Saturday, February 27, 2010

Film List - more great openings

A year ago, just as I was embarking on this monthly series of film posts, I did a list of the most memorable film openings. Inevitably, there were a few I really should have included that slipped my mind for the moment. And then there were one or two more new ones I've discovered subsequently.

So, here's a supplement....

More great film openings

2001: A Space Odyssey
(Dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
Richard Strauss's wonderfully ominous Also Sprach Zarathustra thundering (as an aside, check out engaging Japanese electronica loon Isao Tomita's version of this: it has so much sub-bass rumble going on, it feels like an earthquake!) over the gorgeous sunrise/moonrise double-whammy..... and then the surprisingly convincing apemen sequence. Surely one of the weirdest, spookiest, what-the-f***-is-going-on-here openings ever. [Watch it here.]

Raging Bull
(Dir. Martin Scorsese, 1980)
De Niro as Jake La Motta, alone in the ring before a fight, shrouded in his hooded robe, prowling and dancing in slow motion while the operatic music swells (damn, what is that aria? so well-known, but I'm blanking on it!) - talk about atmospheric! You're enraptured within seconds. [Watch it here.]

Down By Law
(Dir. Jim Jarmusch, 1986)
Jarmusch's offbeat prison comedy, shot in luminous black-and-white by long-time Wim Wenders collaborator Robby Müller, opens with an exquisite montage of brief travelling shots - as if taken from a kerb-crawling car - capturing details of New Orleans neighbourhoods and the surrounding Louisiana swamps, set to the tempo of the great Tom Waits song Jockey Full Of Bourbon. It's so beautiful, I could watch it again and again. There's probably never been a better sequence for establishing locale. [Watch it here.]

(Dir. Zack Snyder, 2009)
I'm not a fan of comic books, or the vapid movies they usually produce; but Alan Moore crafts far more intelligent and complex stories than most people working in the genre. One of the distinctive things about his Watchmen series - later collated into a 'graphic novel' - was the huge amount of back-story it included, establishing the backgrounds not just of all the principal characters in its main, 'present day' storyline, but their links with a previous generation of superheroes, the Minutemen, and fleshing out the similar-but-different timeline of later 20th Century history on the Earth on which this story was set. It would be hard, impossible to include such a wealth of side-plots and incidental detail in a two-and-a-bit hour film, but Snyder managed to present an awful lot of it in the tremendously resonant and moving credit sequence - a five-and-a-half minute montage of snippets from the lives of these superheroes interwoven with the alternate history of modern America, set to Dylan's The Times They Are A-Changin'. Mesmerising! My only gripe is that the rest of the film feels a bit flat by comparison. [Watch it here.]

(Dir. Mike Nichols, 1970)
This is perhaps one of the most underrated films of all time. Passionate fans of the "unfilmable" book mostly dismiss it without giving it a chance; and the typical moviegoer probably finds it altogether too 'challenging'. Me, I find it stunning: if it's not the best anti-war film ever made, it's pretty damn close. And it might just be the best-ever screenplay adaptation: Buck Henry's masterful distillation of Joseph Heller's sprawling satire is arguably an improvement on the original. The credit sequence starts out defiantly dull: the long cast list displayed in slow succession, in silence, plain white script on a black background. From time to time a dog barks, seemingly irrelevantly, but otherwise there's no sound. But then.... birds start to twitter as well. And suddenly light starts to spill across the black screen, and we see dawn coming up over a tranquil Mediterranean island. Finally, as the sun starts to climb the sky, the silence is torn by the deafening whine and clank of huge aero-engines one by one sputtering into life, and the scene suddenly switches to the turmoil of a bomber base in action, an early morning mass take-off from the island runway. I've never seen such a transition of mood, the juxtaposition of the peace of nature and the destructive tumult of human activity, handled better.
[I can't find this sequence on YouTube, I'm afraid; but this is a pretty good film student 'trailer' for the film.]

Mean Streets
(Dir. Martin Scorsese, 1973)
This is possibly my favourite Scorsese. It's a deceptively simple, not to say cheap-looking introductory sequence, just a montage of home video shots sketching the background - very, very vaguely - of the protagonist, Charlie; but it's so powerfully memorable because it's Harvey Keitel! And it's The Ronettes' Be My Baby! One of the great uses of music (and of a young star's charisma) in film history. [Watch it here.]

The Italian Job
(Dir. Peter Collinson, 1969)
This, of course, remains one of the greatest of all comedy heist films, with a car chase sequence - occupying the entire last third of the film - that is unlikely to be bettered. It also improbably brings together in its cast the three "greatest living Englishmen" of the period: Michael Caine, Noel Coward, and Benny Hill. The opening sequence is quite breathtaking: outrageously improbable and over-the-top, yet it somehow wins your acceptance. It begins with a Lamborghini driving through the Alps on a gloriously sunny day, to the soothing strains of middle-of-the-road crooner Matt Monro singing the rather beautiful song On Days Like These; and it ends..... Well, if you haven't ever seen this sequence, watch it now!

Lord of War
(Dir. Andrew Niccol, 2005)
I saw this just recently, and I feel it's a fairly terrible film. Cage never really breaks out of his self-created hangdog stereotype in this role, and his lugubrious voiceover narration rapidly becomes irritating. And the tone of the film is jarringly inappropriate: it's played mostly as a comic caper, as though the protagonist isn't really a serious criminal and his ingenuity in outfoxing his pursuers is admirable - whereas, in fact, he's just a gangster who makes millions from black market arms trading. It's presented as Catch Me If You Can, where Scarface would clearly be a better template (Tony Montana is a largely sympathetic figure, not without honour and decency; but destroyed by his inability to contain his appetite for money and power - Cage's Yuri Orlov, a Brighton Beach Ukrainian emigré, is very similar). However..... this opening sequence, charting the life-cycle of a bullet from factory to victim (accompanied by Buffalo Springfield's For What It's Worth), is quite superb.


gary said...

Great post. Thanks for all the links.

Ashamed to admit I'd never seen the original Italian Job. It looks like I should go check it out!

Froog said...

Nice to have you stop by, Gary. The Italian Job is pretty cheesy in many ways, and looks a bit dated now - but the things that work well in it work fantastically well. It is one of the most iconic pieces of British cinema, and a big influence on the likes of Guy Ritchie.

JES said...

I might also suggest another Kubrick: Clockwork Orange, with that title music under the closeup of Malcolm McDowell's eyelashed face and the slooooow dolly shot backwards through the Milk Bar.

It was pretty obvious you weren't about to see something you'd seen before.