The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)

 

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I told you he was a spirit. If you’re his friend, you can talk to him whenever you want. Just close your eyes and call him… It’s me, Ana… It’s me Ana… Life in a remote Spanish village in the 1940s is calm and uneventful. Two little sisters see a censored cut of Frankenstein in a travelling cinema, and seven-year old Ana (Ana Torrent) starts wandering the countryside in search of this kind creature after Isabel (Isabel Telleria) tells her the movies are all fake …. Written by director Victor Erice with Angel Fernandez-Santos and Francisco J. Querejeta, this is the classic of Spanish cinema. However it’s very difficult to see why. It’s an allegorical political story set in a non-descript era (actually meant to be the 1940s but who can tell? And how?! The hairstyles are atypical for starters). So this is a coded version of life after General Franco. After a wiltingly slow beginning, Ana locates a soldier in a deserted farmhouse near her home which the girls share with their parents –  scholar father (Fernando Fernan Gomez) whose narrative ramblings about a glass beehive are supposed to signify political turmoil (presumably) and her lonely and permanently sleepy letter-writing mother (Teresa Gimpera). Ana mistakes the soldier for the type emblemised by Frankenstein’s monster. When she goes missing after misunderstanding the notion of ‘spirit’ she inspires a search while Isabel learns the error of misleading her younger sister. Frankly I don’t get this at all:  it clearly had huge significance in Seventies Spain but the references are beyond me. Very little happens. And it feels dreadfully paced. And since so much rests on the shoulders of the child because at its heart it is a story of childhood and innocence and fantasy it doesn’t help that I didn’t like her or the way she was directed.  You could never mistake this very dark little girl for the daughter of the very blond actors playing her parents. The aural link between the girls’ father and Frankenstein’s monster was misguided at best and confuses things.  It doesn’t work at the basic level of narrative. I waited a long time to see this. Oh well.

 

 

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Track of the Cat (1954)

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Got to keep drunk to forget I’m married to a clothes pin.  It’s the 1890s. In a snowbound homestead in Arizona, the Bridges family lives in contentious squalor. Brothers Curt (Robert Mitchum) and Harold (Tab Hunter) fight over the attentions of their beautiful neighbor, Gwen (Diana Lynn), while the boys’ boozing father (Philip Tonge) suffers under the abuse of their religiously minded mother (Beulah Bondi) who keeps spinster daughter Grace (Teresa Wright) under wraps. The family dysfunction only intensifies when a panther kills Curt’s timid brother, Arthur (William Hopper), and Curt sets out to slay the animal… There are traces of film noir leaving their track across this western, with its heightened stylised drama, vicious male-female antagonism and intense visuals, all complemented by contrasting performing styles. A.I. Bezzerides adapted Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s novel.  It’s directed by William Wellman, whose pet project this was, wanting to make a black and white film in colour and choosing some extremely interesting setups in collaboration with cinematographer William Clothier. It’s good to see Wright and Mitchum years after Pursued. Because it was produced by John Wayne’s company and didn’t do especially well it was taken out of distribution and remained unseen for many years due to his son’s refusal to have it put on DVD. Since his death his widow has made sure some previously lost films are now available. This is one of them.

Sophie’s Choice (1982)

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The truth does not make it easier to understand, you know. I mean, you think that you find out the truth about me, and then you’ll understand me. And then you would forgive me for all those… for all my lies. Stingo (Peter MacNicol), a young writer, moves to Brooklyn (or The Sodom of the North as his father calls it) in the hot summer of 1947 to begin work on his first novel. As he becomes friendly with his upstairs neighbour Polish immigrant Sophie (Meryl Streep) and her biologist lover Nathan (Kevin Kline), a Jew, he learns that Sophie is a Holocaust survivor. Flashbacks reveal her harrowing story, from pre-war prosperity to Auschwitz. In the present, Sophie and Nathan’s relationship increasingly unravels as Stingo grows closer to Sophie and Nathan’s fragile mental state becomes ever more apparent just as Sophie’s past haunts her … Alan J. Pakula abandoned his customary 70s paranoid conspiracy thriller style to adapt William Styron’s novel – and yet one wonders if the Nazi takeover and atrocities aren’t the perfect subject for such an approach? As it is this too-faithful work exercises a Gothic hold despite the dayglo colours of Nestor Alemendros’ cinematography.  Death is in the narrative cracks. MacNicol is strange enough to withstand the attention as the rather naif narrator, Kline epitomises the term kinetic in a tremendously physical interpretation of the disturbed Nathan as he literally envelops Streep, whose luminous moony pallor dominates every scene. The structure – revealing the tragic titular decision – is painstaking but it somehow works against the dramatic tension in a film that is too long and paradoxically fears taking a risk. It’s Streep who makes this work in a jaw-dropping performance which created her legend.

Hell’s Angels on Wheels (1967)

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It’s better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven. Not often do you hear a line from Milton at the movies, certainly not in a biker film. But this was in the vanguard of that cycle (!) in the late 60s and took the lead from the previous year’s Wild Angels and ran a little farther with Sonny Barger himself on the sidelines. Poet (Jack Nicholson) is pumping gas when he joins Buddy (Adam Roarke) and his gang after having his sickle damaged by one of them and then getting set upon by a bunch of sailors. The Angels take to the road and Buddy’s girl Shill (Sabrina Scharf) becomes the main attraction for this new ‘prospect’ as they ride around and provoke violence among hapless bystanders. This was written by R. Wright Campbell (who wrote a handful of screenplays for Roger Corman) and directed by Richard Rush whose decided distaste for the material is evidenced in a variety of contrasting setups lensed by Leslie (Laszlo) Kovacs who comes into his own with the handheld photography. It starts promisingly, with a riff on Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising and there are some quite bizarrely languid pastoral interludes in the breaks between outbursts of violence, which are designed and shot rather amateurishly. It will all end in flames with that woman and those guys involved … It certainly looks like a lot of kicks were had vrooming around CA pretending to be violent while the real Hell’s Angels filled in the bike seats as extras. This is notable as one of those early-ish Nicholson performances where he seems to be almost horizontal in contrast with the perpendicular effortful grimacing of those around him, particularly the leading man, Roarke. B movie directors Jack Starrett and Bruno VeSota appear respectively as the policeman and priest who cross the gang’s path.

It (2017)

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Aka It:  Chapter One. Go blow your dad you mullet-wearing asshole. Stephen King’s 1986 novel gets the big screen treatment here after a 1990 TV two-parter that has a fond place in many people’s memories.  It sticks with the first part of the novel – the kids’ experiences, and moves them forward, to the late Eighties. In 1988 Derry, Maine, little Georgie sails his  paper boat and it floats down a drain in a rainstorm and he is pulled in by Pennywise the Clown, becoming one of the town’s many missing kids. When school’s out next summer his older brother Bill sets out to find him with a bunch of other kids who all have their issues:  big mouth Richie, hypochondriac Eddie, germophobe Stan, overweight newbie Ben, pretty Bev (the subject of false sex rumours) and black home-schooled Mike.  They are the Losers Club and have various problems with the parental figures in their lives. Ben’s research in the library proves that Derry has a very high mortality rate particularly when it comes to kids and every 27 years this demonic shapeshifting character manifests through their fears when he reappears to feed. But in the midst of their search they have to avoid the Bowers Gang, horrible greasers who violently terrorise them as they search the area’s sewers to find the centre of Pennywise’s hellish underground activities … Part of why this works so well is that the kids are taken seriously and their problems in the world are immense:  we’re talking child abuse and Munchausen by proxy, to name but two. We feel for them because they are fully rounded characters who have legitimate reason to fear grown ups. A clown in the sewers is as nothing compared to Dad waiting in the hallway to feel you up. It’s a perfectly judged drama. Another reason this works is because it inhabits familiar territory for many of us who recall Spielberg films of the era – the sight of a squad of boys on bikes recalls ET – and the King drama Stand By Me which was so iconic and one that also treats its protagonists respectfully. We also think about The Goonies:  the spirit of adventure is overwhelmingly attractive despite the dangers to this bunch of nerds and scaredy cats.  The Netflix show Stranger Things is an overt homage to all of these, mixing up the paranormal, horror and nostalgia for thirty years ago and the presence of cool girl Winona Ryder is such a plus.  Adapted by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman;  directed by Andy Muschietti who gives the scenes equal weight and doesn’t give into the massive temptation to exaggerate the horror element, allowing each character to fully blossom. This is a coming of age story with panache and clowns and a wonderful ensemble of wholly believable kids and Bill Skarsgard donning the whiteface. Personally I can’t wait for part two set 27 years from 1989 when It reappears: wouldn’t it be really meta to cast Molly Ringwald as the adult incarnation of the Molly Ringwald lookalike? Awesome idea!

Wind River (2017)

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How do you gauge someone’s will to live? I once knew a film producer who said the two rules of moviemaking were, Never make a western and Never make a film in the snow. Well thank goodness nobody told screenwriter Taylor Sheridan who makes his directing debut here following the screenplays for the extraordinary Sicario and Hell or High Water, two of the best films in the past decade. Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is an agent (read:  animal catcher) for the US Fish and Wildlife Service working in the vast titular Native American reservation in Wyoming when he happens upon the body of a young woman Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Chow) who was his own late daughter’s best friend. He’s seconded by a neophyte FBI officer Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) to help her as she has no expertise in tracking or this mountainous terrain the size of Rhode Island with just 6 police officers led by Graham Greene. While Cory is still dealing with the fallout of a divorce, having to forego caring for his young son when his ex is out of town for a couple of days in order to look for the killers, we unspool through family photos and start to understand some of his motivation for helping this officer who doesn’t even have the right clothing for minus 20: Cory’s mother in law loans her her late granddaughter’s clothing with the warning, These are not a gift.  His young son is startled at the sight of this white girl in his dead sister’s clothes. Together Cory and Jane embark on a hunt when the coroner finds the girl has been likely multiply raped but drowned in her own blood because the alveoli in her lungs filled with freezing air as she ran barefoot from her assailants. She ran six miles. So it can’t officially be listed as murder. Then Cory finds a second body …  With all Sheridan’s films now we see a certain pattern:  the idea of borders, which also extend to different races and traditions and values transmuted through marriage, and of course singular acts of transgression which here comprise murder but obviously incorporate other acts of violation arising from untrammelled self-justification. It culminates in a chase and a shootout but concludes in an act of individual revenge on Wyoming’s highest mountain peak which calls to mind the work of James Stewart and Anthony Mann in their western collaborations.  Most debut writer/directors make the mistake of filing every hole with overwritten dialogue:  Sheridan is too shrewd for that.  He allows the pictures to speak for themselves, human nature to assert itself as it usually does and the dead bodies are permitted testimony to their brutal demise. He chooses to end on a frame that expresses friendship and acceptance.  (Followed by a piece of text which states that the only portion of the demographic not featured in Missing Person figures is Native American women.) It’s a very satisfying film – tense, character-driven, fast-moving and deeply felt – and it’s adorned with excellent performances and some beautifully mournful songs composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.

Did You Hear About The Morgans? (2009)

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Those two are worse then Pete the Butcher. Recently separated NYC couple realtor Meryl (Sarah Jessica Parker) and lawyer Paul (Hugh Grant) have a civilised dinner and on the way home witness a murder. They have to leave their busy lives and go in the Witness Protection Programme, winding up in rural Ray, Wyoming with wily sheriff Clay (Sam Elliott) and his gun-toting wife Emma (Mary Steenburgen). Not only do they have to sleep under the one roof with just Clint Eastwood and John Wayne dvds, they get to experience life without traffic noise, cashmere and learn about each other, all over again, in between getting to shoot and ride. Because there isn’t a lot else to do.  She’s going nuts. And Paul finds out that he wasn’t the only one to be unfaithful after they had fertility issues. But they look up at the sky and see the stars – a view you can only get in the Planetarium! And then they win at the local Bingo game. What’s not to like?! Back in NYC their assistants (Elisabeth Moss and Michael Kelly) argue about whether they should call them and the hitman who saw them do his day job has the line bugged … Comic auteur Marc Lawrence reunites with his favourite leading man and mines the heck out of this fish out of water scenario with Grant giving an enjoyably droll performance even when he’s getting bear-sprayed in the eye. Very amusing indeed with some hilarious lines.

The Sense of an Ending (2017)

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Literariness is embedded in the very loins of this, utilising as it does the title of theorist Frank Kermode’s famous 1967 volume. Julian Barnes is a determinedly literary writer but his 2011 novel isn’t just about verbal and written narrative, it’s also a story told in pictures, photographs which document the early life of retired camera shop proprietor Tony (Jim Broadbent), divorced from Margaret (Harriet Walter) and whose daughter Susie (Michelle Dockery) is about to give birth to a child she is having on her own. He receives notice that he has been left a small sum of money and an item (which turns out to be a diary) by Sarah Ford, the mother (Emily Mortimer) of his first lover, the mysterious Veronica (Charlotte Rampling), and whom he only met once at their home 50 years earlier when the older woman flirted with him and Veronica’s brother made clear his attraction to him too. The diary is not forthcoming and Tony pursues it relentlessly when he finds out it belonged not to Sarah but to Adrian Finn (Joe Alwyn) his academically gifted classmate who cheated with Veronica. The unravelling of this mystery hinges on a horrible letter the young Tony (Billy Howle) wrote to Veronica (Freya Mavor) when they were all at Cambridge. What caused Adrian to commit suicide and what is the mature Veronica now withholding from him? He embarks on what his wife and daughter call the ‘stalking’ of his former girlfriend and the earlier story unspools in parallel. What this lacks in tension it makes up for in the carefully observed minutiae of performance and appearance, appropriately for a text that is all about the accumulation and capture of such information. It’s shot beautifully by Christopher Ross in an anti-nostalgic attempt to uncover a meaning to life in London’s leafy northern suburbs with tastefully restrained middle class homes:  a little ornamentation is always enough to hint at discernment if not understanding. When all the threads are gradually united there is a patina of sorrow, bringing together the book’s philosophical core interests in history and action. Adapted by Nick Payne and directed by Ritesh Batra.

La Dolce Vita (1960)

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In the summer of 1958 several layers of Roman society collided in the flashing lightbulbs of celebrity, with Hollywood actors, aristocrats, drug dealers, designers, artists, writers, prostitutes, journalists and street photographers engaging in salacious conflicts that kept several scandal rags going with outrageous tales of a demimonde that seemed to congregate around the Via Veneto. Federico Fellini was taking note. A photograph of Anita Ekberg frolicking in the Trevi Fountain seemed to encapsulate the scene and a story took root in his brain. Along with Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, Brunello Rondi and some uncredited assistance from Pier Paolo Pasolin, he came up with the script that would define the time and the place like no other. Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni) is the urbane gossip journalist who secretly hankers after the life of his intellectual friend Steiner (Alain Cuny, playing a character loosely based on Cesare Pavese) but cannot cease his lifestyle of instant gratification. The opening shot is stunning:  a helicopter is taking a statue of Christ across a football field surrounded by ancient ruins, and chased by another helicopter. All at once the image shows us Rome ancient, imperial and modern, and God is leaving the city, opening up a world of self-indulgence. Marcello is in the second chopper and dallies with some beauties sunbathing on a roof. Right there we have some very economical socio-cultural analysis about contemporary values.  38 minutes in, the film’s raison d’etre occurs:  Fellini re-stages the Ekberg image, starring Ekberg herself. Surely this is the ultimate post-modern shot in cinema. This is a very glamorous film about incredible people in a state of pure decadence. It was much criticised at local level but Fellini had tapped into fascism’s true expression – the cultivation of image above meaning, the use of culture to promote an antithetical belief system, the failure of humanity, mob rule. Popular culture was the vehicle through which fascism was transmitted. Fellini was working as a caricaturist during Mussolini’s alliance with the Nazis, he was involved with several of the neorealist classics made right after the war and he had already made a couple of classic films:  his concept of reality did not mean the subtraction of meaning. Christening the scattini (street photographers) Paparazzo was only the start of it. He understood the power of voyeurism. Marcello’s disenchantment as he pursues his personal satyricon is groundbreaking and inimitable. The role changed Mastroianni, as he admitted. You cannot walk through Rome and not see it as it is here – ironically, Fellini recreated most of it at Cinecitta (a Mussolini factory that lured so many American filmmakers to free up their frozen profits and enjoy the sweet life):  that’s how I discovered the real Via Veneto is very hilly.  Rome is Fellini, Fellini is Rome. And as for Nino Rota’s score! As Jonathan Jones said some years ago, Fellini thought of everything first. We are still catching up. Simply great.

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My review of Shawn Levy’s book Dolce Vita Confidential which excavates in scrupulous detail the circumstances leading up to the film’s production is here:  http://offscreen.com/view/dolce-vita-swinging-rome.