Queen Christina

Starring Greta Garbo, Queen Christina shows a woman who became the leader of Sweden as a child when her father died, lead like a man. Garbo captivates. I don’t think I’d seen her in a movie, just in photos. My, was she compelling. Her magnetism keeps all eyes on her. This strong, passionate queen had no qualms about leadership. Her problem is the nagging requests for her to marry the King of Spain.

In the beginning of the film she had no desire to marry. When she gets fed up with the wheedling to coax her into the King of Spain’s arms, she bolts from the court. Dressed as a man, followed by her mentor, she encounters the Spanish envoy whose carriage falls into a rut. She teases and mocks him and his retinue. When she overhears the envoy’s plan to take a room at a nearby inn, she beats him to it and takes the last room for miles. Incognito, the queen teases the envoy when he arrives at the inn. Yet he gets the last laugh when the innkeeper, who’s swayed by the envoy’s higher offer, convinces the disguised queen to share the room with the envoy.

It isn’t long before the queen’s gender is revealed to the envoy and before you know it, they’re madly in love. Of course that presents problems because 1) the envoy’s mission is to convey his King’s proposal to Queen Christina and 2) he’s bound to discover his love’s true identity.

Garbo gives a strong performance and the story offers a surprise ending. The costuming was elegant and arresting. I’ve got to see more of Garbo’s films. You should too.

Note: There was a Queen Christina, who ruled Sweden in the 17th century, but I can’t find any evidence that this film isn’t more than conjecture.

Wings of Desire (1987)

Wim Wenders fascinated me with his Wings of Desire. This story of and angel, who wants to become human to experience human life is light on plot and on desire. Middle aged angel, Damiel slowly moves through Berlin, observing humans with compassion. At times he and his angel friend Cassiel do console or guard a frail human, but it’s with a light touch. Sometimes they succeed, but not always.

The film’s plot line is lax and the tone mellow. There’s no Hollywood hero with a high-level desire who speeds through the story facing obstacles till he wins in the end. Here a pensive angel wonders about humanity. A female trapeze artist catches his eye. He’d like to meet her, to woo her, but he lives in a different realm and faces few personal obstacles. Aristotle would have tightened things up, for sure.

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The film, which was produced without a script, captures all manner of emotions and small experiences. It delights with beautiful images and no over-the-top special effects. The effects are made as they would be in the 1920s with the camera used to its utmost. We’re won over with simplicity and that was a joy.

The angels could change at will and it wasn’t hard to do so. Peter Falk plays an actor whom Dameil meets now and then. It turns out Falk’s character is a former angel so he mentors Damiel a bit. Again everything’s done with a light touch and Wings of Desire is as much an homage to old Berlin as it is a story of an angel.

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I watched while listening to Wim Wenders’ commentary which included some discussion with Peter Falk. Wenders talks at length about how he can’t film with a script and how he prefers the uncertainty of taking an idea and creating the story day by day. I can’t imagine a studio today to allow such a thing. Also Wenders commented on sights featured in the film and how they’ve disappeared or changed. His love for Berlin was deep and lasting.

I could see people who expect the usual obstacles and the usual ending to a romance to be disappointed, but I was willing to take in the gorgeous images and see where the film would go. So few films meander as much that I felt I could indulge Wenders.

 

Henry V

For my Great Books Book Club, I read and watched Shakespeare’s Henry V. I saw the 1989 film directed by Kenneth Branagh, who also adapted the play and starred in it.

Filled with intrigue, camaraderie, betrayal, battles and even wooing, Henry V is compelling. The best speech is this “We few, we happy few” band of brothers speech. It’s right at the climax of the film as the Brits are about to battle the French who far outnumber them. Like many speeches in Shakespeare it’s stirring and wise.

I did fast-forward through much of the battle scenes because they were authentically brutal, but at the same time true to life. While the film doesn’t contain every line from the play, it’s a faithful version and still packs a wallop and ends with a cute flirtation between Henry and the French princess. The end does have a very different tone than the main part of the film. Is that an error?

If so, I’ll forgive it because it gave another facet of Hennry’s personality.

Summertime

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I was surprised that Katerine Hepburn could bore me. In Davide Lean’s Summertime (1955) she did. Hepburn plays Jane, an American secretary on her dream vacation in Venice. She’s dreamed of this trip for years and has a lot of energy and high expectations. Soon Jane’s pouting because her trip isn’t as idyllic as she hoped. She doesn’t have any horrible mishaps like getting robbed or sick so to me she just needed to look for some alternatives. Maybe she should go out for a day with the American couple who seemed a bit corny, maybe she should go to a different city or get a tour guide over the age of 10 instead of the urchin who looked about 6, had no shoes, spoke English better than a lot of Italian university students and who spoked cigarettes, which Jane gave him. (That was something you wouldn’t see today. Jane didn’t spoke on screen ever, but had a pack and bargained with this ragamuffin for.)

Jane does bump into an handsome Italian, Renato in the Saint Marco’s Square and the next day happens to go into Renato’s shop. There’s clearly some attraction, but Jane’s awfully standoffish despite her severe loneliness which makes it impossible to enjoy Italy.

About half of the film consists of Jane moping, which made it drag. Eventually, Renato pursues Jane, who soon discovers he’s married. At that revelation, Jane wants to end things, but she’s so lonely.

Ugh!

Jane had built this trip up in her mind so much that it was destined to disappoint. When she talks of home, it’s not as though she hates it. We’re not sure why she never married. She does mention going to a real ball as teen so she’s had opportunities for romance apparently.

Renato continues to pursue her and responds with pat answers to questions about his wife and children. Jane could do better. I hoped she’d end things with Renato.

All in all, I found the film dull despite Hepburn’s ability to be clever and energetic.

The Upturned Glass (1947)

Part of a DVD set with three great British thrillers, The Upturned Glass stars James Mason as an ultra serious neurosurgeon who tells a college class about a case of a sane man murdering in cold blood. We soon figure out that Mason’s Dr. Michael Young is the “sane” murderer he believes exists. Dr. Michael Young meets Emma Wright whose daughter has a condition that will lead to blindness unless this talented surgeon can operate right away. As the case progresses and the girl improves, Michael and Emma grow close. Both have spouses far away and they continue seeing each other after the girl’s treatment ends. Of course, they fall in love.

So why the need for murder?

Emma is found dead and Michael attends the inquest. He can’t believe it’s an accident. He notices some strange glances between Emma’s daughter and her jealous, greedy sister-in-law, who learns that Emma has cheated on her brother. The two were never close and this was the sister-in-law’s reason to get even.

This superstar surgeon is soon taking matters into his own hands.

The film had lots of unpredictable turns and kept my attention from the first scene. Hitchcock drew upon it for some of his later films. It’s sure to entertain.

The Children are Watching

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Be careful of your heart. De Sica’s The Children are Watching Us (1944) will tear it apart. We see a family breaking apart through a 4 year old boy’s eyes. His mother breaks a date to take her son to the movies in favor of taking him to a park where she meets her lover. The paramour has a new job far from Rome and she can’t resist his begging her to come. Pricò, the boy senses something’s wrong. When mama’s gone both father and son are devastated and shamed by the neighborhood gossips.

Pricò is passed to a cruel grandma and careless aunt. The boy’s soon ill and mama returns. The father is distant but on the whole forgiving. He decides the best thing for the family is a summer seaside vacation, though mama hesitates. Although the mother doesn’t like the other vacationers, she’s willing to stick out the vacation. She does want to be a good mom. Yet when the father must return to work, mama’s brazen lover turns up at the resort and mama’s not strong enough to resist his charms. Pricò sees what’s going to happen and runs away almost getting himself killed by a train.

Throughout Pricò tries to be stoic and tries to protect his father and mother to no avail. It’s powerful to see the boy’s hurt and how little he understands about his parents, though he does understand his family’s fragility. The young actor’s performance is heart-breaking. The Children are Watching is a moving film that will stick with you.

An interesting note: though the film shows the harm that infidelity causes a family, De Sica began an affair with actress, María Mercader. Ah, human frailty!

Remorques

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Remorques (1941) stars Jean Gabin as André, a tugboat captain, married to the lovely, devoted Yvonne (Madeleine Renaud). As the film opens André and Yvonne appear to be the perfect couple. Everyone at a wedding for one of André’s crew members, looks to Yvonne and André, who’ve been married 10 years as the perfect couple. I sure did. They are loving, practical and truly care about each other deeply.

When the Cyclone, André’s boat is called to rescue a ship caught in a wild storm, Yvonne offers to console the bride whose honeymoon must be postponed and whose husband faces peril with his comrades. Yvonne shares how distraught she gets anytime her husband goes to sea and how lonely she is. Yvonne’s built her life around her marriage, while André’s first priority is his boat and its mission with his wife coming in a close second.

As the waves and storm attack the boats, the scenes of the storm thrill.

The rescue is daunting enough, but the greedy captain of the endangered ship doesn’t want to be rescued. If his boat is saved, he’ll have to pay the tugboat for doing so. He’d rather lose all his crew and cargo and collect the insurance. Now that’s a villain.

Disgusted by the evil captain, his wife Catherine (Michele Morgan) and some crew members escape in a raft and the tugboat takes them aboard. Of course, Catherine is stunning. She’s decided to leave her nasty husband.

You can probably guess what happens. Yep, Catherine tempts the faithful André. The film gets sentimental and predictable but Gabin, Renaurd and Morgan’s performances make Remorque compelling. It’s not a masterpiece, but it held my interest.