A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 154 – Jaws

Jaws – August 1st, 2010

As you might be aware, it is Shark Week. This is the Discovery Channel’s week to showcase a crapload of shark documentaries and specials. We do enjoy Shark Week, and as we ended up with some amazing examples of shark movies, we decided to play along. Interestingly, the real world is also playing along, with great whites spotted off of Nantucket, leading to beach closures. We’ve got to close the beaches! And so, we begin Shark Week with Jaws.

Now, I didn’t grow up in an area like Amity, but I did grow up in a beach town, and I’ve spent a good amount of time on Cape Cod, both in the winter and the summer. The setting of the movie is intended to be a Massachusetts island town. A summer town that relies on two or three months of tourist industry to fund the lives of the locals for the rest of the year. Anything that jeopardises those short months of income is a big-ass deal. Amity rings true to me, with what experience I have. The worries of the locals seem right. Safety versus the income you need to survive. It’s easy to look at the beginning of the movie from Chief Brody’s point of view and wonder why the hell one would keep the beaches open. After all, we as the viewers know there’s a god damned shark attacking people out there! But to me, I think it lends more tension to it to really feel the difficulty the locals have in making that decision, to be able to feel bad for them even when you want to shake them.

I almost feel like it’s pointless to explain the plot of the movie. It’s about shark attacks and how can you not know it by now? It’s part of the cultural lexicon, with the closing the beaches and needing a bigger boat. This is a classic. But for the sake of completeness, let’s do a quick overview. Our main player is Chief Brody, played by Roy Scheider. He’s not local to the island of Amity, but he seems to like it there. After a couple of shark attacks he’s joined by Hooper, played by Richard Dreyfuss, a scientist from a mainland oceanographic institute (based on the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute) who’s an expert on sharks. The locals don’t want to believe there’s still a killer shark out there, so there are several grisly deaths within the first half of the movie. And then the second half is Brody and Hooper out on a boat with local Quint, played by Robert Shaw, hunting the shark.

I would say there are three acts to the movie. There’s the first act, which sets up the risk, with the attack on the teenage girl at the beginning and then the first beach scene. It’s on the short side, as is the second act when the risk is known but nothing’s being done yet, but it’s essential to set it all up. The tension of the situation depends on setting the stakes high. And they are quite high, with deaths happening on camera and chewed up boats and rafts. And then they get higher with Brody butting heads with the locals. So by the time we get out to sea, we’re really ready to spend an hour with just three characters who have the same goal, but three very different approaches. We’re up for that, because we want that shark taken down. We want someone to get it, be it the scientist, the police officer or the fisherman. Therefore, while the third act is a full hour, with only three characters, and has some of the quietest moments, with the Hooper and Quint comparing scars and lots of empty ocean around them, it also has all the real action, and it doesn’t feel long. It feels right.

Now, one could quibble over some of the failings of the movie. There’s the notoriously horrible mechanical shark that never worked correctly. There’s the exploding air canister. There are little things here and there. But while I admit that I did laugh at one scene of the giant fake shark, it’s otherwise a very good thriller of a movie. Who cares about the air canister? With the tension built up by the first two acts, the action in the third and the phenomenal and famous score by John Williams, a big explosion works just fine. It’s a well built movie, set up just right to make the audience jump and laugh at just the right intervals. The acting and direction invite you to suspend your disbelief, because they’ll give you a good show, and they really do deliver.

August 1, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Jaws

August 1, 2010

Jaws

“You’re going to need a bigger boat.”

Both Amanda and I are big fans of the Discovery Chanel and of Shark Week, so in celebration of Shark Week we’re holding one of our own this week on our movie project. And what better way to start a week of shark movies than with the granddaddy of them all: Jaws. (It’s even more appropriate because in a bit of free advertising for the Discovery Chanel the beaches on Nantucket were closed this weekend because of great white shark sightings.)

Thirty five years ago Stephen Spielberg created the first true blockbuster film, and wrote the book on how a monster movie is to be made. And for thirty five years people have been following the outline that he laid out here. “Never show the monster in the first reel.” It’s a basic axiom of suspense film making, and every movie that has blurry up-close shots of its beastie for the first half hour or longer while it builds the tension up to the big reveal is paying homage to this groundbreaking classic work. Sure he had no choice but to show as little of the shark as possible because the mechanical beast he had was notoriously silly looking and unseaworthy, but it was the right choice to make. I wonder if when he was caught up in the chaos of making this movie Spielberg was aware that he was writing the blueprint for decades of monster movies to come – his own E.T. and Jurassic Park included.

Not to be forgetting the infamous theme music. John Williams began his mighty run with this movie. At times it seems like there’s not a big Hollywood movie that doesn’t have John Williams (or Danny Elfman) providing the music that drives the movie. And who can blame Spielberg and Lucas when Williams’ music is so memorable and effective. The shark’s “bum-bum-bum-bum” theme is almost more threatening than the blood soaked visuals of the shark attacks.

Ahh. We’re coming up on another of my favorite examples of why pan & scan is so inferior to wide-screen. As Chief Brody is chumming the water the shark makes its first above water appearance in the movie, looming up out of the water on the left-hand side of the screen. It’s an iconic moment in the film and one that few forget. And in the pan & scan version of the movie the shark is hardly in the shot, it’s almost completely cut out.

Of course this is really two movies. The first hour or so is the story of embattled police chief Martin Brody, who is the only person on all of Amity Island who really believes that there’s a shark problem. He’s a native New Yorker who has moved his family to Amity to get away from the evils of the big city. When a young woman is found brutally and savagely mutilated on the shoreline he wants to close the beaches, but the local townsfolk depend so heavily upon the revenue from summer business that the mayor refuses to do that. So the first half of the movie is involved in local politics and builds the tension as the shark picks off one person after another.

It isn’t until more than an hour has gone by that the movie really gets going. We’ve established that the shark is a monster and Brody sets out with the insane shark fisherman Sam Quint and the ivy league shark biologist Matt Hooper. The three of them spend the rest of the movie hunting the beast. Slowly it becomes more clear just how massive and unstoppable the beast is as it does things that no mortal shark could. Spielberg spends a lot of time showing the shark taking first one air filled barrel under the water, then another. Establishing that the shark is a demon, something unprecedented and colossal. At the same time Quint and Brody and Hooper learn to like and trust each other in spite of their differences. It’s a buddy film in a lot of ways.

Of course it all works wonderfully. The fantastic acting of Scheider, Shaw, and Dreyfuss is perfect. The Williams score wonderfully drives the movie forward. Even the laughable rubber shark is completely forgiven because by the time the shark finally arrives on the scene it’s been built up so well that the monster could be a soggy sock puppet and it would still have as much power. It’s a wonderful, bloody, exciting monster movie and although it has been imitated many, many times it has never really been topped.

Certainly I don’t expect any of the other movies we have lined up for this week to hold a candle to it.

August 1, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment