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Review: Que Viva México!

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Que Viva México!

If Leni Riefenstahl was Hitler’s point-person for political propaganda, Sergei Eisenstein was Stalin’s whore. But unlike any of the films Riefensthal produced for the Third Reich, Eisenstein’s films are masterworks of political subversion made for the Russian people but nonetheless critical of the collectivist system under which they were made. Born in 1898 in the Riga region of Russia, Eisenstein cultivated a revolutionary form of film editing through such masterpieces as Strike and Battleship Potemkin that would forever inform the way films are cut. The radical blend of narrative fiction and documentary footage in works like Alexander Nevsky (a film considered the precursor to the modern-day music video) defy classification, as well it should considering that Eisenstein directed each and every one of his propagandistic masterpieces with an unsettling and irrepressible feverishness that make them entirely too difficult to pin down.

Like Luis Buñuel after him, Eisenstein was too anarchistic for the Hollywood studio system to tame. Shortly after making the bourgeois short comedy Romance Sentimentale (which would play nicely on a surrealist double bill with Buñuel’s L’Age d’Or), Eisenstein went to Mexico in 1931 with assistant director Eduard Tisse and producer Grigory Alexandrov to shoot a film about the country’s mythic landscape with the financial help of writer Upton Sinclair, the muck-racking genius behind 1905’s controversial slaughterhouse exposé The Jungle, and his wife Mary Craig. Shooting stopped in 1932 after a series of financial mishaps with most of the work completed, though one of the film’s segments couldn’t be filmed. The Stalinist regime prevented Eisenstein from ever seeing Que viva México! as he had intended it though Sinclair had approved two separate interpretations of the film: 1933’s Thunder Over Mexico and 1939’s Time in the Sun.

Currently, filmmaker and researcher Lutz Becker is working on his own interpretation of Eisenstein’s unfinished masterwork using the film’s original negatives and master prints. But in 1979, producer Alexandrov was allowed to assemble the picture using Eisenstein’s storyboards and outlines to create an approximation of the director’s original vision. No version of the film can ever capture exactly how Eisenstein would have assembled the footage he shot in Mexico from 1931 to 1932, and as such Alexandrov’s interpretation of the director’s Que viva México! (“as Eisenstein conceived it and as we planned it”) becomes rather slippery when analyzed using an auteurist model. (In a way, isn’t any cut of the film considered an anti-auteurist gesture?) But if the film as it exists now can’t tell us for sure how Eisenstein would have shaped the footage, make no mistake: these delirious images that map out a Mexican mythology and social unrest are unquestionably his own creations.

Despite the devastating, elegiac tone of its images, Que viva México! is still every bit as unnerving and aesthetically confrontational as October. And just as the film would inform later works by Orson Welles (It’s All True), Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo) and Sergio Leone (A Fistfull of Dollars), many of its images anticipate later works by Eisenstein. (One of the film’s more startling images is that of a Mexican woman looking down at an ancient pyramid, a shot which brings to mind the more famous image of Nikolai Cherkasov’s Czar Ivan IV from the director’s Ivan the Terrible films staring down from his palace window at a line of advancing worshipers.) With Que viva México!, Eisenstein intended to document the mythic struggle of a Mexican people in a perpetual state of unrest, dividing their history into six parts: Prologue, Sandunga, Conquest, Fiesta, Magey, Soldadera (the only episode that wasn’t completed) and Epilogue.

Mexico learned about Mexican history and its people through artists like Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros and Jose Orozco, and it’s obvious from the start that Eisenstein was enamored with the country. The genius of the film’s Prologue is how Eisenstein successfully evokes an eternal Mexico in suspended cultural animation. The entire episode takes place in the Yucatan, a beautiful region of Mexico seemingly possessed by its stone gods, pagan temples and marvelous pyramids. Here, “time flows slowly” and Eisenstein’s images evoke a certain near-frozen sense of evolution by placing the film’s modern Mexicans beside their ancient stone counterparts. Immediately, the director has set up a fascinating struggle between the past and the present that permeates the rest of the picture and is indicative of what Eisenstein considers both the country’s strength and devastating weakness.

Throughout the film’s Sandunga episode, Eisenstein’s images bring to mind an Eden uncontaminated by Spanish culture. Eisenstein’s text describes life in the province of Tehuantepec as “a slow, semi-vegetative existence,” pointing to a certain pure, symbiotic relationship between man and nature by situating the people of the region before tranquil landscapes inundated with trees and lush vegetation. There’s a strange but serene geometry to this segment (look for the delirious graphic match between a stone necklace and a man sitting on a hammock) that suggests a people untainted by modern influences. The culture here is largely matriarchal and the central narrative concerns a young girl named Concepcion and her attempts to raise a dowry for her future husband Abundio. Even the names of the film’s first couple is largely metaphoric, and though the episode ends in bliss (two parrots engage in love play on a tree branch above the couple’s heads) it hardly anticipates the fall of Eden evoked by the film’s central Magey episode.

Throughout the Conquest and Fiesta episodes, Eisenstein evokes the painful legacy of Cortes’s invasion of Mexico in the 16th century with an elaborate juxtaposition of codes and symbolic struggles. The celebration depicted here is largely in service of the Holy Virgin of Guadalupe and though Eisenstein is obviously critical of the Catholic Church, the incredible marriage of sparring symbols throughout the episode recognizes a Mexican collective in spiritual limbo. The monks who came to the region destroyed ancient temples in order to build their churches, converting the so-called heathens of the region to Catholicism. Eisenstein seems to understand why the film’s Mexicans are so hung-up on ironic, ritualized celebrations of their own devastation. Mexico has been unduly influenced by Spain (the Fiesta bullfighting sequence symbolically pits both countries and their respective cultures against each other), but Eisenstein’s strange puppet show continues to contemplate the lingering threat of the people’s ultimately irrepressible past.

In the Magey episode, the peasant Sebastian wages a battle against a colonial landlord (a doppelganger perhaps for Mexican dictator Porfirio Dias) who ravages his wife Maria. This cruel, lyrical battle begins on a rich hacienda and culminates in a delirious confrontation in a barren desert that is home to the phallic Maguey cactus. (The cactus shields the film’s peons from colonialist gunfire and its white juice feeds their stomachs.) Que viva México! plays out as a collection of images that repeatedly pit classic paired rivals against each other: paganism versus Christianity, nature versus culture, virginity versus sexual perversion, night versus day, poor versus rich, and so on. And with the film’s ghoulish Prologue, Eisenstein encodes these various battles in the Day of the Dead sugar masks worn and consumed by Mexican children. He marvels at “man’s triumph over death through mockery of it” but the film’s melancholic tone suggests that Spain may have forever sent Mexico spiraling into a spiritual and cultural limbo from which it has yet to recover.

Cast: Martín Hernández, Félix Balderas, Isabel Villaseñor, Julio Saldívar, David Liceága, Sergei Bondarchuk Director: Sergei Eisenstein Screenwriter: Grigory Alexandrov, Sergei Eisenstein Distributor: International Film Exchange Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 1931/1979 Buy: Video

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Watch: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, Starring Honor Swinton Byrne and Tilda Swinton, Gets First Trailer

Joanna Hogg has been flying under the radar for some time, but that’s poised to change in a big way.

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A24
Photo: A24

British film director and screenwriter Joanna Hogg, whose impeccably crafted 2013 film Exhibition we praised on these pages for its “disarming mixture of the remarkable and the banal,” has been flying under the radar for the better part of her career. But that’s poised to change in a big way with the release of her latest film, The Souvenir, which won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Prior to the film’s world premiere at the festival, A24 and Curzon Artificial Eye acquired its U.S. and U.K. distribution rights, respectively. Below is the official description of the film:

A shy but ambitious film student (Honor Swinton Byrne) begins to find her voice as an artist while navigating a turbulent courtship with a charismatic but untrustworthy man (Tom Burke). She defies her protective mother (Tilda Swinton) and concerned friends as she slips deeper and deeper into an intense, emotionally fraught relationship that comes dangerously close to destroying her dreams.

And below is the film’s first trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t9Al2nC0vzY

A24 will release The Souvenir on May 17.

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Sound Mixing

For appealing to voters’ nostalgia for drunken karaoke nights of yore, one film has the upper hand here.

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20th Century Fox
Photo: 20th Century Fox

Given what Eric wrote about the sound editing category yesterday, it now behooves me to not beat around the bush here. Also, it’s my birthday, and there are better things for me to do today than count all the ways that Eric and I talk ourselves out of correct guesses in the two sound categories, as well as step on each other’s toes throughout the entirety of our Oscar-prediction cycle. In short, it’s very noisy. Which is how Oscar likes it when it comes to sound, though maybe not as much the case with sound mixing, where the spoils quite often go to best picture nominees that also happen to be musicals (Les Misérables) or musical-adjacent (Whiplash). Only two films fit that bill this year, and since 2019 is already making a concerted effort to top 2018 as the worst year ever, there’s no reason to believe that the scarcely fat-bottomed mixing of Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody will take this in a walk, for appealing to voters’ nostalgia for drunken karaoke nights of yore.

Will Win: Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody

Could Win: A Star Is Born

Should Win: First Man

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Features

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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