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Six sizzling summertime movies

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With the relentless summer heat descending upon us, sometimes it's best to head inside for a bit. So take a tiny break from the sun, and enjoy summer vicariously through these six excellent summertime movies about race, class, and family.

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Title: Tokyo Story (Japan, 1953)

Plot: On the face of it, Tokyo Story follows a simple narrative. In the heat of summer, an elderly Japanese couple make a trip to Tokyo to visit their adult children and families. However, their kids lead such busy lives and they don’t have time for their parents, whose presence is burdensome. In fact, the only one happy to see them is their widowed daughter-in-law, Noriko (Setsuka Hara). From this premise, filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu weaves together one of cinema’s greatest tragedies of apathy and regret.

Historical context: After Late Spring and Early Summer, Tokyo Story completes Ozu’s “Noriko trilogy,” named so because each entry features Setsuko Hara as a different character named Noriko. These films came at a key transitional period in Japanese history, as the country began to rebuild following the devastation of WWII and the reality of American military occupation. In Ozu’s films of this period, the universal drama of families coming together and breaking apart is told against the backdrop of a rapidly changing Japan as it sought to find a balance between tradition and a global modernity that Japan itself would do so much to create.

Where it’s streaming: Hulu, Amazon.

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Title: Summer with Monika (Sweden, 1953)

Plot: When working-class teenager Monika (Harriet Andersson) falls in love with middle-class Harry, they decide to run away together. Stealing Harry’s father’s boat, they propose to spend the summer sailing around the hundreds of islands off the coast of Stockholm. Will they be able to make their idyll last, or will class expectations and their different life goals tear the young lovers apart?

Historical context: Ingmar Bergman would go on to direct some of the most highly esteemed films in all of cinema (The Seventh Seal, Scenes from a Marriage), but it was Summer with Monika that first brought him international fame, and for all the wrong reasons. Although extremely tame by modern standards, Summer with Monika’s brief, fleeting nudity (quelle horreur!) was at the time unprecedented in a mainstream production. It turned Harriet Andersson into a sex symbol, and played a key role in establishing Sweden’s reputation as a sexually liberated country. Which is all well and good, but the heart of Summer with Monika is its grim dissection of class and sexual hypocrisy, and the way social constrictions destroy people.

Where it’s streaming: Hulu, Amazon.

Title: Black Sun (Japan, 1964)

Plot: When African-American GI Gill (Chico Roland) kills a fellow soldier in Japan, he goes on the run and seeks shelter in a ruined church which already has a squatter, Mei, a young Japanese man who loves jazz and — by extension, he’s convinced — black people. As Gill and Mei learn about the pernicious effects of stereotyping, both positive and negative, they must try to stay one step ahead of the American MP’s dead-set on hunting Gill down.

Historical context: Japanese culture has a long and troubled fascination with African Americans, predicated largely on stereotypes: black people as the purveyors of jazz music, black people as the possessors of a threatening but intriguing sexuality. Most Japanese movies of the '60s, when they address the subject, tend to do so superficially, without interrogating any of the ideas that inform their conception of black people. This is what makes Koreyoshi Kurahara’s Black Sun so refreshing and so fascinating. This is a movie that places the Japanese relationship with black people front and center, and proceeds to strip away the layers of prejudice and exoticism that cloud the eyes of young Japanese jazz aficionados like Mei. Mei thinks he loves black people and he thinks black people are all musical entertainers. It’s only when he realizes that Gill isn’t just “black,” with all the cultural associations that come with it, that he can recognize him as a unique individual and establish a more meaningful, person-to-person relationship with him. Alas, it’s something we rarely see in Japanese films of this period.

Where it’s streaming: Hulu.

Title: Capricious Summer (Czechoslovakia, 1968)

Plot: In a small Czech town, seemingly unaffected by the political upheaval of the Prague Spring, Antonin and his friends are whiling away a wet, lazy summer. But when Ernie the Conjuror comes to town (played by director Jirí Menzel), accompanied by his lovely assistant Anna, the lives of Antonin and company suddenly become a lot more exciting. With Antonin ensnared by Anna’s charms and Antonin’s wife similarly captivated by Ernie, the caprices of summer will leave no one unaffected.

Historical context: It was an inauspicious year to make a movie in Czechoslovakia. Released while the Prague Spring, the liberalization of Czechoslovak communism, was in full swing, Jirí Menzel’s Capricious Summer can be seen as a last outpouring of the whimsy and earthy humor that define the Czech New Wave. Within a few months, the Soviet-led armies of the Warsaw Pact would invade the country and install a hard-line communist regime, largely putting an end to this era of Czech cinema. Although Capricious Summer had been scheduled to debut at Cannes, that year’s festival was canceled due to the protests and street fighting, the so-called “événements” or “events,” that gripped France in May of ’68. Czech movies just couldn’t catch a break.

Where it’s streaming: Hulu.

Title: Dog Day Afternoon (USA, 1975)

Plot: On a hot, sun-blasted summer day, a young man named Sonny (Al Pacino) and his two idiot friends attempt to rob a bank. When every conceivable thing that could go wrong does go wrong, Sonny and his friend Sal (John Cazale) find the bank surrounded by police and decide to take its employees hostage (their third companion has already fled the scene). A tense, hours-long standoff and attendant media circus ensues, and all the pressures in Sonny’s life play out on live television.

Historical context: The quintessential it’s-way-too-damn-hot movie, Dog Day Afternoon is a key entry in director Sidney Lumet’s diverse body of work and is emblematic of the New Hollywood style, conveying a sense of naturalism and grittiness that would have been unthinkable in American cinema just 10 years before. It is also notable as one of the five films that actor John Cazale appeared in before his untimely death, all five films in question (The Godfather, Parts I and II, The Conversation, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Deer Hunter) received Oscar nominations for Best Picture. 

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Where it’s streaming: Amazon.

Title: Missing Gun (China, 2002)

Plot: In a loose adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (1949), Missing Gun presents us with hapless small-town Chinese cop Ma Shan (Jiang Wen). After a night of heavy drinking (it’s his sister’s wedding), Ma awakes to discover his gun is missing. Disgraced, Ma must brave the summer heat (because everything’s more tense when it’s hot) to track down his gun before it falls into the wrong hands.

Historical context: Missing Gun marks the skillful directorial debut of Lu Chuan, whose subsequent films (Kekexili: Mountain Patrol, City of Life and Death) have distinguished him as one of the greatest Mainland Chinese filmmakers of the new millennium. It is striking to see him paired in this film with another highly esteemed contemporary, writer-director-actor Jiang Wen. Having released his 2000 film Devils on the Doorstep without first submitting it to the Chinese censors, Jiang faced harassment from the communist authorities and did not direct another film for seven years. But he continued to act during this period, and Missing Gun finds him in fine form, bringing the mix of humor and pathos that have defined his oeuvre.

Where it’s streaming: Amazon.