Friday, November 15, 2013

Reading a Film and the Week in Reviews

[I review the movies "12 Years a Slave," "The Attack," "Barbara," "Lore" and "White House Down."]

But first

***Reading a Film***

From my sometimes smart-alecky film reviews, you may think that I am just speaking off of the top of my head and trying to show off.  Well, I kind of am, but I want to assure you that my reviews are based on real knowledge of films, believe it or not.

Someone once said, "You can learn a lot by reading (maybe it was me, not sure)," but there is a way of looking at films that will help you understand them better and, thus, enhance your enjoyment.

My Dad was born in 1908 and grew up as an only child. 

His mother was a high school music teacher and gave private vocal lessons.  A woman working in those days was unusual. His Dad was the family failure. 

My Dad spent much of his youth alone and at the movies. 

My Dad was a kind of "Walter Mitty," possibly as a result of some harsh discipline on the family farm which was mitigated by hours at the movies. I can just imagine him following the western serials starring Tom Mix and how that might have spurred his desire to be a cowboy. As for the discipline, my mother told me that when he was a boy on the farm, if he brought the cows home late, discipline was a lashing with a bullwhip on the back of his legs. 

In this picture, you can see that my Dad's boots are dusty from playing on the way to the photographer.  He got in trouble for that too.  He was nine.

My mother always blamed his Dad's harsh discipline for my Dad's retiring nature. 

His escape was the movies.

So as I grew up, my Dad and I bonded over watching movies together and that started my life-long love of films. 

I can remember many occasions when he and I would go to a movie at night without my Mom.  She wasn't that interested.  My Dad loved John Wayne and romantic comedies so it was war movies, westerns and lots of Debbie Reynolds.  That was fine with me.  I just wanted to hang with my Dad.

At home my Dad and I also shared being "night owls." 

Many a night we would stay up to watch the old movie that would start at 11:30.  It's difficult to believe there was a time when there were only three TV stations, and only movies from the 30's and 40's played on television and those were only a couple of times per day - the afternoon movie that started at 1pm (a real treat when I was home sick from school) and the late night movies.

My Dad was the first to teach me to "read a film."

My Dad taught me to watch the credits for names of famous actors in minor roles or before they changed their names to "star names."  Before Tony Curtis was Tony Curtis he was Bernard Schwartz.  Cary Grant was Archibald Leach.  My Dad loved spotting those things. 

He also taught me to watch for certain credits like Cedric Gibbons and Douglas Shearer (his sister was the actress Norma Shearer), the MGM set designer and sound designer respectively.  He said when you saw those names in the credits of an MGM film, it was a high quality film. 

He also would point out some film "devices," such as flowing water symbolizing the passing of time (though he never shared what water crashing on the rocks meant after a kissing scene.  I'm sure you can figure that out).

He was also a real softie.  If there was a sad scene or a really happy scene such as the separated lovers finding each other again and running into each other's arms as the music swelled, he would chuckle softly while wiping the tears from his eyes with his ever present handkerchief, pretending he was wiping his forehead.

So my Dad was a sort of armchair quarterback when it came to films. 

I expanded on that for myself by taking classes, majoring in drama and film, and eventually teaching a class on classic films at a local junior college.

As moviegoers, we tend to watch films uncritically. 

But I feel that if you spend some mental energy looking at a film more critically, it will enhance your overall enjoyment.

So here are some things I look for when "reading a film," which helps me in writing my reviews and enjoying the experience of watching a film.
  • First, I watch the opening credits. 
       You can tell a lot by who is starring, directing, etc.  Also there is a reason 
       why certain images are used over the credits and the music chosen to
       accompany them.  Those set the mood.

  • Acting
       This is a given, but as someone who took acting very seriously at one time,
       I enjoy moments of subtle, nuanced acting. Tom Hanks at the end of
       Captain Phillips is an example of that (read my review in my October 18
       Week in Reviews blog).  It looks easy but it's an exercise in restraint. The
       doctor has no idea what he went through and he has no strength to  
       explain. You feel it, though, without him having to say a word. That's
       brilliant acting. 

  • Camera angles, long and short shots and effective scene composition
      It's the same as reading a book or a poem and admiring the use of
      language. In this case, the "language" is the picture the director creates. 
      The camera angles used in Citizen Kane were milestones - using the    
      camera to shoot from below, using strange angles, montagesThe
      beautiful images you see are all orchestrated.

        Also Before Midnight, the latest in the "Before" series, is an example of
        extremely long "walking and talking" takes, which is unusual but visually
        absorbing.  The usual case is to shoot short scenes and edit them

  • What kind of narration is used? 
       Voice overs?  Talking directly to the audience?  Flashbacks? How does that
       help the film move forward?  Does it work?  I am not fond of a lot of
       exposition.  That's fine for a book, but a film should show all of that via
       pictures or dialog.

  • How does music work in the film?
       Help or hinder?

  • I note the pace of the film.
       One thing the casual moviegoer might not be aware of is editingIn some
       cases, it is the editor who makes or breaks a film, not the director.  That's
       why so many directors edit their own films or are very involved in that
       process.  Editing is the process that puts all of the shots together from
       scene to scene and how that is done can greatly affect how fast or slow   
       the film moves.

  • What is the overall mood?
       Lighting, colors, costumes, all of those elements affect the "feel" of the

  • Symbolism
       Remember those waves crashing on rocks I mentioned earlier?  The
       symbolism in films these days is much more sophisticated, but the
       symbols act the visual poetry.  Is there a motif throughout the
       film that hints at or foreshadows something?

  • Theme
       The plot is usually obvious.  But what was the underlying message the film
       was trying to convey?

  • Production Values
       I try to notice the special effects, the set design, the cinematography...all
       of those things the director had to coordinate to make the film whole.

  • Final credits
       There is a reason people are still sitting in their seats after the film ends. 
       They are reading the ending credits, perhaps to see who that actor was
       they didn't recognize or what those songs were or where the movie was
       filmed (at the very end the film "thanks" various people and places.  The
       places are the locations).  It's fun to see that they weren't really in
       Tuscany, they were in San Bernardino!

Final thoughts: 

Book vs. Film.

I hate it when people say, "It wasn't as good as the book." 

Books and films are two different art forms.  Though whatever the written word can convey, a film can tell in pictures, films operate in real time and are limited to around two hours, whereas a novel has the luxury of endless time to tell its story. And I give props to films that do not use long narrative explanations of the plot or exposition, but instead use images to progress the story.  As the saying goes, "A picture is worth a thousand words."


Also I loved watching Siskel and Ebert, and I remember one of them talking about how to find films you will enjoy by choosing a critic you liked and following that person.  Read or listen to critics, see the films and then compare - if you liked the film, which critics also liked it?  If you didn't like it, what critics didn't?  Do some comparisons like that for awhile and then if you want to be sure to see films you will like, following that critic that most echoes your feelings about a film.

I hope it will be me!
So now I hope I have convinced you that my sometimes snarky comments on films are based on some knowledge and, of course, I must admit, my own biases.  There is always the objective and the subjective.

If you want to dig deeper, I recommend this link from the University of Washington How to Read a Film and James Monaco's scholarly book "How to Read a Film" first written in 1977 and now out in it's 4th edition.


How do you judge a film?

Now on with my reviews for this week.


***In Theatres Now***

12 Years a Slave (2013)

In 1841, a free black man is kidnapped into slavery.
This is a very disturbing film, but it needs to be because slavery was a huge stain on American history and an abomination. 
The Best Actor category for the Academy Award is going to be a difficult one to predict as the field is so strong this year (I am predicting that Robert Redford's turn in "All is Lost" is also going to earn him a nomination. Will report back when I see it.)  
Chiwetel Ejiofor will surely be nominated for this as will Michael Fassbender, but Fassbender possibly in the Best Supporting Actor category instead of Best Actor.  (To see Ejiofor's acting range, catch him in "Dancing on the Edge," where he plays a Duke Ellington-type band leader in 1930's England playing now on STARZ).
Rosy the Reviewer says...a MUST SEE!!!

Movies You Might Have Missed
And some you will be glad you did!
(I see the bad ones so you don't have to)
Note:  The themes this week seem to be German films and terrorist attacks.

The Attack (2012)

An Arab surgeon in Tel Aviv discovers his Christian wife is a suicide bomber and he sets out to discover why.

This film provoked controversy, because the Arab director shot the film partly in Israel and there was a sympathetic Jewish element in the film.  But it is a terrific, taut film.  You will be pulled in.  Ali Suliman is a study in confusion as he seeks to discover the truth about his wife and we all learn there are no easy answers to the continuing troubles in the Middle East. 

Rosy the Reviewer says...a riveting mystery set amidst the turmoil of the Middle East.  Highly recommended.
(In Arabic and Hebrew with English subtitles)

Barbara (2012)

It's 1980's East Germany and yet another doctor is embroiled in political strife, this time the doctor is a she and she has been banished to the countryside for trying to defect.

This is a quiet film set against the backdrop of lush German countryside making the repression of Eastern Germany all the more frightening.  It's a tense and interesting plot as you try to figure out will she or won't she?  It's an acting tour de force for actress Nina Hoss.   

Rosy the Reviewer says...A good reminder of just how recently Europe was in the throes of Communist repression.  Highly recommended. 
(In German with English subtitles) 

Lore (2012)

As the allies sweep into Germany, a teenaged Lore and her siblings are abandoned by her Nazi parents and must make their way to freedom.

Here is a really interesting new idea gone wrong. 
What happened to Nazi families once the war was over? 
The performances, of mostly children, are outstanding.  However, just as "The Attack" and "Barbara" had stories well told, this movie missed the mark and wasted that interesting idea on a very dry and slow presentation.  Again subtitles.

Rosy the Reviewer says...some of the critics liked it.  I didn't, so view at your own peril.
(In German with English subtitles)

White House Down (2013)

The White House is once again under attack and we need a hunky guy to save the President.

If you like this kind of thing, Gerard Butler did it better in Olympus Has Fallen (reviewed in my October 25th Week in Reviews), but all I could think of while watching this film was where was "Dumb and Dumber" when you needed them?

Rosy the Reviewer I said, dumb.  But I do enjoy Channing Tatum's chest.

That's it for this week.


See you next Tuesday
"What Librarians Hate!"

Thanks for reading! 
If you enjoyed this post,
feel free to subscribe and/or share it with your friends.

No comments :

Post a Comment