Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Angela Lansbury, I never knew just how good you are in The Manchurian Candidate (Special Edition).

She's sensational in this John Frankenheimer thriller from 1962. Lansbury, who turns 90 in 2015, earned an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress. Patty Duke won for The Miracle Worker.

Lansbury is Mrs. Iselin, the wife of a blowhard senator (James Gregory), who sees communists everywhere he looks in the United States government. Shades of Joe McCarthy, anyone? There's a rare funny scene in this taut work when he asks his wife just how many communists he's supposed to say are in the American government.

The wife has serious ambitions for her husband, leading to the White House. She takes the steamroller approach to politics, flattening anyone in her way.

She controls her adult son, Raymond (Laurence Harvey), a Korean War veteran. It was she who forced him to end a relationship with Jocelyn Jordan (Leslie Parrish), the daughter of political rival Senator Thomas Jordan (John McGiver). "She won, of course," Raymond tells Marco. "She always does. I could never beat her. I still can't." There's a suggestion she has a sexual relationship with him.

Raymond's problems run far deeper than just a domineering mother.

He and his patrol were ambushed in Korea. He's a puppet of the Russian government, brainwashed and blanking out when he's given an assignment to kill someone. But his comrades are starting to have vivid nightmares of their experiences when they were captured. They're starting to talk. One of Shaw's men is Maj. Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra), who works in army intelligence. Army brass suggest he needs a break from service too. A short assignment in public relations fails spectacularly. Marco gets assigned to investigate Shaw.

Shaw is directed to shoot a party's presidential nominee at a certain point in his speech. Marco must stop him.

The Manchurian Candidate (Special Edition) makes for unsettling viewing. Raymond's not a likeable character, even before he's messed up by the Russians. Scenes during the soldiers' captivity is disorienting as perception shifts between what the prisoners see, because they're brainwashed, and what's actually happening.

Janet Leigh doesn't work for me as Sinatra's love interest. I'd argue she could have been cut from the film with no serious detriment.

But that's small beans in what is a very well made film.

RATING: 8/10

FUN FACTS: James Gregory was Insp. Frank Luger in television's Barney Miller.

Angela Lansbury was much nicer as Mrs. Potts in Beauty and the Beast.

McGiver appeared as Lord Beasley Waterford in an episode of Gilligan's Island.

Parrish was Carolyn Palamas in an episode of Star Trek, Who Mourns for Adonais? She also appeared in The Giant Spider Invasion.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Thirteen Days (2000)

A frightening Cold War experience makes for a thrilling movie in Roger Donaldson's Thirteen Days (Infinifilm Edition).

This 2000 drama about the Cuban Missile Crisis gets straight to chilling business. An American spy plane captures footage of Russian ballistic missiles being installed in Cuba. If fired, they could reach as far north as Washington. Eighty million Americans could be killed. It's estimated there's 10 to 14 days before they become operational.

President John F. Kennedy (Bruce Greenwood) needs to act fast. The first-term Democrat is walking a tightrope. The American military wants to pounce with options of invading Cuba or launching air strikes against the Communist island nation. "The big red dog is digging in our backyard," warns Gen. Curtis LeMay (Kevin Conway). Military brass like him see Kennedy as weak against the Russians.

Kennedy knows any suggestion of military action could force the Soviet Union to launch its nuclear missiles. The world would be destroyed.

A naval blockade of Cuba is suggested. But what if Russian ships disobey? Should that happen, will American ships open fire - against the orders of the American president?

Kennedy is livid when other American actions he doesn't have control over - the testing of a nuclear weapon, a spy plane venturing into Soviet air space - suggest to Russia that the United States if prepared to flex its considerable military muscle. "We can't communicate with the Pentagon," laments Kenny O'Donnell (Kevin Costner), special advisor to the president.

Thirteen Days includes archival footage of CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite detailing developments during the crisis. Donaldson switches to black and white scenes, a move that's distracting.

This critique is a minor caveat. Thirteen Days crackles with tension as Kennedy and his administration spend long hours trying to avert a nuclear war. Steven Culp does fine work as attorney general, and Kennedy's brother, Robert.

Thirteen Days (Infinifilm Edition) is one of the best latter day thrillers this film fan has watched. See this movie.

RATING: 9/10

FUN FACTS: Internet Movie Database reports Donaldson is now involved in pre-production with a third version of Erich Marie Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front. Will this version become the First World War equivalent of Saving Private Ryan for contemporary audiences? The 1930 film version won Oscars for best picture and director. A TV movie, with Richard Thomas and Ernest Borgnine, followed in 1979.

Steven Culp played John F. Kennedy in an episode of television's Perception in 2012.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Das Boot (1981)

Fear the ping.

German U-boats went from predator to prey as the Battle of the Atlantic continued during the Second World War. Allied convoys began to better protected by naval support.

The jobs of German submarine captains such as Henrich Lehmann-Willenbock (Jurgen Prochnow) became that much more challenging - and dangerous. Lehman-Willenbock is an experienced skipper. He's good too, awarded the Iron Cross as we see when the film starts and his crew whoops it up one final night before returning to duty.

Das Boot - The Director's Cut is the submarine film all others must be compared against. Originally shot as a television miniseries, it was released to theatres in 1981. Director Wolfgang Petersen later recut his war drama with a running time of more than three hours.

The crew on this sub spends most of its time doing everything but hunting down Allied targets. They scan the ocean with their binoculars when the sub surfaces. They're foiled by poor weather. They wait for orders.

Physical conditions are tight with little room to move. There's plenty of stress too when their sub is targeted with depth charges. To avoid damage, the sub dives deep with the danger of the vessel imploding due to increased pressure. One of Das Boot's most intense moments come when the crew can hear an Allied destroyer's sonar system searching for them to drop its depth charges.

Lehman-Willenbock seems cynical about the German war leadership. He's frustrated with how the subs are deployed. Some of his crew are close to cracking because of the strain of serving or problems with their girls far away.

My copy, unfortunately, was dubbed. Look for a version with subtitles.

Das Boot is a very good film about the war experience beneath the seas. Its ending is powerful too. Put it alongside Saving Private Ryan
and The Great Escape
as essential Second World War films to watch.

RATING: 9/10

FUN FACTS: Das Boot was nominated for six Academy Awards including best director, sound and editing.

Petersen made the move to Hollywood after this film. His credits included Outbreak and
The NeverEnding Story .