13 February 2010
Better Know A Movie, Recommendations on Specific Aspects of Films to Appreciate
Now any schmuck with a film blog can recommend film choices, but I'm not just any schmuck (like I need to tell you!). I have for you a list of ten films that includes specific aspects of that film to look for.
Usually we enjoy a film, especially with our initial viewing, for its overall presentation. The cast, the photography, the sets, the editing, all blend into a pleasurable viewing experience. This is a good thing. But sometimes we miss a majestic tree or two in seeing the overall forest.
Here then are some tips on what to look for in ten well-known films representing different eras and genres.
The shadows in The Maltese Falcon (1941). Director John Huston was reportedly apoplectic when he heard that Ted Turner wanted to colorize this film.(The fact that Huston died shortly thereafter is apparently unrelated, but ya never know.) Good film noir has to be in black and white because so much of the stories rely on shadows. Maltese Falcon is a prime example. Look at how often they appear and how effectively mood and ambience is set and exploited. MF is one of the many films that points to the beauty of black and white and why in many, many movies its a better choice than color. Try not to focus too much on stars Humphrey Bogart or Mary Astor or the wonderful supporting cast, and just dig the look.
Edward G. Robinson in Double Indemnity (1944). The man put on an acting clinic and disproved any notion that he was only suited to play gangsters. He is at once so real a man and utterly ordinary and so compelling a character. He manages to elevate the film, enhance the story and yet not steal any scenes. He's easy to miss the first time or two you watch the film, but the more you see of it the more you appreciate Robinson and his importance to the film.
The backgrounds in The Third Man (1949). I love the dialogue and the zither music but I could literally watch The Third Man with the sound off. In fact, that might be a worthy exercise just to appreciate what's in the background. You'll not only see some incredible shots of bombed out Vienna, but the faces of the Viennese. They generally aren't pretty faces but really that wouldn't fit with the story and they're captivating to look at nonetheless.
The period detail in Zodiac (2007). The film was set in San Francisco in the late 1960's and 1970's, a time I was in the area. So I can say with a measure of authority that director David Fincher and company got the look to a tee. More than that they got the feel. It's one thing to replicate, quite another to capture. This is capturing. How one does that is beyond my limited knowledge of film making. All I can tell you is that if you want to know what it was like in these parts in them days, watch this film.
The interiors and exteriors of Stagecoach (1939). Any question about what made John Ford a great director can in part be answered by Stagecoach. Look at how he tells the story in great part by opening up the outdoors and making them impossibly vast (look at the screen entrance of The Ringo Kid -- John Wayne -- the background is forever). Then see how confining all the indoor shots are, particularly, of course, in the stagecoach. When you appreciate how a director tells a story, you better appreciate the story.
The transformation of Michael Corleone in The Godfather (1972). I devoted an entire blog post to this topic. It's provided some interesting discussions and is worth looking at again because its the central point to this, the greatest of all films. You can have fun discussing what you think is the catalyst for his change and of course, watching those key moments. It will also help you appreciate what a magnificent performance Al Pacino gave.
The camera angles and positions in Notorious (1946). Here's another topic I've previously covered in an entire blog post. There are many other Hitchcock films you can choose from but in terms of looking for how he used the camera to tell a story, this is the best.
The relationships in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). It's perhaps the greatest anti war picture ever made and it works in large part because of how wonderfully it depicts human relationships. In the military, whether for the better or for the worse, relationships are critical. People are stuck together and often put into the horrifying spectacle of war together. That is to say the insane situation of killing other people. AQOTWF is all about how soldiers squabble, bond, play and fight together. How they rely on one another and love one another. It is thus all the more effectively heart breaking when many inevtiably perish.
The use of music in Goodfellas (1990). Director Martin Scorsese is the grandmaster of melding music into a story. In some cases he has the song in mind before he's even got the film in mind. He's especially effective with contemporary songs. Sometimes the song relates to the time period in the film, other times the lyrics accompany the action. But more often than not the tone of the music somehow just goes with the tone of the pictures. It has to be an instinct and it has to be done by the person with the vision of that story. To me Goodfellas is the absolute masterpiece of music working perfectly with what's on screen. Whether it's Tony Bennett, The Shangri-Las, Harry Nilsson or Sid Vicious, it works. Boy does it.
The timing in Sullivan's Travels (1941). Comedy is all about timing. Especially when it comes to dialogue. When you've got a particularly witty story with some sophisticated points to make, that timing is absolutely crucial. Witness the timing in Sullivan's Travels. Start with the first scene between Sullivan (Joel McCrea) and the movie execs. It's not just rapid fire, it's not just clever, it's perfectly timed. See Sullivan and the girl (Veronica Lake) or Sullivan and anyone else or any two or three or twelve people. Director Preston Sturges, who started as a screenwriter, was a master of timing, both with action and conversation. He was especially adept at combining the two, and with multiple characters. Just watch Sullivan's Travels and you'll know what I'm on about.