High Museum of Art: Films

Staff Picks: Italian Movies by hmablogmaster

It’s already the final weekend of our Leonardo da Vinci: Hand of the Genius exhibition. To honor it, Museum staff have selected their favorite Italian movies. What’s yours?

Curatorial Assistant, Decorative Arts and Design

The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly – Sergio Leone

Not only does it have one of the best musical scores ever written, this is the best of the Dollars trilogy of spaghetti westerns and upped the ante on what a “Western Movie” could be.  Not to mention it stars one of the greatest villains ever with Lee Van Cleef  (Angel Eyes – The Bad) – can anyone top that guy’s face?  The graveyard scene is one of the most memorable and palpitating in cinema… the swirling, circular camera shots perfectly express the frenzy and drama of the moment as Eli Wallach (Tuco – The Ugly) reaches the breaking point in the race for gold, as Ennio Morricone’s epic The Ecstasy of Gold builds and swells with passion.

And of course, this new era of Western Cowboy is represented by one of Clint Eastwood’s most iconic characters (Blondie – The Good… yet, WAS he all that good?).  The extreme close ups, the innovative camera angles and sweeping cinematography, and the rugged blatant “UGLY” (physical and internal) depicted throughout the movie are all traits synonymous with Sergio Leone’s distinctive vision.  Ironically filmed in Spain with an Italian crew instead of the Wild American West, the iconic filmmaking and music have gone on to inspire other well-known creative forces from Quentin Tarantino to Metallica.  Now counted as one of the best movies ever made by countless critics, this film is worth the 3 hours.

Speakers Bureau Coordinator

The Godfather Collection

The Godfather & The Godfather:  Part II – Francis Ford Coppola

I really don’t know how I can pick an “Italian-themed” film other than The Godfather series.  I know it sounds obvious, but it really is one of the greatest films of all-time.  I love these films because I feel like I really get to be a part of the Corleone family.  Two distinct scenes that always stand out in my mind is when Michael Corleone does his first “hit job” in a restaurant.  He tried so hard to not follow in his father’s footsteps, but in that moment in the restaurant, you know that his life’s trajectory is about to seriously change.  The other scene is when Diane Keaton’s character tells Michael that she terminated her pregnancy.  The tension in Michael’s face is so palpable that you are literally holding onto your seat to see just how he is about to react.  I also love going back in time in The Godfather Part II to see the genisis of the Corleone family.

As a film lover and a film major at my university, The Godfather was one of the first films that really got me to think about how you can enter the world of fictional characters and be captivated by their dysfunctional lives.  If often makes you feel a lot better about your own.

Security Officer


Suspiria – Dario Argento

Longtime Italian horror movie director Dario Argento is helping remake one of his classic Italian horror movies Suspiria. The remake is supposed to be out later this year. The 1977 Suspiria has been re-released on Blu-Ray, and it has been called the most beautiful of the Italian “Giallo” horror films. I am tempted to buy the Blu-Ray version even though I already have a copy on regular DVD.

It may be hard to understand how a horror movie could be described as beautiful. If you can stand the extreme tension and shocking violence you can see the lush production values, the strong use of color, and the very unusual soundtrack. It’s garish, loud, intentionally grating at points, and deeply disturbing. The movie belongs with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Night of the Living Dead as one of the best of the horror genre.

Speakers Bureau Intern

La Famiglia

La Famiglia – Ettore Scola

My favorite Italian film is La Famiglia, a 1987 film by Ettore Scola featured at Cannes. The entire film takes place in the patriarch’s apartment, following the stories of one Italian family, from the Belle Époque to the 1980s. The greatest value of the film is that Scola places the compelling personal narratives of love, friendship, and betrayal within the historical and political framework of the two world wars and the other great events of the twentieth century.


Web Content Coordinator

Hudson Hawk

Hudson Hawk – Michael Lehmann

Okay, so this might be sad, but how much do I love Hudson Hawk? It’s probably one of the most panned movies of all time, and won “Worst Picture,” “Worst Screenplay” and “Worst Director” Razzies in 1992.   But I’ve never been one for critical acclaim. (Director Michael Lehmann has since moved onto directing “it”-TV shows like True Blood and Big Love. Maybe he was just ahead of his time.)

The story is about an ex-con who agrees to that one last gig, which happens to involve a whole lot of Leonardo da Vinci (and an extra vile Sandra Bernhard!). It’s made of complete falsehoods, and might be offensive if you care about history, but the characters you meet (Butterfinger? Almond Joy?), the scenery and the fun heist-movie feeling make it worth your while. Well, it makes it worth my while, anyway.

Plus, it’s practically a sing-along! To keep track of the time they have left before the cops storm the joint, Danny Aiello’s Tommy Five-Tone and Bruce Willis’s Eddie Hawkins (the Hudson Hawk), sing songs of a certain length. Would you like to swing on a star? Yep, I sure would.

Arrivederci to Leonardo’s Angels by Linda Dubler

As Leonardo‘s angels prepare to take flight (the exhibition ends on February 21), here are a couple of movies to fill the radiance gap.

Wings of Desire
(Linda Dubler)

There are some movies so precious to memory that they are best left there. That’s the way I feel about Wings of Desire, which I saw in a hormone-heightened state (I was pregnant at the time) upon its release in 1988. But just because I won’t go back again doesn’t mean you shouldn’t — and if you’ve never seen Wings Of Desire, what a gift awaits you!

The film opens with an extended, lyrical reverie, in which we are privy to the watchful existence of two angels who listen in on the thoughts and dreams of Berliners as though their combined consciousnesses were a really big party line. The mood of this sequence is tender and ruefull; the angels can tap in, but can’t change whatever sorrow or obstruction they might witness. In his review of the film , Rogert Ebert nails this sequence when he writes, “it moves slowly but you don’t grow impatient, because there is no plot to speak of, and so you don’t fret that it should move to its next predictable stage. It is about being, not doing.”

As I recall, the whole movie becomes more earthbound when one of the angels, played by Bruno Ganz, falls in love with an acrobat in a faded little circus, and trades his wings for human emotions. But even then director Wim Wenders suffuses his work with gentle humor and a sublime combination of appreciation and resignation over our species’ vulnerability and love’s transcendence.

Angels in America
(Linda Dubler)

If you haven’t seen Mike Nichols’s brilliant adaptation of Tony Kushner’s  epic, multi-award winning play, add it right now to the top of your Netflix queue or make it your next selection at the video store.  A sprawling, furious, inspired epic that opens in October, 1985,  the six hour, two-part drama, in the words of Variety’s Todd McCarthy, ” retains all the immediacy of Kushner’s passionate foot-stomping about AIDS, the Reagan years, political and personal hypocrisy, compassion, the Mormons, spirituality and so much more.”

If it now seems like a period piece, it still carries an enormous emotional charge, thanks to the prodigious acting by a cast that includes Al Pacino (and not a scene-hogging, grandstanding Al Pacino either), Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson, Jeffrey Wright, and Mary-Louise Parker among others.  Make sure you clear your calendar because once you start watching you won’t be able to turn away from the screen.

(Eleanor Ringel Cater)

Legion s an agreeably cheesy celestial smack-down currently in movie theaters (for now!) Paul Bettany (best known as Russell Crowe’s’s doctor pal in Master and Commander and soon to be seen as Charles Darwin in Creation stars as Michael, a now-fallen angel trying to keep a disgruntled God from having His latest command carried out. Namely, to destroy Mankind!

Michael ends up watching over what may be the new Messiah; that is,  defending a pregnant woman and various, um, characters at a remote diner. A lot of it is along the lines of, “This Time, It’s Personal!!!,” but as I said, sometimes that’s what you’re in the mood for: Wrestlemania with wings — and guns.  At its best it recalls the cult classic Tremors.

(Eleanor Ringel Cater)

You couldn’t really call Michael a winged victory, but it’s enjoyable nonetheless. It’s only when Nora Ephron let’s her fantasy-romance get predictable (and a tad soggy) that the movie errs. But for the most part it holds up just fine.

John Travolta in Michael

Michael, the angel John Travolta plays in the movie, isn’t exactly the type who makes little bells tinkle (a la It’s a Wonderful Life.) Less heavenly host than slovenly guest, he’s a beer-swilling chain-smoker with a middle-age gut and two-day beard. Michael first appears to an addled Iowa motel owner (perfectly played by Jean Stapleton, who proved on All in the Family she does addled as well as anyone in the business). But the real miracle-working Michael intends involves a couple of tabloid journalists (Andie McDowell and William Hurt) dispatched by their egomaniacal boss (Bob Hoskins) to cook up a good story. Imagine their surprise when Michael turns out to be the real thing.
It’s an odd little picture, the sort that confounds expectations. Just when you’ve given up on it, it takes a turn for the better (and, alas, vice versa). Still, who could completely resist a movie that ends with Vinnie Barbarino and Edith Bunker dancing together in the streets of Chicago?
John Travolta in Michael

Is there a genius in the house? by Linda Dubler

Some artists ––– oh, say, Leonardo Da Vinci —— are known for their discipline and concentration. Consider the number of sketches he made for a horse statue that was never completed. Others, however, have taken the tack that to be an artist or an intellectual, you must somehow be undisciplined, clueless, and/or completely self-absorbed. THOSE are the kind Hollywood likes. After you’ve been awed by Leonardo at the High’s Hand of the Genius exhibition at our 12-hour artfest Go All Night, why not visit with some of his lesser brethren?

Eleanor Ringel Cater’s picks:

Barton Fink

Barton Fink

Barton Fink (1991)

Leave it to the brothers Coen to come up with something as hilariously berserk and mind-teasingly perverse as this surreal black comedy about (of all things) writer’s block. A High-minded New York playwright, Barton Fink (John Turturro) is lured to 1941 Hollywood to give “that Barton Fink feeling” to a Wallace Beery wrestling movie. On one level, the film is about Fink’s Day-of-the-Locust encounters with moguls, producers and washed-up self-loathing Southern writers who’ve sold out to the flicks. But then there’s also the Earle, the hotel where Barton is holed up to write his masterpiece. A hotel worthy of The Shining, it’s also home to genial traveling salesman, John Goodman, who’s got stories to tell. LOTS of ‘em. The picture is a brainy goof, fleshed out by the brilliant performances, the rich production design and the Coen’s ever-clever camera. It’s as bleakly funny and tantalizingly obtuse as a Beckett on-act. I’ll give you the life of the mind…..

Naked Lunch (1991)

It will eat you alive if you’re not well-versed in the coded cool of Beat junkie icon, William S. Burroughs, or the insect-infected visions of director David Cronenberg (The Fly). And even if you are, this mercilessly exacting black comedy will leave its teeth marks on you.

Part biography, part literary adaptation, the film is less a literal rendering of the writer’s scandalous 1959 novel than a jazz-riff interpretation. Turning down the role of Robocop 3 (!), Peter Weller is the Burroughs surrogate who travels from 1953 New York to the Interzone — a kind of surreal Tangiers of the mind, populated by sweaty addicts, decadent ex-patriots and typewriters that mutate into giant talking bugs. However, those less than enthralled with Burroughs’ masturbatory self-infatuation may find this daring demanding picture something of a Pyrrhic victory. That is, more worthily done, perhaps, than worth doing.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)

Too much is never enough for fabled gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson and director Terry Gilliam. You could almost say they are a match made in excess heaven (or hell). This is Hollywood’s second attempt to translate Thompson’s 1971 book about his drug-drenched trip to Vegas, the first being the rather abysmal Where the Buffalo Roam, starring a game Bill Murray.

Here, it’s the ever-unpredictable Johnny Depp who takes on the role of Raoul Duke (Thompson’s alter-ego) and a chunked-up pre-Oscar Benicio Del Toro plays Dr. Gonzo, Duke’s lawyer/companion-in-chaos. The assignment — as if it matters — is a dirt-bike race. Their true quest is to ingest every kind of “uppers, downers, screamers, laughers” they can find. Plus several oceans of booze. However, like most drug experiences, the film has a downside, too. Barely making it out of Vegas alive the first time, they’re dragged back in (like Pacino in Godfather III) for another round of the same thing.

Still, Depp is astonishing, Joe Coker by way of John Belushi and pure pandemonium on the prowl. The movie isn’t exactly a success, but it’s the most glorious kind of failure: Imaginative, uncompromising and true to itself. A tip: if hearing Debbie Reynolds tell a Vegas crowd, “Let’s rock and roll!” doesn’t crack you up, you don’t want any part of this movie. Not even the good parts.

Linda Dubler’s picks:

A Bucket of Blood

A Bucket of Blood

A Bucket of Blood (1959)

With its lurid title and down at the heels production values, A Bucket of Blood is a sterling example of legendary B-movie producer/director Roger Corman’s talent for entertaining, inspired schlock. The film’s central character, Walter Paisley (Dick Miller), is a bus boy at a beatnik coffee house who is so inept he makes Maynard G. Krebs look like Jackson Pollock.

Poor, talentless Walter longs for the limelight, so when his landlady’s cat dies accidentally, he covers the stiff feline in plaster, a la George Segal, and presents the critter as a work of art. The hipsters are wowed, and soon the would-be-genius is trolling for additional bodies to receive the Paisley treatment. The lively script was written by Charles Griffith, screenwriter for The Little Shop of Horrors. Corman mentored Scorsese, Coppola, and Jonathan Demme among others, so even if you’re not a B-movie fan, consider taking a look.

Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

The grass is always greener – even for those who’ve successfully made it to the other side. Such is the case for Sullivan, a sought-after Hollywood director known for hits like Ants in Your Pants of 1939. Yearning for the gravity and respect that genius endows, this would be Steinbeck declares he’s finished with fluff and ready to undertake his masterpiece, a gritty, relevant opus called Oh Brother Where Art Thou? But before he can write about the common man, it would help to meet a few.

Sullivan and his fetching, hold-the-hooey secretary (Veronica Lake, famous for her peek-a-boo wave) take to the road in a luxuriously appointed Airstream in search of America. Preston Sturges, a treasure of American cinema and the writer/director behind The Palm Beach Story and The Lady Eve, mixes comedy with melodrama in this delicious satire of self-importance and fame.

The Lady Eve (1941) , Ball of Fire (1941) , and Bringing Up Baby (1938)

The movies are full of evil geniuses (Dr. Frankenstein and his many peers), troubled geniuses (viz. any standard issue artist bio pic, from Lust for Life to Basquiat), even idiotic geniuses (e.g. Austin Powers), but my favorite variety are the clueless intellectuals, beloved by the makes of classic screwball comedies. Invariably men, these champions of book learnin’ are short on smarts and easy marks for women who either thing or two about the world, or are so ditzy they defy comprehension.

In The Lady Eve, Henry Fonda is a herpetologist (a snake specialist to be precise) who makes an appetizing victim for slithery card-sharp Barbara Stanwyck. Stanwyck shows up again in Ball of Fire as Sugarpuss O’Shea, a nightclub singer who knows her way around a colloquialism, who ends up hiding out in a house full of lexographers, among them sexy language specialist Prof. Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper). And in what’s probably my favorite American comedy, Katherine Hepburn is as untamed as the titular leopard Baby, driving poor paleontologist Cary Grant around the bend and into her waiting arms. After a lousy day or a lousy week, any one of these gems will help to chase away the blues.

On Our High Horse by eleanor33

A horse is a horse.

Of course.

But a horse isn’t just a horse once you’ve glimpsed the immense sculpture that’s lately taken up residence smack in the middle of the Woodruff Arts Center’s Sifly Piazza.

A “re-imagining”, as they say in Hollywood, of a statue Leonardo Da Vinci planned but never completed to honor Francesco Sforza, the Duke of Milan, the stallion prances and preens, as if he knew his A-list heritage. Da Vinci worked 17 years on the piece, making numerous small sketches analyzing equine anatomy (apparently, he didn’t have a horse of his own, though Michelangelo did). It’s believed the animal was meant to be an Andalusian, a horse  with a notably thick arched neck because that was the breed favored by his patron.

Passing by it every day has put me in a horse-y frame of mind. Here are some movie suggestions to help your own inner equine soar.

Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron

Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron

Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron

In this animated feature (part hand-drawn, part CGI),  a spirited wild mustang finds friends and foes –and love — on the wide prairies of the Old West. Unlike  many other animated  characters, from Lady and the Tramp to Bambi,  these animals don’t talk. Rather, Matt Damon provides a folksy narration that’s reminiscent of  The Vanishing Prairie.  The animation is quite wonderful, including an out-of-control train hauling logs that’s as breathless as anything in an Indiana Jones movie. And it’s blessedly free of Shrek-ian jokiness and double entendres. If anyone asks, the model for Spirit was a three-year-old Kiger stallion named Donner.

White Mane

White Mane

White Mane

Recently given a brief theatrical run as a companion piece to another unforgettable French short,  The Red Balloon, this lesser-known live-action film from the same director,  Albert  Lamorisse offers its own enchantments. Filmed in 1953 in the Camargue, it is a more rigorous movie than The Red Balloon, and considerably darker. A fisherman’s young son befriends a wild white stallion and tries to protect him from hunters. But as in Into the West, wild white stallions don’t come without risks.

The Man From Snowy River

Except for the occasional “mate” and mustangs called “brumbies,” you’d hardly  know this endearingly straightforward and unabashedly old-fashioned western was made in the ’80s in Australia instead of the ’30s in Hollywood. The name star is Kirk Douglas, double-cast as two feuding brothers (one bearded and one-legged; the other beardless and 2-legged). But the movie is really about an orphan’s coming-of-age in the Outback in the late 1800s. It’s a handsome movie with lots of fresh air atmosphere and a veritable tumult of horses streaming by the camera like a subway train with no brakes. Again and again. When was the last time you saw a movie in which a stallion actually reared on a cliff?  Spin and Marty couldn’t do it better.

Black Beauty

Black Beauty

Black Beauty

A true beauty. This classy adaptation of Anna Sewell’s 1877 novel is a delight for animal lovers of all ages. An equine-eye view of a horse’s life in Victorian England, the movie follows Beauty from idyllic run-wild-run-free foalhood through a series of owners good, bad and indifferent. Some, like the poor but good-hearted cabbie played by Harry Potter’s David Thewlis, treat animals with kindness and respect. Others, like the spoiled society matron played by Eleanor Bron, willingly break the animal’s back, neck and spirit in the name of fashion. Screenwriter Caroline Thompson (everything from Edward Scissorhands to The Secret Garden) doubles as director, capturing both the period flavor and the non-human perspective of the book. And while horses may be less central to our lives these days, there’s a timelessness about Beauty’s story—along with the expected enchantment of horses running through a meadow. Parental guidance: some scenes of animal mistreatment may disturb the very young.

The Black Stallion

Like nothing you’ve ever seen and better than almost anything you have. This is a stunning movie whose unique appeal is rooted in the pure visual power of film itself. The plot: a boy (Kelly Reno) and a savage stallion survive a shipwreck, establish a mystical bond on an island paradise and return home to win the Big Race. However, a plot summary says nothing of the adventure and romance, the poetry and mystery which are what the movie is really about. A film to cherish. And see again.

Into the West

Imagine The Black Stallion with a mystic Celtic lilt and you’ll have some idea of the tone of this wondrous film. Directed by Mike Newell (Enchanted April) and written by Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot), the movie is about two young brothers who flee the appalling squalor of their Dublin tenement  and ride west on the back of a magical white horse. In pursuit are their dad, Gabriel Byrne, a sodden, embittered widower who’s forsaken his traveler’s roots; a gypsy tracker (Ellen Barkin) who cares for Byrne and his boys; a greedy businessman who wants the horse as a show jumper; and half the country’s police force. Superbly balanced between gritty realism and fantastical lyricism, the movie is both poignant and unexpectedly funny. And, as anyone who knows the legend of  the Kelpie, a bit chilling  This is NOT a kids-only picture. Treat yourself.

Eleanor Ringel Cater