Summer Movie #11 – That Hamilton Woman (Alexander Korda, 1941): This movie is as different from the last I watched – Derek Jarman’s “Jubilee” – as it is possible to be. This is a piece of classic polished film melodrama portraying the illicit affair between Admiral Horatio Nelson and Emma, Lady Hamilton. It has major stars in Vivian Leigh and Laurence Olivier who give typically capable performances. It is overtly romantic, patriotic, and moralizing. It was Winston Churchill’s favorite movie. It portrays the full national mythology of Nelson’s career and death while also dropping large parts of Emma Hamilton’s life as a performer and as the “muse” of painter George Romney. It is a wholly classic piece of work. It is more approachable and entertaining than “Jubilee” on every level. It is also far less daring and memorable, in my opinion. If you love the classics (and I do enjoy them) you’ll love this movie.
Summer Movie #12 – Kanal (Andrzej Wajda, 1956): This is the second of Wajda’s “War Trilogy” – the third being “Ashes and Diamonds” which I watched and wrote about a couple of weeks ago. “Ashes and Diamonds” alluded to the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, but this deals with it directly. Basically it follows a company of Polish resistance fighter who journey through the sewers of Warsaw to try to escape destruction by the Nazis. The movie is lass about war than about how humans deal with despair and the loss of hope. It is powerful, dark, and really depressing (any film that BEGINS by telling you that you are watching the last hours of the characters’ lives is not going to be a light-hearted romp). The cinematography is great – claustrophobic, shadowy, and gritty (most of the movie is set in a sewer, after all). The performances are remarkable. This movie is neither entertaining nor fun, but it is worth experiencing. Like all worthwhile art, it says something about being human – in this case about being human in really bad times. Side note – Vladek Sheybal plays a composer who hooks up with the resistance fighters and this was his first major film role. You probably don’t know the name, but you’ve probably seen this guy – most famously as the chess master in “From Russia with Love” but he did a lot of movies and late 60’s early 70s TV (including many Gerry Anderson series). This movie is hard to watch, but it is worth the seeing.
Summer Movie #13 – Hopscotch (Ronald Neame, 1980): I love Walter Matthau, so when I noticed his face on the banner for this movie while searching the Criterion offerings on Hulu, I clicked on it immediately. I felt like I should have watched this at a drive-in. This is a lightly-comic dark spy thriller – if you can process that. It has the late-70s vision of the CIA – manipulative, ruthless, institutional – the one depicted in movies like “The Parallax View” or “Three Days of the Condor”; but it has also been written to be a shaggy-dog comedy of the sort Matthau specialized in by this period. The story was based on a novel written by Brian Garfield, who also wrote the novel “Death Wish” was based on. The director, Ronald Neame, is best know for “The Poseidon Adventure”. As Matthau’s character rebels against the CIA, by threatening to write a tell-all book (this in the era of Frank Snepp and Victor Marchetti) you get wit and comedy rather than Jason Bourne-style action and violence. He is constantly showing up his pursuers as incompetent and violent, but he never kills any of them. The movie is just fun in that sort of dry and witty way movies made for adults were once upon a time. Glenda Jackson is wonderful as his romantic interest/accomplice. Sam Waterston plays his protege who is reluctantly hunting him at the orders of Ned Beatty, playing one of his many roles as the evil careerist. Herbert Lom plays a Russian spy who was his long-time rival. If you would like to visit a very 70s movie and just have fun, watch this.
Summer Movie #14 – The League of Gentlemen (Basil Dearden, 1960): I watched this movie simply because it started right after I finished watching “Hopscotch”. It is a well-made caper film dealing with a group of former army officers (headed by Jack Hawkins and including Richard Attenborough) pulling off a bank robbery. There is an interesting undertone of social commentary in that the idea seems to be that these former “Officers and Gentlemen” (all of whom, other than Hawkins, had left the army under various sorts of clouds) were never quite able to find their way to civilian life. It is also interesting that as they organize and prepare the soundtrack is the sort of heroic score one would associate with war films – underscoring the idea that it was their military training that is allowing them to be daring criminals. It is all very British – but it is also somewhat reminiscent of the original “Ocean’s Eleven”.
Summer Movie #15 – Overlord (Stuart Cooper, 1975): This isn’t so much a war movie as it is a movie about being alive during a war. The film follows a young soldier from call-up through his first experience of actual battle. There are few surprises in the narrative, but that isn’t really the point. What Cooper did here was to use very familiar elements from a very familiar story, but he did so with interesting visuals and sound choices and, most notably, great use of archival footage. This isn’t a movie to watch to unfold a story – you’ve seen this story before – but to experience it in a different way. This isn’t a “life-changing” sort of movie, but it was an interesting exercise in visual story-telling.
Summer Movie #16 – The Tin Drum (Volker Schlöndorff, 1979): There is a lot going on in this film. It is a sort of rumination on innocence and depravity while also using those extremes to look at the German community in Poland, and Nazism generally, before and during WWII. It tells a story from the viewpoint of Oskar, a preternaturally intelligent child who deliberately stops growing at age three. The imagery is fable-like and surreal, then brutal and ugly. If there is one scene that kind of sums up the movie for me, it is one where the local Nazis (including Oskar’s ostensible father) hold a Nuremberg-style rally to hear a speech from a senior party member. Schlöndorff is quite deliberate in using moments from “Triumph of the Will” to show these local idiots who see themselves as masters of the world celebrating their vision of their own greatness. Oskar begins playing his eponymous tin drum in counterpoint to the marching music of the rally, which confuses the band musicians and slowly transforms what they play into the Blue Danube Waltz, at which point the gathered party members begin to waltz with one another to the consternation of the higher officials, and then the whole thing dissolves into chaos as a rain storm breaks. If the humor of that appeals to you, as it did to me, this film is something you should watch.
Summer Movie #17 – Rome Open City (Roberto Rossellini, 1945): This is a movie I’m embarrassed to say I’d not seen before, given its significance. This and “The Bicycle Thief” are always mentioned as the beginnings of the whole neorealist movement. This film, shot and the premiered in an Italy still ravaged by the war, tells a story of the period when Rome was under occupation by the Nazis. The film has many moments of pure melodrama, but the things that really hit home are the moments of just brutal honesty – about the violence of occupation and about the small moments of courage or compromise that Italians showed then. The movie is worth seeing on its own, but it is also worth seeing as a moment in film history, as the launching of the careers of figures like Rossellini and star Anna Magnani, and finally as a movie whose making has itself spawned myth and legend.
Summer Movie #18 – A Brief History of Time (Errol Morris, 1991): This is a film from one of my favorite documentarians and shows what makes his work successful. Rather than a simple narrative of Stephen Hawking’s life, this takes the form of interwoven discussions of his breakthroughs in cosmology with people telling stories about their encounters with him. The result is a film that leaves one knowing a bit more about the universe and with some insights into the man who discovered so much about it.
Summer Movie #19 – Paisan (Roberto Rossellini, 1946): This was the second of Rossellini’s “War Trilogy” which I’ve been watching out of order (since I wound up watching the last one, “Germany Year Zero” first). The movie is made up of six vignettes set during the Allied Sicilian and Italian campaigns. Each of the stories is almost trite – the American soldier and the spunky Italian kid, the GI and the girl he met the day the Americans liberated Rome, etc… – but Rossellini’s unflinching realism and unwillingness to romanticize the characters makes the film rise above what it could have been in the hands of a lesser director. It is also interesting that his depiction of the American army in Italy is more diverse than those in America at the time. We see a Black GI, a story about an American nurse, and a group of American chaplains that includes a rabbi. Still, this is are Italian stories and not American ones. As was so often the case, Rossellini added to the realism by casting real people – a village girl, a street urchin, etc… Brilliant and real.
Summer Movie #20 – Jour de Fête (Jacques Tati, 1949): This was Tati’s feature-length directorial debut. The only other Tati film I’ve seen is the 1971 film “Trafic” and there are a lot of similarities. Both films have a theme of lampooning the modern search for efficiency and the use of technology (and both films use America as the very symbol of those things). However, that isn’t really what the movie is “about”. Like “Trafic” the story, about a fair in a small farming village and a bumbling postman (played by Tati) is really just a vehicle to string together a set of visual comic set-pieces. His films are quite reminiscent of silent-era comedies. There is a strong sense of seeing people as both ridiculous and endearing that marks his work; mocking with love, if you will. If you appreciate Chaplin or Keaton, you’ll probably like Tati as well.