Title: The Spirit of the Beehive Release Date: 8 October 1973 Director: Víctor Erice Production Company: Elías Querejeta Producciones Cinematográficas S.L. | Jacel Desposito Summary/Review:
Set in a small Castilian village just after the Spanish Civil War, The Spirit of the Beehive is a film that captures the intersection of childhood wonder and fantasy with grim realities. If that description seems to fit Pan’s Labyrinth as well, then you won’t be surprised that Guillermo del Toro drew inspiration from this film. Ana (Ana Torrent) is an adorable 6-year-old with a vivid imagination. Her father (Fernando Fernán Gómez) is a beekeeper and writes extensively about bees. Her mother (Teresa Gimpera) writes letters to distant lovers. Neither of them seem to be all to involved in the lives of their children.
The film begins when a traveling movie show brings Frankenstein to the village. Ana becomes entranced by Frankenstein’s monster, especially the scene when he kills the little girl. Ana’s older sister Isabel (Isabel Tellería) tells her that “Everything in the movies is fake” and that the monster didn’t kill the girl and that in fact he lives in a nearby sheep shed. Ana visits the sheep shed often and finding a wounded republican soldier hiding there, she brings him food and clothing.
The Spirit of the Beehive is set at the beginning of the Franco regime and was released shortly before Franco’s death. Erice gets a lot of credit for telling a story that is critical of Franco through metaphor and thus evading censorship. But beyond the plot that I’ve summarized here, much of the film is more of a tone poem capturing the everyday wonders and fears of a young child. It’s beautifully filmed and Ana Torrent’s performance is remarkable.
Title: Once Upon a Time in the West Release Date: December 21, 1968 Director: Sergio Leone Production Company: Euro International Film | Paramount Pictures |
Rafran Cinematografica | Finanzia San Marco Summary/Review:
Sometime in the 1990s I watched The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, which I liked well enough, but never felt inspired to watch another Sergio Leone film or another “spaghetti western.” So I went into watching Once Upon a Time in the West with no great expectations and ended up being absolutely surprised by how much I loved it. It’s a slow-moving Western drama that often has limited dialogue and focuses on gorgeous scenery as much as the drama (much of the film was shot in Europe but there are scenes filmed in Monument Valley a la John Ford’s Stagecoach). This may sound a little boring, but I found it to be mesmerizing.
According to Wikipedia, “Leone was far more interested in the rituals preceding violence than in the violence itself.” This makes a whole lot of sense! The first two scenes of the movie are in fact big fakeouts as we spend a lot of time with a group of characters who seem to be the main characters of the movie, only for all of them to be shot and killed. These two scenes, in fact, introduce the killers who are the film’s real main characters. One is a mysterious man known only as “Harmonica” (Charles Bronson) who is set on the path of vengeance. The other is a vicious gang leader, Frank (Henry Fonda), who is working for a railroad tycoon, Mr. Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) to get control of a plot of land that has a water source for the railroad. I find it absolutely stunning that Fonda plays a character that is so evil and is creepy A.F.!
Newlywed Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) arrives to join her new family only to find they’ve all been murdered and she’s inherited the contested land. With the help of Frank’s rival gang leader, Cheyenne (Jason Robards), she begins to develop the land while Frank and “Harmonica” carry on various machinations around her (this plot is a deliberate pastiche of Johnny Guitar). The plot is complicated but it also seems secondary to the style for much of the movie where it’s more of a revelation from scene-to-scene. The film also has a terrific score by the legendary Ennio Morricone.
I’m not a big fan of Westerns, but this film has definitely made my list of favorite Westerns!
Today is a bit of a cheat, as I technically post a third movie starting with the letter C, but you’ll excuse me because this is a great one! Also, forgive me for publishing this a day late.
Title: Citizen Kane Release Date: September 5, 1941 Director: Orson Welles Production Company: Mercury Productions Summary/Review:
By the time I was a teenager, I was already aware that Citizen Kane was considered “one of the greatest films of all time!” and watching it for the first time back then did not elicit contrarian opinions. I watched it a few more times, but somehow like a lot of classic films I saw in my younger days, I didn’t watch it again for decades. So it was great to have an excuse to revisit this movie. What’s harder is trying to find something to say about Citizen Kane that hasn’t been said before. It is the number one movie on the AFI’s 100 Years list and the Cahiers du Cinéma list, and number two on the Sight and Sound list.
Perhaps we’ll start with a quick summary. The movie is a pseudo-biopic of Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles), a wealthy, celebrity newspaper publisher based on real life figures like William Randolph Hearst. The story follows reporter Jerry Thompson (William Alland) as he tries to learn the meaning of the last word Kane uttered before his death, “Rosebud!” We see several non-chronological scenes from Kane’s life told from the perspectives of people who knew him, none of whom are particularly reliable narrators. In order we see an obituary newsreel, Thompson reading the personal diary of Kane’s childhood guardian and banker Walter Parks Thatcher (George Coulouris), Kane’s business manager Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane), Kane’s lifelong “frenemy” Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotten), and Kane’s second wife Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore), and Kane’s butler Raymond (Paul Stewart). In the final scene, the mystery of what Rosebud is revealed to the film viewers, but remains unknown to any of the characters.
With that said, here are some stray thoughts I have on Citizen Kane:
Apart from Welles and Cotten, none of the main cast were particularly famous or became famous later despite starring in “the greatest movie of all time.” Alland is essentially the main character of this movie but he doesn’t seem all that well remembered (not least because the movie never shows a close-up of his face).
The movie is known for its innovation and technical brilliance but it also is wildly entertaining and relevant to watch today, which sets it apart from some other movies regarded for their innovation such as Battleship Potemkin.
Speaking of relevance, it actually really sad that 80 years later we still as a culture continue to idolize and prioritize the opinions of disgustingly wealthy people like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Rupert Murdoch, and Bill Gates. And if Kane’s campaign speech where he promises to imprison his opponent and his claims of fraud when he loses the election don’t remind you of a certain loathsome person, I don’t know what to say.
Watching it this time it really hit be just how cruelly Kane treats Susan and it hits really hard.
That being said, the scene where Kane entertains Susan to distract her from her toothache is really sweet and maybe the moment where Kane is depicted with the most humanity.
Someday I need to rewatch this film and explore it from an archivist’s perspective. The scene in Thatcher’s library and Leland saving Kane’s “statement of principles” are particularly interesting depictions of people’s’ relationship with records.
Title: Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles Release Date: May 14, 1975 Director: Chantal Akerman Production Company: Paradise Films | Unité Trois Summary/Review:
I believe this is the first Belgian film I have ever watched. The 3 hour, 21 minute film details the life of a woman, Jeanne Dielman (Delphine Seyrig), go through the ordinary routine of her life in minute detail over a period of three days. Jeanne cleans the house, cooks, bathes, goes shopping, babysits, spends time with her teenage son (Jan Decorte), runs errands, and receives men in her bedroom who pay her for sex. Sometimes she also sits in a chair for a long time as well. She is so very precise about everything she does that when little things start to go wrong it is very jarring. This film is the slowest of burns all leading to … something I won’t say.
The film adopts the style of Yasujirō Ozu (Tokyo Story, Late Spring), where the camera remains stationary throughout and there are only cuts between scenes. With a woman director, Chantal Akerman, and a crew made up mostly of women, the film is a feminist statement on the invisibility of women’s work in movies (and in real life). The film provokes a lot of questions, such as does it matter if a movie is technically brilliant and innovative if it ends up being extremely boring? Or, it there art in the verisimilitude of life, or should art transcend ordinary life?
Title: Ivan the Terrible Release Date: December 30, 1944 Director: Sergei Eisenstein Production Company: Mosfilm Summary/Review: Ivan the Terrible is an odd duck. It ranks #39 on the Cahiers du Cinéma list and has appeared on past editions of the Sight and Sound list but it was also included in the book The Fifty Worst Films of All Time (and How They Got That Way). It was directed by the legendary film pioneer Sergei Eisenstein (Battleship Potemkin), but it was made at the behest of the cruel dictator Joseph Stalin. Roger Ebert gives the film his top 4-star rating but his review is less enthusiastic and full of caveats.
Like Children of Paradise, this film is an epic historical drama made at a time when the nation was fighting the Nazi threat to all of Europe. It tells the story of Ivan IV (Nikolay Cherkasov) who as Tsar united disparate fiefdoms under Moscow to create the first Russian empire. The film begins with Ivan’s coronation in 1547 and a speech in which declares his intentions to bring all of Russia under his control, much to the annoyance of the boyars who were kind of oligarchy of aristocrats used to doing things their own way. Thus the palace intrigue begins. Ivan marries Anastasia (Lyudmila Tselikovskaya) and they produce an heir, which further enrages the boyars. War, betrayal, and dramatic death bed scenes ensue.
The performances in the film are very stagey, as if this were some kind of pageant rather than a drama. It is also reminds of The Scarlet Empress, from the large-scale furnishings and overwhelming shadows to the general over-the-top nature of the performances. While The Scarlet Empress was a Hollywood spectacle about the Russian monarchy, it seems strange that Russian filmmakers would depict their own history in such a campy way. Eisenstein made a second part to Ivan the Terrible that displeased Stalin so it would not be released until 1958. A third part was abandoned while in production for the same reason. So it’s an unfinished epic a lot like Napoléon (except that Ivan actually had military success in Russia).
I suppose I’m supposed to watch both Part 1 & Part 2, but as I didn’t enjoy the first part all too much, and I have 27 movies to watch this April, I’m going to give Part 2 a pass.
Title: Les Enfants du Paradis Release Date: March 9, 1945 Director: Marcel Carné Production Company: Société Nouvelle Pathé Cinéma Summary/Review:
If you’re country is occupied by a draconian regime and in the midst of some of the most destructive battles in human history, making an epic costume drama film would probably not be a high priority. Director Marcel Carné, screenwriter Jacques Prévert, and the cast and crew of Les Enfants du Paradis (a.k.a. Children of Paradise – “merci” to the French language for letting me get an “E” post out of this) did not see German occupation or the Allied invasion of France as deterrents to making this movie. And I must impress that this isn’t a guerrilla production with a couple of cameras and a small cast. No, this is full-on spectacle with a blocks-long city street set with 1000s of extras in costume!
The film itself is set in Paris in 1830s, focusing on the theater world and characters based on historical figures. The “paradis” in the title refers to the highest balcony where the cheapest seats are and where the most enthusiastic and demanding audience members sat. The central character is Garlance (Arletty), a bewitching woman who becomes the object of affection of four different men: Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault) – a skilled mime, Frédérick Lemaître (Pierre Brasseur) – an ambitious dramatic actor, Pierre-François Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand) – a “gentleman” criminal, and Comte Édouard de Montray (Louis Salou) – a calculating aristocrat.
The first part of the film is a comedy of manners with each of the men meeting and becoming entranced by Garlance, while she shows favor to none of them. The second part of the film is several years later when Baptiste and Lemaître are now established stars of the stage and Garlance has reluctantly become Montray’s mistress. The movie is very melodramatic, deliberately so as the film seeks to replicate the style of 19th century theatre while undermining in it in scenes that actually depict stage performances. A good example of this is when Lemaître humiliates a group of stuffy playwrights by improvising dialogue during the premiere.
Even if you don’t consider the circumstances under which this film as made, its technical brilliance cannot be denied. Shots like the finale where a crowd of carnival celebrants dance in the street are awe-inspiring. But apart from the wonder of the film itself and its remarkable background story, I didn’t feel very moved or engaged by the plot. This movie is not going to make my personal list of best films of all time.
Title: Andrei Rublev Release Date: December 16, 1966 Director: Andrei Tarkovsky Production Company: Mosfilm Summary/Review: This epic film is based on the life of Andrei Rublev (Anatoly Solonitsyn), a monk in Russia in the early 1400s who gained renown for painting icons and other religious art. The film is split into eight parts depicting incidents from different periods of Rublev’s life (as well as a few other incidents that occur during his lifetime). The film is set against the background in-fighting among Russian princes and raids by Tatars. Thus the film depicts the horrors of war, cruelty, and barbarity contrasted with Rublev’s faith and the beauty of art.
The episodes depict Rublev’s transitions from youthful idealism to disillusionment with humanity to ultimately maturing to realize that his art can make a positive contribution to the world. In addition to Rublev’s story, the prologue and final chapter depict two other artistic spirits, a balloon pilot and a bellmaker, each of whom put their lives on the line in faith of their art. I found the movie well-made and well-acted but thought it was far too long and plodding. Rating: ***
Title: Beau Travail Release Date: September 4, 1999 Director: Claire Denis Production Company: La Sept-Arte |Tanais | SM Films Summary/Review:
If you’re like me you endured reading the overly-didactic Herman Melville novel Billy Budd at school. It’s the story of a handsome and popular sailor who inadvertently strikes and kills an officer, and the Captain “Starry” Vere who wrestles with his admiration of Budd and the necessity to execute him to uphold naval discipline.
Claire Denis moves the story on land for a contemporary story of a French Foreign Legion section undergoing training in Djibouti. It’s told as the memoirs of the section leader Adjudant-Chef Galoup (Denis Lavant), and much of the film has a dream-like quality.
When a handsome new Legionaire from Russia, Gilles Sentain (Grégoire Colin) joins the section and proves to be popular and heroic. Galoup grows resentful of Sentain’s threat to his own standing with the troops. The subtext is that Galoup is repressing a homosexual attraction to Sentain.
Not much “happens” for much of the movie as it is more a poetic depiction of the soldiers routine of training exercises (which
all the reviews describe as “balletic”), daily chores, swimming, and visiting a local nightclub to dance with Djiboutian civilian women. For the most part, this is a dominantly male movie with Denis’ “female gaze” providing a critique of performative masculinity and the display of colonialist power decades after Djibouti achieved independence. In addition to that, if you like hunky men in various stages of undress, this is a movie for you!
The final scene is much lauded and very impressive. I won’t spoil it here, but it feels tonally out-of-context with the rest of the film, while offering a reactionary coda to the slow-burn that had been building the whole time.
Title: A Brighter Summer Day Release Date: July 27, 1991 Director: Edward Yang Production Company: Yang & His Gang Filmmakers | Jane Balfour Films Summary/Review:
Something about A Brighter Summer Day reminds me of the epic tv mini-series of the 70s and 80s. Obviously those miniseries were often sensational and kind of cheezy, which does not apply to this movie, but there’s still that feel of something big being told in detail.
Set in Taiwan in the early 1960s, A Brighter Summer Day documents a time when the Chinese Nationalists who fled the mainland in 1949 are coming to terms with their exile being more permanent than they previously realized, while their children grow in a perpetual state of uncertainty. The film’s protagonist is a young teenage boy, Zhang Zhen (Chang Chen), whose nickname is Si’r. At the start of the film, he begins attending a night school (although confusingly he’s also depicted attending school during the day as well). The main storylines are a growing relationship with a girl named Ming (Lisa Yang), and while Si’r does not join a gang he grows increasingly acquainted with members of rival gangs including one lead by Ming’s boyfriend. The movie is a slow-burn of Si’r’s gradually deteriorating mental and emotional state leading to a tragic finale.
The plot of this film does not require it’s four-hour runtime. That time does serve the purpose of fully immersing the viewer in the world of early 60s Taiwan. We see a strictly regimented society where the students wear military-style uniforms to school and the actual military parades their tanks through the streets. Si’r’s father (Chang Kuo-chu) runs into trouble for his past associations and is interrogated by the secret police. But there also is an influx of American culture which manifests itself most clearly in the rock and roll music the children listen to and perform.
I’ve ready a lot of glowing reviews of this film and find myself unable to muster the same enthusiasm that this is a “perfect movie.” Nevertheless, I’m glad I watched it as it is an all-around excellent production of a fictional story that illustrates a place and a time I previously knew nothing about.
Title: Madame de… Release Date: September 16, 1953 Director: Max Ophüls Production Company: Franco London Films | Indusfilms | Rizzoli Film Summary/Review:
French aristocrat Louise (Danielle Darrieux) has a debt and sells a pair of earrings that were a wedding gift from her husband André (Charles Boyer) to pay it. The earrings become a device around which the narrative revolves as they are sold and resold and take on new meanings to the characters with each transfer.
The main plot involves an Italian baron, Fabrizio Donati (Vittorio De Sica), and Louise falling in love (a big no-no in the aristocratic code where mistresses are acceptable, but love is forbidden). There’s a brilliant scene showing their relationship blossoming over a series of nights dancing, their clothing changing as they move behind pillars, but the dance moving smoothly on. Louise initially seems to be a careless and spoiled, and the matters of aristocrats mean little to me, but Ophüls tells their story in a way that can’t fail to elicit empathy.
I’m not sure exactly when the movie is set, but it appears to be the early 20th century. André and Fabrizio are both in the military of their respective nations and a recurring theme of the film is the formation of alliances among European nations. I may be stretching my interpretation a bit, but I think this movie is not just a story of the dissolution of a marriage that leads to tragedy, but also a metaphor for Europe and all the petty slights that lead to the carnage of World War I.