Great First Acts

Discuss films and filmmakers of the 20th century (and even a little of the 19th century). Threads may contain spoilers.
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#1 Post by exte » Sun Apr 22, 2007 12:47 am

Today I was watching Children of Men, and not to crap on the film, but I wasn't feeling very involved in the story. This was for a variety of reasons including being very tired, but it was enough of a combination to keep me at bay and somewhat objective about the structure that was 'crooking' me along. Normally I hate to catch myself watching a film the first time this way. The reverse would have to be a film like The Matrix, where you're just sucked right in and pulled right along.

Okay, so the thread topic: First Acts. I was wondering about great first acts in films, and which ones stand out the most. Which films set up the storyline, the characters, the tone so splendidly that you could theoretically just watch that act, and it could be enough for enjoyment. If I would put Children of Men to that test, which I suppose would be unfair to a degree, it would fail miserably after today.

I'm guessing the film that takes the cake in this case would have to the be The Godfather. Can you name a better one? The wedding sequence, setting up just about everyone? The first scene, where the tone is set so amazingly well with the cinematography, writing and performances?

Anyway, I don't want this to deteriorate into just a list thread. I don't need top tens, or top fives or top threes. It can be thirty for all I care, I just want it backed up. If you've ever thought about it before, wondered about screenplay structure and the components necessary, etc, I'm curious to hear about it. What's the best first act ever put to film, in your opinion, and why?

(Thanks to Matt who gave the okay...)

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#2 Post by Lemmy Caution » Sun Apr 22, 2007 2:50 am

I'm not really sure what you mean by "first act." Are you referring to just the opening scenes? Or the basic set-up of the plot and characters, like in a 3-act play?

Fifth Element and 12 Monkeys are the first two films that come to mind in which a very strong and interesting first half proceeds to go seriously off the rails in the latter stages. The 5th Element's demise involved the hyper-annoying media personality and the trip to the other planet for a ridiculous shootout. While 12 Monkeys, tripped up when the the lame environmental group came on the scene.

If instead you mean which films have a powerful and economical set-up/intro, then I'd need to think a bit, as nothing springs immediately to mind.

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#3 Post by domino harvey » Sun Apr 22, 2007 3:05 am

I assume he means like this, though this is a little more loose. Both are good for working within formulaic films.

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#4 Post by Cinesimilitude » Sun Apr 22, 2007 4:16 am

yeah, If we were just talking about opening scenes that grab you by the balls, and thrust you into you're new universe for the running time of the film, the list could be thousands long. One of my favorite setups is Star Wars: A New Hope.

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#5 Post by MichaelB » Sun Apr 22, 2007 4:33 am

If I remember rightly (haven't seen it in 14 years), Bryan Singer's Public Access was a great first act.

And yes, I meant "was", not "had" - the film stopped just as I thought it was really starting to get going.

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#6 Post by zedz » Sun Apr 22, 2007 6:06 pm

I'm not really into thinking about films in terms of "acts", but some films that have impressed me with the economy of their set-up (and in these cases I'm thinking more about the first ten minutes or less of screen time than the first third of the film, say):

I Know Where I'm Going - The gold standard of economic set-up. The only thing more remarkable than the headlong rush of the opening scenes is how naturally Powell & Pressburger negotiate the change of pace that follows right after.

Solaris - No, not the Tarkovsky, which takes forever to get going, but Soderbergh's remake, which delivers all the essential background information and gets Clooney onto the space station in about seven minutes.

Who's Camus Anyway? - Yanagimachi's brilliant comeback introduces all of his major characters (in a sprawling ensemble piece), sketches the important relationships and delivers all of the essential background in a single virtuoso tracking shot, while also (of course) self-reflexively.

Winchester '73 Considering the entire film is a lesson in economy (there's about three filmsworth of incident crammed into its slender running time), then the opening act surely is too. The essential set-up (running through to the theft of the rifle) is probably dealt with by the ten minute mark.

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#7 Post by Titus » Sun Apr 22, 2007 7:33 pm

Like zedz, I generally don't slice films into acts, but I do think that openings, be they scenes or shots, can be of enormous impact and importance to the film.

Werckmeister Harmonies is a recent one that has a perfect opening scene -- the candle flame being distinguished, the eclipse simulation, and the subsequent shot of János walking home from the bar in that empty street as the camera slowly pulls away from him as he's swallowed up in the darkness. It wonderfully lays out both the thematic and stylistic preoccupations of the picture. And it's also jawdropping from a technical standpoint, even relative to Tarr's typical standards.

Another contemporary filmmaker who has immense talent for opening his films is Takashi Miike. When he's interested in the film he's making, rather than working simply to be working (which he often is), he has a unique ability for distilling the entire undercurrent of emotion and meaning in his pictures into a single shot or scene to start the picture, immediately setting the tone for the audience. Maybe not the best but probably the most well-known example is the opening to the original Dead or Alive, in which we're introduced to all of the characters and are instantly immersed in the bizarre world the film takes place in, immediately prodding us into adjusting our frames of mind accordingly -- and we get a delicious satire of the yakuza genre, to boot! -- all in a delirious, hyper-caffeinated montage of violence and depravity. Unfortunately, he seemed to pour all of his creative energy into those 6 or 7 minutes, as the subsequent 90 minutes were a disinterested, slow-burning yakuza tale followed by an incongruous rug-pull finale.

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#8 Post by Belmondo » Sun Apr 22, 2007 7:41 pm

I always felt the early portion of Warren Beatty's REDS was a great first act. It begins with ten minutes or more of the elderly "witnesses" who introduce both the time period and the real John Reed and Louise Bryant and then seamlessly moves to early set up scenes with Beatty as a reporter who insists on being where the action is, and Diane Keaton as a somewhat frustrated artists model and intellectual. These two people really NEED to meet and they don't need to "meet cute" as would happen in a lesser movie - this is show and tell for a smart audience and draws you right into the movie.

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#9 Post by shumpy » Sun Apr 22, 2007 8:13 pm

Full Metal Jacket springs immediately to mind. Allow me to quote from Jonathan Rosenbaum's Chicago Reader capsule: "Elliptical, full of subtle inner rhymes (for instance, the sound cues equating a psychopathic marine in the first part with a dying female sniper in the second), and profoundly moving, this is the most tightly crafted Kubrick film since Dr. Strangelove, as well as the most horrific; the first section alone accomplishes most of what The Shining failed to do."

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#10 Post by Lemmy Caution » Mon Apr 23, 2007 3:27 am

Agree with Titus that Werckmeister Harmonies has a stunning intro.

Gilda has a fantastic opening, which introduces the danger of the city (where is it supposed to be? Buenos Aires), and sets up a complicated relationship between the rich man who saves the young gambler, which will only get more encumbered when Gilda enters the picture. The strength and economy of the first act is made even more apparent when the film goes of the rails a bit in the final act. But the opening scenes are some of my favorite in all of noir.

Which reminds me that Kiss Me Deadly has one of the great openings, as mysterious and full throttle as they come. Does an amazing job of setting the mood of the film and grabbing hold of the viewer.

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#11 Post by ellipsis7 » Mon Apr 23, 2007 4:01 am

THE GODFATHER is great - a lovely Act I - the opening shot of the skull like face of the undertaker meeting Don Corleone to ask a wedding day favour of revenge for his disfigured daughter - keys the theme, the decline of the American family...

First Acts (dramatic structure dates from Aristotle's 'Poetics', and applies to arthouse films as much as entertainment fare - should be used as an anaytical tool rather than a formulaic and inflexible diktat) ain't so difficult...

Introduce characters/protaganist and their normal world, after 5-10 minutes usually, there is a disturbance to them or that world that knocks them out of hilter, they try to come to terms with it and return things to their previous equilibrium, but after another ten or so minutes they realise this is futile and and at the first act turning point something happens or a decision is made that propels them on their dramatic journey with all the complications and obstacles that that will throw in their path... Act II is generally more difficult to construct, whereas Act I has to be lean, tasty and tantalising to draw the audience into the narrative...

The really interesting scripts are like MILLION DOLLAR BABY, where Eastwood dramatically changes what is at stake in the whole story at the second act turning point... From the fight to escaping identity and physical ghetto to become a female boxing champion, it transforms into a life or death dilemma, confronting issues of euthanasia, integrity, identity and self respect on an even higher level in Act III...

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#12 Post by Foulard » Mon Apr 23, 2007 12:06 pm

I think The Best Years of Our Lives does a nice job of setting up meeting of the three protagonists (Dana Andrews, Frederic March, Harold Russell) in its first scenes. The isolation of the travel time in the transport plane gives them time to meet and set up their backgrounds (for us). As far as a first act, that could also be extended to their reunions with their families, which must take up the first 30 minutes or so of the film. By the time that's done, you're locked in until the end of the story.

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#13 Post by Darth Lavender » Mon Apr 23, 2007 9:43 pm

For 'economical' first acts, two that come immediately to mind are "The Devil Rides Out" and "Stargate" both of which very quickly establish an intriguing set-up and get on with the story.

Gladiator has, for pure entertainment value, one of the best first acts in cinema. That whole Germania sequence from the opening shot to the film's only large-scale battle, to the wintery cinematography to Phoenix's introduction, to Harris' death are just first rate. It ends up being a flaw because, for me, the film does reach that calibre again until the operatic finale.

Just my opinion here, and a lot of people disagree, but on the opposite end of the scale, with first acts that a offer a very slow, but never boring set-up (the most obvious example being Alien, which needs no comment,) I really enjoyed the first half of "Star Trek Nemesis," from the look of the film (similar to the original crew's twilight finale Star Trek VI) to the slow build-up regarding Shinzon's identity (after all the vagueries, and the suggestion that he's the suitably monstrous-looking offspring of Nosferatu and Hellboy, he turns out to be the only thing that would surprise me. An ordinary looking, surprisingly young, human-being.) I think a part of the strength of Nemesis' first act, is that it feels a lot like the beginning of the third act in most other films (actually, the dimly-lit and under-new-management Romulan senate immediately brings to mind a similar scene after Olivier's defeat of Spartacus)

Surprised it hasn't been mentioned already, but Fellowship of the Ring was a first-rate first act. Aside from the opening-monologue (the quality of film-making and story has to be pretty darn impressive to sustain 8 minutes of narration) and the urgency of later scenes with the Nazgul, Fellowship just did such a magnificient job (especially in the extended) of (without becoming boring) giving Hobbiton enough screentime to remain significant over the rest of the 11 hour saga.
Another legendary first act (probably more famous than the battle which follows it) would be 'Zulu' (actually, Jackson sites this as a major influence on the lead-up to the battle of Helm's Deep)

Also, in the realm of "slow but thoroughly engaging" would be the first half of "Dracula, Prince of Darkness"

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Re: Great First Acts

#14 Post by barryconvex » Sun Mar 16, 2014 9:48 pm

i'm not sure if it qualifies as a whole Act because it doesn't introduce all of the characters but the pixar movie "Up" has about the greatest opening of any film i can think of. the telling of a couple's time together from childhood to old age and all the failures and triumphs that go with a lifetime spent together is nothing short of miraculous. that they accomplished it all in ten minutes is the type of inspiration that comes once in a lifetime ...i still enjoy the the rest of the movie but it's not in the same league as the beginning...

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Re: Great First Acts

#15 Post by whaleallright » Mon Mar 17, 2014 7:37 pm

Rolling Thunder is a film that has a very long setup (or opening act, or part, or whatever term you're more comfortable with). It's also an extraordinary one, slowly taking stock of the alienation the returning vet feels from his family and his community. One of the most convincingly hellish depictions of a soldier's return in cinema. In fact I'd argue it's one of the very best things Paul Schrader has written. The first major turning point, which I won't spoil here, sends the film in a very different direction and while the film never falls apart, each subsequent act is a little less compelling than the previous. It helps that the film is very economically and effectively directed by John Flynn, so even the expected orgy of violence in the final act has a severity and control that keeps it from feeling totally rote (see also: Extreme Prejudice). But boy, is that first act ever memorable. A similar and roughly contemporaneous film that does a somewhat better job sustaining the tone and interest of its setup is Cutter's Way. It too takes a bit of a slide in part three (I'm going on Kristin Thompson's four-part model of plot construction here), but of course the ending is a doozy.

I tend to like setups, or first acts, of a lot of films I otherwise am not that enthusiastic about. With many mediocre genre films, there's a tendency for things to start feeling rote and indifferent once the plot's gears start churning too obviously. More generally, they often sustain the hope for a better film that deep down you know you're not going to get. Lone Survivor is no one's idea of a great film*, but the opening act is certainly stronger than what follows.

* except Armond White's, for all I know
Last edited by whaleallright on Tue Mar 18, 2014 12:30 am, edited 2 times in total.

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Re: Great First Acts

#16 Post by mistakaninja » Mon Mar 17, 2014 9:03 pm

I like the film, but always wondered why they changed the ending of Cutter's Way from Thornburg's novel. The film's climax might be a doozy, but the book is doozier, both shocking and yet inevitable. I wonder if the book's ending was too well known at the time, or if the road trip nature of the book's final act just wasn't something they wanted to film. The film's ending kind of misses the point of the novel, however. They also watered down the magnitude of Cutter's loss during the film. Heard's casting was unbelievably spot on though. Remarkable performance.

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