Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Jaws Binge: Jaws 3-D (1983)

The last two films in the Jaws franchise are terrible. We all know this fact.

What isn’t settled, perhaps, is the question of which entry -- Jaws 3-D or Jaws: The Revenge -- actually takes the crown as the very worst installment of the bunch.  

Traditionally, I have favored Jaws: The Revenge (1987) as representing the absolute nadir of the saga.  But a recent re-watch of Jaws 3-D (1983) suggests that maybe I had it wrong. Though Jaws: The Revenge is consistently, unceasingly dumb and ridiculous, it somehow manages to be entertaining in its stupidity. You can laugh at it at the same time you acknowledge how bad it is.

Jaws 3-D is dull, over-long and unceasingly dumb too...only without the unintentional laughs.  That makes it a bigger drag to sit through.

In short, Jaws 3-D is a horrible, ill-conceived mating of the disaster film format and the shark attack film.  

Most 1970s disaster flicks are set in one scenic locale (a tall building, a ship at sea, etc.) and chart how chaos progresses there, often following some form of usually-natural threat, whether an avalanche, an earthquake, or a storm in the ocean.  

The Jaws films, by contrast, have focused on the Brody family and its ongoing travails with great white sharks.  Aiming for originality, Jaws 3-D blends the two approaches.  Here, the Brodys contend with a great white shark at an amusement park populated by thousands.  

And hey, isn’t that the plot for this summer’s Jurassic World (2015)?

Anyway, a very young Dennis Quaid here plays the older Brody son, Mike, and John Putch is the afraid-of-the-water Sean Brody. 

As the film begins, preparation are underway for “Preview Week” at Sea World (replete with “The Undersea Kingdom,”) a new amusement park/attraction owned by controversial entrepreneur Calvin Bouchard (Louis Gossett, Jr.). Mike is the chief engineer there, and his girlfriend is a marine biologist, Kathryn Morgan (Bess Armstrong) whose job it is to tend to dolphins.

A small great white shark is soon detected in the Sea World lagoon, and publicity hound and D-list celebrity FitzRoyce (Simon MacCorkindale) wants to hunt and kill it for the paparazzi. But Kathryn, realizing that there are no great white sharks in captivity, sees that this incident represents an opportunity for the park, and for science. Sensing dollar signs, Calvin agrees, and the shark is captured rather than killed.  It later dies in captivity.

Unbeknownst to any of these individuals, however, the shark’s angry mother is already in the Sea World lagoon too, ready to strike back…on Opening Day.

It’s a cliché, for certain, to say that a Jaws film lacks “bite.”  But -- what the hell? -- Jaws 3-D really lacks bite. 

The 1983 sequel never generates a real sense of terror, in part because the visual special effects are so bad that they take your attention away from the characters and their predicaments. For instance, a model, or miniature shark is used on several occasions, and it swims right at the screen, in full view, looking absolutely immobile and unreal.  A better director might have sought ways to hide the model shark, or feature it more judiciously. It's baffling that the Spielberg approach -- a reliance on P.O.V. and the genius of John Williams -- isn't repeated here, since the effects are so clearly lacking.

The moment when the shark strikes a plate glass window is perhaps the worst use of the aforementioned great white miniature. A fake shark, matted against a background, appears to strike  a fake window.  It's layers upon layers of incompetence here, one of the worst composites you'll ever see in a major motion picture.

The shark carnage -- body parts, bones, and so forth -- is similarly rendered in a lame way, with sizable matte lines showcasing for posterity their unreality.  Even something that should have been simple -- making a run-of-the-mill submersible look "real" while underwater -- is utterly botched here.

The silliest moment in terms of effects, however, arrives in the finale, as two dancing dolphins are matted into the respective corners of the frame while Mike and Kathryn swim to safety. The results are so atrocious that they look like a bad Hallmark card come to life. 

Notice below, how you don't even see the entire dolphin bodies, and how they don't seem to be in the water (making ripples or waves), but standing in front of the water.

Beyond the terrible, movie-destroying effects work, the editor on Jaws 3-D tries desperately to gin up tension, and largely fails.  The main technique used is slow-motion photography.  So suddenly, during the finale, we get exaggerated, interminable close-ups of Louis Gossett, Jr., Dennis Quaid, and Bess Armstrong dropping their jaws in terror, their eyes popping at some off-screen menace.  

But the shots last so long that they are kind of funny.

Jaws 3-D  also attempts to ape the naturalistic, staccato dialogue made famous by the first two films, but never gets anywhere in the same ball-park. No real human connection is made with the characters here, and so the banter about leaving the park for another country, or Mike and Kathryn getting married largely falls flat.  Similarly, Sean’s attempts at pitching woo with Lea Thompson’s character -- a water-ski performer -- seem unimpressive. All these moments reminded me of a bad Friday the 13th film of the 1980s; one populated by interchangeable teenagers who would later serve as victims for Jason.

One can  also that the filmmakers hoped to create a new triumvirate here, to replace the classic Brody-Hooper-Quint threesome of the 1975 original. We’ve got our Brody (two for the price of one, actually...), our fish-loving scientist (Armstrong), and the self-confident, somewhat amoral hunter, FitzRoyce (MacCorkingdale).  

Suffice it to say that it’s a weak B-team by comparison to the trio we met in Jaws.

Also, the film’s final moments are lacking suspense, and silly to boot. We’re to believe that FitzRoyce -- killed by the shark two-thirds of the way through the film -- is still whole and intact (though not alive) in the shark's mouth, still clutching a grenade for the finale.  

So the weapon is right there, on the shark’s tongue, I guess, waiting for Mike to detonate it in time for a happy ending.  

Do sharks not chew their food? 

Do they just let it sit in their mouths for hours on end, slowly but passively digesting it like a sea-going Sarlacc?

And would not the water loosen the grenade at some point, anyway? 

Heck, what about the movements of the shark?  Wouldn't they cause the bomb to detonate?  And if Fitzroyce's corpse is just lunging there, unchewed inside the shark, how does the shark have room for her next victim?

Let’s just say it’s extremely convenient that when the chips are down, and the shark is in the room with the heroes, that Mike has an easy way to kill it. 

Just pull the ring and dive for cover.

One of the few scenes that I liked in Jaws 3-D, or which I felt achieved the desired effect, involves Mike and Kathryn discussing his family history, and the event that changed the Brodys forever: the shark attacks his father dealt with.  He talks about the repercussions of those shark attacks in Amity, and the moment serves not just as a call-back to better (and beloved) films, but as an acknowledgment of how a tragedy can change the path of one’s life forever.

But for most of its run, Jaws 3-D is a tired, poorly visualized disaster, with unlikable characters, plenty of clichés, and almost no scares whatsoever. 

The film is a suspense-less effort in three dimensions or two.  It is unbelievable to me not only that another film in the saga was produced after this floater, but that the follow-up is arguably as bad (if not as dull) as this sequel is.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Jaws Binge: Jaws 2 (1978)

I once wrote regarding Jaws II (1978) that your enjoyment and appreciation for this sequel may depend, finally, upon which end of the pool you’re swimming in.

If you’re in the deep end of the pool, having just finished a viewing of Spielberg’s superb Jaws (1975), you may find the 1978 Jeannot Szwarc sequel a serviceable horror film, perhaps only lacking a bit in terms of inspiration and execution. It’s a step down from greatness, for certain.

But if you’re swimming in the shallow end of the pool, having recently watched Jaws III (1983) and Jaws: The Revenge (1987), this first sequel may rightly be considered an unqualified home-run. 

Unlike either of those later sequels, Jaws II features some strong horror set-pieces, and re-connects the viewer powerfully with Roy Scheider’s Chief Martin Brody, and his family. 

Importantly, this sequel also seems to occur in a reality viewers can identify with, and not in some fantasy land in which sharks growl like lions or jump headlong onto the pointed masts of passing ships.

But while Jaws was a remarkable human story -- made doubly so by the unforgettable friendship of Brody, Hooper, and Quint -- and a great adventure set on the sea to boot, Jaws II adheres to a less awe-inspiring template.  

Essentially, the film is precisely what critic Roger Ebert called the slasher film sub-genre: a “dead teenager” movie. 

Only this dead teenager movie happens to feature a great white shark in the role of Jason or Michael, and is set at sea instead of in suburbia or at a summer camp.  

The crazy thing is that on these terms, Jaws II is actually a pretty good slasher movie.   It’s just -- again -- a come down from the brilliance of Spielberg’s picture.

“I think we’ve got another shark problem.”

In the waters near Amity a great white shark prowls again.  

The first victims are two vacationers that are attacked near the underwater wreckage of the Orca.  The next victims are a water skier and her mother, but their death is ruled accidental.

Amity’s sheriff, Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), however, becomes obsessed with the notion of a great white threatening the peaceful town, much as one did a few years earlier. 

But the town officials all think he is simply Chicken Little, insisting that the sky is falling.  When Brody causes a panic on a public beach in front of potential real estate investors, the town officials take his badge away, declaring him a menace.

Soon, however, Brody learns there is even more at stake than his job. His sons Mike (Mark Gruner) and Sean (Marc Gilpin) join a group of teens on a boat race to Lighthouse Island.  

They change course for Cable Junction, however, unaware that a great white is shadowing the convoy’s every move…

“I don’t intend to go through that Hell again.”

To examine Jaws II as a “dead teenager” or slasher film, let’s take just a moment and unpack the slasher paradigm a bit, as I defined it in my book Horror Films of the 1980s (2007).

All good slasher movies begin with an organizing principle, and then a set of related elements in orbit around that organizing principle.  

The organizing principle is a “hook,” the key aspect to connect every element of the film together, and in Jaws II, our organizing principle is not unexpectedly summertime in Amity, a beach town.  

This umbrella provides us our primary settings (the beach and the ocean).  It also gives us a sturdy victim pool, in this case not the unsuspecting swimmers of Jaws, but rather a gaggle of teenagers sailing at sea in their rag-tag boats.  This flotilla comes under attack by the menace, a great white prowling the waters nearby.  We also get, under this same umbrella, water-skiers and other summertime revelers.

In addition to the victim pool, another common element of slasher films comes into play in Jaws II. In particular the “crime in the past” plays a kind of oblique role in the action of the film. Chief Brody wonders if this shark has arrived in Amity because it is the mate of the one he destroyed in Jaws.  Perhaps it has come looking for its opposite number?  

If that is indeed the case, then the shark picks the right victims by going after Brody’s family.  The crime in the past is the death of the shark from Jaws, and Martin -- the only survivor of that “murder” is the overall target of the apparent rage spawned by that crime.

You see, this time it was actually “personal” as well…

If we break down the dramatis personae of Jaws II, we see that it consists of “types” also dramatized often in slasher films. For example, the killer in slasher films is almost universally defined as “the other” by appearance and nature. That appearance generally includes a mask, but may also include a blue collar uniform (garage overalls) of some type.  

In broad terms, the shark in Jaws II is certainly easily defined as an “other” since it is a fish. Also like a slasher it depicted with near-supernatural powers.  It always knows the right place to be to seek the weakest or most vulnerable victim.

Jaws II also gives us the common slasher movie archetype of the Cassandra Figure, named after a figure in Greek myth that could see the future but was never believed about her visions.  In many slasher films, we meet a character whose warning are dismissed, even though he or she speaks the truth, and knows that danger is imminent. 

In Halloween that figure is Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence).  In Friday the 13th (1980), the Cassandra figure is Crazy Ralph. 

Oddly enough, Jaws II’s Cassandra Figure is heroic Chief Brody himself, who loses his badge over the (correct) assertion that another great white shark has arrived in the waters of Amity.

Jaws II distinguishes itself from the typical slasher film largely in its heroic depiction of the teenagers who encounter the shark. One teen jumps into the shark’s path and saves Sean Brody.  Others pray aloud, seeking fellowship and grace in prayer. Sure, some of the kids act as the stereotypical “bitches, practical jokers and jocks” that I note in my book, but overall these teens aren’t so dislikable that you root for them to be killed. Sure they want to score and have fun, but they aren’t rotten or indulged to the point that we despise them.

In terms of film grammar, Jaws II -- much like its predecessor -- frequently employs the P.O.V. subjective shot, as it bears down on victims.  In other words, our eyes are the killer’s/shark’s eyes, and indeed this is a crucial aspect of the slasher format, though for different reasons. 

The P.O.V. in the Jaws films relieves the director of having to deploy a malfunctioning robot shark for several compositions, whereas the P.O.V. in slasher films is deployed so audiences will be surprised by the killer’s identity when it is revealed in the last act.

By breaking down Jaws II into the slasher paradigm, we can note, at the very least, that the film seems far more formulaic (and thus predictable) than its predecessor did.  

For example, there is no moment in the film with the raw, human power of the Indianapolis scene aboard the Orca, and no death here that carries the same weight as Quint’s, or even Hooper’s (apparent) demise in the shark cage.   

In some sense, the sheer number of teens in the victim pool here also renders Jaws II less scary. We never get to know the teen characters all that well, and so it matters not very much when a few of them die.  They aren’t differentiated to such a degree that we are knocked back on our heels and left in shock when we lose them.

That said, Penelope Gilliatt writing in The New Yorker pinpointed the sequel’s great virtue.  She wrote. “It lies in the performance of Roy Scheider as the kicked-out police chief, an underdog with a nose for danger and with real tenacity.”  She further notes that Scheider is a born actor and “seems always to be contemplating the temper of things.”

Scheider is Jaws II’s most valuable player because he invests the material with real humanity and real passion, even when the screenplay isn’t entirely up to snuff.  In 1978, we might have termed his emotional state “shell-shocked” but we can see today that Chief Brody suffers from PTSD.  He’s never gotten over that encounter with the great white in Jaws, and so Jaws II very much concerns him confronting his own state of fear, his own demons. 

Finally, Jaws II is a bit less effective than its predecessor because of the carnage candy factor (see: Scream 2 [1997]). In this case, that means not only are there more victims to kill (and therefore less identification with each individual), but also much more elaborate death scenes, including ones that strain believability.  The deal killer in Jaws II is the moment that the shark brings down a helicopter.  

I can readily imagine and believe that Brody and company fight a supernaturally-powered giant shark once, in Jaws.  But the next shark he encounters is also so powerful and vicious that it can down a helicopter, without being killed itself?

This, my friends, is Jason Voorhees territory, and that brings us back to the movie’s structure. It’s a (wet) slasher film.

Not that there is anything wrong with that.  Jaws II is an entertaining horror movie, but it does not endure as a classic like its predecessor does.

That said, I will happily watch this sequel over and over again if the alternative is Jaws III or Jaws: The Revenge.

Finally, there's one scene I'd like to mention here that continues the amusing cinematic sea animal war begun by Orca (1977). There, you will recall, the killer whale saved Charlotte Rampling from a shark, dispatching the great white with relative ease.   In Jaws II, there is a rebuttal to that moment.  Here, we get a scene where the corpse of a killer whale is seen on the beach...ripped apart by a great white.   

Too bad there was never an Orca II to continue this pissing contest between Jaws knock-offs.

Monday, August 10, 2020

Jaws Binge: Jaws (1975)

A modern film classic, Jaws (1975) derives much of its terror from a directorial approach that might be termed "information overload." 

Although the great white shark remains hidden beneath the waves for most of the film -- unseen but imagined -- director Steven Spielberg fills in that visual gap and the viewer's imagination with a plethora of facts and figures about this ancient, deadly predator.

Legendarily, the life-size mechanical model of the shark (named Bruce) malfunctioned repeatedly during production of the film, a reality which forced Spielberg to hide the creature from the camera for much of the time. Yet this problem actually worked out in the film's best interest. Because for much of the first two acts, unrelenting tension builds as a stream of data about this real-life "monster" washes over us. 

In short, it's the education of Martin Brody, and the education of Jaws' audience.

After a close-up shot of a typewriter clacking out the words "SHARK ATTACK (all caps), images, illustrations and descriptions of the shark start to hurtle across the screen in ever increasing numbers. Chief Brody reads from a book that shows a mythological-style rendering of a shark as a boat-destroying, ferocious sea monster.

Another schematic in the same scene reveals a graph of shark "radar," the fashion by which the shark senses a "distressed" fish (the prey...) far away in the water.

Additional photos in the book -- and shown full-screen by Spielberg -- depict the damage a shark can inflict: victims of shark bites both living and dead. These are not photos made up for the film, incidentally, but authentic photographs of real-life shark attack victims.

Why, there's even a "gallows" humor drawing of a shark (with a human inside its giant maw...) drawn by Quint at one point, a "cartoon" version of the audience's learning.

Taken together, these various images cover all aspects of shark-dom: from reputation and lore to ability; from a shark's impact on soft human flesh, to the macabre and ghastly.

This information overload about sharks also comes to Brody (the audience surrogate) in other ways, through both complementary pieces of his heroic triumvirate, Hooper and Quint, respectively. 

The young, enthusiastic, secular Hooper first becomes conveyor of data in his capacity as a scientist.

Hooper arrives in Amity and promptly performs an autopsy on shark attack victim Chrissie Watkins. He records the examination aloud into a tape recorder mic (while Brody listens). Hooper's vocal survey of the extensive wounds on the corpse permits the audience to learn precisely what occurred when this girl was attacked and partially devoured by a great white shark. 

Hooper speaks in clinical, scientific terms of something utterly grotesque: "The torso has been severed in mid-thorax; there are no major organs remaining...right arm has been severed above the elbow with massive tissue loss in the upper musculature... partially denuded bone remaining..."

As Brody's science teacher of sorts, Hooper later leads the chief through a disgusting (and wet...) dissection of a dead tiger shark (one captured and believed to be the Amity offender). Again, Hooper educates not just Brody; he educates the audience about a shark's eating habits and patterns. All these facts -- like those presented by illustrations in the books -- register powerfully with the viewer and we begin to understand what kind of "monster" these men face.

Later, aboard the Orca, Quint completes Brody's learning curve about sharks with the final piece of the equation: first-hand experience. 

Quint recounts, in a captivating sequence, how he served aboard the U.S.S. Indianapolis in 1945. How the ship was sunk after delivering the Hiroshima bomb, and how 1100 American sailors found themselves in shark-infested water for days on end.

Over a thousand sailors went into the water and only approximately three-hundred came out.

As Quint relates: "the idea was: shark comes to the nearest man, that man he starts poundin' and hollerin' and screamin' and sometimes the shark go away... but sometimes he wouldn't go away. Sometimes that shark he looks right into ya. Right into your eyes. And, you know, the thing about a shark... he's got lifeless eyes. Black eyes. Like a doll's eyes. When he comes at ya, doesn't seem to be living... until he bites ya, and those black eyes roll over white and then... ah then you hear that terrible high-pitched screamin'. The ocean turns red, and despite all the poundin' and the hollerin', they all come in and they... rip you to pieces."

This testimony about an eyewitness account is not the only "history" lesson for Brody, either. Brief reference is also made in the film to the real-life "Jersey man-eater" incident of July 1 - July 12, 1916, in which four summer swimmers were attacked by a shark on the New Jersey coast.

This "information overload" concerning sharks -- from mythology and scientific facts to history and nightmarish first-person testimony -- builds up the threat of the film's villain to an extreme level, while the actual beast remains silent, unseen. When the shark does wage its final attack, the audience has been rigorously prepared, and it feels frightened almost reflexively. 

Spielberg's greatest asset here is that he has created, from scratch, an educated audience; one that fully appreciates the threat of the great white shark. And a smart audience is a prepared audience. And a prepared audience is a worried one. We also become invested in Brody as our lead because we learn, alongside him, all these things. When he beats the shark, we feel as if we've been a part of the victory.

Another clever bit here: after all the "education" and "knowledge" and "information," Spielberg harks back to the mythological aspect of sea monsters, hinting that this is no ordinary shark, but a real survivor -- a monster -- and possibly even supernatural in nature (like Michael Myers from Halloween).

Consider that this sea dragon arrives in Amity (and comes for Quint?) thirty years to the day of the Indianapolis incident (which occurred June 30, 1945). Given this anniversary, one must consider the idea that the shark could be more than mere animal. 

It could, in fact, be some kind of supernatural angel of death.

Thematically, the shark could also serve as a Freudian symptom of guilt repressed in the American psyche. The shark attack on Indianapolis occurred thirty years earlier, at the end of World War II, when a devastating weapon was deployed by the United states.

Now, in 1975, this shark arrives on the home front just scant months after the fall of Saigon in the Vietnam War (April 30, 1975) -- think of the images of American helicopters dropped off aircraft carriers into the sea. 

This shark nearly kills a young man, Hooper, who would have likely been the same age as Quint when he served in the navy during World War II.

Does the shark represent some form of natural blow-back against American foreign policy overseas? I would say that this idea is over-reach, a far-fetched notion, if not for the fact that the shark's assault on the white-picket fences of Amity strikes us right where it hurts: in the wallet; devastating the economy. 

It isn't just a few people who are made to suffer, but everyone in the community. And that leads us directly to an understanding of the context behind Jaws.

It Was Only Local Jurisdiction

President Nixon resigned from the White House on August 9, 1974...scarcely a year before the release of Jaws.

He did so because he faced Impeachment and removal from office in the Watergate scandal, a benign-sounding umbrella for a plethora of crimes that included breaking-and-entering, political espionage, illegal wire-tapping, and money laundering.

It was clear to the American people, who had watched the Watergate hearings and investigations on television for years, that Nixon and his lackeys had broken the law, to the detriment of the public covenant. It was a breach of the sacred trust, and a collapse of one pillar of American nationalism: faith in government.

In the small town of Amity in Jaws, the Watergate scandal is played out in microcosm. 

Chief Brody conspires with the town medical examiner, at the behest of Larry Vaughn, the mayor, to "hide" the truth about the shark attack that claimed the life of young Chrissie. 

Another child dies because of this lie. 

We are thus treated to scenes of Brody and the town officials hounded by the press (represented by Peter Benchley...), much as Nixon felt hounded by Woodward and Bernstein and the rest. 

We thus see a scene set at a town council meeting which plays like a congressional Watergate hearing writ small, with a row of politicians ensconced for a long time before an angry crowd. The man in charge bangs the gavel helplessly.

These were images that had immediate and powerful resonance at the time of Jaws. If you combine the "keep the beaches open" conspiracy with the Indianapolis story (a story, essentially, of an impotent, abandoned military) what you get in Jaws is a story about America's 1970s "crisis of confidence," to adopt a phrase from ex-president Jimmy Carter.

Following Watergate, following Vietnam, there was no faith in elected leaders, and Jaws mirrors that reality with an unforgiving depiction of craven politicians and bureaucrats. 

The cure is also provided, however: the heroism of the individual; the old legend of the cowboy who rides into town and seeks justice.

Brody is clearly that figure here: an outsider in the corrupt town of Amity (he's from the NYPD); and the man who rides out onto the sea to face Amity's enemy head on, despite his own fear of the sea and "drowning." 

Yes Brody was involved in the cover-up, but Americans don't like their heroes too neat. Brody must have a little blood on his hands so that his story of heroism is also one of redemption.

Why is Jaws so enduring and appealing? 

Simple answer: it's positively archetypal in its presentation of both the monster -- a sea-going dragon ascribed supernatural power -- and it's hero: an every-man who challenges city hall and saves the townsfolk. 

This hero is ably supported by energetic youth and up-to-date science (Hooper), and also wisdom and experience in the form of the veteran Quint. 

You're Gonna Need A Bigger Boat
You can't truly engage in an adequate discussion of Jaws without some mention of film technique. The film's first scene exemplifies Spielberg's intelligent, visual approach to the thrilling material.

This introduction to the world of Jaws -- which features a teenager going out for a swim in the ocean and getting the surprise of her life -- proves pitch perfect both in orchestration and effect. Hyperbole aside, can you immediately think of a better (or more famous) horror movie prologue than the one featured here?

The film begins under the sea as Spielberg's camera adopts the P.O.V. of the shark itself. We cling to the bottom of the ocean, just skirting it as we move inland. 

Then, we cut to the beach, and a long, lackadaisical establishing pan across a typical teenage party. Young people are smoking weed, drinking, canoodling...doing what young people do on summer nights, and Spielberg's choice of shot captures that vibe.

When one of the group -- the blond-haired seventies goddess named Chrissie -- gets up to leave the bunch, Spielberg cuts abruptly to a high angle (from a few feet away); a view that we understand signifies doom and danger, and which serves to distance us just a little from the individuals on-screen.

With a horny (but drunk...) companion in tow, Chrissie rapidly disrobes for a night-time dip in the sea, and Spielberg cuts to an angle far below her, from the bottom of the ocean looking up. We see Chrissie's beautiful nude form cutting the surface above, and the first thing you might think of is another monster movie, Jack Arnold's Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954). 

Remember how the creature there spied lovely Julie Adams in the water...even stopping to dance with her (without her knowledge) in the murky lagoon?

Well, that was an image, perhaps, out of a more romantic age. 

In this case, the swimmer is nude, not garbed, and contact with the monster is quick and fatal, not the beginning of any sort of "relationship." 

In a horrifying close-shot, we see Chrissie break the surface, as something unseen but immensely powerful tugs at her from below. Once. Then again. After an instant, you realize the shark is actually eating her...ripping through her legs and torso. She begs God for help, but as you might expect in the secular 1970s there is no help for her.

The extremely unnerving aspect of Spielberg's execution is that recognition of the shark's attack dawns on the audience as the same time it dawns on Chrissie. She doesn't even realize a leg is gone at first. It's horrifying, but -- in the best tradition of the genre -- this scene is also oddly beautiful. 

The gorgeous sea; the lovely human form. The night-time lighting.

Everything about this moment should be romantic and wonderful, but isn't. 

Again, you can detect how Spielberg is taking the malaise days mood of the nation to generate his aura of terror; his overturning of the traditional order. Just as our belief in ourselves as a "good" and powerful nation was overturned by Vietnam and Watergate.

The more puritanical or conservative among us will also recognize this inaugural scene of Jaws as being an early corollary of the "vice precedes slice and dice" dynamic of many a slasher or Friday the 13th film. A young couple, eager to have pre-marital sex (after smoking weed, no less...) faces a surprise "monster" in a foreign realm. 

That happens here not in the woods of Crystal Lake, but in a sea of secrets and monsters. It's also no coincidence, I believe, that the first victim in the film is a gorgeous, athletic blond with a perfect figure. Chrissie is the American Ideal of Beauty...torn asunder and devoured before the movie proper has even begun.

If that image doesn't unsettle you, nothing will.

I wrote in my book, Horror Films of the 1970s (McFarland; 2002), that, ultimately the characteristics that make a film great go far beyond any rudimentary combination of acting, photography, editing and music. It's a magic equation that some films get right and some don't. Jaws is a classic, I believe, because it educates the viewer about the central diabolical threat and then surprises the viewer by going a step further and hinting that the great white shark is no mere animal, but actually an ancient, malevolent force. 

The film also brilliantly reflects the issues of the age in which it was created. And finally, Jaws updates the archetypes of good and evil that generations of Americans have grown up recounting, even though it does so with a distinctly disco decade twist. The Hooper-Brody-Quint troika is iconic too, and I love the male-bonding aspects of the film, with "modern" men like Brody and Hooper learning, eventually, to fall in love, after a fashion, with the impolitic Quint...warts and all.

Finally, you should never underestimate that Jaws depends on imagination and mystery. 

It is set on the sea, a murky realm of the unknown where the shark boasts the home field advantage. Meanwhile, man is awkward and endangered there. We can't see the shark...but he can see us. With those black, devil eyes. 

When you suddenly realize that the only thing standing between Brody and those black eyes is a thin layer of wood (the Orca); when you think about all the information we've been given about great whites and their deadly qualities, you'll agree reflexively -- instinctively -- with the good chief's prognosis.

We're gonna need a bigger boat.

Saturday, August 08, 2020

Saturday Morning Flashback: Schoolhouse Rock (1973 - 1986)

Today, I credit three diverse and valuable sources with my ability to write well.

The first is my study of Latin. I minored in the subject at the University of Richmond and have never regretted it. Vēnī, vīdī, vīcī.

The second source is a deep stable of wonderful and inspiring English professors; stretching from my grade school experience through the university years.

And, last but never least, is...Schoolhouse Rock, the ABC animated musical series (1973-1986) that demonstrated -- in superbly entertaining fashion -- how to accurately utilize conjunctions ("Conjunction Junction"), adverbs ("Lolly, Lolly, Lolly Get Your Adverbs Here,") interjections ("Interjections!") and more. Yep, these "lessons" were all facets of the series' memorable class on "Grammar Rock."

Schoolhouse Rock premiered on the ABC Network in early January of 1973, the brainchild of ad man David McCall, musician Bob Dorough and artist Tom Yohe. 

Network executive Michael Eisner approved the project for broadcast during ABC's Saturday morning schedule, and accordingly three minutes "bits" were cut (over producer protests!) from the entertainment programming (such as Scooby Doo) to make "elbow room" for these educational and amusing shorts.

The series' mission: "to link math [and other subjects] with contemporary music...[so] kids will breeze through school on a song."

Over roughly a dozen years, Schoolhouse Rock accomplished that task in spades. It offered a deep, amusing, highly-addictive and toe-tapping TV curriculum in a variety of academic subjects.

Celebrating the bicentennial in 1976, Schoolhouse Rock's "America Rock" featured such shorts as "I'm Just a Bill," (following a bill's progress from idea to committee to law or veto...), "Elbow Room" (about the American expansion West after the Louisiana Purchase..."), "Mother Necessity" (about American ingenuity and inventions...), and "The Preamble," which concerned the specific words and meanings of the U.S. Constitution.


In the subject of math, audiences were offered "Multiplication Rock," with shorts called "My Hero, Zero," "Three is a Magic Number" (a personal favorite that I used to sing to my son, Joel, when he was a baby) and "Figure Eight."

In "Science Rock," youngsters learned about "Electricity, "Electricity" and "Interplanet Janet" (a ditty about the heavenly bodies of our solar system.)

For Generation X (my generation) specifically, these shorts (particularly the catchy tunes) are nothing less than indelible. 

Friday, August 07, 2020

McClane Blog: A Good Day to Die Hard (2013)

The final Die Hard movie -- so far anyway -- proved a giant hit at the box office, and yet drew the worst reviews of the franchise.  A Good Day to Die Hard (2013) also returns Bruce Willis to his most famous role, cop John McClane, and sends him, for the first time, out of the United States, for one of his demolition derbies.

The fish-out-of-water aspect of the series is left intact, then, as John goes to Moscow to save his grown son, Jack (Jai Courtney), a spy, from danger. The “buddy” element of the franchise, which shows up in Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995), and Live Free or Die Hard (2007) is thus satisfied,, too with a resentful son trading caustic quips with Daddy McClane.

The plot is also familiar in terms of other long-standing Die Hard conceits. A man who appears to be a legitimate political dissident, Koromov (Sebastian Koch), is actually just a glorified thief.  

As McClane aptly notes during the film’s action, it’s “always about the money.”

A Good Day to Die Hard is the weakest of the Die Hard films, despite its nods to series standards, for a few crucial reasons. The first involves the action.  It is quite impressive and spectacular at times, especially a car chase on a Moscow highway. And yet the action seems to possess the least visceral impact possible. There's something distant and remote about it all. Sure, there is plenty of shooting, jumping, crashing and exploding in this sequel...yet somehow it seems totally routine and un-engaging. 

The routine, ho-hum nature of the violence actually made me miss McClane surfing on a jet plane, in Live Free or Die Hard. That's how un-impactful it all feels.

A part of the problem be the aforementioned epic or spectacular scope, actually. As I’ve written in my other reviews, the Die Hard aesthetic altered the path of action films for a generation. Before Die Hard in '88, action stars were muscle-bound goliaths like Stallone or Schwarzenegger. The characters they often played seemed downright indestructible.

Die Hard flipped the script and gave us a very vulnerable -- but determined -- every-man hero in Willis’s fit but not steroidal John McClane.  He wasn't a muscle-man, he was one of us.

Yet the sad path of the franchise -- as I hope I have demonstrated in my reviews -- is a slippery slope towards mitigating the protagonist's defining characteristic: his mortality.  

In this film, McClane survives crashes, fireballs, collapsing skyscrapers -- and the radiation of Chernobyl -- with just light scratches.  Willis is also the most restrained and unemotional he has ever been in his trademark role, and taken together, it’s a lethal combination.  McClane might as well be a smirking robot at this point.

Actually, A Good Day to Die Hard is a lot like a Bourne movie: international in its locations, epic in its stunts, and featuring a kind of inscrutable figure as its star.  

But John McClane isn’t suffering from amnesia and searching for his identity, like Bourne was.

Unfortunately, the screen writers seem to be suffering from amnesia. They appear to have forgotten which franchise they are writing for.

“Well, it’s confusing…”

When John McClane (Willis) learns that his estranged son, Jack (Jai Courtney) is in some kind of legal trouble in Russia, he hops a plane to Moscow to help out.

In truth, Jack is a U.S. spy working to extradite a dissident named Komarov (Koch) who possesses a data file that could provide hard evidence that the Russian defense minister is conducting illegal business. 

Jack and John reunite, and rescue Komarov, but learn that he is in league with his daughter, Irina (Yuliya Sniger) on a daring heist.  In particular, they plan to rob a vault in Chernobyl, and procure weapon-grade uranium for sale on the black market.

Now -- without back-up or allies -- John and Jack must put their differences aside, travel to Chernobyl, and stop the Russian father-daughter combo from making the uranium available to terrorists.

“You’re out of your depth, John.”

The first truly international Die Hard is a disappointment. 

Throughout its history, the franchise has featured sharp writing and real clarity (not to mention brevity) in terms of crafting memorable characters. Sadly, this film gets mired down very quickly in Russian politics and power struggles, generating a feeling of boredom and ennui with the proceedings. 

I can understand choosing to pick up and run with the idea of John as a fish out of water again (as he was in L.A., in the 1988 original) but I can’t imagine why the decision was made to inject him into the thoroughly uninspiring business with Russian gangsters. We get long scenes here of Russian competitors threatening one another, and vying for superiority. Ultimately, it's all wasted time.

A Good Day to Die Hard also sets its finale, implausibly, in Chernobyl, and keeps John and Jack there for a good length of time. John asks if he is in any danger from the radiation, but never gets a satisfactory answer except that he could lose his hair.  

I’ll give him a response. 

He is in no danger, at all, because he has become an indestructible character at this point.

This John McClane can survive the collapse of buildings, fireballs, and yes, any radiation he might happen to pick up. The final act of A Good Day to Die Hard is so implausible and over-the-top that it is breathtaking in its cartoon dimensions.  Jack has apparently been gifted with his Dad’s indestructible DNA, and he survives all the same disasters too, while hardly breaking a sweat.

I can’t claim that the action is particularly badly filmed, or poorly orchestrated and edited. All I can claim is that the action doesn’t create any sense of pace or involvements.  I keep coming back to that elaborate street chase in Moscow.  

The stunts are great in that chase.  So why doesn’t it prove thrilling?  Why doesn’t it get the blood running? Why is the enjoyment of it only intellectual in nature, a recognition that the scene must have been a bear to orchestrate?

The only answer I can provide is that the audience doesn’t feel invested in the story, or the characters.  

And that’s probably the worst thing one could say about a Die Hard movie, since the franchise has always banked on the appeal of its funny, edgy, wise-cracking hero. 

But McClane is just a shadow of his former self here, sullen and quiet. He seems disengaged. 

I appreciate that the character wants to reconcile with his son, but McClane seems, well, highly medicated in this outing.  He doesn’t seem fully there, and so the audience is never fully engaged either.

Though I have made my feelings plain that this is my least favorite Die Hard movie, I feel I should note that it may not be quite as “rotten” as some critics claim.  Like the other films, it is competently made.  It’s just that -- unlike the other films in the franchise -- it feels heart-less and soulless.  There's something rote about it. For me it is a "C-" or thereabouts. But the rest of the films earned much higher than barely-passing grades.

One aspect of A Good Day to Die Hard that I enjoyed is the nearly sub-textual fascination with the 1980s…the era from which the John McClane saga sprang. 

This movie goes back to Chernobyl and reminds us of the disaster that occurred there (in franchise time, just a year or two before the Nakatomi Plaza incident). And one villain has the audacity to tell John “It’s not 1986, Reagan is dead.”

Perhaps, encoded in that line of dialogue, is the intent on the part of the writers and the directors, to update John for the post-9/11 Era; to bring McClane firmly and irrevocably into the 21st century. 

I like the call-back to John’s beginning as an action-hero, and the acknowledgment that the Die Hard films have long since outlived their original context.

But the problem, again, is that no worthy paradigm replaces the old Die Hard one here. The Jason Bourne movies are their own thing, and have cast, already, a spell on the look and feel of modern Bond movies.  I see no motivating reason to import that aesthetic to Die Hard.

Already, that paradigm feels old and used up, and so A Good Day to Die Hard doesn’t gain anything from its sense of seriousness, or even from the international canvas.

How else can I put this?

It’s not a good day for Die Hard.  

My recommendation: bring John and the franchise home. And someone wake up Bruce Willis.

Jaws Binge: Jaws 3-D (1983)

The last two films in the  Jaws  franchise are terrible. We all know this fact. What isn’t settled, perhaps, is the question of whi...