Movie Review: Summerland (2020)


TitleSummerland
Release Date: July 31, 2020
Director: Jessica Swale
Production Company: Shoebox Films | Iota Films
Summary/Review:

Alice Lamb (Gemma Arterton) is a writer who researches and publishes studies on folklore and mythology.  She is also the village curmudgeon living alone in a seaside town in Kent during World War II where the local children call her witch.  To her surprise, she is assigned a child evacuee from London, Frank (Lucas Bond), to live with her.  Hijinks ensue.

This movie has indication of trotting out the tired trope of Independent Women Must Learn To Embrace Her Maternal Side (As Fits Her Womanly Duty).  But this movie has a few twists.  Throughout the movie Alice remembers her younger days when she had a romantic relationship with a woman named Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).  Past and present intersect and both Alice and Frank have to deal with their personal traumas as they bond.  Frank also befriends a mischiveous girl named Edie (Dixie Egerickx) who is my favorite character in the movie.

There are some historically-questionable oddities about this movie.  Like, weren’t children evacuated inland rather than to a village just across the Channel from Nazi-occupied France? But if you can avoid letting little things like that from bothering you, this is a perfectly fine drama and romance film that is sweet as much as it is predictable.

Rating: **1/2

Classic Movie Review: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) #AtoZChallenge



#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter L

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my ongoing Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

Title: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
Release Date:
10 June 1943
Director:
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Production Company:
The Archers
Summary/Review:

This is a movie I’d never even heard of before I started working on lists of classic movies.  The title amuses me, partly because “blimp” is an inherently funny word, but also because in America the word refers to an airship, although I don’t that word is in use in Great Britain.  From some lazy internet research, I’ve learned that “Colonel Blimp” was a British comic strip satirizing the military elite.  There is actually no character in this movie named Blimp, although the main character, Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesy), matches the image of the rotund, walrus-moustached comic strip caricature.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp joins in the trend of Allied Powers in World War II producing epic historical dramas at the same time their countries are being bombed and/or invaded by Nazi Germany (France’s Children of Paradise and Russia’s Ivan the Terrible are previously reviewed films of this genre). This film alone actually deals with the present-day issues of World War II, beginning with a prologue about British soldiers beginning a mock war as part of training exercises.  Despite being informed that “War starts at midnight!,” the leader of the troop decides that the Nazis would never follow the rules of a start time, and decides to “invade” London and captures Major-General Candy in a Turkish bath.

The outrage of Candy’s embarrassment leads to a series of flashbacks that detail his history and ideology in the British military.  The first is set in 1902 when Candy has just returned from the Boer War and rashly travels to Berlin to counter anti-British propaganda by the Germans.  The next segment is set in the final days of The Great War and its aftermath.  The final flashback is set during the early days of World War II, where Candy is retired from the regular army based on his outdated views, but then appointed to lead the Home Guard.  Which leads back to the “present day” scenes of the prologue.

The movie has several plotlines tying everything together.  One is Candy’s long-time friendship with the German officer Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook), whom he initially meets in a duel.  Another plot deals with Candy’s relationship with three women, all played by Deborah Kerr (later to appear in An Affair to Remember): Edith Hunter, who Candy realizes he loves after she marries Theo; Barbara Wynne, a WWI nurse that Candy marries; and Johnny Cannon, Candy’s driver when he’s leading the Home Guard.  The movie also deals with the erosion of the ideas of honor and rules among the European military elite, and idea also explored in The Bridge on River Kwai’s Colonel Nicholson. There’s propaganda in this movie too, as characters flat out lie and say the British did not commit atrocities in the Boer War or World War I.

The movie starts out very strange as a series of really awkward attempts at satirical madcap comedy.  But it’s worth sticking it out as the movie deliberately uncovers the human Candy underneath the “Colonel Blimp” caricature.  The movie never loses its sense of humor, but definitely becomes less silly over time.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) #AtoZChallenge



#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter B

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my ongoing Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

Title: The Bridge on the River Kwai
Release Date: October 2, 1957
Director: David Lean
Production Company: Horizon Pictures
Summary/Review:

The Bridge on the River Kwai may be one of the first classic movies I watched and enjoyed as a child. It was either this or The African Queen.  Oddly enough, both movie have in common people traveling down a river to blow something up and leeches.  I watched Kwai numerous times in my youth and into my young adulthood, but I was returning to it after many decades.

The movie, for the most part, part holds up very well.  It has many iconic moments.  The English POWs marching into camp whistling the “Colonel Bogey March” (which I only just learned that during WWII was given parody lyrics and was sung as “Hitler Has Only Got One Ball“), English Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) standing off against the Japanese camp director Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), Nicholson staggering out of the punishment box, and the whole final sequence which I found extremely satisfying after all the build up. William Holden (who keeps appearing in these classic movies) plays the token American who escapes the camp only to return as part of team of commandos, and he represents the audience as the person who recognizes the absurdity of the situation.

When I watched this when I was younger, I took at face value, so watching it this time I really noticed how the movie is deeply satirical, with dark and absurdist humor, and an anti-war movie.  The final word of the film is “Madness!” and the entire film is an examination of madness, or perhaps more accurately, monomaniacal behavior, as exhibited by Nicholson, Saito, and commando leader Major Warden (Jack Hawkins).  What makes this movie work is that in some ways, each of these three “mad” characters does have a good point.  Saito is correct when is says that there are no rules in war.  Nicholson is right that giving the POWs a sense of purpose by building the bridge leads to better morale and health, and Warden is right that they need to destroy the bridge.  The moral quandary is how far they are willing to go to pursue these goals.  The real “madness” is the war itself, which pushes them to the edge.

Rating: ****1/2

Classic Movie Review: Casablanca (1942)


Title: Casablanca
Release Date: November 26, 1942
Director: Michael Curtiz
Production Company: Warner Bros. Pictures
Summary/Review:

I watched this as a special Valentine’s Day viewing through the Brattle Theatre’s streaming service.

I remember the first time I watched Casablanca as a teenager and realized that it really was as good as everyone said it was.  Yes, it’s a great romance, but it’s so much more than that.  Or, to put it better, it’s about love but not just the romantic love of a man and woman, but love for humanity.

Let’s explore the ways in which Casablanca is great.  First, there’s the dialogue. The movie is filled with familiar quotations and it can be a bit jarring to hear them in context.  But that demonstrates just how well the film is written.

Next, there’s the cast.  Not just Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman as the star-crossed Rick and Ilsa, but everyone.  Claude Raines as the gleefully corrupt Captain Louis Renault, Peter Lorre as the sketchy Signor Ugarte, Dooley Wilson as the pianist Sam (even though he was  drummer in real life), and S.Z. Sakall as the conscientious waiter, Carl (apologies to Paul Henreid, you did fine as the noble Victor Laszlo, you just got overshadowed). It’s notable for an American production of that time that most of the cast were born outside the United States. In fact, many minor characters and bit parts were played by actual refugees and exiles from Europe.

Which leads to my final point.  This movie was made while World War II was still going on. In fact, it was fairly early in the war, and the United States had just entered the conflict.  The Fall of Paris, depicted in the movie as a long ago memory, happened less than two years before it was recreated for the movie.  No one involved in making this knew how the war would turn out, and indications at the time pointed toward an Axis victory.  This makes the shows of defiance and sacrifice by the characters depicted in the film all the more powerful.

I’m going to finish this review with a couple of silly questions:

  • How did Rick get from Paris to Morocco and establish a large and successful cafe in less than two years?  From what we know about him, he doesn’t seem to have the experience as a restaurateur, the money to pull it off, or the time to get himself so well established in the community.
  • There must be Rick/Louis slash fiction out there.  I’m not the only one seeing this, right?

Casablanca is a deserved classic and if for some iconoclastic reasons you haven’t seen it, get over yourself and give it a viewing.

Rating: *****

Classic Movie Review: Stalag 17 (1953)


Title: Stalag 17
Release Date: July 1, 1953
Director: Billy Wilder
Production Company: Paramount Pictures
Summary/Review:

Set in the prisoner of war camp in Germany in December 1944, Stalag 17 sits somewhere between the grim realism of A Man Escaped and the goofiness of Hogan Heroes (at tv show clearly drew upon this movie for influence). The story focuses on a barracks of American prisoners where attempts at escape and the possession of a radio are foiled by the genial and seemingly incompetent guard, Sergeant Johann Sebastian Schulz (Sig Ruman). The men in the barracks suspect that one of their own is a spy, and suspicion falls on a cynical Bostonian who has succeeded in bargaining for luxuries with the Germans, J.J. Sefton (William Holden, reunited with director Billy Wilder after Sunset Boulevard).

The move successfully balances drama with comedy. A lot of screen time is given to Stanislas “Animal” Kuzawa (Robert Strauss ) and Harry Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck) whose comic antics keep the barracks loose.  At times, it feels more like a frat house than a prison camp, especially when the men leer at the Russian women prisoners in an adjacent camp. Meanwhile, Sefton works to clear his name and find the real stoolie, while all the prisoner work to defend Lieutenant James Dunbar (Don Taylor) from execution. If there’s one flaw with the movie is that the audience isn’t given any clues on who is spying for the Germans although I suppose the movie isn’t meant to be a mystery.  The movie also features a young Peter Graves, of Mission: Impossible and Airplane! fame as the barracks security chief, Frank Price.

I watched this movie multiple times when I was young, and I’m happy to say that it still holds up as an engaging film.  I didn’t know who Billy Wilder was back then, but now that I’ve seen more of his work, I can definitely say that Wilder was a versatile and talented writer and director.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: A Matter of Life and Death (1946)


Title: A Matter of Life and Death
Release Date: 15 December 1946
Director: Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
Production Company: The Archers | J. Arthur Rank
Summary/Review:

A Matter of Life and Death begins with a strikingly intimate conversation between British airman Peter Carter (David Niven), aboard a burning bomber over the English Channel, and American radio operator June (Kim Hunter). They bond in a few moments of shared humanity before Peter, who has no parachute, determines he would rather leap to his death than burn.  Then this movie gets very, very weird.

Carter survives his fall and washes up on the shores of England. He meets June who works at a nearby base and they fall in love. It turns out that Conductor 71 (Marius Goring), a French aristocrat killed in the Revolution, was supposed to guide him to the Other World but lost Peter in the fog over the Channel.  With a new leash on life and his romance with June, Peter argues that he should be given another chance at life.

A neurologist named Dr. Frank Reeves (Roger Livesey) takes on Peter’s case, in two meanings of the word. First he assumes that Peter’s visions of otherworldly people are due to brain injury.  Later he takes on the role as Peter’s counsel in an Other World trial. Perhaps the weirdest part of the trial scene is that a becomes a debate of the British versus the Americans, with American multiculturalism ultimately being celebrated.

This movie is often compared to It’s a Wonderful Life as they both deal with the trauma of World War II and contain fantasy elements of the afterlife.  But I found it reminded me of The Devil and Daniel Webster, because both movies are built around a fantasy trial sequence. This movie also clearly was an influence for the most recent Pixar film, Soul.  Both films feature an escalator to the afterlife, heavenly bureaucracy, filing cabinets full of the details of every person who ever lived, and historical figures acting as mentors to souls. I also learned that a sample from the prologue of this movie is in one of my favorite tunes from my teenage years, “If I Were John Carpenter.”

A Matter of Life and Death (also called Stairway to Heaven in its American release) stands out as a unique and experimental film for it’s time.  And even though I wasn’t aware of it before watching it for this project, it is also clear it’s an influential film.  It’s a bit on the corny side, but I expect a lot of classic film fans will enjoy it. If nothing else the opening scene between Peter and Kim over the radio is magnificent.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Reviews: To Be or Not To Be (1942)


Title: To Be or Not To Be
Release Date: February 19, 1942
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Production Company: Romaine Film Corp
Summary/Review:

On the eve of a Presidential inauguration that is under the shadow of a white supremacist insurrection us two weeks ago, it seems unfortunate that a movie that makes light of Nazis would come up next on my list. Except, once I started watching this movie I found it so compelling I let my misapprehensions go. Set in 1939, the movie depicts a theatre company in Warsaw who support the Underground by using disguises and get themselves in and out of trouble. Despite being a very funny comedy this film makes the threat of the Nazis all the more menacing.

In this earlier version Jack Benny and Carole Lombard portray the married stars of a Warsaw theatre company named Josef and Maria Tura.  A very young Robert Stack (but his distinguishing voice is recognizable) plays the Polish airman Lt. Stanislav Sobinski who inadvertently gets them caught up in a Gestapo plot. Benny is absolutely hilarious as the arrogant and hammy actor playing a part in everything he does.  Lombard, in her last role before dying in a plane crash, is equally majestic as the quick-witted Maria.

I remember seeing at least parts of the 1983 remake with Mel Brooks (and more frequently, the unfortunate “Hitler Rap” music video) as a kid, but didn’t remember much about the movie. I can see why it would appeal to Brooks though as it has some of his dark, satiric humor as well as the willingness to be seen as doing something in “bad taste.”

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)


Title: The Best Years of Our Lives
Release Date: November 21, 1946
Director: William Wyler
Production Company: Samuel Goldwyn Productions
Summary/Review:

This is a movie I remember the adults in my family often having on the tv when I was a child. But I didn’t really watch it myself until I was in my 20s. Much like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, I was gobsmacked that a movie from this era depicted people expressing nuance and frustrated opinions of post-war America in ways that might be considered “unpatriotic.” The movie is the story of three men return from serving in World War II and adjusting to the return to civilian life. But it is not a celebratory story and it offers commentary on things ranging from PTSD and physical disability to various changes in America’s economy, chains taking over local businesses, fears of another war and/or depression, empty words of “supporting the troops,” and even questioning the use of atomic weapons in Japan.

The three men at the heart of the story are:

  • Al Stephenson (Fredric March) – a banker who enlisted in the infantry at an untypically older age and only achieved the rank of sergeant. He returns to his wife Milly (Myrna Loy) and his nearly-full grown children. He is frustrated by his bank undermining his loans to veterans of good character but without collateral and turns to alcohol to deal with his problems.
  • Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) – A bombardier in the war, Fred finds himself unqualified for jobs in the competitive post-war economy, eventually ending up back at the drug store where he had worked as a drug store (now operated as part of a corporate chain). He and his wife Marie (Virginia Mayo) knew each other only briefly when they married hastily before his deployment and are now learning that they have nothing in common. Fred also finds the is falling in love with Peggy (Teresa Wright), Al and Milly’s daughter.
  • Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) – A sailor who lost both his hands in the war and now uses mechanical hook prostheses. While confident in using the prostheses he is uneasy about the pitying looks he gets from family and friends, and uncertain whether his fiancée Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) will still want to marry him. Russell was not a professional actor, but was actually a veteran who lost his hands in the war, and he puts in a phenomenal performance.

This is an all-around terrific movie with great acting, great writing, and great direction. It has a very modern feel to it and could easily be remade as movie today. In fact, a story about veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq would likely feel more alienated since there isn’t the common experience of service that there was in World War II. This remains one of my all-time favorite movies.

Rating: *****

Book Review: The Lost Girls of Paris by Pam Jenoff


Author: Pam Jenoff
Title: The Lost Girls of Paris
Narrator: Elizabeth Knowelden, Henrietta Meire, and Candace Thaxton
Publication Info: Harlequin Audio (2019)
Summary/Review:

This novel is set during the final years of World War II and immediately after the war, and tells a story inspired by the true-life experiences of women serving as agent’s in Britain’s Special Operations Executive. The novel alternates perspectives among three different protagonists. Marie is a young woman recruited as an agent who is sent to work undercover in France not long before the D-Day invasions and has to overcome her inexperience and frequent changes of circumstance. Eleanor is the severe leader of the women’s division in France, but her strictness is due to her desire to keep her agents safe both from the enemy and from the government leaders who have no faith in woman doing espionage. 

The final protagonist is Grace, a young widowed American who finds a suitcase in Grand Central Terminal and impulsively takes a dozen photographs of women who prove to be SOE agents. Grace’s growing obsession with trying to find out who the women are and return the photos where they belong doesn’t make much sense and is a drag on the book.  Marie’s story is the most thrilling as she’s actively working in France carrying out missions she wasn’t trained for and hoping to avoid capture.  But Eleanor’s story turns out to be the most profound as it deals with betrayal and personal tragedy.

The book has a better premise than execution, but it was nevertheless an entertaining read.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: A Man Escaped (1956)


Title: A Man Escaped
Release Date: 11 November 1956
Director: Robert Bresson
Production Company: Gaumont Film Company
Summary/Review:

This French drama focuses on a member of La Résistance held in a prison in Lyon by the occupying forces of Germany. The film is inspired by the true story of André Devigny who escaped Montluc prison in 1943. François Leterrier portrays Lieutenant Fontaine, a young prisoner who if fully intent on escaping. Fontaine’s contact with other prisoners is limited to washing times and tapping on the wall to a neighboring cell, so much of the film is Fontaine working within the claustrophobic confines of his cell. Leterrier does a great job, especially considering that he was not a professional actor at the time in accordance with the neorealist approach to filmmaking.

While this movie may be a bit slow for modern audiences, I still find the depiction of Fontaine’s deliberate work to come up with an escape plan and the tools he needs for escape to be mesmerizing. It’s also fascinating that several key moments, Fontaine hesitates, adding an extra layer of realism. If there’s one thing that bothers me about this movie it is an overreliance on narration, especially when Fontaine narrates the exact thing we see him doing. I also don’t know how he remains clean-shaven despite not having access to a razor, but that’s a minor quibble.

This is an excellent, compelling drama and I’m glad I had the opportunity to watch it.

Rating: ****