Summertime (1955)


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It’s summertime and the living is easy. It makes me think of sultry summer days and cool summer nights and George Gershwin. But summertime also means travel. It did for my family when we were growing up as kids and it took us to many places near and far off. That’s what this film gives us license to do. Venture into another world for a picturesque vacation.

News that Summertime was supposedly David Lean’s favorite picture of his own work is not all that surprising when put into the context of his career. When I think of him I am quick to reference monumental epics or British narratives out of Charles Dickens but here is a picture that feels strikingly different. It’s intimate and small yet still gorgeously photographed and affecting. It’s no Lawrence of Arabia (1962) or even Great Expectations (1946) but it has no aims to be. That’s what makes it a delightful change of pace.

Katharine Hepburn plays an American school secretary from Akron Ohio, one Jane Hudson, who has always had a dream to travel and get out of Middle America to see the world. We see her aboard a train bound for Venice and she’s beyond ecstatic chatting up her fellow traveler and snapping pictures on her camera that’s already logged rolls and rolls of film undoubtedly, capturing the most mundane things for the simple fact that they come from a foreign land.

But there are even more stereotypical American tourists who are hilariously ignorant and subsequently stick out like a sore thumb wherever they wind up. To say the McIlhennys are slightly insufferable is kind of the point. Still, they’re hardly to be taken seriously. It’s people like them that cause Jane to want to venture to Italy to get away and allow herself to be wrapped up in the throes of another culture. I can certainly resonate with that sentiment. I feel that way now.

So, in one sense, she still maintains the awe of a tourist but manages to experience the life as if she were a local and that’s the key, boarding in a pensione and trying to get a taste of everyday life.

First, she is befriended by a spunky little boy who tries to sell her his goods and out of that grows a mutual affection for one another. She also wanders into an antique shop to buy what she deems to be a precious goblet and strikes up a conversation with the proprietor (Rossano Brazzi) who she had unwittingly crossed paths with before. This is the first of many meetings.

In a film such as this where the sets are left behind for a foreign locale, a place like Venice very easily becomes almost another character in the film because being there alone creates a dimension you would never get otherwise. Without Venice, those layers of history, accents, and textures, something magical would be lost. But with it, Lean makes something that rings with gentle passion.

The sumptuous visuals capture both the immense character and quaint waterways with their gondolas drifting lazily by. Tailor-made for romance especially between an American school teacher and a handsome Italian shopkeeper, bringing them so close together over the course of the film. The Piazza San Marco is showcased front and center in numerous sequences but even with its presence this still exists on a smaller scale than the parade through Rome that is Roman Holiday (1953). Because it readily occupies itself with many smaller scenes too.

Lean even preceded Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief (1955) with a very similar fireworks show. In both cases, the moment signifies the strides made in the relationship and just how splendorous they are.

Summertime also features one of the most striking endings because it’s not quite as cathartic as we are used to in a love story and yet it hardly can be considered downbeat or melancholy. A lot like life, it simply is and how can you be glum anyway? It’s summertime. Venice is immaculate. Love is afoot.

It so enraptured David Lean that he would make it his home away from home. At that point, it doesn’t matter if we like this movie because as its director Lean was taken with it. That’s praise enough.

3.5/5 Stars

In the Mood for Love (2000)

inthemood2“Feelings can creep up just like that” – Mr. Chow

Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love is a visual exhibition in style. It has a smooth elegance that extends across its entire length. Colors mixed with 1960s nostalgia. Decadence mixed with urban depression. The perfect blending of the cinematography of Christopher Doyle and Mark Lee Ping Bin. There are brief fades between many sequences and more often than not a shot has a focal point while the fringes are out of focus, but it’s all strangely beautiful. We’re often viewing characters from behind or from the side — seeing how they interact with their environments that keep them confined in a certain space. The numerous hallways, doorways, and rooms that cohesively make up their existence.

inthemood4But enough talk about aesthetics at least for the present. The film opens in 1962 with two couples moving into an apartment complex simultaneously. There are four individuals involved obviously, but we only ever see two of them. Mr. Chow is a journalist and his wife is often away for business leaving him alone. The stunning Mrs. Chan works as a secretary and she too feels lonely due to her husband’s many trips abroad. There’s the constant passing in the hallways at times and in truth, it can be laborious at times. After all, they are both perfectly civil and respectable people, although one night they finally have a tete a tete at a cafe. It’s there where they come to understanding about their significant others. Coincidences are not so coincidental. They are both cheating with the other’s spouse.

inthemood1And of course, Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan do not want to stoop to that level so they keep their relationship platonic worrying about what the neighbors will say, but also taking great comfort in the other’s company. Even together there is a distance, a restraint, that I suppose reflects the times — reflects the cultural expectations of that time. But the isolation and the loneliness is far too great and Mr. Chow enlists his new companion’s help in crafting a martial arts serial for the local newspaper. For once in their lives, they have the kind of interpersonal relationships they crave, and in this way In the Mood for Love shares some of the same sentiments as David Lean’s Brief Encounter.

Although Mr. Chow shows perhaps even greater restraint finally moving away from his love and relocating because he knows she will never leave her husband. Thus, it’s not worth the risk for them to stay together unless she were to come with him. But as often happens in such situations stars are not meant to cross and they constantly miss each other between Hong Kong, then Singapore, and finally Chow goes to Cambodia. And that’s where his story ends.With a detached denouement that is cryptic and in the same instance deeply melancholy.

inthemood3An important distinction to makes is that In the Mood for Love could have been a lurid drama, but with only two of the characters shown it becomes a more intimate even sorrowful portrait of forbidden love. In truth, it’s a portrait accented with spiraling wisps of cigarette smoke and the rhythmic water droplets of falling rain. The always fashionable Mrs. Chan is dressed impeccably in wonderful juxtaposition to the atmosphere behind her. “Yumeji’s Theme” is constantly pirouetting and sashaying around the images on screen combined with the sultry notes of “Quizas, Quizas, Quizas” courtesy of Nat King Cole.

It’s a mesmerizing recipe that tells of the complexities and intricacies that run through interpersonal relationships. What crosses the line? What is moral? What is fair in love and Wong Kar-wai’s universe? That’s just it. This is one of those films that has grace enough not to give us all the answers but instead, leaves us captivated by its vision. The rest is left up to us to judge as we see fit. It maintains an air of mystery, because, after all, love is far from a two-dimensional phenomenon.

4.5/5 Stars

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

A film of truly epic proportions, in length, scenery, and brilliance, Lawrence of Arabia is essential cinema. Peter O’Toole delivers a stellar performance as T.E. Lawrence, a British soldier during World War I. The movie begins with his death from a motorcycle crash, which gives an early glimpse of the character.

Then, a flashback goes to his time in Arabia where his task was to unite the Arab tribes, and lead them in rebellion against the enemy so the British might win. Against the better judgment of his commanding officer, a Mr. Dryden of the Arab Bureau suggests Lawrence be sent to assess the possibility of an Arab revolt against the Turks. Lawrence heads with his guide to pay a visit to Prince Faisal. However, his guide is shot by another man and Lawrence resolves to make the journey alone. Their paths cross again in the camp of Faisal. There Lawrence interests the Prince because his ideas are far different from his commanding officer.

Showcasing his audaciousness Lawrence suggests a bold attack on Acaba which would allow the British to bring in supplies. He leads a group of men across the brutal desert knowing that this will be less expected. Sheriff Ali (Omar Sharif) doubts it will work and disapproves that Lawrence takes two young outcasts as his servants. It is later during the journey that Lawrence truly wins over the other men, including Ali, because he is relentless, even going back for a lost straggler. With some luck, Lawrence is able to gain the help of Auda Abu Tayi, but it is not without tension. Ultimately, his forces are able to take out the Turks, and Lawrence heads back to Cairo to relay his progress. However, on the way back he must struggle with the loss of a servant and the guilt of executing a man.

Lawrence is sent back to Arabia and there he leads his forces in guerrilla operations against the Turkish railroads. His exploits are documented by an American newsman, and by this point, he has become a mythical hero among his followers. However, after going to scout a town the seemingly invincible Lawrence is ultimately flogged and tortured, leaving him a broken shell of a man. He insists on leaving Arabia but his new commander, General Allenby orders him back for one final push towards Damascus.

This final mission sees a change in Lawrence, who has hired killers and missionaries to help him in his siege. Against the better judgment of Sherif Ali, Lawrence leads a massacre of Turks as they move onward. He takes Damascus, but his fragmented counsel of Arabs are unable to unite, and the city is given back to the English. Major Lawrence is promoted once more to Colonel, and then gets shipped home because his services are no longer necessary.

This is one of those films you want to see on the big screen because the scenery and cinematography is just that impressive by itself. David Lean had a skill at making epics, and this is perhaps his masterpiece. The desert is often stark and desolate, and yet striking in the same instance. The expanse of space that is viewed in a single shot is often mind-blowing. A human being on the horizon is hardly a speck, and the ever-present camels are hardly any more substantial. To complement these grand images is an equally magnificent score by Maurice Jarre, complete with overture and all. The cast must be mentioned too with such supporting stars as Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn, Alec Guinness, Claude Rains, Jack Hawkins, and Anthony Quayle.

Then, of course, there is the man who played Lawrence. As portrayed so wonderfully by Peter O’Toole, Lawrence is an intelligent and, at times, arrogant man, who can be odd, distant, audacious, and also unscrupulous. That being said, he was an extraordinary man who was a mover and a leader of men. A very unique, at times controversial, and long unheralded man, who contributed to the war effort in a far different way.  In many ways, he was an adopted brother to the Arabs, and their country was also his. He was “Lawrence of Arabia.”

5/5 Stars

Great Expectations (1946)

ad366-great_expectationsWith director David Lean, and starring John Mills as Pip, the film begins with Pip as a young boy. Upon meeting a fugitive, Pip show him kindness and the man promises he will return the favor. A year or so later Pip begins to go to the home of an eccentric, rich widow to call on her. There he meets the lady’s adopted daughter Estelle and he falls for her. Now an adult, Pip learns he has a mysterious beneficiary who is paying for him to move to London to be a Gentleman. There he interacts with Mr. Wemmick, the attorney of Mr. Jaggers, and also Herbert Pocket (Alec Guinness). Then, someone shows up on his doorstep and changes his world. Soon he is orchestrating an escape for his friend, saying goodbye to the cold Estelle, and showing his displeasure for the elderly Ms. Havisham. However, in the end he learns a happy truth and reunites with Estelle. This moody, Dickens adaption actually has an optimistic side which is a nice change.

5/5 Stars

Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

f1d1f-the_bridge_on_the_river_kwai_posterStarring Alec Guinness and William Holden with director David Lean, this is a World War II film that follows the exploits of British POWs and also Allies on a secret mission. Guinness is the proud and principled British Colonel who leads his men in a memorable entrance. With stubbornness he wages a war of wits against the Japanese camp overseer. He inspires his men and eventually reaches his goal of personally leading them in the completion of the bridge. At the same time an American soldier (Holden) attempts escape and somehow winds up alive and safe. However, all too soon he is sent right back with specialized commandos to destroy the bridge. In a chaotic and tragic finale, the British colonel puts a wrench in the plans and the implications are costly even though the objective is achieved. This is a magnificent and enjoyable film with good cinematography, interesting characters, a two-sided story, and of course whistling!

5/5 Stars