Lights, cameras, the world: movies that take us places
This evocative 1985 award-winning film, shot on location near the Ngong Hills outside Nairobi, presented Kenya in such beautiful, lush detail that even today travelers seek to revisit its most memorable moments. The grandeur of the landscape, the graciousness and beauty of the people (descendants of the Kikuyu tribe), the magnificence and power of the herds of wildlife crossing the savannah, are lovingly revealed by cinematographer David Watkin’s stunning, slow-moving photography. The scenery is so vivid and compelling that Africa itself becomes a character. Adapted from Karen Blixen’s classic book, the romantic drama told the story of Blixen’s life in colonial Kenya. Meryl Streep played the leading role, and Robert Redford played Denys Finch-Hatton, her lover. It is a story not only of Blixen’s love for the fiercely-independent Finch-Hatton but also of her love for Africa. The box office hit won seven Academy Awards and lured travelers worldwide to the land that Blixen loved.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright
Despite a frame that begins and ends the movie on Coney Island in Brooklyn, N.Y., this 2002 bilingual romantic thriller about a hitman falling in love with tango brings the gray streets and sexually charged dance halls of Buenos Aires vividly to life. In fact, it “gets” Buenos Aires in all its glorious details, from the elementary schoolchildren clad in uniforms that look like miniature lab coats to the dog walkers trotting along behind a veritable herd of canines. Almost nothing ever takes place at street level. The hitman, played by Robert Duvall (who also directed), is always climbing to the upper floors of buildings to get an overview, or plunging down stairs to a subterranean dance club where he seeks to make the city’s obsession with tango his own. And that’s where the soundtrack gets Buenos Aires right as well, as passion and control vie with each other in the taut, simmering rhythms of tango. Piercing single high triplets played on an accordion resound from every street corner, and to see a couple break into spontaneous dance is not unusual. With its long, slow conversations and its sudden spasms of action, “Assassination Tango” has the Buenos Aires beat down pat.
“MIDNIGHT IN PARIS”
From the opening montage of famous landmarks to the closing scene on a rain-slicked bridge over the Seine, “Midnight in Paris” (2011) is director Woody Allen’s love letter to the City of Light. The story follows Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), an American screenwriter who yearns to be a novelist, on a visit to the city with his fiancée and her clueless parents. At midnight, Gil becomes a time traveler, transported to a cafe where he meets the literary and artistic legends of the 1920s — Ernest Hemingway, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Cole Porter, Pablo Picasso — along with charming Adriana (Marion Cotillard). It’s Paris that has brought these luminaries together, and viewers are treated to scenes of the Eiffel Tower, Sacre Coeur, Moulin Rouge, Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame, the Louvre, and Bateaux-Mouches plying the river. As the scenes move from day to evening, see the same monuments ablaze with light. Landscapes, too, are familiar — manicured parks, cobblestoned streets, sidewalk cafes. (And perhaps nothing says Paris like the little, yippy dog at the table in an elegant restaurant.) At one point Adriana says to Gil: “I can never decide whether Paris is more beautiful by day or by night.” A tough call indeed.
“THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY”
Almost its own 138-minute Perillo tour of Italy, this 1999 film presents a tale of desire and false identity. Moving restlessly from symbolic place to place, it evokes the elegant curling seafront of the Italian Riviera in San Remo, steeps the characters in the grandiose, crowded bustle of Rome near the Piazza della Repubblica, and takes the solid ground from beneath their feet in the foreboding churches and formal plazas of Venice. But director Anthony Minghella truly excels in capturing the essence of heat-drenched summer on the Bay of Naples. In the first extended scenes of the movie on the fictional island of “Mongibello” (filmed on Ischia and Procida), heat almost rises in wavering lines off golden bodies stretched out on the beach. The ocean gleams back with blinding glare as the intense sun hammers down on the shallow chop. The ocean’s salt spray and the clanging sun have weathered the village buildings to chalky pastels, yet even they seem suspended in an amber glow of summer heat. Minghella punctures the measured pace of indolence with the sudden buzzing rasp and putter of motor scooters screaming down the mountain and bursting from narrow alleys with reckless abandon.
“WHEN HARRY MET SALLY”
At Katz’s Delicatessen on New York’s Lower East Side, you can order hot pastrami on rye, matzo ball soup, or “what she’s having.” When Meg Ryan showed Billy Crystal the difference between a fake orgasm and a poorly digested knish over lunch here, the classic deli went down in romantic-comedy history. Perhaps no other movie, outside of Woody Allen’s canon, captures vintage New York as vividly as the 1989 “When Harry Met Sally.” Though it begins in Chicago, the movie hits its stride when Sally’s yellow Subaru pulls up in front of Washington Square Park. As Harry disappears into the Greenwich Village sunset, the Twin Towers loom in the background like a postcard from a bygone era. Today this square is a lively mix of street performers and New York University students filming their own flicks. The movie mines the quirks of the male-female dynamic, while Manhattan nudges into each scene like a come-hither lover. From a sumptuous Central Park in fall to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to the beloved Shakespeare & Co. Booksellers, the city of 8 million people becomes a warm and friendly place. Sweeping Upper West Side exteriors and enviable interiors make you want to hop the next train to Grand Central, grab a hot dog, and search SoHo for red suede pumps.
This R-rated film noir from 1981 has much to recommend it, including William Hurt when he still had hair, a scene-stealing Ted Danson (with black hair, prepster glasses, and cool dance moves), a vampish Kathleen Turner, and a baby-faced Mickey Rourke. What it has, mostly, is heat, and we’re not talking about the steamy stuff between Hurt and Turner, although that is plenty hot, too. Set during a heat wave in a fictional South Florida town (and filmed on location in Lake Worth, near Palm Beach), this movie is sweatier than Kevin Garnett in the fourth quarter. Hurt’s shirt is drenched, Turner’s white linen frocks are unbuttoned down to there, ceiling fans whir, and the local police detective, played by J.A. Preston, sums up the collective spirit: “When it gets hot, people kill each other. It’s a crisis atmosphere. Pretty soon people don’t think the old rules are in effect.” Indeed. Night scenes drip with humidity, punctuated by a cacophony of chirping crickets and clattering wind chimes that promise relief but don’t deliver. Shots of beach boardwalks, boat houses, tropical landscaping, and swaying palms deliver the look of sultry South Florida, but mostly, you will feel the heat sizzle from the screen as you watch. Keep the iced tea handy.
Some of the most compelling films of the last 15 years have grounded their hard-boiled stories in Boston’s blue-collar Irish-American neighborhoods, notably “Mystic River,” “The Departed,” and “Gone Baby Gone.” For me, the most haunting — and the most evocative of place — is Ted Demme’s “Monument Ave.” Filmed in Charlestown, the 1998 movie revolves around car thief Bobby O’Grady (Denis Leary). Bobby works for Jackie, the ’hood’s chief gangster (Colm Meaney), and sleeps with Jackie’s squeeze, the alcoholic Katy (Famke Janssen). After one of Jackie’s henchmen kills a coked-up snitch in a bar — Billy Crudup, in a jittery riff that sends sparks up the movie’s spine — the local detective (Martin Sheen) confronts the witnesses, who all claim they were in the bathroom. And so the code of silence moves to the center of the film, which proceeds to bare the price of these lies of omission. “All these mothers, all they’ve been through, all their sons — gone,” Bobby’s mum (Marilyn Murphy Meardon) reproaches him at Teddy’s wake. “You’d better believe I’d say something.” “Monument Ave.” visually captures the character of place, but its gritty authenticity comes from the characters, who make their place into a prison.
was filmed in West Berlin in 1987, two years before the fall of the wall. Though in many ways it is a time capsule of a divided city, the iconic images and poetry evoked by writer and director Wim Wenders can still be seen and felt. It tells the story of Damiel, an angel who falls in love with a trapeze artist and longs to become human. When seen from the point of view of angels, the movie is shot in black and white. When Damiel transitions to a mortal life, his world — and the film — changes to color. Walking through the city today, one can re-create many scenes from the movie: view the gold-winged Roman goddess atop the Victory Column, spot the tall Fernsehturm (TV tower), order currywurst from a food truck, ride the U-Bahn trains, touch graffiti-covered standing portions of the wall, stroll streets crowded with cafes and people, and cross iron bridges spanning rivers and canals. Yet the connection between film and city is less about physical sights and more about questions of history, time, love, memory, and a longing for connection.
“VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA”
We were immediately immersed in the sun-drenched, wine-splashed Spanish setting, following girlfriends on a summer holiday in Barcelona. The 2008 movie, written and directed by Woody Allen, features two American women who become involved with a free-thinking, seductive Spanish artist. It’s been called a meditation on love, a complicated, messy story of lust and love triangles. We shadowed Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlet Johansson) through the colorful and chaotic streets of the city, captivated by Barcelona’s visual beauty, its art and architecture, and its seductive, jangling energy. We visited Güell Park and its lizard-shaped fountain, stood in the shadows of the Antoni Gaudí-designed Sagrada Familia Cathedral, and strolled lively Las Ramblas. So provocative is cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe’s filming, that the journey became ours. It’s no wonder that Barcelona contributed money to the making of the movie, calling it a love letter to the city. Watch this film and you’ll want to jump on a plane to Spain.
“THE EDGE OF HEAVEN”
This 2007 film takes place in Germany and Turkey, but glimpses of Istanbul are what draw me back to it. Written and directed by German-born Fatih Akin, this is not a romantic portrait; there are no sweeping shots of the Golden Horn, Blue Mosque, or the Bosphorus Bridge linking Europe to Asia. Instead, the movie reveals the everyday and sometimes gritty side of life in a city with 13 million residents. I imagine walking the warren of streets with four- and five-story apartment houses, smelling kofte wafting from restaurants where men sit outside smoking and playing cards, hearing the call to prayer broadcast from mosques, and hopping the ferry to the neighborhood of Kadikoy. (However, I don’t imagine myself running from the police or incarcerated in the women’s prison.) The film is ultimately about relationships between mothers and daughters, a father and son, lovers and friends, and how identities split between two countries can both wound and heal.
Moviegoers hitch a ride with Roy (Woody Harrelson) and Jessie (Emily Mortimer) on their ill-fated rail journey through the “wild, wild East” in this 2008 film. It recounts the misadventures of the hapless American couple who travel aboard the Trans-Mongolian and Trans-Siberian railways on the epic 5,000-mile trip from Beijing to Moscow. The storied Trans-Siberian railway retraces the ancient caravan route between China and Russia, and director Brad Anderson uses Jessie’s camera lens to frame majestic views of Siberia’s snow-crowned fir and birch woods. The vastness and solitude of the enigmatic wilderness appear almost as palpable as the rhythmic clatter and lurching of the vintage passenger coaches. The movie pulses with realistic scenes of vodka-laced singing in the dining car, strange encounters with furtive passengers in dimly lighted hallways, and incomprehensible tirades by beefy Russian train attendants. During stops at remote villages, the camera pans babushkas (grandmothers) selling boiled potatoes and piroshki (meat-filled pastries) from baby buggies on the railroad platform.
“FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF”
While the silver screen can whisk us away to exotic locales, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” reminds us that life’s most exciting adventures often await right down the road — particularly if there’s a little hooky involved. In the 1986 comedy, Ferris (Matthew Broderick) and his two friends cut class at their suburban Chicago high school for an impromptu field trip to the big city. Director John Hughes, a Windy City native, leads us on a whirlwind romp of his hometown, from the frenzy of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange to the serenity of the Art Institute of Chicago, where we’re given a virtual tour of the works of masters such as Picasso, Hopper, and Matisse that’s worthy of a PBS travelogue. Ferris and his friends see Chicago from top — the observation deck of the Sears Tower (then) — to bottom — the raucous German-American Von Steuben Parade through the city streets. And what would a “sick day” in Chicago be without soaking in the sunshine and catching the Cubs at Wrigley Field? Ferris is a muse reminding us that it’s not the distance of the trip that makes travel so enriching, but the break it offers from the monotony of daily life.
In England’s Lake District, Beatrix Potter is as well known for her conservation efforts as for “The Tale of Peter Rabbit.” The 2006 biopic “Miss Potter,” starring Renée Zellweger, was filmed in part in the Lake District, where the children’s book author spent summer vacations as a child and where she later settled to write and illustrate stories featuring an assortment of quirky but appealing animals. The landscape of this rural region in northwest England is striking — impossibly green fields; high, glassy lakes ringed by mist-shrouded mountains; old stone farmhouses surrounded by colorful gardens. Lake Windermere, in the heart of Lake District National Park, is the country’s largest lake. Today you can visit Potter’s Hill Top Farm in Coniston, a modest two-story, 17th-century cottage with beamed ceilings, stone floors, and original furniture. In her later years, the author bought up all the land she could in the Lake District to protect it from development. When she died at 77 in 1943, she left 4,000 acres to the National Trust.