Sinister Summer: “Jaws” Retrospective Horror Film Review

The original blockbuster! With The Meg opening tonight, the next article in my Sinister Summer series is a retrospective on Jaws (1975). And, we still “need a bigger boat” after all these years. Beginning with the iconic minimalistic score by John Williams, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is still keeping people out of the water more than forty years later. Beyond the film, you can still face off with the most famous shark in cinema history at Universal Studios Hollywood. A favorite for folks to watch on July 4th each year (as I do), this film became the standard for the modern horror creature feature. And at only four minutes on screen, Bruce (Jaws’ nickname), successfully terrified audiences then and continues to frighten beachgoers today. For all intents and purposes, this iconic film set the bar for and essentially created this subgenre of horror movies featuring man-eating monsters from the natural world that exist in places where we typically find joy and relaxation. The ocean, theme parks, rivers, lakes–these innocent places become the setting for unimaginable terror.

If you are old enough to have watched it in theatres in 1975 or fortunate enough to have attended the special 40th Anniversary screenings back in 2015, then you can attest to the film’s evergreen ability to scare you out of your wits. When I watched it on the big screen in 2015, the auditorium was filled nearly to capacity with kids, teenagers, and adults. To see this iconic film on the big screen was truly a memorable experience. Especially so around where I live, since the gulf beaches are just down the road. The atmosphere was incredibly fun. All of these fans, most of which had likely seen Jaws before, were gathered together to relive the terrifying experience of a man-eating shark terrorizing a small New England town during the July 4th holiday season. But why would so many people pay to see a film that they had seen at no additional cost on TV or watched on DVD/BluRay?

Much in the same way Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is often credited, and rightly so, for being the first modern horror film and forerunner to the classic slasher; likewise, Spielberg’s adaptation of Peter Benchley’s novel Jaws is credited as the first modern creature feature horror film and forerunner to the blockbuster (or event movie). I am not negating King Kong, Creature from the Black Lagoon, or other predecessors; it’s important to take note of the word modern. Aside from excellent, visionary direction, both Psycho and Jaws have three important elements in common (1) powerhouse cast (2) strategic suspense and (3) a brilliant, oft-parodied, burned in your mind musical score.

It probably seems like you were born with John William’s two-note Jaws theme in your head, much like Bernard Hermann’s Psycho screeches. The terrifying suspense of Jaws comes in the form of a PG movie. That’s right, Jaws is rated PG. But this film delivers a bigger and more memorable punch than any gory torture porn horror film ever could. The groundbreaking structure of both these legendary films are the prototypes from which their respective branches of horror films are derived. They are the blueprint, if you will, for suspense and horror. The manner in which the suspense is drawn out for most of the movie assists in the ability to enjoy it over and over again, without it ever feeling like a B movie. The drawn out suspense engages you emotionally and psychologically. The feeling of dread lingers and lingers. In fact, you don’t truly see Bruce until the third act of the film when he jumps out of the water in an attempt to bite off the arm of Chief Brody. This intentional drawing out of suspense makes the delivery of that moment pack a powerful punch, an assault on the eyes and mind. Both Psycho and Jaws benefit from an excellent cast. The respective casts could not have been any better. Interestingly, in order to not allow the cast to overpower the story or shark, Spielberg didn’t choose actors with an instant command presence. But they displayed a strong presence nevertheless. It never feels as if they are acting, but truly become the characters they are portraying. The relatability of the characters is partly due to the screenplays, but it takes phenomenal actors to successfully bring these characters to life. Spielberg would repeat this same successful approach to creating blockbusters E.T. the Extra Terrestrial and Jurassic Park.

For more on suspense, checkout this video featuring Hitchcock himself.

When Jaws is referred to as the original blockbuster, it’s not simply due to being the first film to break the $100mil box office sales mark, toppling the records previously set and held by The Exorcist and The Godfather. That is a valid observation, but is ultimately incidental. Reasoning behind this thriller’s ability to create the concept of a blockbuster movie is the fact Jaws was seen as an event not to be missed. Looking back at the original crowds of 1975, you’d think the movie was a one-night-only big event. Hence the term blockbuster. The common adjective attributed to big summer movies literally derives from the fact that queues for the box office wrapped around city blocks. It busted the block, so to speak. And the rest is history! Coupled with the summer release date and ticket sales, the allure of Jaws generated levels of enthusiasm and interest never seen before. The film took in so much money at its opening, that it nearly made up the entire production budget by the end of the first week. Furthermore, distribution and marketing companies began to use Jaws as a model for future marketing efforts in order to attempt to generate another blockbuster effect. After Jaws in 1975, the next big blockbuster would be George Lucas’ Star Wars IV: A New Hope in 1977. All these factors contribute to the iconic status of Jaws in terms of its contribution to film business.

Instead of building a thriller on shock value, disturbing imagery, or jump scares, author Peter Benchley’s screenplay for Jaws focussed on crafting a cinematic atmosphere that had an intimate, claustrophobic feel built upon well-crafted drama through character development and conflict, at the center of which is a little heart. Different from contemporary creature features, Jaws picks off swimmers in the single digits and those attacks all happen at a single beach on a small island off the coast of Massachusetts. And instead of an entire agency hunting down the man-killer shark, three unlikely men are forcibly thrown together in order to track down and eliminate the terror from the waters off Amity Island. Keeping the principle cast and environment small, enabled the drama to perform strongly. Big things do come in small packages. Coupled with the strong performances from the entire leading cast, this brilliant combination of cinematic elements works together to give us some of the most memorable lines, scenes, and cinematography in movie history. Furthermore, real people swept up into an impossible situation and foolish decisions enable the audience to identify with the characters and the setting in ways that make the terror feel all the more real and close to home–or the beach.

While Bruce is often thought to be the villain of Jaws–and no mistaking it, he is definitely an antagonist–I argue that the true opposition to the goal in the plot is Amity’s mayor. If we accept the goal is to apprehend or kill the man-eating shark, then Vaughn serves as opposing that action. Perhaps you’ve never though of the true villain of Jaws being Mayor Larry Vaughn. A close analysis of the plot reveals that Jaws (Bruce) functions more as a catalyst for the principle conflict between Chief Brody and Vaughn. Other than the death at the beginning of the film, the Mayor is indirectly responsible for the remaining deaths. After all, it’s due to his utter complacency, negligence, and classic greed that led to the other deaths. For most of the film, we spend far more time with Chief Brody’s continued conflict dealing with the social pressures, desires, and ill-fated decisions of his boss than we do with shark attacks. Mayor Vaughn fails to acknowledge the sheer gravity of the dangerous situation, and close Amity’s beaches in order to keep his citizens safe. In effect, he fed them to the shark. Seems like a villainous action to me. Bruce was being a shark, Vaughn was the villain.

Often the central character’s development hinges on the direct and indirect conflict with the opposition to the goal of the plot. In this scenario, Mayor Vaughn stands between Brody and Bruce. The moments in which Brody demonstrates measurable growth in his character arc are when he attempts to stand up to the Mayor showcasing a contrast between public safety and a combination of politics and economics. Unfortunately, we never witness Brody truly standing up to the Mayor to enact measurable change per se; however, it isn’t needed because we witness several moments of Brody shouldering the responsibility of protecting the citizens of Amity as a civil servant. By contrast, Vaughn is more preoccupied with a warped view of  civic responsibility that places more importance on increasing the bottom line of the local businesses than public safety. He rationalizes his position opposing the advice of Brody by engaging in classic psychological defense mechanisms such as denial, displacement, and projection. Vaughn’s actions throughout the film depict an elected leader with misplaced priorities in order to better his own career.

The success of Jaws and reasons why it continues to stand the test of time has more to do with the beauty in simplicity and strategic marketing than Spielberg’s filmmaking. Don’t get me wrong, Spielberg is an excellent storyteller and directed many of our favorite films such as this one, Jurassic ParkE.T.Poltergeist (with Tobe Hooper), and more, but it’s the strong screenplay and innovative marketing efforts that give Jaws the chutzpah it has. Jaws quite literally changed the way studios market “blockbuster” films. Prior to Jaws‘ release, the only films to get wide, general releases were B-movies and exploitation films, but Universal Pictures took the chance at cramming Jaws into as many screens as possible, and it paid off in spades! Jaws wasn’t the first film to book theatres in this was, but it was the first to be well-received by by critics and fans. The film was an instant success!

Even if you trust the statistics that you are more likely to be injured or die in a car accident than be attacked by a shark, Jaws still leaves you wondering what may lurk in the depths of the ocean, and by extension lakes and rivers (thanks in part to Animal Planet’s River Monsters). There is a lingering feeling, even if in the back of your mind, that a man-eating shark could live in our oceans. That is the power of this film and why it has continued to pervade popular culture for more than 40 years. Its influence on popular culture is certainly not limited to the dozens or imitations such as Lake PlacidPiranha, Deep Blue Sea, or parodies like Sharknado, but it serves as the inspiration for Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, the Monster Jam monster truck Megalodon, theme park attractions, and the music is often used in unrelated TV shows and movies. Lines, imagery, music, and characters are permanently embedded in the psyche of the general public.

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“Captain America: Civil War” movie review

Civil_War_Final_Poster‘Marvel’ous! Nearly a complete departure from the conventional comic book superhero movie genre. Avengers 2.5 is a politically-charged superhero movie that will catch you off guard and provide you with a mostly non-cartoonish plot filled with well-developed conflict and character development. Witness some of your favorite Marvel superheroes secede from the Avengers and oppose those who they once fought side-by-side. Along the way, you also get to meet some new additions to the team that will provide some awkward comedic sequences in this otherwise serious movie. Deep dark secrets come to the surface that threaten the very possibility of the team ever having any hope of reunification. Captain America: Civil War is a brilliantly produced film that will have even those who typically do not care for most superhero films leaving the theatre satisfied and anticipating the next installment in the series. Although it is really an Avengers movie, there is still enough focus on the title character to support the choice of titles for this action-packed epic adventure.

Captain America: Civil War takes place not long after the catastrophic events at Sokovia and following another destructive battle, the United Nations and U.S. Government decide to intervene and put The Avengers in check. Opposing the team signing onto an international agreement defining how this group of “vigilantes,” Captain America (Chris Evans) falls away from the group and seeks his own destiny frocked with vengeance and misplaced allegiances. With the once unified team fracturing, a covert former Soviet operative is plotting the destruction of The Avengers from the inside out. Much in the vein of the American Civil War, The Avengers are split and Captain America forms his team while Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) attempts to hold the team together and honor the agreement with the United Nations. The once inseparable Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) must choose sides and decide where allegiances truly lie.

It isn’t often that a genre typically filled with high concept, shallow plots can surprise you with a narrative radiating with anthropological and political themes and subtext. The brilliance of Captain America: Civil War is that it provides the audience with equal parts action-packed fight choreography and well-developed dramatic plot with prolific amounts of character conflict. Furthermore, the story will exceed your expectations of the ability to tap into one’s superficial response to action-packed stimuli and activate the deeper emotions of allegiance, betrayal, and self-preservation. For those who have not seen the previous movies in the Captain America series–another admirable element of this installment, is not causing those who have yet to watch the previous CA movies to feel left out of the excitement. Provided you have seen the preceding Avengers movies, this one will keep you trekking along with your favorite Avengers universe characters. There are certainly minor elements or past relationships that are introduced in the previous CA movies, but most likely you will be able to pick up on the aforementioned as you watch Civil War.

Another observation of this installment in the Captain America/Avengers franchises respectfully, is the movie’s success in both including current characters and introducing new ones without the film ever feeling too crowded, as it was with Batman v Superman. In addition to the Avengers minus Hulk and Thor, the audience is introduced to an adolescent Spider-Man (Tom Holland) and are re-acquainted with Ant Man (Paul Rudd). As I am not familiar with the comics, I cannot comment on this Spider-Man in respect to staying true to the comic, but I found this incarnation of Spider-Man to be on the verge of annoying. Perhaps that is how he is suppose to be, but it did not fit in with how he has been historically portrayed in cartoons and movies. However, the inclusion of both the respective characters did not feel forced as it so easily could have. Since the film primarily focussed on Captain America and secondly Iron Man, the large cast of characters was handled efficiently. The writers could include all these characters in one narrative, but shift the focus from character or character thus never overstimulating or overwhelming the audience with the development of such a dynamic ensemble cast.

Ordinarily, I do not speak so highly of superhero movies; but this film left me feeling quite satisfied and pleased with how well the film played off as a serious movie complete with plenty of opportunity for emotional connections. That being said, the one sequence of the movie that I did not find as entertaining or fitting is the elaborate “civil war” battle on the tarmac. Was it choreographed well? Yes. Was it instrumental in moving the plot forward? Yes. Did it effectively fit in with the rest of the mood and pacing of the film? No. Moreover, that entire sequence of scenes just felt awkward. And, that is mostly due to the inclusion of the naivety and immaturity of Spider-Man and witty/sarcastic/near-juvenile antics of Ant Man. Perhaps if only one adolescent-like character had been added, that part of the film would not have felt so awkward. As to not give away the reasons for the solemn mood of the film, I cannot go into much detail; but, the manner which this scene was written and directed just felt out of place and interrupted the otherwise excellent pacing and mood of the story. I agree that most serious movies need comedic relief in order to generate an emotional rollercoaster, but this was just a little too funny with respect to the rest of the film.

The summer blockbuster season is officially underway with the undoubtedly successful opening weekend of Captain America: Civil War aka Avengers 2.5. Unlike last year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, this installment will take you on fantastic journey of emotional mountains and valleys of character and plot development. This film proves that a superhero movie can be both fantastically action-packed and dramatic. The political subtext will also provide friends and family countless hours of discussion and analysis. Although this is not an adult superhero movie in the way Deadpool was, there is still language and violence that may not be appropriate for young kids. Still, one of the earmarks of a summer blockbuster is a movie that can attract and please both teens and adults, and this is definitely a great example. Hopefully, this movie is an indicator of an exhilarating summer season at the cinema.

PS. Notice the nod to Disney’s D23 Club? I did!

“Batman v Superman” movie review

BMvSMBetter brush up on your comics before watching this movie. If DC set out to produce a movie that was completely different than the Marvel movies, then they succeeded. Batman v Superman leaves you feeling like you are watching a sequel without an original movie. And no, Man of Steel does not sufficiently set up this “sequel.” Imagine if you will, opening a book and starting to read. You are a few pages in, and you realize that there are situations, characters, settings that are unfamiliar or seem out of step. Oh, duh, you started on chapter two by mistake. Just as you flip back to find chapter one, you discover that the pages are missing. DC’s attempt to setup an entire comic universe (Justice League), in one movie, failed miserably. However, you will be hard pressed to find another superhero action movie that is more cinematic than this one. The sound and visual effects blew my mind–exponentially more impressive than anything that Marvel (Disney or Fox) has produced; but that’s Zack Snyder for you. Unfortunately, the man should have assisted a director in crafting a visual story, not attempted to tell it himself. If DC was fighting a losing battle up a hill, now it is fighting that same battle up a mountainside.

Look! Up in the sky. It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a box-office bomb. Two years following the epic battle between Superman (Henry Cavill) and Zod, Metropolis is still recovering from the mass devastation. Affected by this infamous battle, crime-fighting billionaire Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) is fully convinced that Superman is a threat to humanity and must be contained or destroyed. Although he is not as young as he used to be, Affleck once again dawns the Batman uniform and sets out on his personal vendetta against the god-like Kryptonian. Feeling the growing threat of Batman, Superman will stop at nothing to defeat Batman and save the city. In an effort to save their respective cities from destruction, Batman and Superman vow to kill one another. While each superhero has it in for the other, Lex Luther (Jesse Eisenberg) is cooking up something in his research park that can defeat gods and titans. It’s a good thing that Metropolis and Gotham are closer together than Tampa and St. Petersburg are (LOL).

Film is a visual storytelling medium, but storytelling nevertheless. The only other more visual medium, one could argue, is comics. And, you better have studied your Justice League universe comics before buying your ticket to this attempt at a Springtime/Easter blockbuster. But unfortunately, that’s all that this movie has going for it–its unparalleled use of phenomenal visual and sound effects to create a fantastically stimulating experience. One problem: where’s the story??? I thought that this was (to borrow from Star Wars: the Force Awakens) “supposed to make things right“? Ironic how Easter is a holiday and season which represents rebirth; and as hard as DC Comics and Zack Snyder tried to rebirth this struggling universe, it still remains in the ground. All the water and fertilizer in the world could not help this Easter lily, for the farmer forgot to plant the bulb. There is little to no exposition in the entire movie. If you are unfamiliar with the story from the comics, you will most certainly feel dazed and confused. DC really needed this movie to tell an excellent story in order to continue to compete with the Marvel movies that are coming from Disney and Fox. After this travesty, there is almost no competition any longer. One can only hope that the next installment fixes things. But, it’s highly unlikely at this point.

Sometimes poor writing can be covered and masked by flashy graphics and stunning cinematography, other times, it can be assisted by an excellent cast. Well, fail once again. The casting only aided in highlighting the fallacies in the plot structure and nearly non-existent, poorly setup story. Before I negatively criticize the majority of the cast, I need to point out what worked for the film in terms of cast. Although I have been informed that he did not portray the Lex Luther from the comics, I firmly hold to that Jesse Eisenberg played the Lex Luther that this film needed and benefitted from. The quirky, psychopathy, childlike, socially awkward, intellectual Lex Luther works for this universe. He was probably my favorite part of the whole movie. He was quite the juxtaposition to other villains that have been in Marvel and DC movies–a refreshing new take. Amy Adams also plays a great Lois Lane. Since I am not familiar with the comics, I am not going to try to compare and contrast her portrayal to that of past Lois Lanes or the ones from the comics. Still, Adams brought about a fantastic charm to the character and she fit in well with Henry Cavill’s Superman.

Sadly, the rest of the principle cast was terrible. Since when did Alfred (Jeremy Irons) become nearly Bruce’s age??? Maybe he is ten years his senior, but that’s pushing it. Alfred is supposed to be a lovable and endearing old man, and Batman’s Jiminy Cricket, so to speak. Neither does Irons fit the age nor the personality traits of Alfred. I sure missed Michael Caine and Michael Gough’s Alfreds. There was a lot of concern when Affleck was chosen to become the caped crusader; and as it turns out, these concerns were valid. He has demonstrated that he cannot fill the cape in the manner in which Michael Keaton and Christian Bale were so successfully able to do. It’s entirely possible that Holly Hunter’s Senator Finch and Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman/Diana Prince could have been the much-needed support that the film lacked, but their respective characters were severely under-developed. Also, not so much cast as he is character but where did the Kryptonian deformed creature come from??? I think the film tried to explain, but again, it failed. Who cares, though? He made the climax shocking and exciting. A solid match for Superman.

If you want to have your eyes and ears stimulated beyond what you have likely experienced in superhero action movies in the past, then this is the movie for you. Just don’t expect much beyond the mesmerizing surface. Already having a 33% on Rotten Tomatoes, most likely the grade will continue to drop. That being said, I DO believe that if you are a follower of the comics and know your stuff, then you will most likely thoroughly enjoy this film. I warn you; be prepared to be your group’s personal Wikipedia after the movie.