3x3: movies that best establish a sense of place

  1. Does Sidney Lumet count as “etc.”?

  2. Jerry Stiller’s in The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3? Whoa.

Ha ha. Enjoy Travolta.


I can’t bring myself to watch the remake, I love the original too much and I just don’t see how John Travolta and Denzel Washington can match up wtih Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw. But I’d like to hear you impressions, so please do post after you’ve seen it.

Wait, isn’t that George’s dad? I meant the other guy. But actually Jerry Stiller is in it too. OK now I’m just confusing myself.

Denzel is actually quite good. Spoiler alert.


Nothing against Denzel. I’m just a Matthau man.

Independently of the awesome car chase, I always like the way Bullitt invokes late 60’s San Francisco: Bullitt’s girlfriend is working on a model of the Embarcadero fountain in the movie, the jazz club he visits. I can’t say whether the surgery scene is accurate, but they made me believe it is.

I particularly love the panning shot of the water when they are sleeping in the bog. It evokes a feeling of just how alien the zone is. The feeling of oppression and decay of the town they live in was excellent and really reinforced the dichotomy of the two worlds.

Session 9 and Das Boot for all the reasons mentioned.

For once my movies haven’t been mentioned already! I tried to move away from movies I already picked for other 3x3’s. I also tried to stay away from New York but I ultimately came back to it.

Still I think I picked movies that feel “New York” without being the typically romantic or dirty versions depicted in, say, Manhattan or any number of Scorcese movies.[B]

  1. The Thing (Carpenter Remake)[/B]
    A claustrophobic box set upon an endless void of white.

2. Do the Right Thing
Bed-Stuy on a hot day.

1. Dog Day Afternoon
I could map out this movie’s entire world the layout is so clear in my mind.
The time of day is clear, the heat is clear, the crowd in growing numbers outside the shuttered windows are clear.

Honourable Mentions

Gosford Park
Gangs of New York (the one element of this film I enjoyed was the way it established the world, the fashions, etc.)
Children of Men

Slumdog Millionaire - I am surprised this hasn’t been mentioned yet. A very bleak, but effective portrait of India.

Swingers - This evokes a very clear time and place for me and really uses what makes LA unique to help further and enhance the plot and characters.

Saturday Night Fever - A great portrait of Italians in Brooklyn.

Damn it, you’re right. Seinfeld fan card revoked.

Keeping it brief as I’m on a phone:

Pleasantville - It was Anytown USA. Although none of us have ever been there, we all know it well thanks to Norman Rockwell.

Schindler’s List - specifically the first parts of the movie in the ghettos. I used to wonder why more did not escape. Now I marvel at how many were able to.

Eraserhead - a stretch I know but I just saw the film and it rests well in my mind. The apartment, hot, tiny, humid, tormented by the ‘baby’ is everything I imagine Sartre’s hell to be like.

Die Hard: A great example of how to give the audience everything they need to know about who’s where, how the locales are connected, and why it’s important, without stopping the story. I can still map Nakatomi Plaza in my head.

The Lord of the Rings: A gimme. The Shire, Rivendell, the Mines of Moria, Lothlorien, Helm’s Deep, … Sir Ian better not die before the Hobbit’s finished. (If I have to pick just one, it’s Fellowship, for Moria.)

Tremors: Hot dust. Rocks. Isolation. Wary but decent people who live there by choice. Decent but wary people who want to escape. Mysteries under the ground that science may or may not explain.

The Bourne Supremacy/Ultimatum/Green Zone - seriously, get beyond the shaky cam jokes, and the really impressive thing about Paul Greengrass’s action sequences is how well he sets out the space the action takes place in - think of the fight in the German’s house in the Bourne Supremacy, the sniper sequence in Waterloo station in the Bourne Ultimatum [1] or the foot chase that’s the climax of the Green Zone - despite the jarring and rapid cuts, you’re surprisingly rarely ever not aware of how everybody is placed in relation to each other and where it’s going to move to next.

Talvisota - unjustly obscure Finnish movie about the Winter War of 39-40 - because it was obviously filmed in the same stretch of forest that they had permission to blow to shreds over the course of the shoot, the shell torn scenery really properly looks grubby and war damaged by the end of the long sequence set there - the fresh snow-covered pine forest of the start is reduced to shredded tree stumps just an hour later. (Extra kudos is added by the superb foley work on the artillery; which forms a constant thumping on the soundtrack for most of the film.)

Rita, Sue and Bob too - personal choice, but if you grew up in a Northern English town in the late 80s/early 90s, it’s all too familiar…

[1] If you actually know Waterloo station, there’s only one real cheat in the entire sequence - the door that Matt Damon escapes through at the end in real life just leads to the back room of a wine store, but otherwise you can actually retrace the path through the station entrance to that point.

I love this.

Also, I’m totally annoyed that Netflix isn’t letting me see either Talvisota or Rita, Sue and Bob Too. When I type in “Talvisota” it suggests a bunch of John Travolta films. Grrrr.


“My argument is not with you.”

There’s also a story reason for this. The company is defending the same strech of front during the battle scenes. It has to be the same location.

Extra kudos is added by the superb foley work on the artillery
Yeah, this is one of the reasons I felt almost shell-shocked when I exited the movie theatre after seeing Talvisota. It’s a harrowing experience.

Oh yeah - it’s one of the few war movies I can think of where they haven’t just used a convenient spare field/disused factory to film it in - the set (so to speak) is genuinely torn to shreds as the film progresses, which adds an unusual degree of realism to its sense of place.

Yeah, this is one of the reasons I felt almost shell-shocked when I exited the movie theatre after seeing Talvisota. It’s a harrowing experience.

Even on DVD, with English subs, I had the same experience.

Handy montage here, which unfortunately misses out on one of the main effects of the film, which is, TBH, its length:-

  • Barry Lyndon. Maybe the most beautiful film I’ve seen.

  • Empire of the Rising Sun. My mother was in a Shanghai internment camp, and she says they got it right. Right enough to make her cry when she saw it with me.

  • In The Mood For Love. Even if that wasn’t what early 60’s HK was like, it is what early 60’s HK should have been like.

High Plains Drifter:: The town on Mono Lake was so powerful to me, that I always wanted to go there. I talked to some people in Lee Vining and found the exact filming location. Clint Eastwood could not have found a better place to locate a “revenge-ghost-western”.

Tatooine In Star Wars: The planet made little sense to me in the other Star Wars movies , but in the original, the desolate, isolate desert planet filled with moisture farmers was one of Geroge Lucas’ best creations.

Thin Red Line: The Pacific island and the shots of the soldiers in the brush and in the grass were some of the best war scenes ever made.

  1. The Darjeeling Limited - I think it kind of cheats at the end when it pans through the various compartments and rooms, but the beginning of the movie does a fantastic job establishing the train in a very natural way as we follow the characters through it.

  2. Angela’s Ashes - Maybe it’s just a bias, but I think most films set in Ireland do a fantastic job creating a sense of place. The Commitments, Bloody Sunday, even Five Minutes of Heaven. The little scene on the side of the highway in Five Minutes of Heaven by the Larne flats was enough to get my family on a long discussion about Irish movies and settings over Easter dinner this past weekend. Even though I think Angela’s Ashes is probably the weakest movie of the bunch, it was the one they all agreed made them both miss home and glad they’d immigrated to Canada at the same time.

  3. Ghostbusters - I don’t care that it’s Manhattan. Ghostbusters isn’t some obvious dramatic love letter to the city. This choice probably has more to do with the amount of times I watched Ghostbusters as a kid and how much I wished our local library was anything close to the New York Public Library. When I visited Manhattan last summer, it was scenes from Ghostbusters that flashed through my head.

The Night of the Living Dead trilogy: George A. Romero’s settings of the farmhouse, the mall, then the military base in each movie become almost another character in the film.

Same goes for the Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, but then again the hotel really was written as another character.