Saturday, May 26, 2018

Jaws 1975 directed by Steven Spielberg

Based on the best selling book by Peter Benchley (who now regrets the damage it has caused to shark populations because of the reputation he helped give them) Jaws was one of the early blockbuster films. It takes many liberties and veers off the book on many areas but, for the most part, you can see why the changes were made and Spielberg has created a true cinema classic partly because he wasn’t a slave to the novel. 

I recently watched this movie with my mom and cousin, which is funny because my cousin is terrified of horror movies and when deciding what to watch, she said « nothing scary » and when picking something from my collection she said, « Let’s watch Jaws ». I thought she was joking - this film, even 30 years later - is TERRIFYING. There is a reason millions of people still avoid the beach after seeing it. It starts immediately with a shark attack on a helpless young woman, seen partly from the shark’s point of view from below with John William’s truly scary score heightening the tension and setting us up to get scared every time it starts playing as we know it means something terrible is about to happen. It goes on from there to kill a child, boaters… the death toll isn’t over the top which would quickly become numbing, instead it’s just frequent enough to keep you on your toes and afraid that anyone could be next. 

If you are watching the film for the first time don’t be lulled into thinking most of it’s effect will be muted because of it’s age, you’ll be surprised. Yes, the clothing and cars  put it in a certain time period but the location - an island off the coast of Massachusetts - is remote enough that it gives it a sort of look and feel that might even enhance the reality of the story. The performances are all great, Roy Scheider as the land-lubber new sheriff faced with a human and economic tragedy getting out of control all around him is very endearing and relatable. Richard Dreyfuss as Hooper the marine biologist is also perfectly cast. Speaking of casting, even the supporting cast is not just good as actors but - as it was still the 70s - they aren’t all fashion models with hot bods at the beach. They look and act like real people. Sure, they are pretty much all men and ALL of them are white but that is maybe the only thing I’d change about it. 

On release, Jaws was considered a gorefest to some people when, while it is gory in parts, its not really anything we don’t see on TV today. The impact of the gore is what sets it’s apart. Kudos for Spielberg for showing photos of actual shark attacks to prime us to be scared so when the creature’s presence is hinted at we know the danger is REAL  and our emotions respond accordingly. When the 3 main  characters take off to find and kill the shark, its feels serious and we know they might die. The attack on the boat, leading to the violent death of the Quint (Robert Shaw), the shark hunter, whose character is this films Captain Ahab in many ways is full of classic dialog, suspense and outright terror. Quint’s gory death is not gratuitous and the gore adds to our fear.

Another aspect of the movie was the marketing behind it. Books, T-shirts, merchandise were all part of the promotion scheme — something we didn’t see done as forcefully until Star Wars came out in 1977. The promotion pushed the film into top grossing category (cost 9 million, box office 471 million) and it’s popularity not only brought in money but had some pretty serious social repercussions. Outside of the film world, this movie to this day is the main reason many people are scared to swim at the beach and at release beaches felt the impact with reduced visitors. The effect of shark populations was even worse and there isa point to be made that his story led to the wholesale slaughter of sharks until many are on the verge of extinction - despite the fact that actual shark attacks are super rare. Sharks it turns out don’t think of us as particularly tasty. 

Like many classics, not all the filmmaking decisions were due to simple genius. The idea to use point of view shots from the shark thought most of the film stemmed from the problems with the mechanical version. It was both temperamental and not totally convincing. This made the music all the more important and the music became one of the most recognizable horror scores since Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho

A must see and see again. 

Friday, May 11, 2018

Blade Runner 2049 directed by Denis Villeneuve 2017

So as not to retread things everyone has already read elsewhere, I’ll assume that by now most readers are familiar with the original movie and this sequel. 

One of the things the original Blade Runner fit had in spades was the  believability of its world building. It did so by giving you just enough information to keep you from being lost while at the same time giving you the mystery of looking into a new place where not everything is handed to you in a silver platter. The sequel does the same and I appreciated that. it did a great job of introducing new things and how they function without techno-babble. The world looks lived in and the people in it know how things work the same as we know how things work in our world. It all looks very natural and sells the idea you are in a real place. 

The scope of Blade Runner 2049 (I so wish the original had not put a date at the start of the film - it never works out well as that date comes and goes in the real world) is pretty large. Instead of taking place just in Los Angelos, it goes to a few other locations we had never seen. Sadly, we don’t get the feeling of an integrated world - the locations seem unrelated to each other in a grand sense, at least they did to me. Still, the visual beauty of all can not be over stated. It looks amazing. 

Much has been made of the run time of this movie and I’ll agree it’s long, but not boring or too slow. I liked the pace and never lost interest in what was going on, even if what was going on didn’t get me anywhere in particular. The choice to have it told from the point of view of a replicant and follow his investigation that leads him to look for a human (Harrison Ford from the first film) was a flip from what we had seen before and it worked out well. Ryan Gosling is a little too human maybe in the role but everything is the film supports and helps him keep the story progressing.  Jared Leo’s role as the eccentric creator of new breed of replicant workers which was to go to Bowie before he died was sparse and not as over the top as I was led to believe, he was pretty dialled back, but also a weak link as a character. I wasn’t sure he was really needed. 

The most interesting thing in the sequel to me was the relationship between humans and replicants and replicants with other technologies. Society has decided to « retire » the older models and replace them with less autonomous newer versions. Leo’s character seems to want to make replicants that can breed and everyone has opinions after realizing that that trick had already been done. Gosling’s blade runner is sent to find and kill the baby (which was fathered by Harrison Ford and his replicant lover Rachel after the first film ended) and begins to suspect that HE is that child. His boss (Robin Wright) wants to sleep with him (who doesn’t? it’s Ryan Gosling) and his holographic girlfriend and he seem to developing a real emotions for each other. In a way, the humans have to figure out if he is a real being and he has to figure out if his holographic sweetie is real - it’s turtles all the way down. When Gosling’s character see a giant hologram ad for the his holographic girlfriend and she says many of the same things to him - we are left as unsure as he is if her AI gave her a real conscious or if it all just part of her program. How much of him is programming - how much of us is? 

As the story progresses we discover the answers to some mysteries but not others. Wether Ford’s character is a replicant is still unknown and the film plays with us (unfairly, I think) in that regard, Gosling’s character discovers he isn’t the child he is looking for but has a memory lifted from her, leading to a really confusing reunion between her and her father which opens ups lot of plot questions that never get answered. As a story, this film is not very satisfying. It’s fascinating to watch but we don’t learn about this new version of the Blade Runner universe. Too many of characters are far too underdeveloped and too many plot points are as well. 

Overall, is it worth seeing? I would say yes. The visuals alone are worth spending almost 3 hours watching but this movie shows us, it does open conversations. Even if those same conversations were opened by the first film, we still don’t have good idea where they are going decades later. So not the classic the first one was but not a failure artistically either. Box office-wise, both were failures on release and maybe this film will find a cult audience and more meaning over time.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Aguirre the Wrath of God 1972 directed by Werner Herzog

Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes is one of my favourite films of all time. I refused to buy a DVD player until it was available in that format so it could be the first film I saw on the player. Like most Herzog films, it's hypnotic and slow paced, pulling you from one scene to the other. The actual story is secondary to the feeling you get watching it, it pulls you into its world.

Based on a true story is something Herzog excels in. Not that he remains true to the facts of whatever story it is. As a director he is more concerned with the emotions the story bring over the facts and, for him, it pretty much always works. Aquirre is his 3rd feature and it strays wildly from the source material. Frankly with Klaus Kinski as a Spanish conquistador, how could it not?

In a nutshell, a Spanish expedition to find the lost city of Eldorado is doomed to failure by the foolish audacity and ambitions of the explorers and the unrelenting jungle that surrounds and eventually envelopes them within itself. They are doomed from the start when we see hundreds of them walking along narrow mountain pathways to the very end where Aguirre is the last left alive, raving at monkeys and telling his dead daughter they are going to start a new world as his raft slowly disappears around a river corner. In real life, Aguirre was brought back home and executed, apparently mocking the marksmanship of the firing squad as he died.

I would say this film has really only two characters. Kinski and the Amazonian jungle. Klaus's interactions with everything around him are what makes this movie work. His intense face says more than his words ever could and as his madness grows, the jungle seems more determined to absorb it and make it it's own.

The film is both a straight forward narrative and a dreamlike voyage. You never get explanations for things the characters don't get explanations for - so we know no more than they do about what is going on at any given time and Kinski's performance is unsettling and crazy while being understated and calm. He not exactly a sympathetic persona, but it is impossible to take your eyes off him.

Herzog's direction and the cinematography as stellar. After seeing this film for years in revival houses with damaged, dusty copies, the DVD release was a revelation of how beautiful this movie looked. I would LOVE to get a Blu-ray but my finances forbid me from re-buying films I already have these days. Pretty much every frame, every shot is intriguing and painterly. The music is perfect and all the performances add to the overall feel of the production. It's easy to see why this film developed a cult following.

Instead of going into the plot details and relevant scenes of the film I would rather encourage everyone who loves film to see it, multiple times. I have quite honestly put it on repeat in the DVD player and watched it on and off for an entire day and it never got tired of it.