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Wonder

You’ll shed a tear or two—especially if you’re a parent—and they’ll be totally earned.

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Mudbound

The film invites us to observe its characters, to hear their inner voices, to see what they see and to challenge our own preconceived notions…

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Ballad of Narayama

"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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Opening Shots: Army of Shadows

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From: Andy Horbal, Mirror/Stage:

"Army of Shadows" actually begins with an epigram: "Unhappy memories! Yet I welcome you… you are my long-lost youth… "

Perhaps a French person would immediately recognize the film's subsequent opening shot as the ultimate unhappy memory, but it took a bit longer for this American viewer to grasp the significance of what he was seeing. The transition from a black screen with white letters to the Arc de Triomphe towering over a frame also marked by a pallid, even sickly, gray morning light is like the shock of abruptly waking up in the middle of a dream. The sound of marching drifts in from somewhere offscreen. ...

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After a few seconds a column of soldiers emerges from the left of the frame. Dwarfed by the monument, they look like a line of black ants. A few more seconds and the cadence of their footfalls (which seem to grow steadily louder and more ominous) is joined by the sound of a military march. The beginning of the column reaches the middle of the Arc and sharply pivots right towards the camera, towards us.

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Opening Shots Project Index

A little beyond the first anniversary of the Opening Shots Project, I figured it was past time to compile a handy, one-page index to all the contributions. The Opening Shots category page takes forever to load, so now you can bring up a handy single-page list (just click "continue reading" to get the whole thing). The Opening Shots Index can always be found in the Categories listing at right.

Oh, and the Opening Shots Project itself isn't over, not by a long shot!

Introductory posts:

(Introduction) Movies 101: The Opening Shots Project

Opening Shots Lexicon

Opening Shots Project: Pop Quiz

Quiz 2: 10 Easy Pieces (+2)

David Bordwell on establishing shots -- and Opening Shots

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Opening Shots: 'The Big Animal'

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I can't think of another movie that makes me laugh and cry within the course of its opening shot. This is "The Big Animal" (2000), a feature directed by and starring Jerzy Stuhr, based on an early screenplay by Krzysztof Kieslowski. You may know Stuhr from Kieslowski's first feature, "Camera Buff" ("Amator"), "Three Colors: White," "Dekalog: 10" ("Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's goods") and other films by Andrzej Wajda, Krzysztof Zanussi and Angieszka Holland.

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This shot could serve as an introduction -- perhaps an encapsulation -- of a certain Polish sensibility dear to my heart that is both absurd and poignant. It begins in the fog -- at least, we think it's fog, but the way it's blowing it looks more like smoke. Turns out it is smoke, from a pair of circus vans, and as they move past the camera and roll off into the distance, the right side of the frame clears and... there's a camel standing there.

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Why is there a camel standing there? We don't know. It appears to have been left behind for some reason. The image is comical, incongruous, absurd. But if you think about it, it's rather sad. Poor camel. It just stands there. It looks around. It reverses direction. And just at the end of the shot, the two circus trucks in the background appear to be perched on top of its humps. (Camel fanciers will know that this is a Bactrian camel, not an Arabian dromedary, because it has two humps.)

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The mild existential shock of this opening image sets us up for the satire -- of bureaucracy and toleration of individuality -- that is to come. A man and his wife adopt the stray camel. At first, everyone is happy. A camel is a novelty in this village, and it becomes the man's pride and joy. He is no longer ordinary, but exceptional. He has a camel!

But then man-made socio-political reality begins to set in. How do you license a camel? Surely pets must be licensed, but there is no such thing as a camel license (shades of Monty Python's fish license sketch). A dog license is not sufficient -- possibly even illegal -- because, clearly, this creature is not a dog. It's not a horse, either. But do you need a license for a horse?

And then there are the townspeople, who begin to wonder: "Why should this man get away with breaking the rules for a camel? Who does he think he is? Why does he need to stand out and flaunt his special status? Such things should not be allowed. Or should they not, at least, be properly taxed?"

Kieslowski's screenplay, from the story "The Camel" by Kazimierz Orlos, was written in 1973 as a fable about life in the Soviet bloc. But the 1994 "Bart Gets an Elephant" episode of "The Simpsons," where Homer exploits Stampy to pay the mammoth food bills, provides a capitalistic counterpoint. I love this "Big Animal."

"The Big Animal" is available on DVD from our friends Amy Heller and Dennis Doros at Milestone Film & Video.

[This is a contribution to the Krzysztof Kieslowski Blog-a-Thon at Quiet Bubble.]

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Opening Shots: The 'Burbs

From Dennis Cozzalio, Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, Glendale, CA:

The opening of Joe Dante’s cruelly misjudged and overlooked comedy "The ‘Burbs" begins with a vertiginous and hilarious parody of the God’s-eye view shot. Fade in on the familiar Universal logo—the planet Earth spinning, surrounded by incongruously Saturn-like circles of galaxy dust, particle and stars. But the world looks a little off, a bit more animated, more cartoony than usual.

The camera begins to move in on the planet as the words “A Universal Picture sign dissolves away. The camera moves down closer and closer and closer onto the planet’s surface, onto the recognizable shape of the United States. Even closer now, dropping down into the Midwest somewhere, perhaps Illinois-ish. Closer. Closer. Now a city is recognizable. A neighborhood. A street. The camera continues “craning down from above the rooftops (obviously a miniature set), swooping left and down across the front of a row of houses.

Suddenly, Jerry Goldsmith’s score, which has had up to now a liltingly comic grace, turns mock haunted-house creepy with a thunderous, sinister organ chord as the camera glides over to a dwelling that looks a scosh more gothic than its surrounding neighbors. Just as suddenly, flickering flashes of light are visible through the windows into lining the goth house’s basement foundation, and crackling electrical sounds are heard accompanying the flashes. Something mysterious, and very un-suburban, is happening down there…

JE: Thanks again, Dennis! You submitted this along with several others back in July -- and I had frame grabs for it and "Used Cars" ready to go before my "hard drive fatality." Gotta go back and order "Used Cars" from Netflix again. Meanwhile, a happy belated birthday to Joe Dante ! Check out Dennis's Dantean appreciation -- as part of Tim Lucas's recent Joe Dante Blog-a-Thon.

Also don't let 2006 expire before you take Professor Dave Jennings' Milton-Free, Universe-Expanding Holiday Midterm. It counts for 25 percent of your final grade this quarter.

(And, Dennis: Thanks so much for the Christmas gift!)

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Opening Shots: Eyes Wide Shut

From Jonathan Pacheco, Anna, TX:

When the release of "Eyes Wide Shut" drew near, a lot of the buzz was around it being a "sex film," and some (fools) went as far as to claim that its ambition was to be the "sexiest film ever" (after all, Kubrick had broken the molds of other genres). After "EWS" came out, the buzz was that it was a letdown -- due largely to the fact that it was "not sexy." Subsequently, many felt that it was a sub-par film, almost unworthy of the Kubrick moniker.

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Unfortunately, they missed the point. The opening shot to "Eyes Wide Shut" is short and simple: Nicole Kidman's character getting undressed. I'm sure many saw this as a tease, a promise of what's to come. But I believe Kubrick was using it for the exact opposite purpose, telling us to forget about our preconceived notions of what this film was going to be (or, as you pointed out, Jim, what a narrative should be). In essence, the shot is so brief that it's almost as if Kubrick is saying "Okay, here: Nicole Kidman naked. Satisfied? Now get that out of your mind and let me tell my story." Many films don't have their nudity so early on, so perhaps Kubrick put that quick flash in there to see if we're paying attention. The next time we see Kidman, she's doing something very unsexy (using the toilet), and further events tell us that some things are not what we expect them to be (for example, Tom Cruise's character turning off what we believe to be the background score).

Yes, more nudity follows in the film, from Kidman and many others, but Kubrick is telling us that the nudity and sex is not really the point; he's not setting out to make the "sexiest film ever." What is his point, then? I'm not sure. It's a film that can be watched many times and still not be totally understood -- just like some other great Kubrick films.

JE: You're quite right, Jonathan. That eye-opening first shot IS a ravishing tease, but not in the way viewers might expect -- plucked out of time and space, floating in isolation between the white-on-black titles for Cruise/Kidman/Kubrick, and the name of the movie itself. Blink and you'll miss what Kubrick is doing from the moment the picture starts. "EWS" had been accompanied by the usual hyperbolic pre-release rumors that invariably swirled around rare and secretive Kubrick projects while they were still in the works. In 1979/80 "The Shining" had been touted in advance as "the scariest movie ever made" (did Kubrick really say that was his goal?) and in 1986/87 "Full Metal Jacket" was anticipated as as "the ultimate Vietnam movie" (whatever that was meant to mean). This sort of buzz, whether or not inflamed by Kubrick himself, helped intensify general interest in the movies but, as you point out, it was also ultimately misleading. Kubrick, more than any other filmmaker, taught me not to get distracted by the movie I was expecting, and to simply watch what was happening on the screen instead -- because "The Shining" and "Eyes Wide Shut" were absolutely NOT the movies I thought I saw the first time I watched them.

Allow me to riff a little on this "EWS" shot: The first thing you notice is, of course, Kidman dropping her dress. The dominant color is the (warm, feminine) red of the drapes that frame her -- and that are reflected in the mirrored closet doors to the left. The shot is not perfectly symmetrical, but in addition to the reflected curtains and the fleshly symmetry of Ms. Kidman, there is a lot of twinning going on here: Two pairs of identical columns mask the image; a couple of overlapping tennis rackets lean in the corner; pairs of shoes are lined up, rather haphazardly, underneath the window...

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Opening Shots: The Girl Can't Help It

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Welcome back to the Opening Shots Project -- which has been on a bit of an unscheduled hiatus simply because I've had too much else going on. To get us back into the swing of things, I present the introduction to the great 1956 rock 'n' roll musical musical comedy, "The Girl Can't Help It," directed (unmistakably) by former Looney Tunes animator Frank Tashlin.

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Our tuxedoed host (and co-star) Tom Ewell -- coming off a pairing with another pneumatic blonde, Marilyn Monroe, in the previous year's "The Seven Year Itch" -- introduces the film with the proper gravitas. No, this is not the spokesman for Mr. Carl Laemmle, warning us that we may be horrified or even shocked by the specter of "Frankenstein." Mr. Ewell, instead, plays our genial -- if a bit formal -- emcee: "Ladies and gentlemen, the motion picture you are about to see is a story of music." The set -- with musical instruments tastefully floating around the soundstage -- looks like it could be from a live-action black-and-white version of "Fantasia."

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Ewell modestly explains his role in the story and proclaims: "This motion picture was photographed in the grandeur of CinemaScope, and... gorgeous, lifelike color by DeLuxe." It takes a little effort, but he manages to push the frame into the proper aspect ratio and add color to the emulsion.

[Discreet cut to medium shot here.]

In short order, the music Little Richard bursts from a jukebox -- "not the music of long ago, but the music that expresses the culture, the refinement and the polite grace of the present day" -- drowning out out Mr. Ewell completely. The montage that follows, of colorfully lit couples tearing up the soundstage floor will be evoked in the credits for David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive" years later.

But for now, it's Jayne Mansfield who explodes onto the screen in the grandeur of CinemaScope and in gorgeous, lifelike color by DeLuxe -- or rather, garish, lurid color by DeLuxe, and we wouldn't want it any other way. Then it's one politely graceful act after another: not only Ms. Mansfield and Little Richard, but Fats Domino, Abbey Lincoln, The Platters, Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps, Eddie Cochran, The Treniers, and Julie London, Julie London, Julie London and Julie London. She can't help it.

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Opening Shots: 'Little Murders'

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What do we have here? It's the opening shot of one of my favorite 1970s comedies, a dark absurdist urban paranoid masterpiece called "Little Murders" (1971) written by Jules Feiffer ("Carnal Knowledge") and directed by Alan Arkin (as was the second, successful run of the play in New York in 1969; the first staging a year earlier closed in a week). As you might guess, it's a movie about windows and frames. Look out any window, and there's another one looking right back at you -- with a telescope, a camera, maybe even a gun. After a while, you don't want to know what's out there. You shut off the TV, bar the windows and bolt the door just to keep the madness... out?

Elliott Gould plays Alfred, a listless, benumbed photographer who shoots piles of dog shit. That's his subject. In this shot, Alfred is somewhere outside the window, getting beat up. That's Patsy (Marcia Rodd) in bed. The sounds of Alfred's mugging are drifting in her window, but that's not what awakens her. It's the phone -- another call from the heavy breather (in an era where "obscene phone calls" were the latest in pornographic technological phenomena). But although the image may at first remind you of Kitty Genovese (the murder victim whose screams were ignored by neighbors in Queens), Patsy intervenes. And that's the way it all begins.

Arkin jump-cuts into the scene a few times as the credits appear, in a way that reminds me of the percussive cuts of Harvey Keitel waking up (to the Ronettes' "Be My Baby") at the start of "Mean Streets" (1973). By the end of the film, the windows will be flung open again, to let the fresh air in... and the sniper rifles out.

P.S. Roger Ebert's original 1971 review of "Little Murders" gets at why I think it's such a good, and disturbing, comedy. It doesn't tell you when it's OK to laugh: Arkin said, shortly after the film was released, that he'd only seen his movie once in a theater, and he was afraid to go again. When he saw it with an audience, he said, he thought it was a flop because there was no pattern to the laughs. People were laughing as individuals, almost uneasily, as specific things in the movie touched or clobbered them.

That's my feeling about "Little Murders." One of the reasons it works, and is indeed a definitive reflection of America's darker moods, is that it breaks audiences down into isolated individuals, vulnerable and uncertain. Most movies create a temporary sort of democracy, a community of strangers there in the darkened theater. Not this one. The movie seems to be saying that New York City has a similar effect on its citizens, and that it will get you if you don't watch out.

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Opening Shots: 'Greetings'

The public and the private, the personal and the political: Although this isn't precisely the opening shot of "Greetings" described here, it's part of it, showing the same TV, the same book and the same coffee pot in the same apartment. Frame grabs to come...

Excerpt from my programme notes for a double-bill of "Greetings" and "Hi, Mom!" -- the first presentation in a Brian De Palma series programmed by R.C. Dale at the University of Washington, April 14, 1981:

.... "Greetings," De Palma's 1968 anti-military/anti-war movie mélange, was the first of his films to find an audience. In fact, it was so successful that "Hi, Mom!" was conceived as a sequel (originally to be called "Son of Greetings"). "Greetings" is an ebullient comedy, and a brazenly disturbing mixture of movie-movie acrobatics and American counter-culture politics in the manner of pre-l968 Godard. Critics have emphasized over and over De Palma's debt to filmmakers such as Godard and (especially over-emphasized) Alfred Hitchcock. In "Greetings," Michelangelo Antontoni's "Blow Up," another hip youth-cult film of the time, also looms large. But the filmmaker whose specter really presides over this film is that of Abraham Zapruder, the man who made the most famous home movie of the Kennedy assassination at Dealy Plaza. The first thing we see in DePalma's movie is a television set carrying a speech by President Johnson. In front of the set sits a book: "Six Seconds in Dallas." "Greetings," made five years after the assassination, is a picture of a nation obsessed with six seconds of 8 mm Kodak movie film. Right away, De Palma begins detailing the dissolution of the barrier between the personal and the political in American society; just as, in this and subsequent films, he will dissolve the barrier between the film and the audience, between horror and humor, between public and private.

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Opening Shots: 'Raw Meat'

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They don't grind 'em out like "Raw Meat" anymore. I don't know if horror movies will ever seem as seedy as they did in the first half of the 1970s, when even the emulsion itself seemed to carry dread and disease. In this British horror-thriller, released in the UK as "Death Line" and directed by Gary Sherman ("Dead & Buried"), there's Something in the Underground. Yes, there's a through-line to "The Descent" here. And Guillermo Del Toro ("Cronos," "The Devil's Backbone," "Pan's Labyrinth") considers it one of his favorites.

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A Semi-Important Brit (with mustache and bowler hat) is seen checking out various porn shops and strip clubs in a seamy area of London, before descending into subway where he attempts to pick up a prostitute and is then found dead. That begins an investigation by Inspector Calhoun (a tartly over-caffeinated Donald Pleasence) and long-suffering Detective Sergeant Rogers (Norman Rossington -- the put-upon manager, Norm, from "A Hard Day's Night"). Christopher Lee also appears as an MI5 operative, doing what seems to be a nutty send-up of Patrick MacNee's Steed on "The Avengers."

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The opening shot itself begins with an out-of-focus blur of colors, accompanied by a dirty, grinding, sluggish, metallic guitar/bass/drums riff that sounds like Angelo Badalamenti's score for the endless-nightmare Roadhouse scene in David Lynch's "Twin Peaks; Fire Walk with Me." As the image comes into focus we see a Magritte-like silhouette of a British gent looking at dirty magazines. Then the shot goes out of focus again. The pattern is repeated throughout the titles sequence as the naughty fellow visits one unseemly establishment after another: out of focus (indistinguishable, unidentifiable); then in focus (ah, that's what we're seeing/where we are); then back out again. And, wouldn't you know it, that's the shape of the mystery (and the investigation) itself: Someone's whereabouts are unknown. Then he is seen. Then he disappears. The aim is to fill in those out-of-focus parts, to figure out where he came from, how he got there, and where he went.

I'm sure "Raw Meat" is not as shocking as it must have seemed in 1972, but Sherman's use of real, atmospheric locations is still eerily effective. And for fans of long takes, this guy loves 'em! There are whole stretches where the camera simply prowls around underground, revealing its horrors one by one. The film was cut for its original release in the UK -- some gore, a bit with a rat's head, an attempted rape -- and wasn't passed by the censors until the DVD release in 2006.

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Take the Opening Shots Poll!

Here are some of the most popular choices we've published so far. The top vote-getters from this round will advance to the next! (I had to upgrade this thing -- it only gave me 100 "views" a day, which were used up in about 15 minutes. Now we get 2,000 views per day...) Poll after the jump >>

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