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Make Mine Manchurian!

Denzel Washington is the kindest, warmest, bravest, most wonderful actor I have ever seen in my life, but he will not be able to save the remake of The Manchurian Candidate.

Of course, the movie could turn out to be a great political thriller: spine-tingling, white-knuckle-inducing, jaw-droppingly fantastic. Jonathan Demme, Academy Award–winning director of The Silence of the Lambs, is certainly capable of creating a suspense-laden yet artful rendering of the Richard Condon novel.

However, judging from the frenetic, somber trailer-I haven’t yet seen the full version-the movie will miss the true genius of the 1962 original, directed by John Frankenheimer.

A “Me” Decade quote from People reproduced on that film’s special-edition DVD box deemed it “the most poundingly suspenseful political thriller ever made.” But when you watch it again, what really jumps out is the humor. Nominally about a Communist plot to take over the U.S. via an elaborate brainwashing scheme, The Manchurian Candidate is a smart, darkly funny condemnation of how 1950’s politicians used the pervasive fear of a Red invasion to manipulate the public into giving them more political power.

The story involves one John Iselin, a McCarthy-like Senator (played doltish by James Gregor) who ascends the ranks of the Republican Party, falsely claiming that Communists have infiltrated and corrupted the Defense Department. Meanwhile, his megalomaniac wife (played with menacing temerity by Angela Lansbury) is using him for Machiavellian-like schemes of her own.

The film also stars Frank Sinatra as straight-shooting Army Captain Marco; Janet Leigh as his love interest Eugenie (Rose) Chaney; and Laurence Harvey as Mrs. Iselin’s war-hero son, Raymond Shaw.

Underneath the film’s political intrigue is a comedic satire that still resonates today. Mr. Frankenheimer-the Michael Moore of his time?-colorfully shows the dishonest way in which Senator Iselin uses the fear of the public to achieve greater political standing.

[The Manchurian Candidate (1962), PG-13, 127 min., $14.95]

Northern Delight

The Barbarian Invasions, the 2003 Academy Award winner for best foreign-language film, is a carnal as well as intellectual delight. Yes, even though it’s Canadian.

Like its 1986 predecessor The Decline of the American Empire, the film features wonderfully witty dialogue-it works even with subtitles-that oscillates from the crass to the seemingly profound. Rémy (Rémy Girard), one of the old gang from Decline, is dying of cancer. His ex-wife, Louise (Dorothée Berryman), makes an impassioned plea to his estranged son Sebastian (Stephane Rousseau) to return to Montreal from London, where he works in finance, so that he might take care of his father.

After arriving, Sebastian rescues Remy from the dilapidated Canadian health-care system, paying for a private room with the money he made being a devout capitalist-something his father detests. The resolution of their loathing is the emotional backbone of the film. The familiar crowd from Decline returns to provide much-needed comedic relief in the form of their risqué repartee, infusing the plot with a sense of nostalgia that gives appropriate closure to Remy’s academic, yet hedonistic life.

The ambiguous title refers both to the cancer that afflicts Remy and the literal invasion of terrorism-explicitly referenced by director Denys Arcand with a short but powerful clip of the second airplane hitting the World Trade Center. Mr. Arcand deftly weaves these two seemingly disparate themes into a story of gripping drama and substantive ideas, something-let’s face it-rarely recognized by the Academy.

[The Barbarian Invasions (2003), R, 99 min., $29.99]

Prime Is Merely Choice

Muriel Spark, who is largely considered to be one of Scotland’s finest living authors, has never displayed anything less than a healthy skepticism toward the film industry’s interest in her work. As far as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was concerned, she found that “the colours in the film were much too bright for Edinburgh, which has a sort of pearly light. And everyone’s hair was too red.” Apart from that, however, she “thought it quite well written.”

Indeed: Dame Maggie Smith’s Miss Brodie sashays around the halls of the Marcia Blaine School with a strawberry bouffant, a pair of stupendous cheekbones, and several sets of conceptually colorful ensembles more at home on a Galliano catwalk (bias-cut pink tartan ball gowns?) than a Scottish girls’ school in the early 1930’s. Squired about by multiple suitors, some married; eschewing dining-hall slop for pâté picnics with her “girls” in plain view of the faculty lounge; discussing the virtues of Mussolini and i fascisti-all of these activities catapult her into a dimension far removed from her rigid surroundings. “You’ll accept anything but reality,” aptly declares one of her paramours, the painter Teddy Lloyd (played by Robert Stephens), whose own reality or oeuvre happens to be all Brodie, all the time.

Dame Smith won an Oscar for her portrayal of Miss Brodie, one of those rare characters whom one cannot categorize as either good or evil. And she loses none of her complicated appeal even in director Ronald Neame’s relatively superficial cinematic exercise. There is the loving dedication to her brood (“I am a teacher, first, last and always”) and her desire “to lift, enliven and stimulate” the “crème de la crème,” corrupted by an uncontrolled midlife self-obsession and frustration. Eventually she becomes enraptured by radical political ideals and spirals out of control.

Muriel’s spark is not entirely lost on celluloid, but because the medium relies more heavily on action than the intricacies of clever discourse, director Ronald Neame-as he admits in the DVD commentary-succeeds only in part at “keeping it moving.”

[The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969), PG, 116 min., $14.98]

-Jessica Joffe