Archive for the ‘Drama’ Category

Movie Reviews 469 – Rainy Dog (1997)

February 12, 2021

I’ve reviewed a number of films by director Takashi Miike, a favorite of mine known for his depiction of both extreme violence and the dizzying array of subject matter of his films. Not too many filmmakers can claim a filmography that includes a movie based on a kiddie TV show (Yatterman!), cybernetic yakuza (Full Metal Yakuza) and a Masters of Horror TV episode that was banned for being too extreme.

Rainy Dog is actually the second installment in the director’s Black Society trilogy (the others being Shinjuku Triad Society and Ley Lines), but I should point out right away that the films are only loosely linked and one does not need to have seen the first to watch this one. They each tell a separate tale of how the yakuza and triads are perceived and integrated within Japanese society.

In Rainy Dog a yakuza soldier finds himself ostracized from his crime syndicate and stranded in Taipei Taiwan, unable to return without a passport. Already down and out, Yuuji (Show Aikawa, also in Miike’s Gozu) is also trying to evade another assassin who has been ‘hunting’ him for 3 years for some unnamed conflict between the two. If that were not already too much to handle, a woman with whom Yuuji had a one night stand years before suddenly drops off his young son, incidentally a mute, who he never even knew about. At first, the boy Ah Chen is left to fend for himself outside Yuuji’s shanty, standing in the rain and foraging for food scraps. Eventually Yuuji lets him follow him around and allows him to enter his shack, barely accommodating him rather than fully accepting him.

Throughout the film Yuuji is earning his keep as an assassin for Mr Ke who also keeps promising him that he will get him a passport. After he completes an ordered hit on one of Mr. Ke’s competitors, Ku-Chiping, Yuuji also comes into the possession of a suitcase full of money. Yuuji then encounters Lily (Xianmei Chen), a prostitute that takes a shine to young Ah Chen. However Ku-Chiping’s brother has struck a deal with Ke, and now the trio, Yuuji, Lily and Ah Chen are on the run, chased by everyone it seems until they reach the end at the beachhead shoreline.

While some of Miike’s trademark violence is found here, it is not as gratuitous as in other films and does prove to be significant to the storyline. However the non-action scenes are very serene and emotional, with both Yuuji and Lily contemplating their lives and in search of peace and stability. As one can imagine, the ‘Rainy’ part of the title figures in many such scenes, ones that I can only assume are an homage to legendary director Akira Kurasawa and Seven Samurai in particular.

It’s hard for me not to recommend any Miike film, no matter how quirky and odd. But this is not on par with his most celebrated films so perhaps not for everyone. But another ‘must’ for Miike fans like myself.

Movie Reviews 468 – The Graduate (1967)

February 5, 2021

Following up his masterpiece film debut Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, director Mike Nichols gave us another classic in the adaptation of The Graduate, the story of an disillusioned university graduate who then gets swept up by a married woman’s advances to have an affair. This was Dustin Hoffman’s breakout as the titular graduate as well as a standout role for Katharine Ross as the daughter of the woman. While Anne Bancroft was already a well established Oscar winner, you can say that she too got ‘exposure’ in the sense that her stockinged right leg used for the advertising became an indelible image of the film.

Benjamin Braddock (Hoffman) has just returned home after graduating college and is clearly already in a beady-eyed funk. Clueless as to what to do next and without any aspirations, he is tormented by his parents who are all too eager to flout his ‘success’ to friends and neighbours. It is at one such occasion that his father’s business partner’s wife, Mrs. Robinson (whose first name is never uttered the entire film), insists that Benjamin drive her home where he is first propositioned, only to be rescued by the timely arrival of her husband (Murray Hamilton), yet another person trying to recruit him into a mundane career.

The mix of boredom and young lust eventually gets to Benjamin and he soon calls her, setting up an inept and bumbling encounter at a hotel. While the tryst is perfunctory from Mrs. Robinson’s point of view, clearly dealing with issues of her own, Benjamin’s attempts to engage at a more personal level are dismissed. When Benjamin broaches the topic of the Robinson’s daughter Elaine (Ross) who is still in college and nothing more than a distant memory of childhood friends, a rather surprisingly upset Mrs. Robinson makes it clear that Benjamin is to stay away from her.

While her edict is inconsequential at first, upon Elaine’s impending return home Benjamin soon finds himself badgered by both his parents and Mr. Robinson himself to take the young girl out. Cornered and without any remaining valid excuses, he reluctantly agrees to a date, but with a plan he believes will end it there. With few words and even less eye contact he whisks her to a lewd topless dance bar making sure she is at the focus of the entertainment. Crushed and in tears Elaine leaves and demands to just be brought back home. Guilt ridden, Benjamin confesses he only took her out to placate his parents and her dad, and the two then go on to have a simple amicable date and by the end of the night both are smitten.

This of course does not sit well with Mrs. Robinson who obstructs their second planned date and threatens Benjamin that she will tell Elaine about their affair. In a panic Ben decides it is best to beat her to the punch and tells Elaine the truth himself. Shocked and hurt, she returns to university, but Benjamin remains persistent, following her and taking up residence in student housing. His stalks and coincidental encounters eventually get her to talk whereupon he learns that she was told Benjamin raped her mother.

While he does make progress of sorts over time, Elaine is still very much confused, conflicted and on occasion still dating a lawyer. Just when Benjamin is on the brink of a breakthrough in their relationship he finds that she has been whisked away by her parents, now divorcing and slated to be married in short order. Ben has to figure out where this marriage is to take place and hope that he can convince her otherwise.

This film is filled with unforgettable scenes, both funny and grim. More anti-materialism than anti-establishment, it is clearly an expression of disoriented youth rather than rebellion or counter-culture, a subject more prevalent at the time.. A lot of the credit goes to Buck Henry who not only co-wrote the screenplay adaptation, but also puts in duty as a confounding hotel clerk. While the script is rich in symbolism such as Ben drowning in his misery, some of the laughs were accidental gaffs and bloopers that were kept in the final print according to the short documentary and Hoffman interview on my DVD. What has incorrectly been interpreted as Ben in a Christ-like crucifixion pose in the climactic scene as he pounds the glass above the church alcove was actually him just spreading his hands so as not to break the glass.

No mention of the film can exclude the impact of the spectacular Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack, Bancroft’s adulteress “Mrs. Robinson” becoming the duo’s enduring biggest hit, second only to “The Sound of Silence” (also remixed for the film) and taking the Record of the Year nod at the 1968 Grammys.

A great cast, a great script, a great soundtrack, a great film.

Movie Reviews 466 – Gilda (1946)

January 22, 2021

I recently rewatched Double Indemnity, the seminal Film Noir and template upon which all others in the genre are judged against. Few films can match it but Gilda comes pretty close.

Lowly street hustler Johnny Farrell’s (Glenn Ford) life is saved one night from an attempted mugging while in Buenos Aire,. His savior, a well dressed gentleman named Ballin Mundson (George Macready) takes a shine to Johnny and gives him a pass to a nearby casino.

Admiring Johnny for his instincts and heavy handedness when called for, Ballin offers him a job at his illegal gambling den. At first, things go remarkably well for Johnny who not only manages to clean up his act, but soon becomes Ballin’s second-hand man with his diligence and dedication.That is until Ballin returns from a short trip one night and introduces Johnny to his new wife.

Rita Hayworth is Gilda in what was to become her Hollywood defining moment from the very first instant we see her face on screen, or rather the iconic hair sweep she does. She is vivacious and vibrant and … trouble. It is clear from the outset that Johnny and Gilda knew one another before, but neither acknowledge it to Ballin. Just as clear is their hatred for one another. Their one time romance, which we learn of in dribs and drabs (and never fully explained) is one that Johnny wants to forget, but is constantly brought up by Gilda. Meanwhile Johnny, ever vigilant of the ongoings in the casino, knows that there are shenanigans going on that even Ballin will not divulge. But his biggest problem is Gilda, flirting with everyone behind Ballin’s back all while both antagonizing and seducing Johnny. Johnny manages to juggle all that is thrown at him for a time until the ending at which point the truth of Ballin’s dealings are revealed and Ballin learns of Johnny and Gilda’s past involvement.

The brilliance of the script is riddled with double entendres and innuendo, much like the provocative scene in which Gilda performs a ‘clothed’ striptease act. There are plenty of shady characters, many who are not what they seem. Thankfully the somewhat convoluted plot about a Tungsten cartel (which is ridiculous as it sounds) is almost irrelevant, leaving the focus squarely on Johnny and Gilda and other relationships. This brings us to the dialogue being peppered with a recurring theme of threesomes (get your mind out of the gutter) be it Johnny-Ballin-Gilda, or Johnny-Ballin and the pointed dagger in Ballin’s walking stick. The ‘point’ being that in the both threesomes, the third party, be it Gilda or the dagger, are equally sharp and equally dangerous. In one brilliant sequence the threesome discussions overlap and Gilda ends up condeming herself, figuratively speaking.

The fourth character of significance in the film is ‘uncle Pio’ (Steven Geray) an ever vigilant casino bathroom attendant who is all eyes and ears and the guiding element in much of what happens throughout the film and also lending a mild comedic touch. Not surprisingly, he too becomes part of a threesome at the end of the movie (that theme again) but I won’t spoil it by mentioning the others therein.

Hayworth’s Femme Fatale role is famously cemented by not one but two renditions of her singing Put the Blame on Mame. While I would normally prefer to keep the song and dance routines out of Film Noir, I have to admit that in this case it did add to her mystique and was both fitting and enjoyable .

Easily one of the ‘must see’ cinema classics.

Movie Reviews 462 – The Guns of Navarone (1961)

December 18, 2020

There is a long list of World War II movies that are considered classics such as The Great Escape, The Dirty Dozen and Stalag 17, all favorites of mine that I can rewatch over and over. While I had heard of The Guns of Navarone many times over the years, I only got my hands on a DVD recently in order for me to finally judge where this entry sits on that illustrious list.

Based on an early Alistair Maclean novel and loosely based on the real life Battle of Leros, the film storyline is essentially one of those daring,near-impossible missions foisted on a small group of soldiers in an act of desperation. In this case about 2000 British soldiers on the island of Kheros in the Aegean Sea find themselves cut-off and surrounded by Axis forces about to bear down on them. What prevents the Allied forces from rescuing the men are the titular guns of Navarone, two mighty radar controlled cannons. A small fleet is dispatched to rescue the men but that hinges on the guns being put out of commision and failure to do so would not only end with the capture of the stranded troops, but decimation of the rescue convoy.

A team is quickly assembled to take out the guns before the rescue ships arrive. Led by a Major (Anthony Quayle) the crux of the team consists of Captain Mallory (Gregory Peck) whose mountaineer skills are required to tackle the first hurdle, a daunting 400 foot sheer drop cliff and Cpl Miller (David Niven) as the explosives expert for the coup-de-grâce upon reaching their target. If dealing with a suicide mission were not bad enough for Mallory, he also learns that another member will be Andrea Stavros (Anthony Quinn), a man that has sworn to kill Mallory because of a previous operation.

The mission is filled with surprises, suspicions, unexpected setbacks that continually have the team scurrying. After their intended contact on the island has been replaced by the contact’s daughter (Irene Papas) and another mute resistance fighter (Gia Scala), they must advance by blending in with the local Greeks amid a wedding feast in the village plaza. At every turn, the Germans seem to be one step ahead, but who, if anyone, is the traitor among them?

As is often the case, the people working behind the scenes are as interesting as the films they make. Producer and screenplay writer Carl Foreman was one of the blacklisted victims of the McCarthy era Hollywood witch hunts which forced him to immigrate to England. There he worked on Bridge over the River Kwai based on the book by Pierre Boulle the original author of the Planet of the Apes novel. Director J. Lee Thomson would later go on to direct the last two installments of the original Planet of the Apes franchise, the first film screenplay having been written by Michael Wilson, yet another Hollywood blacklisted writer.

It took me a while to appreciate the nuances of what first starts out as a cookie-cutter thriller but by the end I was impressed with the layers of treachery and deceit and action filled finale.

I followed-up this viewing with the 1978 sequel Force 10 from Navarone starring Harrison Ford and Robert Shaw. While not nearly as endearing as the original it did bring back some of the memorable characters from the first.

Movie Reviews 459 – Samurai Fiction (1998)

November 27, 2020

Nobody will ever accuse Japanese filmmakers of not pushing boundaries and trying new things and Samurai Fiction is another fine example of that. The similarity in title to Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction is no coincidence although it has more in common with the maverick director’s Kill Bill duology. The primary homage of this black comedy however is for that country’s celebrated samurai films of old going back to the Akira Kurusawa classics, even going so far as to be filmed in black and white. With a bit of a twist of course.

The tale begins when a rogue samurai named Kazamatsuri (Tomoyasu Hotei) kills a fellow clan member and runs off with a coveted sword given to the clan by a shogun. The clan’s chief councilor is hesitant to send a recovery squad but his son Heishiro (Mitsuru Fukikoshi) and his two best friends decide to retrieve the sword themselves. The self proclaimed ‘Three Stooges’ catch up with Kazamatsuri and promptly get their collective asses whooped before a stranger can put a halt to the fight. The wounded Heishiro is taken in by the interloper Hanbei (Morio Kazama) and his daughter Koharu (Tamaki Ogawa) but only after one of Heishiro’s friends dies at the hand of Kazamatsuri. As Heishiro recuperates Kazamatsuri takes up with a den of gamblers run by Lady Okatsu (Mari Natsuki) who tries to lure him as a business partner. When word gets back to Heishiro’s father of Kazamuri’s whereabouts he sends two ninja assassins to try to get Okatsu to poison Kazamuri.

As you can see the plot is quite convoluted but the one outstanding question that never gets answered is why did Kazamatsuri steal the sword in the first place and why won’t he just give it back? The stark contrasts between the solemn Kazamatsuri persona and the flighty Heishiro is just a sample of what makes this film so odd and hard to peg. More interesting is the background of the noble Hanbei and his ‘daughter’ (note the quotes) which does get addressed. Fans in Japan would have instantly recognized the casting of Hotei, a celebrated rock star there, and unsurprisingly the musical soundtrack reflects that with rollicking guitar riffs overlaying the traditional taiko drums. Despite the Tarantino influence there is not a lot going on from a martial arts action point of view, what little fighting shown being almost slapstick in nature.

The opening credits include a ‘part 1’ subtitle which may have been another nod to Tarantino’s Kill Bill ‘parts’ but a ‘part 2’, Stereo Future was supposedly filmed a few years later although there doesn’t seem to be much information regarding its content, at least none that I could find and director Hiroyuki Nakano has since gone on to directing documentaries

One thing that had me stumped with a Matrix Red Pill, Blue Pill like choice was when I first opened my dual DVD case. The DVD sleeve, sparse to begin with, makes no mention of it at all but there staring me in the face were two discs exactly like one another except one with a red label and the other a white label. Even a quick online search eluded me as to what was the difference so I had to plop it into my player to confirm that it was just a bunch of extra features (“Making of”, trailers, etc) along with the colorized versions of some select scenes.

This was clearly a work of passion for the director, however I would say a tad overambitious. It’s not bad but not as polished as I was hoping.

 

Movie Reviews 452 – The Three Faces of Eve (1957)

October 2, 2020

The first time I ever heard of the concept of multiple personalities was when the Made-for-TV movie Sybil was broadcast in 1976 to much fanfare and advance promotion. I was fascinated by the revelation that a person could have split personalities sharing one body and mind. The film itself was something of a sensation (more on that later) so I assumed this was all new scientific ground being adapted into a movie drama. Little did I realize at the time that this was well trodden ground having already been covered in the classic The Three Faces of Eve.

Based on a book written by a psychiatrist documenting the real life case of a housewife who was diagnosed with the dissociative identity disorder, Joanne Woodward plays the part of Eve White, a housewife who suddenly exhibits strange behaviour while claiming to have memory lapses coinciding with her out of character conduct. With friction developing between her husband and exhibiting danger to her daughter, she seeks the help of a psychiatrist (Lee J. Cobb) who incredulously sees her transform before his very eyes. Under hypnosis the normal quiet and demure Eve White first becomes Eve Black, a young spirited, outspoken even flirtatious persona who is well aware of Eve White’s presence.

Convinced she is not faking the metamorphosis the doctor is presented with a quandary as to whether he should even tell his patient the root cause of her blackouts. But as Eve Black becomes ever more troublesome she is told and in short time Eve White can command Eve Black to appear whenever she wants.

Temporarily separated from her husband and daughter Eve White tries to live with her inner demon, but Black becomes ever bolder and basically escapes every night to party at local bars and dance halls. A tipping point is reached and eventually when Eve Black herself confesses to having her own blackouts and yet another persona, Jane emerges. And Jane it turns out holds the biggest secret of all.

Woodward deservingly won an academy award for her role, or should I say roles, as she manages to almost magically and convincingly reconstruct before our very eyes. Ironically she would go on to play the psychiatrist role in Sybil which was supposed based on an entirely different real life case. Both Eve/Jane and Sybil’s real names were revealed in time and both microscopically investigated both academically and journalistically regarding the veracity of their claims, which remain mostly inconclusive to this day.

Not your usual film in any way as it can be viewed as either a biopic or docu-drama or just plain drama. Highly recommended either way. From all three of us.

Movie Reviews 450 – La Femme Nikita (1990)

September 18, 2020

Most North American audiences were first introduced to the Nikita story by the American adaptation, Point of No Return which is a pretty decent film in its own right. Other incarnations include two acclaimed television series, one from right here in Canada. But the original French film La Femme Nikita by director Luc Besson is, as is usually the case, far superior and well worth seeking out.

To those unfamiliar with the story, Nikita (Anne Parillaud) is a rebellious young woman who gets into serious trouble with the law but instead of merely being incarcerated for her crimes she is enlisted into a covert government organization and is trained to be a super agent with emphasis on killing skills. As a mock funeral has already been held, so as far as the world knows she is already dead, so her choices are to either agree to the recruitment or to be ‘disposed of’ for real. Not much of a choice really.

At first a captive in a semi office-prison facility under the watchful eye of her mentor and recruiter Bob (Tchéky Karyo) she shows great potential in all areas of her training such as hand-to-hand combat and firearms. But her rebellious spirit has not been abandoned completely much to the consternation of some of her instructors and the leader of the organization. She does find a friend in the grooming and etiquette teacher Amande (Jeanne Moreau) who transforms that ragged punk youth into an elegant beauty,  which can be her greatest weapon under some circumstances.

Invited to a ‘dinner date’ by Bob who has clearly fallen for her, she is led to believe that it will be nothing more than a private affair within the cafeteria until Bob surprisingly not only leads her out of the facility but escorts her to the fanciest posh restaurant in Paris. Only there she learns that romance was not the reason for this trip, and in fact she is about to start the first of many missions in her new career.

Now given the latitude to live by herself, her tumultuous clandestine operations become more complicated when she falls for Marco (Jean-Hugues Anglade) a grocery store clerk. Accepting tickets for Venice as a gift from ‘uncle’ Bob results in yet more complications for a mission, one that goes terribly wrong and requiring calling in  Victor “The Cleaner” (Jean Reno). But the cleaner wants more than just to scrub the operation and the resulting melee will be unlike any mission she has been on before.

On the face of it, La Femme Nikita (also released in some instances simply as Nikita) is nearly non-stop John Woo style action that has dizzying mood shifts to go along with Nikita’s Jekyll/Hide transformations as she is called to duty. But it also offers tender moments setting up the Nikita/Bob/Marco love triangle to the point that you forget this is an action film at all, even if only for a few moments. When Jean Reno barges on screen, the very manner of his entrance is enough to signal that the film is now on an altogether different trajectory from a both bullet count and laughs perspective. I suspect that Victor “The Cleaner” was the inspiration for Harvey Keitel’s “Cleaner” character Mr. Wolf in Pulp Fiction, although they are dissimilar in many ways, indicative of how Quentin Tarantino adopts characters but makes them his own.

The film sidesteps any discussion regarding the ethics of a government agency that skirts it’s own laws and that enlists deadly mercenaries to deal with troublesome individuals, albeit seemingly deserving of their fates. Nikita’s issue with her involvement is purely from a point of view of freedom and having paid one’s dues. Even finding love in the complicated manner that she does, comes second to being free.

Unless you abhor some of the over the top action sequences, it’s hard for anyone not to love this film. And anyone who can enjoy a Jean Reno performance (if it were even possible not to) will have reason enough to watch this by his presence alone.

Movie Reviews 446 – Stalag 17 (1953)

August 21, 2020

Stalag 17 has always been one of my favourite WWII movies and a film that was on my DVD search list for a long time. As luck would have it, when I recently acquired an entire box full of free DVDs whose actual contents were a mystery, there it was at the very bottom. Score!

Now the first thing about the title is that it would sound awfully familiar to anyone who used to watch the old Hogan’s Heroes sitcom which took place in Stalag 13, “Stalag” being the German term for prisoner-of-war camps. While there are a few similarities including a doltish sergeant Schultz as a character, the similarities pretty much end there.

Another one of director Billy Wilder’s acclaimed films, this comedy drama sometimes gets short shrift only because he was such a prolific and successful director. And with a competing roster that includes Double Indemnity, Some Like it Hot, Witness for the Prosecution , The Apartment, Ace in the Hole , and Sunset Boulevard, who can you blame?

William Holden, being no stranger to playing a POWs as he did in The Bridge on the River Kwai, won the Academy Award for Best Actor playing J.J. Sefton, one of the inmates in Stalag 17. Ostracized not only because he trades with the German guards for favours, but also because he runs a bunch of schemes such as mice races earning him cigarettes and dough from the other inmates.

Sefton’s troubles begin when two escapees are shot the minute they make their break, a sure sign that the Germans were tipped off and laying suspicions that Sefton may have been responsible. When two new prisoners arrive after blowing up a German ammunition train and one of them is soon summed by the Commandant, Colonel von Scherbach (marvelously played by renown director Otto Preminger), only those sharing Sefton’s barracks could have spilled the fact that the new prisoners were involved in the sabotage. Now convinced that Sefton is the stoolie the former mere antagonism by his fellow captives turns to violence with a vicious beating and the confiscation of his lucrative personal goods chest. Not only is Sefton now a complete pariah, but what bothers him most is that there is a traitor among his fellow cabin inmates who no longer has to fear suspicion given that a convenient, yet innocent, scapegoat has already been identified. Even once Sefton does figure out which of his mates is the turncoat he realizes that merely outing the enemy in their midst would only be a temporary setback for them. Sefton must use his conniving mind for his greatest scheme of all if he is to come out on top this time.

Wilder brilliantly lays out a hilarious comedy while not sacrificing a moment of drama with many characters playing equally in both dispositions. Among the comedic elements, front and center are Harry “Sugar Lips” Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck) and Stanislas “Animal” Kuzawa (Robert Strauss) the former goading the latter who fantasizes romancing famed war pin-up Betty Grable. Other amusing characters include a prisoner unquestioning his wife’s highly questionable letters, while on the darker side we have a shell-shocked prisoner who no longer speaks and only finds solace playing his prized ocarina.

Fans of the original Mission Impossible series will take note of a young Peter Graves as the designated Security Officer, and future director Don Taylor among the POWs.

Watch this for the drama or watch it for the comedy, either way you will be entertained with a brilliant screenplay that straddles the dichotomy right down to the very last words.

Movie Reviews 442 – Green Room (2015)

July 17, 2020

While Sam Peckinpah can lay claim as the progenitor of ultra violence in films, writer director Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room proves once again that there are still innovative creators willing to push some of those boundaries further while maintaining a high standard of storytelling as a framework and not just relying on blood and gore as the main draw.

A group of punk rock musicians have an unfortunate streak of botched concerts planned by a promoter who, in a last ditch effort to find them at least one decent gig, refers them to a cousin of his willing to host them in a remote Oregon bar. With an understated warning that his cousin hangs with a ‘rough crowd’ the band heads out hoping to recoup at least enough money to buy some real food and eliminate the need to siphon gas from parked vehicles as they have been doing to get this far.

After a few quick introductions upon arrival and setting up their equipment the band takes to the stage and play, unfazed by the discordant audience, even taunting them with a playlist that includes the lyrics “Nazi punks! Nazi punks! Fuck’em!”. With their performance completed, they gladly collect their pay and start packing the van for whatever comes next. That is until one of the band members, Sam (Alia Shawkat), forgets her phone in their dressing room and Pat (Anton Yelchin) goes back to retrieve it only to stumble upon the body of a young girl in the room full of anxious looking skinheads.

The band is quickly rounded up back into the room and held at gunpoint until it can be decided what to do with the witnesses which include the despondent friend of the deceased (Imogen Poots). While the band pleads for their release promising to keep their noses out of the affair, the burly group confer among themselves as to their next steps and summon Darcy (Patrick Stewart) their evident leader. But with a bit of luck (and a lot of violence) the band regains control within the room, but are locked in. Thus begins a cat and mouse game of wits, proposals, counter-proposals, weapon exchanges, and … more violence.

With violence on par with Straw Dogs, the dire situation of the barricaded victims is further exacerbated by other things they find within their environs. Led by the geriatric leader figure Darcy, their captors are both a cult and a criminal organization, the hierarchy of which is based on the colour of the laces on their Doc Martens. With total command of his often dimwitted followers, Darcy is sharp as a knife, a meticulous planner and always it seems, one step ahead of the band.

Great suspense, excellent acting throughout and another example of the great loss it was to lose Yelchin, an actor who already made a huge mark at such a young age and was destined for so much more until his untimely, and nonsensical demise.

Movie Reviews 437 – The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

June 4, 2020

We’ve been living in a political dark period for some time now. The growing presence of Internet social networking sites has transformed them into powerful political influence conduits that are not only vulnerable, but being actively exploited not only by political parties, but also foreign powers which are even a greater threat.

While some of the younger people may believe that this is a new phenomena that has come about because of online social networking, the manipulation of a voting public has been around since there have been politicians. Newspapers going back hundreds of years have been empires built and manipulated by controlling owners, often brazenly favoring candidates, parties or ideological stripes. When Television came along, it proved an even more powerful tool given the inherent audio and video capabilities.

One of the first presidential campaigns in which it is acknowledged television was a deciding factor was the John F. Kennedy win over Nixon in 1961. Charisma aside, even makeup and lighting during the televised debate proved to present remarkable differences between the men. Ironically president Kennedy plays a part in this review of The Manchurian Candidate, a classic thriller that hinges on the then nascent Cold War.

Former Korean War prisoner Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) returns home to a hero’s welcome orchestrated by his mother Eleanor (Angela Lansbury) who stages the event as a photo opportunity for her husband, Senator Iselin (James Gregory) who is running for president. Shaw, despising his manipulative mother and buffoon step-father is being bestowed a congressional Medal of Honor, hailed for reputedly escaping his captors and single handedly saving a number of his battle comrades.

The only problem is that none of what he remembers actually happened. While he and the others have clouded recollections of the official story, they have lingering nightmares of an entirely different scenario. In their dreams they are seated onstage listening to a speech on horticulture delivered to a women’s auxiliary club. But those very memories waver and at times the women are actually Communist henchmen, and even worse, a brainwashed Shaw obediently chokes a fellow serviceman when asked. That dead serviceman is one who supposedly was killed in action.

These conflicting memories have a greater impact on Shaw’s former commanding officer, Maj. Marco (Frank Sinatra) who never got along with the loutish Shaw, and yet when asked what he thinks about him uncontrollably replies in a trancelike state “Raymond Shaw is the bravest, kindest, warmest most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.” Marco’s persistence in flagging the authorities that something is wrong finally pays off, but while convinced Shaw has been brainwashed by the enemy, the purpose for his release and supposed mission remain unknown. That is until Marco figures out the psychological trigger, the appearance of the Queen of Hearts in a card deck, which makes Shaw submissive to following instructions.

This is an edge-of-your-seat thriller with remarkable performances by the entire cast, but particularly by Lansbury as the ice-cold calculating pivotal figure. The unloved Shaw whose only redeeming quality is seeing his mother for what she is, has a brief tinge of humanity restored when he falls for the daughter (Leslie Parrish) of his step-father’s political nemesis (John McGiver), but even that interlude falls victim to his mother’s interference. The entire relationship is as interesting as the political intrigue and there are some not so subtle hints of an incestuous relationship. Less enjoyable is a shoehorned in love interest for Sinatra with Janet Leigh that just falls flat.

Front and center of course is the political maneuvering. While some may find the idea of simple brainwashing a bit much, as a plot element it remains effective even if only symbolically. The sequences in which the filming interleaves the old ladies transforming into a communist audience is mesmerizing. If the ending were not good enough after we find out what the endgame Shaw was being driven into, there is an added twist to make it all the better.

There was a longstanding myth that this film was pulled from theatres after JFK’s assasination due to the eerily similar aspects in the film but that has largely been dispelled over the years. What is true is that it was not promoted or marketed for a number of years following the incident and fell into obscurity for a long time until a revival in the late 80’s after which it gained praise and established itself as a classic film.

Richard Condon’s novel on which the film was based or perhaps the film itself seems to have been the inspiration for the episode The Hundred Days of the Dragon from the original Outer Limits television show. Shortly after this release director John Frankenheimer went on to helm 7 days in May which also shares elements of this story.  My MGM special edition DVD also had a nice featurette by fellow director William Friedkin as well as interviews with Frankenheimer, Sinatra and Screenplay writer George Axlerod.

I have to admit that while I have watched this film several times before, I find it all the more chilling in this political climate we find ourselves today. Foreign political interference is hardly even concealed and the effects of having a weak candidate in a position of power is all too evident.

We were warned.