Sunday, February 25, 2018

THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962): Politics and Paranoia

Sometimes on late night television I’ll see the original version of The Manchurian Candidate.  A cold war satire based upon a novel by Richard Condon, the film remains strangely current with what is now going on in Washington, D.C.

The plot of The Manchurian Candidate concerns the brainwashing of a number of American soldiers taken prisoner during the Korean War.  When back on American soil, these veterans continue to remain susceptible to hypnotic suggestions by communist agents.  The most important agent is an American, Mrs. Iselin (Angela Lansbury).  She is the mother of one of the former prisoners, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), and the wife of Senator John Iselin (James Gregory).  Senator Iselin is under consideration to be a vice presidential candidate.

Senator Iselin’s political persona is like that of Senator Joseph McCarthy.  He labels any political rival a communist, and he stirs up his followers.  Senator Iselin has no in depth understanding of any political issue, and he lets his wife do all of his thinking.  Senator Iselin is a buffoon who many politicians do not take seriously.  But with his wife, they are an extremely dangerous combination.

Raymond is the problematic one.  He despises his mother and stepfather.  He’s in love with a girl named Jocelyn (Leslie Parrish), the daughter of Senator Thomas Jordan (John McGiver).  Senator Jordan also happens to be a chief critic of Senator Iselin and his wife.  Raymond also has a close acquaintance, Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra), also taken prisoner with Raymond in Korea.  Marco is the one who figures out what Mrs. Iselin is up to in controlling the various subjects – including her son, Raymond.  The brainwashing of Raymond leads to the killing of Senator Jordan and Jocelyn (even though Raymond is engaged to her).  Through brainwashing, Mrs. Iselin has instructed Raymond to assassinate the political enemies of Senator Iselin.   She also instructed him to kill the presidential candidate for which Senator Iselin is on the under ticket (this would make Senator Iselin the head of the ticket).  But because of Marco foiling the plans of Mrs. Iselin, instead of assassinating the presidential candidate Raymond shoots Senator Iselin and Mrs. Iselin at the convention.

Though The Manchurian Candidate is allowable for viewing on television, implications made during the film are more daring than what we get in most movies today.  In Condon’s novel, Mrs. Iselin brainwashes Raymond, her son, to have sex with her.  While the moviemakers did not or could not portray this in the film, there is a clear implication of Mrs. Iselin’s incestuous feelings for her son. 

The Manchurian Candidate is a film likely more popular today than it was when it first arrived in theatres.  And while cold war dramas may once have seemed a thing in the past, we’re again seeing such drama unfolding in Washington politics with the Russian probe.  The Manchurian Candidate also made way for other controversial satires such as Dr. Strangelove, released in 1964.  Yet while today’s critics admire the 126-minute film, not everyone gave it a positive review when it first arrived.  In his 1962 review in the New York Times, Bosley Crowther praised the acting of Angela Lansbury and Laurence Harvey while at the same time saying The Manchurian Candidate “has so little to put across.”  I’d be curious if Crowther ever changed his mind regarding the film.

For any critic to be fair to a movie such as this, they need to understand that no good satire will receive universal accolades when first appearing.  A well-done satire will hurt some feelings.  The satire in films may also be easy for critics to miss who insist on taking the films literally. 

Concerning The Manchurian Candidate, neither writer Richard Condon nor director John Frankenheimer believed that the nation was in immediate danger because of brainwashing by communist agents.  The target of the satire was American citizens and politicians.  And the implication was that the McCarthyite antics of Senator Iselin and his wife were about as welcome as living under a communist dictatorship.  Just as defenders of Joseph McCarthy did and may still label him a true patriot, so would many American citizens label the two characters in this film.  Unfortunately, there are a lot of “true patriots” just like them still around.  If it’s not communism they claim to attack, it’s something else.

Note: When remade in 2004 with the Gulf War as a backdrop instead of the Korean War, the new version of The Manchurian Candidate received some good reviews but still received negative comparisons to the original film.  I guess the same would likely be true of any remake.  Since I have not seen the remake, I will withhold judgment.


 © Robert S. Miller 2018

Thursday, January 25, 2018

DARKEST HOUR (2017): Glimpse of Winston Churchill

Time Magazine may have been mistaken in choosing Albert Einstein to be Man of the Century in 1999.  Einstein was probably the 20th Century’s most important scientist and one of its greatest thinkers.  The implications of his specific and general relativity theories will probably always be with mankind.  But it was in large part because of the actions of Winston Churchill that Hitler did not possess nuclear weapon that Einstein’s theories made possible.  I therefore think Churchill would have made a better choice.

Churchill was the man primarily responsible for England not surrendering to Hitler.  It was Churchill who met with Roosevelt and Stalin in Tehran, Yalta and Potsdam in deciding the fate of Europe.  Most importantly, it was Churchill who led Britain during the allied victory during World War II.

In the film Darkest Hour, Gary Oldman remarkably brings to the screen the personality of Churchill.  The film focuses on a very short period following May of 1940 after Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) resigned his position as prime minister.  This was also a time when the Nazis were occupying Belgium and just about to invade France.  Choosing Churchill as Chamberlain’s replacement was not a popular choice.  However, Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), Chamberlain’s first choice as a replacement, declined to take the role by saying it was not yet his time.  Fortunately, for Europe, it never did become Halifax’s time.  In fact, Even King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) at first had doubts about his new prime minister. 

Churchill seemed to have no popular support anywhere as Prime Minister save with the people of England.  During the film, Churchill made a trek onto a London train where he listens to the voices of the public tell him that they want no concessions made with Hitler.  As an aside, this never actually happened.  However, some reviewers do note that Churchill did frequently take side trips to speak to the public without letting aides know where he was going.

There were others who believed in Churchill as well.  His wife Clemmie (Kristin Scott Thomas) never doubted her husband’s talents.  And the secretary who was to type all of his speeches, Elizabeth Latyon (Lily James), also was in awe of Churchill’s great ability to communicate with the public. 

Darkest Hour shows Churchill to be a genuine eccentric.  He drank and smoked cigars, and could at times be extremely tempestuous.  His speeches to the public did not receive favorable reviews from England’s legislative establishment.   The establishment wished to see a more conciliatory approach towards Hitler out of fear that the Luftwaffe would eventually destroy London if war continued.  Churchill, on the other hand, wished to make no concessions with Germany. 

While always putting up a courageous front, the film shows Churchill tortured with doubts.  Churchill understood more than anyone what was at stake.  He was also a man haunted by memories of Gallipoli, a campaign he led during World War I, where over 30,000 British soldiers died.  The outcome of that battle led to continued distrust of Churchill by the British Parliament. 

In the eyes of the Parliament, Churchill eventually redeems himself due to his guidance during the rescue of 300,000 soldiers in Dunkirk.  He also impresses the assembly at the film’s conclusion when giving his rousing speech while stating that Britain would “never surrender.”

As the film clearly shows, Churchill was a populist.  By listening to the public instead of the advice of professional advisors, he likely saved England.  On the other hand, his aggressive rhetoric could also have led to its destruction.  Though always a controversial figure, it was Churchill who foresaw the impossibility of negotiating with Hitler. 

The merits of Darkest Hour almost entirely revolve around Oldman’s portrayal of Churchill.  This was effective if unusual casting.  Oldman’s role depicts both the good and the bad regarding the former British Prime Minister during this 125-minute film.  And because of good storytelling, we get to know what was on the mind of the British people at the time of the Blitzkrieg.

In watching Darkest Hour, we almost forget that there was anyone else in the movie besides Oldman.  And from what little we actually see of the London streets, we almost also forget that the public was scared to venture out due to possible air raids and bombing.  It nevertheless is worth watching for Oldman’s portrayal alone.

Directed by Joe Wright, Darkest Hour will receive a great deal of Oscar discussion.  It received nominations for best picture, and Gary Oldman received a nomination for best actor.  My guess is that Oldman will win, but a film of lesser quality will become best picture.

January 25, 2018

© Robert S. Miller 2018

Thursday, December 28, 2017

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (2017): It’s Not All About Money

As in every Star Wars episode, the resistance is nearing extinction in Star Wars: The Last Jedi.  The Empire has at its disposal a new killing machine and technology even better than the last.  General Leia (Carrie Fisher) is badly injured and for a time cannot lead the resistance.  And despite pleas from the new Jedi wannabe, Rey (Daisy Ridley), Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is reluctant to help.  (Yet like Obi-Wan did for Luke, Luke is willing to train Rey as a Jedi.)  Meanwhile, through incredible courage on the part of their temporary leader, Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), who sacrifices her life by crashing a resistance ship into the command ship of the Empire, it appears the resistance may still win.  Yet with his command of the dark side of the Force, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) rallies the Empire to once again put the resistance in an untenable position. 

Then Luke (Mark Hamill) shows up.  Just as Obi-Wan Kenobi faced off with Darth Vader forty years ago, Luke faces off in a light-saber duel with Kylo Ren.  And just like Obi-Wan did in the earlier duel, Luke dies at the hands of his foe.  But the victory for the Empire is hollow as the light side of the force remains on the side of the resistance – apparently in the being of Rey.  The resistance escapes to fight another day.

When Luke Skywalker says in the latest movie that we shouldn’t romanticize the Jedi knights (which he says a number of times), he could just as well have been telling the audience to not romanticize the Star Wars series.  Whatever apologists for The Last Jedi may say, the latest installment is in large part a rehash of old material for a new audience.  (It is almost impossible to separate any individual Star Wars film from the series as a whole.)  Yet despite being long (152 minutes) and not saying anything substantially new, The Last Jedi was better than I expected.  It does have the humor and some of the innocence of the first installments.

The Star Wars series has had some good films, and not so good films.  I enjoyed the first three Star Wars films (now known as parts IV, V and VI), but have never been a great enthusiast of the series as a whole.  The prequels (known as Parts I, II and III) are humorless. And The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi are in some respects a farewell tour for the original cast (Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker, Harrison Ford as Han Solo and the late Carrie Fisher as Princess or General Leia).  Mark Hamill even grows a beard and looks remarkably like his mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi, played by Alec Guinness in the earliest episode.  In The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, we also get to know some new characters.  Daisy Ridley as Rey, who is a cross between Luke and Leia.  Oscar Isaac plays Poe, who is fated to be the new Han Solo.  And we have Adam Driver to play Kylo Ren – obviously taking over the role of the villainous Darth Vader.  (In The Force Awakens, Ren kills his father, Han Solo.)

Not everyone loves what the Star Wars phenomenon represents.  Since opening less than two weeks ago, The Last Jedi has sold close to one-half billion dollars in ticket sales.  God only knows how much money has changed hands due to sales of Star Wars merchandise following this latest installment.  There are toys, costumes, paraphernalia and now a Star Wars cruise.

Apparently some diehard Star Wars fans also feel cheated by the The Last Jedi.  The film didn’t answer enough questions.  Or it felt like the film had nothing fresh to say.  But I’m not sure why such followers should have expected anything else.  However many Star Wars movies have actually been made, this is Episode VIII.  The first Star Wars movie appeared forty years ago, and it looks like the Star Wars series has a few more years of life in it.  Hollywood,  and especially Disney films, is not going to experiment at any length with the formula for this series when they know that a film like The Last Jedi will bring in this sort of money.  This film was set up with at least one other sequel in mind – along with more cash.

I hope that whenever the last Star Wars finally appears, the series will end with some dignity.  There is no doubt that the series revolutionized the making of movies.  While the storylines contain a great deal of “New Age” elements, George Lucas created the series with a definite vision in mind.  “The Force,” whatever that may be, is something that all characters in the film secretly wish to obtain.  It’s not so much different from what all human beings, good or bad, wish to obtain – some meaning for their existence.  Director Rian Johnson of The Last Jedi attempts to remain sensitive to that vision. 

December 28, 2017
© Robert S. Miller 2017

Sunday, November 26, 2017

LADY BIRD (2017): Coming-of-Age Story

Considering how many bad coming of age stories exist in the film industry, Lady Bird is comparably refreshing.  It’s short at 93 minutes.  The two main leads, Saoirse Ronan, as the daughter Lady Bird and Laurie Metcalf as Marion the mother, are genuine human beings rather than caricatures.  Their arguments and struggles as well as begrudged affection for each other does not come across as affected.  And the movie overall is not ham-handed or cynical like the typical coming-of-age film.  It’s not perfect, either.

Lady Bird is in her senior year of attending a Catholic high school in Sacramento, California, and hopes to attend college at an eastern school.  A few things are getting in her way, however.  Her family is not rich.  Lady Bird’s grades are insufficient.  And most importantly, her mother is opposed to her going east.

In the meantime, Lady Bird mildly rebels against the Catholic school she attends, but never to the point where she rejects its authority.  She has her first sexual encounter during her senior year, smokes cigarettes and occasionally smokes marijuana, and fights and makes up with her best friend, Julie (Beanie Feldstein).  She has two boyfriends during the film.  One is Danny (Lucas Hedges), a seemingly honest and innocent boy who we discover, in the most contrived manner, is gay.  The other boyfriend, Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), deflowers Lady Bird only to reveal afterwards he’s been with a number of girls before.  Frankly, Kyle was not a necessary character in the film.

The only important relationship in the entire film is between Lady Bird and her mother.  The mother and daughter cry together, fight and almost always in the end makeup. Lady Bird’s affectionate father, Larry (Tracy Letts) mostly remains in the background and has little impact in pacifying the strong wills of his wife and daughter.  Sometimes the mother and daughter badly hurt each other, and the hurt never entirely goes away – even when Lady Bird finally receives acceptance to a college in New York.  Bored and frustrated with Sacramento, Lady Bird’s relationship with the city is similar to that with her mother (the symbolism is a bit forced). 

To listen to certain reviewers, you would think such a film is something never seen before.  It makes one nervous hearing terms such as honest and special and lovely and warm loosely thrown around like we’ve run out of other verbs or adverbs or adjectives to describe the film.  None of these superlatives are particularly precise.  Probably the most accurate review I read described the film as self-conscious while redeemed by the acting of Ronan and Metcalf.  It went on to label Greta Gerwig’s directing style as “stiff and mannered.”  (

I liked Lady Bird probably as much as any film in this kind of genre.  That’s not saying all that much.  But when the mother and daughter characters are on screen together, the film is powerful.  These scenes come close to making the viewer uncomfortable and help us appreciate the difficulties families go through when adolescent children are present.  The script also treats these difficulties with great care.  Without that mother/daughter relationship, the film would not be unique.  With the exception of Larry and Julie, none of the other characters in the film come even close to full development.  And very few scenes where the two main characters are not together leave any lasting impression.

As many reviewers point out (and without maybe even being aware of what they are saying), there was nothing groundbreaking in this film.  I have difficulty believing we will remember this film in a few years.   Hopefully, Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf will go on to play other roles in the future that helps us remember them better.  The credit for any value of this film should go all to them.

November 25, 2017

© Robert S. Miller 2017