Classic Film Review: Jaws (1975)

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The sound of waves crash against a small fishing boat floating on the waters of the ocean. The character of Quint, played by Robert Shaw, bites down on a biscuit. He is seated next to a giant fishing reel. The splashes of the ocean and the creaking of the boat are interrupted by slow, low notes from a string section of an orchestra. The reel begins slowly ticking, coming into focus and catching the attention of Quint. Martin Brody, played by Roy Scheider, sits at the edge of the boat, trying to tie a bowline knot. Quint slowly grabs the rod as the camera focuses on the large reel. Suddenly, Brody shouts “Hey, I’ve got it!” as he finishes the knot. This break in tension segues into a frenzy as the line begins rapidly pulling forward, propelling the film towards its next thrilling sequence. This brilliant moment is one of many that exemplify the brilliance of Steven Spielberg’s 1975 classic, Jaws. I’d never seen the movie until now, but a classic is a classic for a reason. Jaws is a tightly-wound masterpiece. Its narrative and characters feel as if they leaped off the page of an intricately-woven literary novel. If that isn’t enough, its cinematography, music, acting, and production cement the film as one of the greatest examples of cinema in history. It is also, in my opinion, one of the best-directed films ever made. Though this is only Spielberg’s second directing gig, he manages to rival Hitchcock in his ability to build suspense and keep the audience’s attention on what he wants. Jaws is also commonly accepted as one of the most influential films in history. The anticipation, release, and success of the film made it essentially the first major summer blockbuster. The sheer amount of accomplishments that this film was able to garner is astounding when considering its troubled production, filming drama, and costly budget for the time. Spielberg insisted on filming at sea, and the entire second half of the film was shot completely on a small boat. The amalgamation of production and budget restrictions that hindered Spielberg’s vision for the film ended up benefitting the film, as Spielberg was forced to think out of the box and employ new and revolutionary tactics in filmmaking and direction.

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Jaws, as most people know, is the story of a giant killer shark that terrorizes a small beach town and is pursued by the chief of police, Martin Brody. Brody is an honest man with a wife and two kids. The brilliance of Roy Scheider’s performance as Brody is that despite having the outward appearance of a stern and hardened man, his demeanor is actually soft and reflective. It really feels like he’s just an ordinary guy trying to do his best to protect the people of the town. When casting for the film, Spielberg didn’t want to have big name actors appear in the movie since he wanted the events of the film to “believe this was happening to people like you and me”. In fact, Charlton Heston was originally interested in the role but Spielberg felt his grand image would detract from the ordinary every-day setting and the terror and connection that the audience would feel for Brody. As much of a thriller as Jaws is, the first half of the film is actually dedicated to building the character of Brody, and in analyzing the fear and paranoia of the townspeople in response to the shark attacks. A difference in ideologies takes place early in the film between Brody and Mayor Larry Vaughn, one of the many colorful characters in the movie. The mayor has his eyes set on continuing the beach tourism that drives the town’s economy while Brody is more concerned with the safety of its citizens. Brody’s anxiety is depicted through close up shots of Roy Scheider’s concerned expressions. In a particularly memorable scene, Brody sits on the beach, and as other people cross the screen, the camera cuts in closer to Brody’s face. Even during the shark attack sequences, the camera focuses on the movements and reactions of the people as a brilliant depiction of fear and panic. It’s as if the conflict doesn’t come from the shark itself, but rather the people’s fear of it, and how it causes them to act.

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But to cite the fear of the shark as the main conflict in the film would do an extreme disservice to the shark itself. Even without actually being on screen, the shark’s presence is always felt. Originally, Spielberg had designed several mechanical sharks, but they all constantly malfunctioned. To film around this issue, Spielberg showed only portions of the shark at a time. In some scenes, its tail or fin could be seen, and in others, it would be shown as a prop shark head. Aside from the practical effects, the shark’s terror came from its unseen presence more so than what was actually seen. Spielberg would have a large barrel, or a log slowly move towards the characters to represent the shark’s movement. The greatest fear comes from the imagination of the audience, and so by hiding the shark, it’s appearance could be hyped by the audience as more terrifying than what could be shown in a practical prop. Of course, none of the terror would be possible without John William’s excellent score. The simplicity of two alternating notes in a minor 2nd interval proves to be so impactful in its ability to indicate the presence of lurking dread. The increasing speed and volume of the notes as they crescendo into a symphony of cacophonous sound only further builds the suspense. Aside from the ominous main theme, Williams’s score is quite upbeat, with a sense of adventure created by animated and energetic violins.

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As the film progresses, more and more interesting characters get featured, such as oceanographer Matt Hooper, played by Richard Dreyfuss. Hooper adds some levity to the film with his slightly more buoyant personality. He provides just the right amount of quirk and humor to not distract from the film’s serious tone. Robert Shaw’s Quint, the shark hunter, is another character that is rich with personality. His pursuit of the shark comes off as very Melvillian, often harkening to the literary obsessiveness of Captain Ahab in Moby Dick.  The second half of the film relies on the strength of the character interactions between Brody, Hooper, and Quint. Jaws can actually be considered two movies with two separate environments. The first hour introduces the shark and focuses on the town, whereas the second hour is a shark hunt on a fishing boat that takes place entirely out in the ocean. This is where the acting really shines. The scientifically inclined Hooper comes into conflict with the hardened Quint while Brody acts as a straight man to both. Eventually, they feel and function like a unit and bond as they try and hunt down the shark. Scenes between the three involving Quint and Hooper comparing injuries, followed by the three characters singing chanteys are some examples of the excellent character moments in the film. The action and adventure also heighten in the second half as more of the shark is seen and as the fishing boat becomes more and more damaged after each run-in with the creature (even some live footage of actual sharks was integrated into the filming). These scenes, with the combination of brilliant acting, character development, music, and directing are some of the greatest examples of movie magic that you will be hard-pressed to find replicated in most movies today.

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When I finished watching Jaws, I had this great feeling, as if I had just come back from a big adventure. There are not one, but several scenes that can be considered some of the best scenes in film history. The camera and the music felt like characters just as much as the actors did. The selective views of the shark along with the initial point-of-view shots from the shark’s perspective cement it as one of the most iconic creatures in horror. There’s no point in reiterating how impactful this film was to Hollywood, but what I can say is that it more than earns its status. It’s a carefully constructed and thoughtful yet wild adventure that builds to an epic encounter between a terrifying force of nature. It’s an inward look at human psychology and response to fear. It balances its narrative in just the right ways and rewards and punishes characters in a way that consistently aligns with their actions and choices. At the end of the day, Jaws is one of the greatest movies ever made.

 

 

 

Miniblog: The Cloverfield Paradox Spoiler Review

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Before I go into the review, I want to say that I didn’t see the ad for The Cloverfield Paradox during the Super Bowl.  I watched the trailer afterward on YouTube and only then saw the big marketing ploy: it was airing that very night on Netflix. The last Cloverfield movie, Ten Cloverfield Lane, was advertised maybe a month or a few weeks before its theatrical release. The Cloverfield movies have had unique marketing campaigns that draw attention to the strange concepts and seemingly different genres of each film. In this case, the marketing campaign succeeded again. I was totally surprised when I saw the release date and immediately wanted to watch it. It was Sunday night though and I had class in the morning, so I watched it Monday and…
The Cloverfield Paradox is an otherwise straightforward isolated space thriller with interesting elements of mystery and visual appeal, however, in regards to its story, characters, and the answers to questions it sets up, it simply falls flat.
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Let’s start with the fact that we don’t get any interaction or development for the majority of the crew members. The only identifying feature is that they come from different nations. Given the incredibly talented cast including Daniel Bruhl and David Oyelowo, it’s unfortunate that a film with such good performances provided such little detail to its characters. The only character with a backstory is the protagonist, Ava Hamilton, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw. I know that in typical space thrillers the crew ends up dying anyway, but at least one moment of comradery between them establishes that what is happening to them is tragic. In Alien the crew is laughing and joking around right before the alien rips out of Kane’s chest. In this movie, the crew members are at each other’s throats in the very first interaction they have on-screen.

 

Once the story gets going and the crew fires a particle accelerator, it’s obvious when we see a flash from the earth that the will be transferred to a different dimension. This leads me to my second point about the film, it’s incredibly predictable. The fact that they were transported to an alternate Earth was predictable, the fact that the gyro compass was inside the Russian character was predictable, the fact that Elizabeth Debicki’s character (the one from the alternate Earth) had sinister intentions was predictable, and the fact the Cloverfield monster had ended up on their Earth as a result of the firing was predictable. Elements of the film come out of nowhere, the plot point of the main character’s children burning down in a fire because of her decisions is expositioned out towards the end of the film for dramatic effect. The entire sub plot with the main character’s husband where he finds a little girl is entirely pointless and boring. The sci-fi elements, once they get going, are interesting enough. There are exploding bodies full of worms, sentient hands, and gruesome mutilations. However, none of these incidents are ever explained, they are simply chalked up to “quantum entanglement”, the two worlds are messing with each other because they are close. That doesn’t explain how an arm can just gain sentience and start writing instructions, or someone could collapse and die then explode worms. Once the movie ends with the giant Cloverfield monster attacking the ship, there is no context to the situation. Is it the same Cloverfield monster from New York but grown up? Is this the same world as Ten Cloverfield Lane with the alien mothership? None of this is explained, and the ending just feels tacked on for thrills.

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As a film, it has narrative problems and its characters are thin. As a space thriller it has enjoyable moments and pretty good visual effects. It contains some sci-fi movie clichés like the dumb scientists, in this case the comic relief character is so enamored by an incident of magnetic interference that he stares at it and lets the metal material he was using behind him swallow him up. Elements of the film are very derivative of other sci-fi films like Alien, Life, and Event Horizon (although really all of these films derive from Alien).

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It is definitely the weakest of the Cloverfield movies but I enjoyed watching it. Maybe I’m just desperate for semi-decent science fiction films by major studios, a topic that will be explored in an upcoming blog.

Kong: Skull Island-What Makes A Better Movie, Visual Elements or Literary Elements?

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I just saw Kong: Skull Island, a very entertaining and interesting movie. The action scenes are on point. The visual style is attention-grabbing and the cinematography is splendid. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts does an admirable job of recreating the 70’s Vietnam Era aesthetic, and he exceeds in his ability to depict human characters in sweeping long shots that indicate their vulnerability. However, where the visual elements of the film soar, the literary elements fall flat. The characters are almost nonexistent, the narrative is kind of all over the place and the dialogue is just TERRIBLE in some scenes. Now, keep in mind, this is a monster movie. We came to see King Kong fight a bunch of dinosaurs and attack some soldiers, so why should the film’s success be measured by a good story and characters? Furthermore, is a film with superior visuals, sound, and direction a better film; or is a film with superior writing, story, and characters better?

To go back to Kong, the story is straightforward, a team of scientists and soldiers go to Skull Island, damage the ecosystem, get attacked by Kong, and have to survive a rough landscape of monsters and dinosaurs. The characters are either one dimensional like Samuel L Jackson (a hardened veteran), Tom Hiddleston(a generic badass), and Brie Larson(a photographer…that’s basically all there is to her character); or the characters are plot points used to move along the story like John Goodman, Toby Kebbell, and Cory Hawkins. By the way, I’m using the actors’ names because of course, I don’t remember any of the names of the characters. I’m even good with names so it’s not like I wasn’t trying (I know literally every character’s name in Game of Thrones just try me).  In fact, what happens with these characters is something that I wrote about recently where the actors are so good they make you think the characters are better than they are. When John Goodman and Samuel L Jackson are talking to each other, the dialogue isn’t good, there’s little insight into their characters, yet it still sounds intense. That’s because the actors are intense, and they can make terrible dialogue like “I am the cavalry” sound somewhat plausible. If you just look at the cast for the film: Brie Larson recently won an Oscar, John Goodman should win an Oscar, and Samuel L Jackson is…well, Samuel L Jackson. These are all amazing actors, and the only reason I wasn’t falling asleep watching these characters is because of who they were played by.

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But again, we don’t need the characters to be Shakespearean good, it’s a monster movie, so why be overly critical? Well, just because a film’s purpose is to scare people with monsters, it doesn’t mean it’s a good movie even if it succeeds in its purpose. I’d like to compare this film to the 2005 Peter Jackson directed King Kong movie. In my opinion, Jackson made a better film, with a better story. You actually cared about Kong as the film did its best to establish a true connection between Kong and the female lead. However, to the film’s detriment, the third act isn’t as good as the rest of the movie and it often becomes too slow and sappy. The action is good, but the film tends to drag and is overly long. With Kong: Skull Island, the action is unrelenting. It seems like every few minutes there’s a new scary creature leaping out at its victims. The story is barebones but the pace is intense and focuses on the visual creativity and scope of the creatures rather than the struggles of the characters. Kong is an unstoppable, overpowered death machine and it’s awesome. Rather than get bogged down in the third act, we get treated to an awesome action scene between Kong and a giant dinosaur-lizard thing. With the Peter Jackson Kong movie, you have a thoughtful, more character driven film that wants to shed light on the gentle nature of the giant ape. With the new movie, you have a pretty straightforward monster movie with epic action scenes.

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So what does make a better film? Is it the visual elements, or the literary elements (story and screenwriting, etc.)? I think it varies from person to person. If you’re like me, and you can’t appreciate a film as much if it doesn’t have a strong narrative and well-written relatable characters, then you probably swing more towards literary elements defining films. If you’re more interested in the art and the crafting of a scene, the cinematography, the visual effects, the music, the production design (I love all these elements too, don’t get me wrong), but you might then define a film through that lens rather than overanalyzing the story and narrative. This would also apply to Kong: Skull Island, which I wouldn’t even consider a bad film. I would consider Kong an ok film from a story point-of-view and a very enjoyable one from a visual point of view. The purpose of many films is to entertain, and if that is the case, then Kong: Skull Island passes with flying colors. If you as an audience member are looking for something more in a monster movie, I would suggest looking elsewhere; but for all you monster movie lovers, Kong: Skull Island is another good addition to the pantheon of monster films, and I can’t wait for this version of Kong to fight Godzilla.