The Revenge of the 68 Comeback Special

David Cairns, the lucky (though deserving) sod, is enjoying the Telluride film festival with his brilliant new doc Natan but he hasn't neglected his responsibilities. He's served up a fine piece on Miloš Forman's terrific The Firemen's Ball over at Shadowplay. Head on over and take a look!

The '68 Comback Special: Anna Karenina or The Living Dead Of The Moscow Aristocracy

David Cairns is quite simply one of the finest and most entertaining film writers there is. I've never met him in person (an ocean tragically separates us. Betcha can't guess which one!) but I consider him a friend all the same and lucky to have encountered his many talents and his graciousness as a human being. I've spent many trainrides scanning the back issues of his remarkable blog, Shadowplay. Our love of the odd, the uncanny and the specific (not to mention the British) in film connects us. He's also a dynamite filmmaker, but you must surely have known that! Last week he kicked off a joint project we're undertaking - an alternating investigation of the films due to play at the ill-fated 1968 Cannes Film Festival. His first piece features not just an incredibly incisive written commentary, but a rich video essay he made with the help of Timo Langer. Next week he'll pick up the gauntlet I throw down here and on we'll go until we've left our brand on every film meant to sweep audiences off their feet that year. The story of the festival has more or less usurped the historical importance of any work scheduled, which is a sad thing indeed. We're aiming to shed a little more light (I've already done a little) on these landmark works and maybe pick some winners just for fun. This next film and I have something of a history...
Orson would have fit nicely into the film, come to think of it...

In my sophomore year at Emerson College in Boston, I lived a solitary life in a grungy apartment in Lechmere, or as its known locally, that part of town where nobody goes. My days were pretty routine: go to class, eat, go to the Boston Public Library and rent ten DVDs from their basement - naturally they put the foreign films where sunlight couldn't touch them or the creeps who wanted them. I discovered not one but two films that played the 1968 Cannes Film Festival while I was a regular there. The first was Miklós Jancsó's The Red & The White, a film that I recognized right away as a masterpiece. It perplexed me that something that dripped with greatness in the way this did could possibly be left off most canonical lists I'd encountered, but also entirely off my film school curriculum. Maybe the loss at the festival had kept it off that many more radars? Likely as not it wouldn't have made much of a difference. After all, when's the last time anyone talked about Chronicles of the Years of Fire or The Hireling? The other competition entry I found was Alexsandr Zarkhi's Anna Karenina, which kicked my brain's ass. 
I'd picked it up because I'd recognized Tatyana Samoylova on the DVD box. I still had a mad crush on the feisty revolutionary bride from Kalatozov's The Cranes Are Flying and figured this would be as good a showcase as any for her. I quickly lost myself in the plot, thinking the movie was just a little too kind to the Tolstoy and subsequently had no cinematic fire in its guts. And the way they'd dressed and presented Samoylova just seemed so...wrong. Her expressions seemed to be a series of lies.  Anyone who's seen The Cranes Are Flying knows what truth looks like when it burns across someone's determined face. It was a joyless watch, and in my state (hungry, cold, miserable, living with only insects in a filthy apartment no one ever visited) was too much for me to handle. A second viewing explained that that was indeed the point. The most successful adaptations of Karenina have to accept this up front and find a way through it or find a way around it. Joe Wright's version might be my favourite, not because it's revolutionary in the telling, but because he and Tom Stoppard made its heroes actors and boorish theatre patrons for the audience/aristocracy (audienstocracy? I'll work on that) to gawk at. The story has been told so many times that you've got to supercharge your grammar. Zarkhi's choice - to go right up to the edge of horror and pull back at the last moment - is a good one but it doesn't let an audience breathe or find anything resembling hope within the already very sad story. 
Zarkhi frames everyone who isn't one of our four or five leads as if they were the living dead. Across the Croisette, Dominique Delouche was trying much the same thing with his version of 24 Hours In the Life of a Woman but his mode is different. If Delouche was in the realm of Carnival of Souls or the later Daughters of Darkness then Anna Karenina is clearly at a ball thrown by Hammer Studios. The make-up sits nicely between vampire and zombie and wasn't the ghastly pallor of the filthy rich practically the British studio's greatest weapon after Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing? Rodion Shchedrin's music is so overpowering it seems like some of James Bernard's more insistent brass. What's fascinating is that it also anticipates the direction the studio would take. The colour scheme and montage that would fit comfortably in Demons of the Mind or Hands of the Ripper. Everything here spells fright and cruelty, from red-and-blue-tinted erotic nightmares, dances that turn into churning maelstroms and people failed by man and beast with disastrous consequences. And certainly the ending is about as subtle as anything in Rasputin, The Mad Monk, but we can't entirely blame our director for that, rampaging music and psychological lighting notwithstanding. 
But of course the horror we're meant to notice is that of the stifling life Anna is doomed to if she doesn't flee. Zarkhi overplays his hand a touch here. Anyone who didn't know how it ends will have guessed by the time Anna boards the coach to Oblonsky's house. Everyone around her is dead. The production design, make-up and mise-en-scene make it perfectly clear where she's headed. Zarkhi essentially treats her near-death disease as her entry into purgatory and from then on she looks as though she's just missed the train to hell. Complimenting or criticising this movie is a little tricky because it clearly accomplishes its goals, but in so doing have made a sort of horrific living wax museum drama. Zarkhi had been making films for forty years when he made Karenina and his hand is steady, to say the least. The cinematography is showy but engrossing. Between the constant woozy motion around drawing rooms, theatres and gardens and the fact that the film appears to be flickering as if through a candle-powered projector, it looks and acts like almost no other film. It's sort of Barry Lyndon but capable of running at speeds up to Ken Russell. There are some truly unforgettable images and scenes here like the single breath-taking shot where a character decides to take his own life. What makes that more miraculous is that it's followed closely by the film's most lighthearted moment: Kitty and Levin struggling with their ring fingers, which looks too perfect to have been planned. Those graceful acceptances of human behavior made this deliberately heavy film seem worth its terrors. 

"They can fix this shit on Elysium..." or "Come Comrades We Rally!"

Whenever I'm about to start filming, my assistant director/cinematographer/good friend Tucker Johnson and I usually watch something new to stir our creativity. A few years ago we watched Super 8 on the first day of our shoot, last winter we watched The Innkeepers at 1 in the morning the day before we started and thank god I made a trip to go see Elysium before I embark on my own sci-fi film, my first. I was wary. Blockbuster season has been remarkably unkind. Pacific Rim, World War Z and Iron Man 3 gave me passing, momentary pleasures that saved them from total blandness or outright embarrassment. I didn't get out of my house to see The Wolverine, After Earth, Man of Steel or The Lone Ranger. I'm sure a few of them are fine, but I'm burnt out. That's what led me to think that Elysium would be merely passably entertaining, despite my trust in Neill Blomkamp. District 9, his feature length debut, managed to prove the size of its heart even as it murdered dozens of innocent bystanders on the way to the finish line. Here was the heir to Richard Stanley taking gleeful pleasure in burning up Peter Jackson's money and giving us a horrifically funny vision of the past rendered in new code.

Blomkamp may not be going out of his way to earn the legacy of the best of African filmmakers (Elysium isn't precisely Yeelen, even if I think the two have undeniable similarities) but I see enough of a kinship in his ragged grammar. Technical mistakes or shortcomings add to the feel of this being a film made for the people from the bottom up, even with the millions of dollars behind its every shot. There's something much more majestic about the sweeping, impressive shots of outer space habitats coming from the mind of a young South African. For some reason Gavin Hood has never inspired that same sense of awe... The shakycam may at first seem a little pointless and it certainly isn't endearing at this late in the game but it doesn't get in the way of the multi-layered compositions that give this film its grounding. Shots of Matt Damon staring out at the dust-and-blood covered new Los Angeles like a diseased monument or Sharlto Copley's villain ominously approaching in different guises may adequately represent the heart of the movie but they don't usurp its cumulative effect, in the way the few great moments of Pacific Rim do. Elysium works moment to moment but it adds up to something engaging and relevant, rare these days when the budget passes big on its way to ultra. Now, in fairness I have a few predilections that made this film impossible for me to resist, much in the same way Lords of Salem seemed like it was a pagan idol cut out of an old, haunted tree just for me. And much like, say, Nic Winding Refn's Bronson, it also retcons old ideas I once didn't care for into a new shape that I do. If Bronson was a version of A Clockwork Orange that I could finally get behind, then Elysium is a Total Recall I can not only sit through but love.

The year is 2154 (I wish filmmakers would stop telling us when their dystopias take place. Like Blade Runner, a clear influence, there's gonna be a day when we pop in the dvd and realize it was set yesterday) and the rich have fled Earth for an orbiting gated community called Elysium. Matt Damon plays Max, a paroled convict with big dreams who's stuck on Earth, specifically a hellacious Los Angeles that's become what many cops believe it's going to turn into: a wasteland populated by Latinos. Global warming's hit this town as hard as drugs and gang violence. It never seems like it's ever actually night thanks to the burnt up atmosphere. Max works a shit job and gets hassled regularly by robot cops just for having a record and being a wiseass, but things take a turn for the "you've got to be fucking kidding me" when he has an accident at work and suffers a mammoth dose of radiation poisoning. He decides it's time to jump the line to Elysium where they have in-home sick bays that cure anything you can catch.

There's loads more plot, but watching it unfold without knowing exactly the turns it'll take is part of the fun. It does eventually come to pass that our hero is put through a battery of harsh physical trials on his way to Elysium that structurally, err, recalls Total Recall. Like that film's Quaid, Max is a sort of blue-collar everyman who figures out he might be meant for greater things and in the process gets caught between two sides of a political conflict. There are plastic similarities too: the mercenary henchman working for a murderous bureaucrat, the robot at the parolee department looks like Total's cabdriver, the gore effects race past graphic to emphatic, and the third act is kicked off by rebellion during surgery. Both are about curing a political agenda and giving "the people" back something they need and deserve. The crucial difference in every case is that Elysium is the more hopeful of the two films, it actually feels like it cares about the humans doing the running around and getting killed. Total Recall is a movie made exclusively on dark, very 80s-feeling sets so consequently you spend the whole film feeling like you're in a dirty basement. Which is certainly thematically appropriate but it makes for dour viewing. Then of course there's the script. Both resort to the hamfisted, but Elysium does only that: resorts. Everyone is trying to maintain a facade of normality, even if they're up to something else; the craziness has to crack the surface first. Total Recall puts Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusset's script through the mouths of character actors too crazy to sell any of the dialogue as anything other than tonedeaf satire. Remember Alien? That too started as one of their screenplays. The difference is believing it. Ridley Scott calmed down and made the characters adults. Paul Verhoeven had no such interest; never has. That's not his style. But between his fetishizing Arnold Schwarzenegger (who is many things but there isn't a blue-collar bone in his body) as a kind of fascist superhero who uses civilians as shields against bullets, the cartoonish delivery of all dialogue, the paper-thin characterization, the neon claustrophobia and the hugely unpleasant ratcheting up of gore effects, the 1990 Total Recall has never been a film I've felt the urge to revisit. And the less said about Len Wiseman (in any capacity, really) and his remake, the better. 

Elysium's production design has a built-in edge on Total Recall. They actually went out and shot on real streets and indeed made the sun a dogged characteristic of the early act. It's what threatens to expose Max to his would-be captors when things start going wrong. It's what comes to separate Earth from Elysium; artificial night has fallen when Max finally lands and the bulk of the action is set in the comparatively sleek harddrive of the big space station. Blomkamp makes us feel the difference and that the core of Elysium has none of the character of the earth-bound streets we've left behind. A perfect little detail: when Max and Sharlto Copley's fantastically sadistic Kruger have their final meeting, there's a potted plant on a railing nearby as a reminder to people who work here what the real world looked like. Everyone misses the outside world, even the 'villains'. In fact it's what separates the redeemable from the irredeemable. William Fichtner, who is and is clearly having a ton of fun as the film's third tier villain, hilariously despises every second he spends in the polluted atmosphere of Earth. Though by outward appearances your garden variety corporate villain, Fichtner's actually doing something fantastic with his character: he's playing a grown-up trustfund kid. I'm sure while visiting his kids at college he got to see the worst kind of shitty behavior that the children of the rich indulge in and added twenty years of never hearing "no". Like so much of the film, it's kind of perfect.

Fichtner's unfeeling bureaucrat is luckily the rule, rather than the exception: the performances in Elysium are better than good, they're memorably weird. Matt Damon is more casually profane than we've seen him before, which does sell his criminality more than I thought it would. The minute he says "I'm just fuckin' with ya, there's nothin' in the fuckin' bag" I was sort of shocked by his candor considering he usually plays responsible or naive. Sharlto Copley is great, as usual. He was recently in the excellent lo-fi Sci-fi mock-doc (I'm being paid by the hyphen) Europa Report doing a hell of a job being a square jawed American astronaut with the dearth of engaging personality you'd expect. People have called this a flaw...they're wrong. Elysium captures the flipside of his evidently unlimited range. He was so good at being an average American (and I mean flawless) that watching him be a completely unhinged South African was somehow the most exciting thing in the film. When he vanishes in the middle of the third act, there is a genuinely terrifying sense of menace as we wait for him to turn up. That bloke's like to do anything! A lot of critics have been trying to geolocate Jodie Foster's accent, and have ventured France and South Africa, but the real charm is that it's so tough to place. Copley's henchman have that deranged Toecutter feel that I so love in villains. Wagner Moura's fidgety Spider is clearly kind of a selfish prick, but his good intentions, which have driven his criminal activity, rise to the surface when he realizes the thing he's been looking for is right in front of him. He's a combination of the two scientists from Pacific Rim, complete with cane, except I never wanted to strangle him until he stopped talking. Diego Luna, faced with a fairly thankless role, gives his character the zaniest pigtails his hair would allow. Things like that let you know that this a community who've gotten used to their lives. The sole normal performance in the whole film is Alice Braga, grounding things, as she does, alternately by being so adorable you could see anyone martyring themselves for her, and bringing enough gravity to keep the film from being too crazy. She's the human face of the people forgotten by the rich. And that there is crucial.

I like the way Blomkamp directs action (frenetic and bloody, every punch hurts) and certainly there are moments of genius in his handling of the film's more horrific touches: The employment of a rail gun leads to one spectacularly gruesome shootout and there's some facial surgery that ranks as among the most excellently sick effect shots I've ever seen. So why was I ok with the violence in this film but not in Total Recall? It's a matter of intention, certainly. Verhoeven has long played the role of a cinematic trickster god, pushing people into corners and getting them to like it and think it was their idea to be there. He's just as manipulative as Lars Von Trier or Michael Haneke, though I think he's got a sense of humour that's a little more mainstream-friendly. I don't think Blomkamp takes as much glee in killing people as Verhoeven and when he does murder characters the huge bloodshed doesn't feel like extremity for its own sake - it feels like he's trying to make audiences understand just how horrible it is when someone is killed. Maybe I'm giving him too much credit but I'm happy to do it. He's from a wartorn country in a continent full of them, so from me he gets the benefit of the doubt. More than that and more than just because Braga and Damon make for incredibly solid leads, this is a film that's honest about political conviction. Max's motivation until very late in the game is that he just doesn't want to die. Compelling, but more importantly realistic. He never even really buy into Spider's utopian political vision and frankly that is a sort of power-drunk conquest that has as much to do with pissing on the leg of the rich who scorn him and kill his people. The film doesn't ask us to believe that Spider or Max have bone-deep Marxist conviction, but it still gets to eat its socialist cake. The revolution may be almost accidental but Max (and Blomkamp) recognize that it's more important than the plight of one man. So while universal healthcare may be the end goal, it's more about giving up the individual for the sake of the greater good. The action and drama has an internal life. It makes every second of the character's struggle work as more than just a well-paced sci-fi thriller with awesome spectacle. Maybe that's too simple for a lot of people, but if you need me I'll be over here with my fist in the air singing this film's praises to the tune of the "L'Internationale"

"No man shall ever penetrate me...with sword or self." Hundra and the search for compatibility

The fantasy genre came of age just in time to be left for dead. Star Wars allowed permissible silliness to creep into a filmmaker's diction, and both John Boorman's Excallibur and John Milius' Conan The Barbarian doubled down by playing its boyish games with a straight face and considerable panache. The floodgates were open: Hearts & Armour, The Sword & The Sorcerer, Red Sonja, Ironmaster, Krull, Yor, Hunter From The Future and countless others passed the formula around, diluting it each time, from the spectacular Dragonslayer to the lowly Conquest. In the middle of the flood, holding its head up high was Hundra by Matt Cimber, the most endearing film of the cycle. Having directed both the The Witch Who Came From The Sea, an ambient feminist oddity on the Video Nasties list, and Butterfly, a useless Pia Zadora vehicle, Cimber was intimately aware of the whips and scorns that women must suffer in films. Hundra is his mission statement, a ripping yarn about female empowerment in a time unsympathetic to the very notion. If Conan hints at the possibilities of a female-centred sword-and-sorcery flick, and Barbarian Queen tried out while pandering shamelessly to a male audience, Hundra gets to have its cake and eat it, too. It's that rare film genuinely interested in thoughtfully questioning gender roles. After her village is slaughtered by marauding bandits, lone warrior Hundra must find a man that meets her justifiably high standards in order to start over. When she isn't busy kicking every kind of ass there is, she puts every suitor she comes across through the wringer in pursuit of a worthy mate. In the process, it proved itself an 80s barbarian film worth falling in love with. 

Even if we discount the somewhat shaky lead performance by Laurene Landon, so great in ...All The Marbles, yet not fully committed to the period or style affected, Hundra has many advantages over a long list of Conan also-rans. It possesses one of the simplest and most effective scores Ennio Morricone ever wrote, a script both funny and touching, and a galvanizing spirit of feminine liberation that makes everyone of Hundra's punches hit twice as hard. This starts early when our hero leads the men who killed her family on a day-long horseback chase to tire them out until she finds suitable ground to fight and when she does she makes short work of them. It's an incredible build-up and release; the film is full of them. Hundra dispenses with foes mightily throughout, but perhaps never so fantastically as when she meets her first potential suitor. She encounters a man by the sea with many wives and tries joining them. The man's method of courtship consists largely of getting wasted and beating Hundra into submission. She puts up with as much as she can take before kicking him between his legs at which point Morricone's war theme starts up on the soundtrack, I think scientifically the most satisfying groin kick in history. She'd do anything to make sure her tribe won't die with her, but she won't do that. She experiences the high and lows of masculinity and never lowers her standards, nor for that matter does the man of her dreams simply surrender when he sees her. It's one of the most even-handed film about dating I've ever seen. Y'all can keep your John Hughes and Rob Reiner movies, this is the only 80s romcom I need. Why this isn't required viewing at sleepovers I don't know. 

The Rosenbaum Test: The Greatest Living Narrative Filmmakers

A little while ago Jonathan Rosenbaum, in whose direction myself and most other critics genuflect, reposted an article of his on the master director Michelangelo Antonioni he wrote in the early 90s. The interesting thing is that he starts his article with a quick list of who he thinks might be the 12 greatest living narrative filmmakers, and of course the director of Red Desert and The Passenger made the cut. He'd have made mine too at the time. This got me and many others thinking about how to answer that question today. Kevin B. Lee got a discussion going and Richard Brody posted his own list with a complete set of guidelines. I cribbed a bit from those guidelines and tried to make my own list, which proved sensationally difficult. I love a lot of directors, but are they "the greatest"? Can their work never be equaled? Could anyone else even pretend to their style? It took some incredible concentration to get it down just to 16. Never one to suffer alone, I asked everyone else to throw their two cents in and here's what we came up with.

Scout Tafoya

1. Marco Bellocchio
2. Terence Davies
3. Claire Denis
4. Philippe Grandrieux
5. Terrence Malick
6. Chantal Akerman
7. Tsai Ming-Liang
8. Agnès Varda
9. Wes Anderson
10. Alain Resnais
11. Francis Ford Coppola
12. PT Anderson

Honorable Mentions: Manoel De Oliveira (who'd be in my top 12 but I don't want to jinx him - I want him to live forever), Léos Carax, Tomas Alfredson, Catherine Breillat, Dan Sallitt, David Lynch, Werner Herzog, Jim Jarmusch, David Cronenberg, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, Matteo Garrone, Paolo Sorrentino, Takashi Miike, Richard Lester, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Terry Gilliam, Volker Schlöndorff, William Klein, Roman Polanski, Sofia Coppola, & Gene Wilder.

Noah Lyons 

1. David Lynch
2. Jean-Luc Godard
3. Lars von Trier
4. Michel Haneke
5. Woody Allen
6. Werner Herzog
7. Roman Polanski
8. Alejandro Jodorowsky
9. PT Anderson
10. Steven Soderbergh
11. Yorgos Lanthimos

Dan Khan

1. Steven Soderbergh
2. P.T. Anderson
3. Lars Von Trier
4. Agnès Varda
5. Jim Jarmusch
6. Mike Leigh
7. Wong Kar-Wai
8. Terrence Mallick
9. Jean-Luc Godard
10. David Cronenberg
11. Michael Mann
12. Alejandro Jodorowsky

Gifford Elliott

1. Lars Von Trier
2. Wong Kar-Wai
3. PT Anderson
4. Jean Luc-Godard
5. Werner Herzog
6. Woody Allen
7. Roman Polanski
8. Martin Scorsese
9. Jane Campion
10. The Coen Brothers
11. Wes Anderson
12. Alfonso Cuarón

Honorable Mentions: Mel Brooks, Sofia Coppola, Terrence Malick, Steven Soderbergh, Steven Spielberg, Hayao Miyazaki, David Cronenberg, Francis Ford Coppola & Agnès Varda.

Tim Earle

1. Pedro Almodóvar
2. Park Chan Wook
3. Hayao Miyazaki
4. Steven Soderberg
5. Wes Anderson
6. Terence Malick
7. Joel and Ethan Coen
8. Steven Spielberg
9. Martin Scorsese
10. Terry Gilliam
11. Edgar Wright
12. Tomas Alfredson

Fox Johnson

1. David Fincher
2. PT Anderson
3. Joel & Ethan Coen
4. David Cronenberg
5. Ridley Scott
6. Martin Scorsese
7. Michael Mann
8. Steven Spielberg
9. Terrence Malick
10. Wes Anderson
11. Roman Polanski
12. Steven Soderbergh

Brief thoughts on The Last Movie

The Last Movie
by Dennis Hopper

If Easy Rider has endured as the flagship film of the counterculture it's because of its accessibility and its freedom of images and symbols. Everything one needs to know about the times is right there in the open, pinned to Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda's bodies. It has precious little on its mind. The Last Movie, by contrast, had too much on its mind for the comfort of American studios and audiences. It died at the box office and its distributor buried it sending Hopper underground for a lotta years. Long just a legend, The Last Movie the quintessential internet age discovery. Whether as a full VHS rip or in 10 parts on youtube, it's proof that, thanks to a tireless online cinephilia, truth will out. Hopper, in only his third appearance as a leading man after The Glory Stompers and Curtis Harrington's beautiful Night Tide, directs himself as a cowboy consultant on a western being shot in Mexico (it's tempting to think they're making Ulzana's Raid even if that is Sam Fuller behind the camera instead of Robert Aldrich). When the crew packs it in, the locals are left without a center of gravity and turn to Hopper for answers he can't give them. Emulating his hero James Dean, Hopper is a mix of hurt sensitivity and confused desire, a continuation of his stellar work in Night Tide. Behind the camera he's more an orchestrator, the foreman of a too-ambitious construction project, than just a director. The chaos can be overwhelming, but if, like Hopper and sidekick Dean Stockwell, you're willing to pan for gold, you'll fill your pockets. Here is what a first-rate mind immersed in every aspect of filmmaking thinks about when high on every drug imaginable, the most potent of which was success. Here is a portrait of an artist, a community, and an era imploding on itself. The Last Movie inspired Pauline Kael's famed remark about watching an artist slashing his canvas. More specifically, it's watching a filmmaker take his own movie away from himself; the beautiful dream and the harsh reality of Hollywood in one hazy jaunt to Mexico.