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Control Freaks 

Flick Chick

Here in the United States of Paranoia, we've been reeling from one conspiracy theory to another for the better part of six decades. Beginning with the Cold War-spawned McCarthy era, America has never stopped looking over its collective shoulder for enemies beyond and within our borders. This anxiety informed The Manchurian Candidate, a 1962 thriller adapted from a Richard Condon novel and directed by John Frankenheimer. The classic film, which centers on an assassination plot, was yanked from theaters after the most conspiratorial puzzle in modern times: the murder of John F. Kennedy.

The tense remake by Jonathan Demme, which opened nationwide on Friday, replaces the Red Scare with a fear of terrorism that allows those in power to cynically manipulate a vulnerable populace. And this is certainly a Manchurian Candidate for the contemporary election season; the Daniel Pyne-Dean Georgaris script offers chicanery that seems almost ripped from the headlines.

Instead of the Korean conflict "hero" played by Laurence Harvey 42 years ago, Lt. Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber) now wins a medal for commanding troops in 1991's Operation Desert Storm. As before, he's the scion of a political dynasty. His vice-presidential ambitions are new.

When Shaw and his men are captured in the Kuwaiti desert, it's no longer by Chinese Communists who employ hypnosis to brainwash them at the behest of right-wing extremists back in the Land of the Free. The POWs are currently at the mercy of microchips implanted under their skin by a multinational cabal in league with Manchur-ian Global, a corporation not unlike Halliburton. In both versions, the soldiers return home with memories of their ordeal wiped clean.

The cunning puppeteer behind this scheme is still Shaw's Lady Macbeth of a mother, portrayed by Meryl Streep with much the same arrogance and innuendo that Angela Lansbury once used to devastating effect. Capt. Ben Marco, the only character who suspects a coup is in the works, has changed. He's more freaked out. As Shaw's former comrade-in-arms, Denzel Washington takes over the jittery role that helped crooner Frank Sinatra bolster his acting credentials.

Demme's impeccable cast includes Jon Voight as a liberal Senator, Kimberly Elise as a woman who befriends Marco, and Jeffrey Wright as a man unhinged by his military experience. Yet the entertaining update fails to equal the black-and-white masterpiece Frankenheimer crafted. To some extent, it's an issue of missing imagery.

Gone is the Queen of Diamonds, which triggers Shaw's inner zombie whenever he indulges in a game of solitaire. That visual impact has been replaced by a spoken command; the guy goes into I, Robot mode every time Mom utters his full name.

Another lost opportunity for a vivid depiction of mind control: No more prim garden-club ladies with flowery hats in Marco's nightmares. In the original Candidate, they're hallucinatory creatures devised by the enemy to camouflage the horror of Chairman Mao's cadres messing with his head.

In the 2004 movie, ululating women dressed in head-to-toe black chadors, with tattooed faces, could be the dreaming Marco's real or imagined recollections. Either way, it's a safe bet they don't do any gardening.

In case you missed Since Otar Left at the Green Mountain Film Festival in March, the Savoy is bringing the art-house drama back to Montpelier for a run that begins this weekend. Director Julie Bertucelli's wrenching saga concerns three generations of women trapped by the crumbling economy and depressing milieu of Georgia, the former Soviet republic. Eka, the grandmother who rules their roost with an iron hand, softens only when her beloved son Otar calls from Paris. A former medical student who has relocated to France, he's now an undocumented alien working in construction. Middle-aged Marina is jealous of her brother's elevated status in the family. Eka's twentysomething granddaughter, Ada, has a burning desire to get the hell out of Tblisi.

The Touchstone theatrical release of Hidalgo, an epic adventure penned by Vermont's John Fusco, earned $110 million around the world in the past four months. It has been Disney's most successful cinematic venture this year, according to the Lamoille County screenwriter. Viggo Mortensen, perhaps best known for his role in The Lord of the Rings, stars as a cowboy named Frank T. Hopkins who reluctantly competes in an 1890 horse race that spans 3000 miles across the Middle East. The DVD, which comes out this week, includes a documentary Fusco wrote and produced about the history of the Spanish Mustang. Mortensen narrates on and off camera.

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