Dipping Into the Water(shed): Jaws (Spielberg, 1975)

While I was growing up, my parents mentioned two films that scared them to the point of panic; Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, and Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. In the latter case, both still remember hearing John Williams’ haunting score, seeing the silver outline of horror incarnate shimmering under the surface, and gasping at the bloody scenes of shark carnage bubbling from below. The sum of these parts produced (and still does) an unfounded experience at the movies. Jaws was a shocker at theaters around the world and a watershed moment in film history, raking in the dough for Universal and making Spielberg a house-hold name. But the film’s success can not only be attributed to its entertaining execution. Jaws taps into something inherently scary, mixing wry humor and terrorizing imagery to produce a glance into the depths of an unimaginable evil; an overpowering force of nature humans cannot control or understand. Robert Shaw’s Quint and Richard Dreyfuss’ Hooper (both experts on sharks) marvel at their adversary’s girth and intelligence, moments which smack of awe more than panic. Hooper even comedically attempts to take a picture of the beast, asking Roy Schieder’s Chief Brody to stand in frame so that other scientists will believe the shark’s huge scale. This mixture of unease and fascination translates over to the audience, causing an unmatched and authentic desperation on both sides of the screen. Jaws masterfully illustrates the resonance of a post-modern mesh of genres, leaving the viewer room to identify Spielberg’s intentions with character and plot while still feeling insanely frightened. As a director, Spielberg has never shied away from happy endings (many critics have consistently called him to task for this) but Jaws has never felt complete in the safest sense of the word. After Brody fires one last lucky shot and the shark’s bloody body drifts to the bottom of the sea, it feels as if a part of the rogue will break away, start anew, and begin feeding again. Of course the impending sequels ruined that notion, but Spielberg’s original still holds water in the horror department no matter how many rip-offs have come since. Not knowing what lies beneath will always be scary, and in this sense, the shark is still working hard to sneak up and remind us who’s boss.

The Body Snatcher (Wise, 1945)

Robert Wise collaborates once again with producer Val Newton for a creepy entanglement of guilt and murder in 1830’s Edinburgh. The story of morally ambiguous scientists crossing ethical boundaries for the good of medical research isn’t highly shocking, but the eerie environment, as with most of Newton’s low-budget mini-masterpieces, hides dark intentions under layers of grisly shadows. Boris Karloff’s standout performance as the tormenting grave robber steals the show.

Think Twice, Just Not About Murder: Second thoughts on Minority Report (Spielberg, 2002)

Initial Thoughts: The first thirty minutes are some of Spielberg’s tightest and most pristine sequences ever, introducing the Pre-Crime world with awe-inspiring special effects and a hard-boiled detective squad specializing in action over interrogation. But the film falls under some dead weight in the second half, showing countless plot devices and relying heavily on Cruise’s overacting. Still, Minority Report holds up as a hypnotic, always fascinating Neo-Noir, with an axe to grind when it comes to political greed and domination.

Screened 1/14/08: Watching this for the third time, it’s clear I didn’t previously appreciate Spielberg’s glorious pacing in the second half of the film. The scene with Tom Cruise’s Anderton and Samantha Morton’s pre-cog escaping through a shopping mall comes to mind. Spielberg plays with motion and time in an interesting way, showing how the patterns of civilization (randomness, instinct) can be manipulated and utilized by a select few to help discover ones fate, with Spielberg (as director) also doing so to advance the plot. Honestly, each time I view Minority Report something new in the direction and set design appears, subsequently making the film more fascinating in terms of science fiction mise-en-scene and action. The length of Minority Report has bothered me both previous times but now, in hindsight, it feels perfectly calibrated until the mushy denouement.

Dog Bite Dog (Cheang, 2006)

Dog Bite Dog hinges its relentless hitman vs. cop story-line on some truly horrific parenting, the central motif for a dual character parallel which drives both anti-heroes toward some brutal connection. I can’t deny director Cheang Pou-soi’s talent for visuals and pacing, but his eye-popping film bends and breaks so many times the shear force of it all overwhelms the senses. The final siege of knives and c-sections pushes the film into a rare oblivion, a place I never want to revisit.

Atonement (Wright, 2007)

It’s not hard to pinpoint the key deficiency in Joe Wright’s Atonement, the critically acclaimed film adaptation of the Ian McEwan novel. It has all the elements one would expect from a high brow English tragedy – strong acting, picturesque cinematography, and an intelligent use of romantic music cues and sounds. But the script by Christopher Hampton rambles and repeats so many times the images, acting, and sound design begin to feel just as false as the words, creating towers of unearned sentiment weighing heavily without support. Atonement tells the story of poor gardener Robby (James McAvoy in a great role) and rich hottie Cecilia (Kiera Knightly) who begin a momentary romance only to be separated by a false criminal accusation issued from little sister Briony, set up via a number of convoluted moments of childish interpretation. This unrequited love haunts both Robby as he decides to join the British army instead of jail and Cecilia as she becomes a nurse during WWII. The story comes full circle when older Briony, now able to comprehend the scope of her malpractice, tries to mend the fences one key stroke at a time (she’s a writer, hence the creative imagination). Atonement flashes back multiple times, attempting to put some life into the material, and Wright’s direction of the early scenes are especially superb. But as the miscommunications and jealousies forge insurmountable odds for Robby and Cecilia’s romance, the heartbreaking writing appears on the wall. This film consumes itself with the obvious suffering of all involved, milking this genre trait dry by the final sentimental moment on a romantic English beach. It seems Hampton and Wright fell into the old trap of telling through words more than showing through visuals. Atonement beautifully captures the ache of lovers defeated by the injustices of false pretenses, but never develops a context for all the pain and anguish to mean something more than meager melodrama. The desperate tears, the screeching screams, and the outstretched hands seem altogether basic.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Yates, 2007)

After Alfonso Cuaron’s fascinating Prisoner of Azkaban, which beautifully played with temporality and character, the Potter series has seemingly lost its edge. While a step up from Mike Newell’s dreadful Goblet of Fire, David Yates’ entertaining but repetitive Order of the Phoenix once again finds Harry battling the rise of Ralph Fiennes’ evil Lord Voldemort. Following the structure of it’s predecessor’s, Order of the Phoenix show’s it’s titular hero first under-appreciated, then misinformed, and finally resurrected to save the day yet again. Boring, but it works.

The Potter films fill a great niche for quality fantasy entertainment, but like most franchises, come up short in the originality department. This doesn’t seem to have much to do with Rowling’s source material (which still resonates with wonder and intrigue), but with the filmmakers chosen to helm the cinematic versions. As Cuaron showed four years ago, a Harry Potter film has enough room for stylistic experimentation and the expected magical coming of age scenarios. You don’t have to sacrifice one for the other. But who cares when the huge box office take keeps rearing it’s ugly head.

Mildred Pierce (Curtiz, 1945)

A great example of the prototypical Noir, Mildred Pierce has it all; flashbacks aided by voice-over, morally ambiguous characters, and shadowy mise-en-scene stuffed with constricting iconography. While sometimes drawn out and overly talky, the film succeeds most when Joan Crawford and Ann Blyth share the screen, producing a mother/daughter face-off full of ugly jabs and dirty counterattacks. Curtiz builds this fateful relationship with objects of pleasure and glances of worry, crashing building blocks of a family destined to fall apart.