Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Jaws ★★★★

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    Looking back, it is hard to imagine the 1975 film entitled "Jaws" being anything other than a complete disappointment. Obviously, it wasn't, but to say that the picture flirted with catastrophe on more than one occasion would be an absolute understatement. I mean, here was a film that struggled mightily, each and every day, just to conjure up a few dailies to bring back to the editor for treatment. Of course, much of this lethargic and inept production tempo can be directly attributed to the mechanical beast, in which many scenes relied upon, and its inability to function in the water. (The latter being an undefeated adversary for any animatronic creation.) 

    Yet, many other aspects of this production seemed to be under pressure. For example, the script, which was originally adapted and written by the author of the novel, changed hands many times, and more often than not this would spell disaster. This is in addition to the heedless rating of the picture itself, as a film that showcases mangled bodies, floating limbs, and enough blood to make even an avid horror fan jump for joy certainly does not fit the mold of a PG label. How were parents not outraged, and why were they not seen picketing outside of the local theater? Well, it was a different time, and I assume parents nationwide were simply blown away by the aura of the film; an aura that can really only be accredited to one man, and one man only: Steven Spielberg. I believe it is safe to say that "Jaws" had outlived its numerous misfortunes.

    For those of you who have lived under a rock for the last 40 years, here is a very brief plot summary: 

    Amity Island, a small beach-town the name of which literally translates to "friendship," is known for its tranquil location and for its annual fourth of July celebrations. It is surely the place one would want to spend their summer vacation--that is--until a monstrous twenty-five-foot shark begins to feed on the local population. A sense of panic and fear (along with several unfortunate and gruesome deaths) ultimately leads to action, as three men come together to fight the ferocious beast. There is the local police chief named Brody (Roy Scheider), a sea life expert in Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), and a rugged and quite unwelcoming sea adventurer and shark hunter named Quint (Robert Shaw)

    And that is pretty much the gist of a storyline that captivated audiences worldwide with its tense atmosphere and its fearful mood--both of which are undoubtedly captured in John Williams' rather apprehensive score. Now, it is worthy to note that "Jaws" essentially comes in two parts: The first half of the film centers primarily on bloodshed and the veiled killer while the latter portion transitions into what can be deemed a heartwarming adventure at sea, which clearly adopts a Moby Dick-esque mentality. (There are a number of moments in the second half of the picture that seem to be fueled by good humor and by somewhat of an ironic tone--as well as one endearing scene--in which our three protagonists discuss old war stories.) I've heard many individuals characterize "Jaws" as merely another entry into the horror genre, which begs the question: Have they seen the entire film? Or, did they only choose to remember scenes spurred by gore and terror? Unfortunately, we may never obtain an answer to these questions.

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    What makes "Jaws" so engaging is its impeccable use of character; an aspect of the picture that ultimately stems from more than one source and from its exquisitely written dialogue. Amity in itself is a wonderful execution of character as we get a feel for this quaint little town via small excerpts of conversation, which are usually spoken by the inhabitants themselves. (This can be seen in a handful of moments as one citizen claims, "Twenty-four hours is like three weeks," when told of the beaches' closing, and while another comments, "Not born here, not an islander," a remark which surely alludes to the unique temperament and classification of these individuals.) Even much of the fear aligned with these "attacks" on the local beach-goers can be attributed directly to the verisimilitude of the site at hand. It might appear to be just like your town and beachfront, which makes for an underrated psychological effect.

    Nevertheless, when it comes to our three embodiments of character (meaning our central protagonists), we are brilliantly shown their disposition by way of their dialogue and actions. In fact, one can learn everything they want to know of Quint, the rugged veteran sailor, just by listening to his opening speech and by a list of needs he proposes once he becomes contracted to kill the great shark. This seamless sense of character development can be seen throughout as much of what we know about these men simply comes from their actions on-screen. (For instance, we know that chief Brody is somewhat of a goof, considering his inability to handle elementary tasks, and we designate Hooper as a strong and assertive being, even if he has nerdy outer appearance.) Of course, much of this superior showcasing of character can be credited to the three actors on-set--all of which are undoubtedly sincere and true in their motivations. Spielberg, in his early filming days, was known to forgo the glamorous choice when it came to casting his actors and actresses, and this is just a prime example of that notion; he wanted mysteriousness and sincerity when it came to his actors, and he got it. (Granted, Scheider did have a respectable role in "The French Connection," yet he was still relatively unknown at this time.)                   

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    When it comes to the success of "Jaws," a picture that comments on the power of nature and the thin and often frail distinction between man and beast, and to its universal acclaim, the name of Spielberg has to become a topic of conversation. His camera placement in this film is downright impressive as many of the scenes rely heavily on this positioning. Some scenes use foreground framing more than once--to not only frame a character--but to create a sense of depth. There's the trademark Spielberg indirect/subjective close-up on certain objects, as well as many directors interpretive points of view; the most notable of which seems to induce panic in the audience as it focuses on the struggling limbs of a fisherman who comes into contact with the fearless monster. What's more is the subjective viewpoint and underwater perspective of the shark, which is unquestionably useful, as he gazes on his next victim. (I fear that I am beginning to sound like an introductory film professor, yet I'm sure you get my point here.)

    Every scene crafted under Spielberg's care has a purpose; much like every decision that was made during the filming of this picture. The fact that he purposely kept our antagonist hidden for the first horrifying attack, in an effort to build up toward a stunning reveal, tells me two things: Firstly, it tells me that Spielberg understands human emotion, and secondly, it alludes to his uncanny ability to give audiences what they want and to his ability to produce that warranted material in a manner that works. Yet, what stands out to me is the documented relationship between a young and inexperienced filmmaker, Spielberg, and his veteran editor, which was Verna Fields in this particular instance. And these are the types of relationships and connections that a product on-screen can never display. Steven Spielberg is arguably the most well-rounded director in the history of the cinema and much of this can be accredited to his modest and humble beginnings in the field. I'm sure the guidance of Verna and the working relationship between the two had a major impact on Spielberg's career and his film-making philosophy. It is truly a heartwarming thought to imagine a young and ambitious director conversing with such a kind and spirited editing personality. If only those cutting-rooms could talk.         

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Fantastic Four ★

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    "Fantastic Four" is a poor film, if for no other reason than for its subpar display of acting, which, unfortunately, culminates in several uneven performances that are undoubtedly lacking in talent, among other things. This is not to mention a script that can only be designated as inept in form and an atmosphere that can never fully hit its stride, simply because of the natural sense of dramatic irony that arises from the subject matter. (We not only know what is going to happen to our resident group of superheroes, but we can assume to know anything that is not readily explained; this, in turn, makes the picture as predictable as they come, as it lends itself to a rather monotonous temperament.)

    Someone should tell our producers here that a dark color palette and a utilization of low-key lighting could never achieve the desired effect--that is--as long as predictability remains evident. (For example, how can one be coaxed into believing anything bad is going to happen to the main characters when we have seen this rodeo before?)

    Let's be honest: A remake of this franchise was never entirely warranted in the first place; a notion that can surely be ascertained from the opening weekend box-office numbers for the film itself. To make matters worse, we are given a storyline that relies heavily on the origin tale structure (you know, half of the running time is used to explain how our heroes obtained their powers or abilities, while the latter portion of the picture indulges in some sort of complication) and on the clichéd motivation to save Earth via another planet's resources. There is a subtle hint toward a social statement concerning the youth of this nation and how their collaboration could bring optimism and hope to a planet that has been plagued by humanity's ignorance, yet it is quite ineffective, especially when considering the futility of its cause.

    What is most troubling here, however, is the lack of build-up when it comes to our central conflict and the substandard acting that ultimately takes center stage, in what is likely this year's biggest flop. In fact, the conflict arises from two separate entities: that being, the government of the United States (as asinine as that may seem) and the character of Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell). The script uses the ill-treatment and irrational decision-making of the government (this is with regard to the manipulation of the "Four" to succeed in military operations and the intent to strip another planet of its resources) to fuel the villainous intentions of Doom, yet, it merely comes off as contrived and dare I say, downright put-on. This all leads to a "superhero showdown" with Dr. Doom that lasts all but about five minutes of screen time, which essentially highlights the issue with these types of films today--all marketing and little cashing in.

    I could sit here and discuss the numerous poor showings in "Fantastic Four" at the actor position for days on in, but let me tell you succinctly: What we have here are four actors, mostly known for supporting roles (except, of course, for Miles Teller, who shined in last year's "Whiplash"), with a chance to make a name for themselves in Hollywood. I regret to inform you that this did not even remotely come to fruition, as our youthful cast struggled scene after scene, and in every dramatic moment that the picture ultimately musters. The chemistry between Reed Richards (Teller) and Sue Storm (Kate Mara) ceased to exist, as well as any conviction from Teller in several key instances. Though, our young cast was not entirely to blame, as Reg E. Cathey, a veteran actor and Emmy Award winner, arguably had the worst performance of the lot. To say that Cathey's delivery of dialogue lacked passion would be a euphemism for the ages.

    It has come to my attention that the character of Ben Grimm really got the short end of the stick in this group. Here's a guy who religiously supported the career and aspirations of his close friend, with little thought to his own life, and while accepting nothing in return, and yet, he is unquestionably bestowed with the worst "superhuman" ability; he is simply a walking and talking rock. It is obvious that the other three members of this band can partially control their abilities--and maybe most importantly--they appear to be human. "The Thing" may never love again. One would assume that some level of hatred for his situation lie beneath that hardened exterior, but, of course, "Fantastic Four" would never be able to show that internal turmoil because its focus rests with cheap humor and run-of-the-mill entertainment. How do I know this? Because they tried to execute it and failed.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Weird Science ★★★

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    John Hughes' third directorial ambition, simply entitled "Weird Science," is a fairly difficult film to critique, namely for two reasons: Although the picture truly embraces the quirkiness, glamour, and unadulterated beauty that is adolescent angst and the stereotypical conventions that accompany the high school realm (you know, the various social rankings and statuses, along with the synonymous clichéd characters)--which is all very fascinating to say the least--it has little to do with actuality, as most of our story here makes absolutely no sense, and while events seem to be overstated and rather inane in form. (Most scenes rely too heavily on the meaningless acts of the plot and not enough on the aforementioned strong points; nevertheless, delightfully engaging my attention.)

    Another reason for the film's laboriousness upon viewing is the mere relativity of the picture to Hughes' other early works, which includes the likes of "Sixteen Candles," the timeless masterpiece in "The Breakfast Club," and the ever-charming "Ferris Bueller's Day Off." Sure, "Weird Science" is composed of the same tone and nature as the other films (as numerous trademarks from Hughes and characteristics of the "teenage dramatic comedy" in which he created appear throughout; for example, the melodramatic and naive viewpoints of the teenagers, the distance from the adult figures--either figuratively or literally--the emphasis on the rampant emotions and illogical behavior that is prevalent during this time, and the action of the "nerd" succeeding on some level), but it can never fully conjure up a suspension of disbelief, which is downright vital when it comes to the formula at hand. When compared to the other productions, "Weird Science" is surely the individualist.

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    What this all basically comes down to is this: Instead of being swept away to a world of conceivability, we are constantly at odds with the inexplicable events that ultimately take place and the misguided motivations of the characters. Gary (Anthony Michael Hall), the resident John Hughes embodiment, and Wyatt (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) choose to create the quintessential woman (both in intellect and form), yet when her existence comes to fruition, they utilize her to gain the attention of two teenage girls instead of embarking on a life's journey with a woman that is smarter, sexier, and undoubtedly more spirited. (One glance at Kelly LeBrock and you will certainly be questioning the motivations of the two adolescents as well.) As for LeBrock's persona, her intention is clear--to liven up these young men's lives and to succeed in making them "cooler." Although Lisa's (Kelly LeBrock) aspirations are pure and believable, they prohibit us from becoming acquainted with her distinct personality, which, considering the circumstances, seems to be far more interesting.

    So what is it exactly, structurally speaking, that makes this film an outstanding example of filmmaking, and on more of a simplistic level, why is it worth watching? The answer: two enjoyable performances from LeBrock and Bill Paxton (Wyatt's ill-tempered and cruel older sibling) and an artistic vision of the cinema that can only be attributed to Mr. Hughes. LeBrock is undeniably flirtatious and indulges in a subtle sense of attraction that will resonate with every teenage boy this nation has to offer; Paxton, in one of his earlier and more humiliating roles, is genuinely amusing and carries several scenes if for no other reason than for his charismatic and eccentric delivery of dialogue.

    It would be reckless of me to characterize this picture as anything else other than an orgasmic display of John Hughes' style and personal convictions. For, that is precisely what we have here. It is absurd, it is nonsensical, and yet, it is doubtlessly entertaining. I guess this is because we know the man behind the camera and because he should rightfully be entitled to at least one film that doesn't quite hit the mark. (The documented breakdown of Hughes as his teenage vessels inevitably say goodbye to their creation should allude to his personal "attachment" to the project.) Spielberg has "Hook," Coppola has "The Godfather Part III," and Hughes, almost regrettably, has "Weird Science."

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Pixels ★1/2

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     Summer blockbusters, generally speaking, accomplish what one can deem to be the most simplistic aim for any film: that is, to entertain. Although "Pixels" does have its moments in this department, it essentially comes off as nothing more than a failed attempt to introduce our younger generation to pre-social media America, which is not only futile, but completely ineffective. (Has anyone under the age of 18 even heard of Pac-Man?) Sure, its cheap dialogue may conjure some laughter from an adolescent, yet I found myself cringing at the thought of the next joke, considering most were executed in poor taste. (There is a remark concerning John F. Kennedy that was surely unneeded and what I would designate to be downright egregious.)

    The plot could not be anymore undemanding: An effort to make contact with extraterrestrial life in the 1980s backfires, as our alien counterparts, inevitably interpret our communication as a declaration of war, and as they now proceed to reign destruction on the Earth in the form of pixelated enemies. Wait! You mean there is actually more to it? Well, sort of. Apparently, these intelligible beings feel that eradicating our planet with their advanced technology would be too easy, so they set-up a three strikes and you're out challenge, in which we must defeat their video game henchmen in order to save humanity from complete annihilation. Of course, their message (in which we are told the rules of this deadly game) is only received by a sole conspiracy theorist named Ludlow (Josh Gad) and--you guessed it--gaming enthusiast Sam Brenner (Adam Sandler) is called upon to save the world; if only that were the extent of its ludicrous mentality.

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    Clearly, the subject matter here is treated in a comical fashion, yet the idea of alien life threatening our existence is certainly not that farfetched (as far as the film industry's standard for storytelling is concerned) and the notion of humanity's inescapable doom definitely provides feelings of melancholia for contemplating minds. (What I'm basically getting at here is that comedy and gloom do not mesh well.) "Pixels" can never decide which route it ultimately wants to take, and, unfortunately, this leaves us with several battle scenes with Earth's survival being the desired end, with little to no dramatic effect.

    I'm sure many critics have commented on the remarkable special effects that permeate the picture--statements that only allude to the current design of the film industry; all computer imaging and not a hint of human emotion. I mean, what do you want me to say? The integration of the special effects was terrific, but it could never distract from an inept script and from several casting decisions that still bewilder me to this moment. (Kevin James steps into the role of the president of the United States and we are supposed to take this seriously?) Assuredly, I guess, we aren't, but the part never allows James to do what he does best: Physical Comedy. James as president makes a computer generated Q*bert seem outright tangible.

    I have half a mind to blame director Chris Columbus (a damn good director at that) for this entire debacle; however, the blame really rests with poor writing and with an incompetent display of editing. (There is a scene in which both of these aspects come to fruition, as an unwarranted conversation between Sandler and a romantic interest cuts to a man's pixelated death and then back to this awkward moment of failed dialogue. The attempt of the former relies too heavily on the geek and girl cliche and not enough on actual wit.) At the end of the day, who could blame our extraterrestrial adversaries?

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Ant-Man ★★1/2

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    Paul Rudd stars in "Ant-Man," Marvel's latest superhero endeavor and a film that desperately attempts to cash in on the same idiosyncratic formula that permeated throughout the likes of "Guardians of the Galaxy." However, when it comes to this particular anti-hero (a warranted designation considering the fact that our protagonist is really only "in it" for himself), there seems to be a certain lack of interest involved. I guess it's because his unique ability is simply the act of shrinking himself down to the size of an emmet; subsequently, bestowing him with the capability to fit through keyholes and to mount the thorax of a flying ant.

    The concept here is undoubtedly absurd and even laughable to a point, yet the film proceeds in the only manner that Marvel is accustomed to: that being, an approach that consists heavily of fast-paced action and numerous scenes infused with tawdry humor. (The former being a pure obstruction to the few dramatic moments that actually make it into the picture, and the latter, well, it surely does little to entertain and mostly adds to what can be considered an already puerile atmosphere.) We know going in that there will be no sense of poignancy, and although this is certainly not a requisite characteristic, it would assuredly make the material more unforgettable; a color palette composed of blacks and dark grays cannot satisfy what the film lacks in mood.

    Scott Lang (Rudd) is a good man who seems to be down on his luck. After completing a recent stint in San Quentin for a larceny charge, Lang struggles to gain employment, as most former convicts do. Throw in a resentful ex-wife and a disappointed young daughter, and you pretty much have the gist of Lang's portion of the story, which clearly sets up an opportunity for redemption; a foolproof design of the superhero genre. Enter Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), a legend in the field of science and a man who regrettably cannot let go of the past. This unlikely duo will ultimately team-up in an effort to thwart the devious Dr. Cross, who has developed a rival miniature hero, aptly named the Yellow Jacket.

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    Our storyline here obviously has good intentions, yet when it comes to plot unification, there seems to be a smidgen of inconceivability. Let's see: Although Lang has a troubled past and despite the fact that he is routinely burdened with conflict, there is little plausibility when it comes to this divided family subplot. (I mean, Lang's offense could even be deemed honorable to an extent, and his master's degree in electrical engineering only alludes to qualities such as discipline and rabid intelligence.) He even finds the time to visit with his daughter--who he is forbidden to see--and somehow he is regarded as a bad father. It is forced, unnatural in a sense, and unquestionably contrived, which simply makes for poor film. (Of course, this may be a subtle comment on the seemingly unfair justice system of this nation, yet it is never a good idea to supersede authenticity with a political statement.)

    Nevertheless, what one has to remember when viewing "Ant-Man" is the fact that its primitive motivation is to showcase the talents of Rudd, who is predominantly an actor of comedy. He is the perfect casting choice for this role, however, his down-to-earth disposition and charm can never fully overshadow the imperfections of the film's design. (This is in reference to a subpar script and to an accompanying cast comprised of several uneven performances.) Douglas can never muster up enough vigor to warrant interest and although Evangeline Lilly is a superb actress and a radiant display of gender equality in this instance, she seems to just be running through the motions, especially when it comes to the rather ineffective romance involving her and Rudd. Just add "Ant-Man" to the extensive list of Marvel films that teeter between greatness and mediocrity.    

    *On a side note, it would seem that the film industry has once again proven the decline of the actor's importance, as the utilization of computer graphic imaging unfortunately takes center stage in yet another Hollywood blockbuster. And this is the problem with filming today. An actor can almost certainly shoot his or her scenes in their entirety in a matter of weeks, and this plainly hurts the picture's continuity. As long as there is no drop-off in regard to salary, however, I'm sure most complaints will go unheard.