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Review: Bitter Harvest

The film is an awkward mix of swashbuckling love story and polemic, painted in very broad strokes.

2.0

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Bitter Harvest
Photo: Roadside Attractions

George Mendeluk’s Bitter Harvest is a historical romance set against the backdrop of the Holodomor, a man-made famine that claimed millions of lives in Ukraine in the early 1930s as a result of agricultural collectivization policies imposed by the Soviet government. Soviet authority is personified here by Joseph Stalin (Gary Oliver), repeatedly shown inside the Kremlin as he orders the requisition of the republic’s grain and the crushing of Ukrainian resistance to collectivization—actions he deemed necessary to industrialize the USSR. Given the ongoing military and political conflict between Russia and Ukraine, it’s clear that the filmmakers want viewers to see a parallel between this one-sided relationship and the current tension between Moscow and Kiev.

The film is an awkward mix of swashbuckling love story and polemic, with the battle lines between the Soviet government and the Ukraine painted in very broad strokes. The Ukrainian peasantry is romanticized in line with the film’s nationalist message, their lives seemingly consisting of nothing more than cheerfully harvesting grain, playing rousing folk music, and dancing when not engaged in the first two activities. The film’s first section, which charts the idealized, prelapsarian early years of the Soviet revolution, takes place in an unspoiled paradise of perpetual summer, with peasants revealed to be devout Orthodox Christians who also happen to be worshippers of nature through animistic pagan rituals. So as not to complicate the narrative, the filmmakers have chosen to completely skip over the terror and chaos of the revolution, depicting life before and after the war as a peaceful continuity.

Yuri (Max Irons), Bitter Harvest’s narrator and protagonist, is a gentle Ukrainian peasant descended from famous Cossack warriors, and he wants nothing more than to be an artist and marry his childhood sweetheart, Natalka (Samantha Barks). Like all the other Ukrainians in the film, these two speak with a British accent, whereas the Soviet soldiers speak with a Russian one and are uniformly depicted as being ethnically Russian, though in reality they hailed from the USSR’s many nationalities.

Throughout, the dystopian nature of Soviet interference in Ukraine is depicted visually and aurally in starkly symbolic terms. It’s always winter in Moscow and the orchestral score takes on a sinister tone whenever the Soviets appear, whereas the scenes in the Ukrainian countryside are accompanied by stirring music and are often filmed in slow motion, especially when the filmmakers are intent on emphasizing the landscape’s natural beauty or celebrating the virtuosic horsemanship of the Cossacks. This is meant to contrast the Ukrainian’s oneness with nature with the unnatural quality of Soviet ideology, with its alien and artificial social order and emphasis on industrialization.

The demonic nature of Soviet collectivization, which signaled the end to the edenic period of Ukrainian quasi-dependence in the 1920s, is symbolized in the film by the ruthless atheism of the Soviet soldiers. The Russian communists beat up Ukrainian priests and confiscate religious icons as part of Stalin’s crackdown on Ukrainian self-expression. The film’s strongest moments are those that move away from the nationalist underpinnings of such scenes. Yuri and other boys from his village eventually go to Kiev to study and make art in service of the new communist ideology, and as they navigate this tectonic ideological shift, Bitter Harvest paints a lucid portrait of the dystopian results of the communists’ utopian vision.

Initially painting works of romantic fantasy, Yuri is taught at the Soviet art school in Kiev that the new avant-garde art must deny reality and depict instead the ideals of communism. As millions around him die from starvation and his closest friends are killed by the Soviet authorities, he finds it impossible to abide by this new socialist realist aesthetic that requires him to paint the successes of communism when all he sees around him are its failures. Unfortunately, like Yuri, the film itself indulges in too much romantic fantasy, which ultimately distracts from its noble goal of honoring the victims of the Holodomor and holding accountable those responsible for it.

Cast: Max Irons, Samantha Barks, Barry Pepper, Tamer Hassan, Terence Stamp, Gary Oliver Director: George Mendeluk Screenwriter: Richard Bachynsky-Hoover, George Mendeluk Distributor: Roadside Attractions Running Time: 103 min Rating: R Year: 2017 Buy: Video

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Top 10 Stephen King Movies, Ranked

We’ve compiled the best feature-length adaptations of King’s work, excluding the mostly mediocre TV adaptations.

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Misery
Photo: Columbia Pictures

Stephen King is one of the most influential of all contemporary writers, an artist who followed Richard Matheson’s example in wedding irrational horror with the surreal minutiae of everyday American life. The most distinctive elements of King’s remarkably vast bibliography—his exacting and uncanny empathy for working-class people and his loose, pop-culture-strewn prose—are rarely accounted for in the dozens of films that have been made from his novels and stories, which often predictably emphasize his propulsive plotting. Consequently, these adaptations often resemble routine genre films with a smattering of King’s dialogue, which sounds better on the page than when performed by often self-conscious actors who look as if they’d rather be anywhere than trapesing around a simulation of King’s beloved Maine. But a number of excellent films have been made from the author’s writing, either by doubling down on the neurotic naïveté of the author’s Americana or by striking new ground, recognizing that a good film needs to be a movie, rather than a literal-minded act of CliffsNotes-style embalming. To commemorate the recent release of Cell, we’ve compiled the 10 best feature-length adaptations of King’s work, excluding the countless, mostly mediocre TV adaptations.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on July 8, 2015.


Ranked: The 10 Greatest Stephen King Movies

10. Stand by Me (1986)

Those who accuse Stand by Me of indulging shameless boomer nostalgia are missing the point, as that’s precisely what the film is about. Director Rob Reiner dials down the violent hopelessness of King’s source material (the novella The Body), but still emphasizes the cruelty and loneliness that mark four boys’ coming-of-age odyssey to see the corpse of a young man nearly their age. The film is framed as one of the grown boy’s remembrances, as he attempts to spin his unreconciled feelings into the more tangible stuff of…coming-of-age fiction. At times it’s hokey, and, yes, the soundtrack does some major emotional heavy lifting, but the feast of excellent acting compensates greatly, particularly by Wil Wheaton, Kiefer Sutherland, and River Phoenix. Stand by Me remains one of the best adaptations of King’s more sentimental non-horror writing, and it’s far superior to preachy, insidiously insulting staples like The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile.


Ranked: The 10 Greatest Stephen King Movies

9. Creepshow (1982)

Still one of the great comic-book movies in that it approximates the actual tactile act of reading and flipping through a magazine, ideally on a rainy Saturday afternoon with a can of soda by your side. George Romero directed from King’s original script, which pays homage to EC comics like Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, and the filmmaker displays a visual confidence and tonal flexibility that’s reminiscent of his Dawn of the Dead. The bright, deep, and garish cinematography is both beautiful and disturbing, enriching King’s gleefully vicious writing while providing a framework for the lively performances of a game, celebrity-rich cast. The film straddles an ideal line between straight-faced seriousness and parody, particularly in the unnerving climax of a story in which we can hear the pained gurgling of aquatic zombies.


Ranked: The 10 Greatest Stephen King Movies

8. Silver Bullet (1985)

A creepy drive-in horror movie that throws a werewolf into a boy’s sentimental coming-of-age tale. Based on King’s slim Cycle of the Werewolf, which was released with gorgeous illustrations by artist Bernie Wrightson, Silver Bullet weds evocative imagery with spare plotting that allows each scene to breathe, giving the film an nightmarish free-associative energy. There are several boffo sequences, particularly when the werewolf seizes a man’s baseball bat, his paw shown to be beating the man to death from below thick fog, or when the wolf is outsmarted by the protagonist, one of his eyes blown to pieces by a bottle rocket. Speaking of the monster, the movie has one of the great wolf designs, which suggests a huge, bitter, upstanding bear with a terrifying snout. The human identity of the creature is a great, characteristically blasphemous King twist.


Ranked: The 10 Greatest Stephen King Movies

7. Dolores Claiborne (1995)

Five years after her career-making performance in Misery, Kathy Bates returned to Stephen King territory with Dolores Claiborne, which, like the book, disappointed nearly everyone for not being a typical horror story, instead combining the traditions of martyred-woman melodrama with gothic mystery. Critics, who only seem capable of praising melodrama when it’s directed by one of their pre-approved canon placeholders (like Nicholas Ray or Douglas Sirk), also turned their noses up at Dolores Claiborne, and it’s a real shame. Both the novel and the film get at the heart of King’s preoccupations with sexism and classicism, spinning a fractured narrative of a mother, her daughter, the man who nearly ruined their lives, and the all-encompassing pitilessness of aging. Yes, the film is behaviorally broad, but this broadness is utilized by the reliably underrated director, Taylor Hackford, as a form of catharsis. And Bates’s performance as the titular character is positively poetic. Her delivery of a monologue about Dolores’s work routine particularly locate the weird, qualified dignity of thanklessness, reveling in the pride and transcendence that can be wrestled from menial-ness. Perhaps more than any other film on this list, Dolores Claiborne has the feel of King’s voice.


Ranked: The 10 Greatest Stephen King Movies

6. Misery (1990)

No one performs King’s dialogue like Kathy Bates. She embraces and owns the moving cuckoo logic of his best orations, understanding that they’re almost always rooted in class anxiety. The most disturbing quality of Misery, both the novel and the film, is the fact that we relate to Annie Wilkes, psychotic “number one fan” of author Paul Sheldon (superbly played in the film by James Caan), more than we do her victims. Bates is so intimately in tune with Annie that we feel for her when she fails to impress Paul, somehow temporarily forgetting that she’s holding him hostage and torturing him. Annie is yet another of King’s unleashed nerds, a repressed soul seeking actualization, but she isn’t sentimentalized, instead embodying the ferocious self-absorption that fuels obsession, leading to estrangement. Director Rob Reiner and screenwriter William Goldman regrettably trim King’s most ambitiously subjective material, but they compensate by focusing pronouncedly on the cracked love story at the narrative’s center.


Ranked: The 10 Greatest Stephen King Movies

5. Christine (1983)

John Carpenter is an ideal director for this story of a haunted 1958 Plymouth Fury that possesses its newest teenaged buyer, leading to a supernatural revenge-of-the-nerds scenario that was already a trademark of King’s writing by this point. A master of composition, Carpenter emphasizes the car’s unerring verticality and horizontality, contrasting these antique dimensions, and the American prosperity they symbolize, with the general hopelessness of the 1980s. A chillier artist than King, Carpenter dries the narrative of its overheated dimensions, which paradoxically brings the tragedy of the people that Christine ruins into starker focus. One wishes that Carpenter had attempted to stage a few of King’s crazier flourishes (such as Christine’s chilling methods of disposing of her victims), but this is nevertheless a sleekly atmospheric, disturbing, and generally overlooked entry in Carpenter’s canon.


Ranked: The 10 Greatest Stephen King Movies

4. The Dead Zone (1983)

David Cronenberg’s adaptation of one of King’s best novels displays a working philosophy that will characterize the filmmaker’s future interpretations of “difficult” books by William S. Burroughs, J.G. Ballard, and Don DeLillo: He finds the thematic center of the source material, pruning or changing whatever’s necessary to heighten it. In this case, Cronenberg softens King’s kink and gore, honing the narrative to entirely reflect the yearning for “normalcy” that hounds Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) as a car accident and prolonged coma transform him from a meek, gawky schoolteacher into a tormented, decidedly Walken-esque eccentric who resembles a rock star and proceeds to alter people’s futures. Walken’s playing a classic Cronenberg protagonist: a gifted, temporarily empowered man who’s altered in a fashion that allows him to wrestle, tragically, with the differences between his internal and external selves. There’s a memorably lonely, unsettling image of a long, gray tunnel that encapsulates Johnny’s straddling of two worlds: the conventional world, and the “dead zone” that he accesses when calling on his new power.


Ranked: The 10 Greatest Stephen King Movies

3. The Shining (1980)

The most hotly debated of King film adaptations, and, as in most debates, all sides are partially right. Yes, the famously grouchy author is correct in asserting that director Stanley Kubrick nulled the tragedy fueling the novel, portraying the film’s protagonist as someone who’s callous and crazy before they’ve even set foot in the haunted Colorado hotel forebodingly located somewhere in the wintery mountains. And, yes, the film is distractingly misogynistic, showing at best an obligatory amount of sympathy for the imperiled woman at its center. Yet, these qualities are precisely, in part, why Kubrick’s The Shining is so fascinating. The director admires the simplicity of King’s pulp setup, but distrusts the author’s sense of humanity and autobiographical feelings of collusion with the family; instead, Kubrick’s attempting a purely primal rendering of the ageless cruelty that resides deep underneath all horror. Kubrick fashions a brilliant formal object, a cynically existential horror companion to his 2001, suggesting what might have happened if Alain Resnais had directed The Haunting. And, yes, Kubrick’s hedge maze is scarier than King’s hedge animals.


Ranked: The 10 Greatest Stephen King Movies

2. Cujo (1983)

Lewis Teague’s gallingly underrated adaptation of an equally underrated novel embraces the unwavering, visceral brutality of King’s writing in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. The book’s central conceit—of a rabid Saint Bernard as a metaphor for unchecked addiction—is softened by narrative trimming, but the chaos, violation, and sheer velocity of King’s vision are still allowed to break through. Teague beautifully builds to the carnage, allowing us to feel sympathy for Cujo even as he devolves into a monster, emphasizing the heavy heat of the dog’s body as it grows deranged by disease, and, later, the piercing sun as it bakes a mother and son trapped by Cujo in their broken-down car. That car is a significant touch: King’s interest in addiction may be dulled here, but his understanding of the apocalyptic fear gripping those with money problems is accorded full prominence. As Cujo’s prospective victims, Dee Wallace Stone and Danny Pintauro give performances of such naked, panicked urgency that the viewer feels as if they’re eavesdropping on something privileged and primordially awful. This is the film that Mary Lambert’s misbegotten Pet Semetary wanted to be.


Ranked: The 10 Greatest Stephen King Movies

1. Carrie (1976)

The first and still greatest Stephen King adaptation is as much an announcement for director Brian De Palma as it is for King, and the artists complement one another throughout Carrie. Unlike many filmmakers, De Palma doesn’t shy away from King’s propensity for melodrama; he embraces it, finding his own footing as a formally sophisticated horror trickster in the process. Carrie was King’s first novel, and it’s structurally awkward though driven by an emotional force that would define his writing. It’s this force that De Palma keys in on, smoothing out the narrative wrinkles, deepening the ironies and characterizations, fashioning a horror opera out of alienation and estrangement, revealing an elaborate high school caste system that’s finally punished for its unwavering cruelty. One of the best and most poignant of all horror films, with astonishingly big and heartbreaking performances by Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie.

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing

If it were biologically possible to do so, both Ed and I would happily switch places with A Quiet Place’s Emily Blunt.

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First Man
Photo: Universal Pictures

If it were biologically possible to do so, both Ed and I would happily switch places with A Quiet Place’s Emily Blunt, because we’d much rather give birth in a tub while surrounded by murderous blind creatures than have to once again write our predictions for the sound categories. As adamant as we’ve been that the Academy owes it to the nominees to air every category, which they agreed to after an extended “just kidding,” it might have given us pause had the sound categories been among the four demoted by Oscar. But no, we must now endure our annual bout of penance, aware of the fact that actually knowing what the difference is between sound editing and sound mixing is almost a liability. In other words, we’ve talked ourselves out of correct guesses too many times, doubled down on the same movie taking both categories to hedge our bets too many times, and watched as the two categories split in the opposite way we expected too many times. So, as in A Quiet Place, the less said, the better. And while that film’s soundscapes are as unique and noisy as this category seems to prefer, First Man’s real-word gravitas and cacophonous Agena spin sequence should prevail.

Will Win: First Man

Could Win: A Quiet Place

Should Win: First Man

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Film

Review: The Changeover Enjoyably Pinballs Between Disparate Fantasy Styles

If, in the end, the film’s narrative fails to cohere, the journey getting there is at least enjoyably swift-paced.

2.5

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The Changeover
Photo: Vertical Entertainment

Miranda Harcourt and Stuart McKenzie’s The Changeover is an unusual and mostly enjoyable hybrid of disparate fantasy styles. Based on the 1984 young adult novel by Margaret Mahy, the film suggests a superhero origin story, developing a convoluted internal mythology involving a coven of benevolent witches, an evil vampiric “larva” who sucks the youthful vitality out of young children, and a “sensitive” schoolgirl, Laura (Erana James), who receives psychic premonitions of future harm. When the larva, Carmody (Timothy Spall), picks Laura’s kid brother (Benji Purchase) as his next victim, it’s up to her to save him.

It can be a little difficult to keep the story’s mythos straight, particularly when, in its final third, the film launches into a lengthy Inception-style action sequence that takes place entirely in a dream realm. By the time the credits roll, it’s not entirely clear what just happened, and exactly why. McKenzie’s script has to resort to voiceover narration—present only in the very beginning and end of the film—to fill in some of the gaps, and even then, not every piece of the puzzle seems to fit together. This makes for an ultimately somewhat confusing and unsatisfying viewing experience, at least for anyone who’s never read Mahy’s supernatural teen romance. But sometimes it’s better to feel a little lost than to know too much: The film confidently powers ahead without feeling the need, as so many fantasy stories do, to halt the momentum every reel or two to offer a dull exposition dump.

As directors, Harcourt and McKenzie eschew the soporific melancholia of teen fantasy films like Twilight in favor of a lithe, angular visual approach—including impressionistic close-ups and skittering, almost Michael Mann-ish handheld shots—that grounds the story’s supernatural goings-on in a sense of reality without draining them of their fantastical charm. Spall strikes a similarly appealing balance between plausibility and outright camp, digging into his villainous role with teeth-gnashing glee. Pitched somewhere between a deranged hobo and Mr. Dark from Something Wicked This Way Comes, his performance provides a fun yet menacing foil to James’s haunted, obsessive turn as Laura.

Even when the specific details of the film’s plot may seem silly or confused, Laura remains credible and compelling. It’s this carefully managed equilibrium between the inherent preposterousness of its mystical milieu and the convincing emotional reality of Laura’s journey that ultimately makes The Changeover, for all its muddled mythos, a lively and engaging excursion into an unusually naturalistic world of magic.

Cast: Timothy Spall, Melanie Lynskey, Lucy Lawless, Nicholas Galitzine, Erana James, Kate Harcourt, Benji Purchase, Ella Edward, Thomasin McKenzie, Claire Van Beek Director: Miranda Harcourt, Stuart McKenzie Screenwriter: Stuart McKenzie Distributor: Vertical Entertainment Running Time: 95 min Buy: Book

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