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Only pawns in the game: (l-r) Washington and Schreiber in The Manchurian Candidate.

The Future Is Now
By Shawn Stone

The Manchurian Candidate
Directed by Jonathan Demme

Jonathan Demme’s remake of The Manchurian Candidate has a ripped-from-the-headlines (downloaded-from-the-Internet?) feel like no other movie of recent years. This adds immeasurably to the complex thriller’s all-too-real sense of dread. If the 1962 film traded on Cold War paranoia and fears of mental manipulation by psychological means, the new Candidate is pure 21st-century: The villains are multinational and corporate, and the nightmares are bioengineered with as-yet unimagined technologies.

Maj. Ben Marco (Denzel Washington) is a Gulf War vet who spends his days doing inspirational PR for the Army and his nights having horrible nightmares about the war. To worshipful groups of Boy Scouts, he relates how his platoon was ambushed in the desert; how he himself was knocked unconscious and his men were saved through the heroic, single-handed actions of Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber). In his dreams, however, Marco’s men have bloody wires coming out of their heads, henna-adorned Arab women hover ominously, and the unlikable Shaw is behaving less-than-heroically toward his fellow soldiers.

The film is driven by the increasingly fearful and paranoid Marco’s search for “the truth,” a commodity the filmmakers dispense in small, tension-building portions. Shaw is now a congressman from New York, with an ambitious U.S. Senator mom, Eleanor Prentiss Shaw (Meryl Streep), pushing him toward the White House. Marco’s attempts to meet with Shaw are rebuffed; the Army discounts his suspicions and ups his meds. Then, Marco discovers that there really is an implant in his body, and he becomes compellingly unhinged.

The film twists as wildly, and vividly, as Marco’s unraveling personality. Luxury hotel suites have false walls hiding high-tech labs. Smiling CEOs plot world domination. Respected scientists turn out to be South African war criminals, drilling holes in our leaders’ heads at the behest of multinational corporations.

In the past, Demme has been criticized for a near-fetishistic use of tchotchkes to flesh-out his characters’ personalities. (Married to the Mob, for example, seemed to be as much about gimcracks as gangsters.) The filmmaker has the last laugh, however, as the mass media itself has developed a fetish for clutter. Demme exploits these ubiquitous visual artifacts—like the never-ending crawls along the bottom of cable-TV newscasts—to heighten Candidate’s sense of paranoia and confusion. Just as numerous and loopy knickknacks were a fascinating fourth main character in his role-play comedy Something Wild, here Demme posits media noise as a silent partner in the corporate conspiracy against democracy.

And yet, while becoming ever-more hallucinatory, the film remains frighteningly real because the characters remain all-too-human. Schreiber’s Shaw remains an unlikable, lonely man who just happens to be a pawn in a game of world domination. Streep, enjoying herself enormously, emphasizes equally the wit and steel in her character’s villainy. Washington is both frightening and sympathetic, a winning combination he hasn’t managed before.

It’s neither fair nor useful, really, to compare Demme’s remake to the original. John Frankenheimer’s film emphasized vicious satire and black humor; this deadly serious version is about, ultimately, the death of democracy in a society that hardly notices the loss. Much more of a cautionary tale than the first version, the remake—set in 2008, with America at war all over the world and suicide bombers in Denver—suggests oh-so-slyly what our country would be like after four more years of a Bush presidency. This makes The Manchurian Candidate as much of a political weapon this election year as Fahrenheit 9/11.

Our Town

The Village
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

Like his previous films, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village, a creepy costume drama set in the late 1800s, is a parable on fear and grief hidden in a shroud of foreboding. Opening with a funeral held in broad daylight, The Village is not a horror film like Signs or The Sixth Sense, nor is it intended to be, masterfully serving up an atmospheric chill rather than jump-in-your-seat thrills. Although the director’s reputation for shock revelations may leave some audiences disappointed by the film’s naturalistic (and ingeniously plausible) plotting, the director has advanced from clever gambits to a story that sucks in the viewer with steadily mounting unease. When the village patriarch (William Hurt) calmly tells his blind daughter (radiant newcomer Bryce Dallas Howard), “Do your best not to scream,” the moment is delectable in its heightened anticipation.

Founded by a nonevangelical sect, the village sits in a remote valley in Pennsylvania. The isolation is more than spiritual: The villagers have a tense understanding with the creatures that inhabit the surrounding woodland. As Edward Walker, the patriarch, explains to a classroom of rapt youngsters, “We don’t go into their woods, and they don’t come into our valley.” The film then proceeds with deliberate slowness, almost forcing the viewer to take in the community’s pastoral rhythms and allowing the characters time to establish themselves and the relationships between them. The elders, especially, know and respect each other deeply, as if sharing an unspoken tragedy. “There are secrets in every corner,” says Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix), the stoical son of elder Alice (Sigourney Weaver).

Ivy, Edward’s blind but brash daughter, is utterly confident in her pursuit of Lucius. She also has a playful friendship with Noah (Adrien Brody), the village idiot who follows her like a puppy and obeys her every command. Dread creeps into their innocent tomfoolery when livestock are found mutilated and bloody omens are smeared on the doors. These increasingly menacing visitations seem to be provoked by Lucius’ desire to journey to “the towns” beyond, which would expose the village to the corruption and cruelties of the outside world.

As the suspense steadily ratchets—a young man freezes in terror when he sees one of the creatures passing beneath the watchtower—Ivy and Lucius fall into a rapturous courtship, demonstrating that Shyamalan can be as lyrically assured with young lovers as he is with ghouls, madmen, and aliens. The unnerving events get an otherworldly aura from the film’s visual romanticism; so integral is the moody cinematography (by the great Roger Deakins) that the film is practically a collaboration. All of Shyamalan’s films include at least one bravura sequence of largely visual, almost unbearable tension (most memorably, Bruce Willis’ silent rescue of two women in Unbreakable); for The Village, it’s when Ivy holds the porch door open for Lucius, putting her family in peril from the rapidly advancing creatures that she cannot see.

Instead of red herrings, Shyamalan provides sensory distractions and unsettling camera angles, replacing the in-your-face mode of most horror directors with a preference for out-of-the-corner-of your-eye subtlety. It works particularly well in the seemingly benign woods. The creatures, which appear to be holdovers from pagan times, coulda and shoulda been scarier—their design adheres too obviously to primitivism (an aesthetic that’s more effectively embodied by Brody’s odd performance). But the monsters are not center stage here, any more than the aliens were in Signs. The community’s harmony is irrevocably shattered by a crime committed by one villager against another (a stabbing that’s made even more disturbing by the methodical calm in which it’s filmed). Disillusioned, the elders reconsider their isolation, sending Ivy on a pilgrimage filled with the film’s most frightening moments.

What almost ruins this beautifully crafted mood piece is the writer-director’s often clunky dialogue and new-agey sentiments. Since the villagers converse in anachronistic grammar (referring to the creatures as “those we do not speak of”) there’s many an occasion for groans, notably the brazen declaration of love from Ivy’s older sister, Kitty (Judy Greer), for Lucius (the scene is redeemed by Phoenix’s dolefully pole-axed response). Most of the actors, however, turn the unusual vernacular to their advantage: Hurt’s gently impassioned diction creates a kind of spooky poetry.

And some of what he says is strangely spellbinding. There’s really no point in going to The Village just to guess the twist; Shyamalan isn’t trying to fool anyone—there’s a trail of muffin-size bread crumbs from start to finish. The ending, to his credit, isn’t a box-office-pumping “Gotcha!” but a more satisfying “A-ha.”

—Ann Morrow

The Family That Fights Together

Thunderbirds
Directed by Jonathan Frakes

Based on a popular British television series starring puppets, Thunderbirds is a retro-style caper, replete with modest gadgets and special effects, that innocently evokes themes of family unity, wholesome adventure, a sense of world order and fantastic architecture and costuming—seemingly bottled from vintage Man From Uncle episodes.

Former astronaut Jeff Tracy (Bill Paxton) and his five sons go around the world (minimally disguised as the superhero band Thunderbird Five) at a moment’s notice in order to rescue unfortunate souls from all matter of manmade and natural disasters. News channels closely monitor their exploits; schoolchildren watch with bated breath as T5’s members save Russian sailors from a blazing tanker amid a roiling sea. Everyone, it seems, wants to be a Thunderbird, perhaps no one more so than Jeff’s youngest son, Allen (Brady Corbett). When the heroes are captured by evil nemesis the Hood (Ben Kingsley, clearly relishing a stint in make-believe), Allen and his friends Tin-Tin (Vanessa Anne Hudgens) and Fermat (Soren Fulton), the children of Jeff’s major domo Kyrano (Bhasker Patel) and chief inventor and scientist Brains (Anthony Edwards), get to trade their fantasies for real life in an effort to save their families and the world.

Allen, of course, has memorized just about everything his dad and brothers have ever done, so he pretty much knows how to employ rescue craft. Where he falters, scientific whiz kid Fermat or brilliant, nervy Tin-Tin step in. In true dramatic fashion, of course, the trio have to learn to work together, especially Allen, who has a tendency not to listen and to promote his own self- interest. The Hood attempts to feed on Allen’s anger at Jeff, and his sorrow over the mysterious death of Mrs. Tracy, to get him to join forces—the ultimate “fuck you” to Jeff, whom the Hood blames for his physical debilities. Kids will empathize with Allen’s frustration at being treated like a kid, as well as his resentment at the other family members who seem to live so glamorously while he toils away at school. Kids will also enjoy the interactions of the three young would-be heroes, who are refreshingly realistic for all the high-tech accessories.

While Thunderbirds lacks the verve and ingenuity of, say, the Spy Kids series, it remains a fairly sturdy, often fun flick. Director Jonathan Frakes (TV’s Star Trek), working with a script by William Osborne and Michael McCullers, employs unusual camera shots and an often giddy, oh-so-English sense of humor that makes the movie almost like a version of The Avengers played for good-natured laughs. This is particularly evident in the character of Lady Penelope (Sophia Myles), who can properly be described as the love child of Emma Peel and John Steed, a pink-clad aristocrat with biting wit, cool intelligence, admirable bravery and, above all, an unwavering commitment to the cause of humanity. What romantic embers simmer between her and Jeff are always banked, quite rightly, when duty calls. Frakes also pays homage to the goofiness of series like Batman, in the amusing interactions between the Hood’s henchman and henchwoman. The older Tracy brothers (Scott, John, Virgil and Gordon) lack any individuality other than a peroxided quiff or a head wound, and this may trouble fans of the English series. Still, this is, after all, a quasi-sci-fi film that’s really about yearning—to be something you are not, to live in a world whose wrongs are handily corrected—and to that extent, it’s certainly “a go.”

—Laura Leon


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