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THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE

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C+

The film that John Frankenheimer fashioned from Richard Condon’s “The Manchurian Candidate” in 1962 was one of the best political paranoid thrillers ever made, a brilliant takeoff on Cold War fears of a supposedly omnipotent communist menace that commingled elements of two films that wouldn’t actually appear until two years later–the nerve-wracking tension of “Fail Safe” and the satiric sharpness of “Dr. Strangelove.” With perhaps more zeal than good judgment, Jonathan Demme has chosen to update the tale of brainwashing, presidential politics and assassination to the present day. The result is certainly better than the director’s last remake of a classic–his misbegotten version of “Charade” called “The Truth About Charlie”–but it still can’t hold a candle to the original.

That’s certainly not the fault of the cast and crew. This “Candidate” is beautifully crafted and splendidly cast. Kristi Zea’s production design is impeccable, Tak Fujimoto’s cinematography is every bit as fine as one would expect, and working closely with ace editor Craig McKay, Demme keeps the jigsaw-puzzle plot reasonably clear while giving it kinetic energy. The cast is superb, too. Denzel Washington takes center stage in the old Frank Sinatra part as Ben Marco, the army major who comes to believe that his recollection of the heroism demonstrated by one of his fellow-soldiers in combat–the Gulf War this time, rather than the Korean conflict–might be a false memory planted for some nefarious purpose. He’s terrific in the role, which allows him to show far greater range than his “Training Day” turn did. Liev Schreiber is appropriately spooky in the old Laurence Harvey part of Raymond Shaw, the soldier whose medal-winning conduct Marco is suspicious about; he adds a weirdly sympathetic undercurrent to the creepy character that’s quite satisfying. Meryl Streep is positively serpentine as Raymond’s manipulative mother, a role earlier played with venomous glee by Angela Lansbury. And though Kimberly Elise never quite clinches matters as Rosie, the girl with whom Marco gets involved (Janet Leigh was the 1962 equivalent), and Simon McBurney does the oily villain bit too comfortably as the scientist the men see in their nightmares, the rest of the supporting cast is first-rate, from Jon Voight as a principled senator and Jeffrey Wright as a mentally-troubled survivor of Marco’s old squad to Ted Levine and Miguel Ferrer as army higher-ups and Bruno Ganz as an eccentric researcher who helps Marco at a difficult moment. (Cameos by Al Franken, as a reporter, and Roger Corman, as a party official, don’t register nearly as well.)

It’s not, however, in the execution that “The Manchurian Candidate” comes up short–it’s in the script by Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris. The fact that Pyne was responsible for “The Sum of All Fears” and Georgaris for “Paycheck” does not bode well, and in the event their take departs radically from the 1962 screenplay that George Axelrod so expertly fashioned from Condon’s book. To be sure, it’s a much slicker piece of work than Axelrod’s now seems–it has more of the big set-pieces demanded by contemporary audiences, puts the spotlight more directly on Raymond by making him the titular politician, and gives its star the big moment in the finale. But those changes, which many will think improvements because they give the picture a more conventional action-adventure feel, pale in the face of others. For one thing, the film almost completely dispenses with the rich vein of black humor that was so important a part of the earlier picture; even the political stuff here is fairly banal (it’s all grounded on the idea of puff-speech about terrorism, and the partisan divisions are muddled at best). But that’s partially the result of the narrative’s one essential, and unfortunately fatal, alteration–the jettisoning of the entire communist element. A dead ideology could hardly serve as the driving force behind a brainwashing plot designed to place a puppet in the White House anymore, of course, so Pyne and Georgaris had to find a substitute–and the one they’ve come up with is corporate power. Thus the “Manchurian” moniker now refers not to the Chinese region where the brainwashing was done, but to Manchurian Global–a gigantic equity fund whose tentacles extend into every significant area of life and government. (Much of the dialogue about the outfit consists of none-too-subtle reference to Halliburton, which is amusing in a rather sophomoric way. There’s even a throw-away line about the company privatizing the U.S. army–not too far-fetched, in light of current realities.) It’s not a fair exchange, though, first because the notion of a greedy multinational (whether fairly or not) is far less scary than that of a Marxist ideology on the march, but mostly because the idea that such a firm would need a convoluted brainwashing scheme to put a lackey in the White House comes across as absurd in the present political climate, when it’s abundantly clear that a corporate dupe can be installed in office by much simpler means, even in the absence of a brain suitable for washing. The alteration also means that the picture loses the Red-baiting McCarthyite senator played by James Gregory in the earlier version–one of Condon and Axelrod’s most delectable creations. Transforming Raymond’s mother into a senator whose warmongering and enthusiasm for the sort of governmental intrusions mandated by the Patriot Act would put Dick Cheney and John Ashcroft in the shade isn’t anywhere near as satisfying, even if Streep does seize on the opportunities it offers with gusto.

And then there’s the grand finale, the tension-filled assassination attempt, which is much altered from the first film. It isn’t just that the whole thing has been rearranged to allow for a much higher degree of heroism and self-sacrifice than in the far darker original, but that, in order to save the new shooter from the fate the old one suffered, the writers have concocted what amounts to an elaborate new conspiracy that we’re supposed to applaud–despite the fact that it constitutes as much a perversion of democratic process as Manchurian Global’s plot did, only in a “just” cause. And it puts the picture snugly within the parameters of the modern Hollywood blockbuster, distinguishing it sharply from Frankenheimer’s more idiosyncratic vision, which defiantly avoided playing to the crowd.

Perhaps those coming to “The Manchurian Candidate” for the first time will find Demme’s film, despite its logical shortcomings ands plot deficiencies, sufficiently exciting to merit their vote. But for those of us with fond memories of Frankenheimer’s classic, this “Candidate” can only be a distant also-ran.

FACING WINDOWS (LA FINESTRA DI FRONTE)

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C+

In each of his previous films (“Steam,” “His Secret Life”) writer-director Ferzan Ozpetek has taken up the theme of a person drawn by unusual circumstances out of his ordinary life to something more mysterious and fulfilling, and he returns to it in his new effort. The central character this time is Giovanna (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), an unhappy Roman housewife forced to work in a poultry factory (and make pastries for sale at the local bar) while her husband Filippo (Filippo Nigro) struggles to keep hold of his job; they’re so busy making ends meet that their two young children often must be cared for by an earthy, good-natured neighbor named Ermine (Serra Yilmaz). Giovanna’s dream is to become a full-fledged baker, but she’s too old to secure an apprenticeship in the trade, and her family duties make it impossible anyway. She’s also entranced by a handsome fellow (Raoul Bova), who lives across the street from their apartment, and whom she watches in the darkness through their facing windows. Her life changes unexpectedly when she and Filippo come upon a well-dressed but disoriented old man (Massimo Girotti) one day, and though she opposes the idea, her husband insists on bringing him home. Initially standoffish, Giovanni gradually takes to the amnesiac fellow, who evinces some knowledge of pastry-making; the old man also becomes the means by which she’s introduced to the man across the way, who turns out to be a banker named Lorenzo, and the two inch toward involvement while working together to discover something about the lost fellow’s past, which, as periodic flashbacks suggest, involved a doomed love affair and some frantic activity on the night when occupying Nazi troops rounded up Rome’s Jews for removal.

“Facing Windows” is a peculiar hybrid of a picture, a kind of bizarre fairy-tale with almost grimly realistic aspects. And though it has romantic elements–both straight (in terms of Giovanna and Lorenzo) and gay (in terms of the past of the old man, who we learn is named Davide, and who had a lover named Simone)–they’re ultimately treated as secondary to considerations of family loyalty and community responsibility. The basic problem with all this is that the parts are never fully integrated into a smoothly satisfying whole. The imbalance is especially acute in terms of the characters. Simply put, the Giovanna-Filippo-Lorenzo triangle doesn’t manage to become truly engaging. Partially that’s the fault of the writing, but the performances aren’t strong enough to make up for the weaknesses. Mezzogiorno gives the woman a smoldering intensity beneath her rather grim exterior, but fails to endow the character with much spark or likableness. As Filippo, Nigro has a mostly reactive role. And Bova is stiffly good-looking but hardly charismatic as Lorenzo. All of this shifts the viewer’s interest more and more toward Davide, who becomes the film’s center and most fascinating figure. Happily Girotti plays him beautifully, drawing on his years of experience to fashion, with deft, light strokes, a character who’s quietly compelling and attractive; he remains so even toward the close, when he becomes a sort of fairy-godfather to Giovanna. An additional asset is the gleefully uninhibited performance of Yilmaz as Giovanna’s corner-cutting friend. The elegant look of the film is also worthy of praise; Gianfilippo Corticelli’s cinematography has a creamy, lush texture that actually endows the on-screen actions with greater dramatic depth than they actually earn.

“Facing Windows” is thus a film that boasts some very intriguing ideas but lacks a unifying structure to give them cogency. To draw a comparison from Giovanna’s occupational goal, it’s like a pastry that lacks consistency–it’s part delicate treat, but also part soggy disappointment. As such it doesn’t quite delight the cinematic palate.