose thoughts are in a constant scramble; whose senses are always acutely attuned to nuances in the environment; and whose face, apart from the occasional grimace of pain, is largely a blank mask hiding the above. Jason Bourne is a man in search of peace of mind, but he'll never quite attain it.

The production design gives us the usual high tech CIA, with cool colors bright overhead highlights, and dozens of computer monitors. The photography features a lot of big fat close-ups and a lot of long lens work, much of it handheld. The editing gives the movie its rhythms and momentum; the bulk of it is well done without calling attention to itself. The cutting in the car chase is almost abstract, approaching a sort of Eisensteinian montage of car-chase-ness: Pedals! Gear Shift! Splintering glass! Squealing tires! Police lights! Grimace! Pedals! Glass! Lights! Squeal! Shift! Smash! Pedals! Shift! Vroom! Gritting teeth! Gun! Bang! Glass shatter! Argh! Big truck! Pedals! Rrrrrrt! Car spinning! Shift! Vroom! Ughh!

The ending credits (which contain no bonuses or surprises) revealed two things to me. The first is that ILM provided special visual effects for the film, and I didn't even notice that the film had any special visual effects (VFX I don't notice are more interesting to me than VFX I can't help but notice). The second is that there are people in the world who are going through life stuck with the unfortunate last name of Assmann.

Viewed on: 08-01-04

Directed by Jonathan Demme

This is a surprisingly good and worthy remake of a film that is famous for being intelligent, daring, canny, satirical, and slightly ahead of its time. I found Jonathan Demme's update to be, in its own way, also quite smart, more than a little bold, and crackling with the kind of dark energy I haven't seen since the heyday of the 1970s. I've seen other reviews that compared this movie to 70s thrillers like THE PARALLAX VIEW and THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR, but what instantly came to my mind, as soon as Meryl Streep made her first big entrance, was NETWORK (1976), Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky's unparalleled, prophetic satire. (I had the good fortune of catching NETWORK on TMC this morning, just when I was thinking about it again. Real life seems to be finally catching up to this movie, with the plot pivoting on a crucial business deal by Saudi Arabians; some of that material, played in the background, is about how critical the flow of Saudi Arabian cash is to the United States economy, since they own such a huge chunk of the country in terms of corporate holdings and real estate; this sounds eerily familiar after having just seen FAHRENHEIT 9/11. Also, pay attention to Ned Beatty's thundering monologue about the Natural Forces of Business that drive and shape the nationless world.)

I started to get a good feeling about this movie as soon as I learned about the casting. Denzel Washington is pretty much always good news, and it's hard to go wrong with Meryl Streep; Streep seemed even more like the best possible choice when I thought back to Angela Lansbury's really rather hard-to-beat performance in the original MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. I keep reading in the reviews how people are trying to figure out whether Streep reminds them of Hillary Clinton or Elizabeth Dole or Madeleine Albright or whoever, but to me, her performance brought two things starkly to mind: Faye Dunaway in NETWORK, and Lady MacBeth. (I also note, in passing, that Sidney Lumet has a cameo appearance as a reporter. Two other cameos: Roger Corman, who gave Demme his first directing job; and musician Robyn Hitchcock, who was the star of a Demme-directed concert film, STOREFRONT HITCHCOCK.)

What really sold me was learning that Liev Schreiber was going to play Raymond Shaw, the role first inhabited by Laurence Harvey. That casting really sounded smack on the money to me. For a long time, I went around thinking I didn't like Schreiber. I finally realized that this was because he played a creep in the first role I saw him in, and he was so convincing at it that I got the idea that Schreiber himself was a creep. In time, though, I've seen him in enough different roles to realize and to respect what a good actor he is. The part of Raymond Shaw is a really treacherous one. I can't remember which review it was that I read, but the critic really nailed it when he pointed out that Schreiber somehow manages to make us sympathize with Shaw, to feel something for him, even though the character is thoroughly unlikeable. I like how this Shaw, unlike the thoroughly uncharismatic Shaw in the original, is able to turn on a tv-friendly charm in public — he's running for office, or rather, his mother (Streep) is running him for office. Behind closed doors, though, we see that his natural state is to be introverted, tense, and cold.

In both movies, Shaw is a war hero, and yet not. Everyone in his unit remembers that he acted with valor and saved everybody (except for the two men who were killed in action), and yet, the memories feel wrong. Denzel Washington, in the part played by Frank Sinatra in the original, plays a soldier from Shaw's unit, whose dreams become haunted by false memories, by cracks in the facade. As he starts to dig for the truth, and to make contact with others in his old unit (including Shaw), the closer he gets to the truth, the more he sounds like a delusional paranoid, raving about chips planted under his skin and in his brain, things he needs to dig out because they can control his mind.

Meanwhile, Shaw is in the news; he's been picked as the vice presidential candidate in the 2008 election (the movie says that the events happen “today” in a subtitle, but a close-up of a newspaper at some point shows the date). For all of the (real-life) election-season buzz about the movie, it doesn't pick sides; it never mentions Democrats or Republicans, just politicians in general. However, seeing this movie at the tail end of a week I spent watching what felt like eighty hours of Democratic convention converage on C-SPAN and CNN, and reading about it in the paper, and talking about it, I stumbled blinking out of the theater with really paranoid thoughts about John Edwards running through my head.

If I watched this movie any other time, I don't know that I would have found it as effective as I did, but I really went along for the ride. Demme seems to be in top form again. There are some touches that remind me of Lumet, and there's a certain point in the movie where it suddenly goes totally Kubrick. This is smart, though; Kubrick invented (or expanded) the cinematic vocabulary for getting across certain states of mind. It works particularly well where it's used here, so why not use it?

There's also quite a lot of Demme being Demme. Quite early he gets back into the thing he did in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991), of big close-ups of characters talking to each other but staring very nearly straight ahead, directly into the camera. Once he establishes this, you get kind of used to it, and then you find out that he's doing it to set up some effects later in the picture that wouldn't be nearly as effective without the characters looking right at you.

I am also ashamed to admit I fell for one of the oldest scare gags in cinema, and got spooked by it. I can't figure out how they managed to fake me out like that. I guess I wasn't paying attention, or I was really wrapped up in the character's point of view instead of sitting back in my chair being detached about what I was watching; that alone says something.

The original MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE had more humor, but there are moments and touches and details here and there (sometimes you have to kind of look for them) that are delivered with a wink, letting you know it's not all as deadly serious as they're pretending it is. It's just a movie, after all.

The use of music in the movie is extremely good. Actually, everything is good in this movie, across the board: acting, directing, photography, editing, effects, music. This movie will come up during Oscar season next year, and deservedly so. I don't think it's ahead of its time like the original was, but it's impressive to see a movie this gutsy, daring, paranoid, and creepy come out of Hollywood in this day and age. In fact, I'm finding this to be quite a remarkable year for Hollywood movies. The good movies I'm seeing are genuinely very good, one after the other. I wonder what's going on? Is it still a conspiracy theory if the conspiracy is to make better products instead of the same old mediocre crap?

So this movie had the effect of making me both disturbed and optimistic at the same time. Well done.

Viewed on: 07-31-04

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