Jaws (1975, Steven Spielberg)

The first half of Jaws–before the boat, when it becomes a different film–might be the most perfectly made film ever. The second half isn’t less perfectly made, but it’s its own thing, not easily comparable to any other film; that first half deals in traditional filmic standards and does so with singular success. Verna Fields’s editing, Bill Butler’s photography, Joe Alves’s production design… it’s utterly perfect. Spielberg’s use of frame depth, so startling wonderful (and now long gone). From the first moment after the credits, with Fields’s cuts during the beach party, it’s stunning. Too often the main emphasis, when discussing Jaws‘s writing, is on the Indianapolis monologue, but really, throughout, it’s great. The family scenes, the ones between Roy Scheider and Lorraine Gary, carry the first half of the film. Richard Dreyfuss’s appearance gives Scheider a friend, but it doesn’t really affect the situation very much. The whole first half of the movie builds towards Murray Hamilton (who’s so good) and his breakdown at the hospital, the one Scheider’s too busy to notice.

Then Jaws resets. Even though Robert Shaw had his moment twenty minutes in (I never look at the clock when watching Jaws, it’s an absurd idea), he’s somewhat foreign as the second half starts out. Then Dreyfuss becomes really foreign and the characters reveal themselves differently under pressure. The moments when Dreyfuss and Shaw start liking each other are great and some of my favorites, but this time I really noticed the scene after Shaw starts losing it and then he has to ask Dreyfuss for help. Scheider finds himself abandoned on the boat in stretches, since he doesn’t know what do–Scheider’s disappointment in Dreyfuss mirrors the viewer’s. It’s a constantly shifting environment, but one totally dependent on the looming disaster. The discreet moves Jaws makes, positioning its characters and their reaction to fear, is something wonderful. So wonderful, I never realized until this time watching it, both Shaw and Dreyfuss revisit their first experiences with sharks.

While this post reminds me of why I don’t like writing about great films I’ve seen before, Jaws is something even more than the usual. I could sit and talk about Jaws, listing all of the great things it does, for three times through. It’s a constantly rewarding experience.

Maybe a last little something about John Williams’s music. Even though Jaws has its famous theme, the score isn’t one concerned so much with it. Williams’s sensitivity to the changes during scenes, even to the cuts, is noteworthy. Jaws is the ideal example of something being the sum of its parts and his contribution is magnificent.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Spielberg; screenplay by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb, from the novel by Benchley; director of photography, Bill Butler; edited by Verna Fields; music by John Williams; production designer, Joe Alves; produced by Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Roy Scheider (Martin Brody), Robert Shaw (Quint), Richard Dreyfuss (Matt Hooper), Lorraine Gary (Ellen Brody), Murray Hamilton (Larry Vaughn), Carl Gottlieb (Meadows), Jeffrey Kramer (Hendricks) and Susan Backlinie (Chrissie Watkins).


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Bubba Ho-tep (2002, Don Coscarelli)

I wanted to see Bubba Ho-Tep back when I first read about it because it sounded weird–Bruce Campbell as an old Elvis versus a mummy with Ossie Davis as JFK as his sidekick. The pairing of Davis and Campbell is weird enough–they seem at odds, style-wise, not to mention Davis is actually old while Campbell’s covered in make-up. The mummy aspect is a bit of a joke but also a bit not. It comes down to what’s so surprising about Bubba Ho-Tep. It’s not really a horror movie. It’s about old Elvis Presley in a rest home. For the first twenty minutes, Campbell isn’t even getting out of bed. He just lays there and we get a look at this feeble old man, plagued with regret.

Bubba Ho-Tep is all about Campbell’s performance. It’s great–and it’s a complete surprise, given I never think of Campbell as a particularly clever actor. His Elvis captures a basic apprehensiveness (everyone thinks he’s just an Elvis impersonator who’s confused), an obscene grandiosity (it’s Elvis) and a sincere sadness (Elvis wishing he could see his daughter). I’m not sure if Bubba Ho-Tep takes advantage of the viewer’s knowledge–the daughter stuff is sad because we know it’s Lisa Marie–but it’s exploitative. I can imagine if she saw this film, she’d be incredibly uncomfortable; the line between a fictional representation of a person who died some time ago (but didn’t) and that real person disappears from Campbell’s first second on screen. His performance is wonderful.

As the sidekick, who thinks he’s JFK (Elvis thinks he’s nuts), Ossie Davis is great, but he’s basically Ossie Davis playing a guy who thinks he’s JFK. It’s his scenes with Campbell though, where it really feels like two old men with nothing but regret and a longing to have been better men.

Don Coscarelli’s direction is restrained for the most part (there are some fast cuts to illustrate Elvis’s impaired perception) and his eye for the scenes is great. He creates this world where Campbell can be old Elvis (and there can be a mummy, but the mummy isn’t as important).

Other great things include Ella Joyce as Elvis’s nurse. She and Campbell’s scenes together are really nice, especially with the mood Coscarelli gives them.

Bubba Ho-Tep‘s probably the only way to tell a story about Elvis Presley alive today and have it be a successful, meaningful story. It’s good stuff.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Don Coscarelli; screenplay by Coscarelli, based on the short story by Joe R. Lansdale; director of photography, Adam Janiero; edited by Donald Milne and Scott J. Gill; music by Brian Tyler; production designer, Daniel Vecchione; produced by Jason R. Savage and Coscarelli; released by American Cinematheque.

Starring Bruce Campbell (Elvis), Ossie Davis (Jack), Ella Joyce (The Nurse), Heidi Marnhout (Callie) and Bob Ivy (Bubba Ho-Tep).


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Bad Santa (2003, Terry Zwigoff), the uncut version

Bad Santa confused me a little. I’m not sure why I expected it to be something other than a traditional Hollywood redemption story–maybe because of Terry Zwigoff, maybe because I didn’t know (or didn’t remember from trailers and buzz) it was about Santa robbing malls. After seeing Zwigoff’s Ghost World, I avoided Bad Santa because I figured it’d be bad too. It’s interesting Zwigoff’s a hipster director because it’s got one of the most manipulative scenes I’ve ever seen in Bad Santa (outside of, I suppose, an episode of “All My Children”). He has this really funny scene–I think it’s the one where Tony Cox and Bernie Mac are yelling at each other–then he goes right into a suicide attempt. So, you’re still laughing from the first scene when you’re watching the decidedly unfunny subsequent scene. Once I realized what was happening, I couldn’t believe it. I think I started laughing more, actually, because it was an incredibly silly thing to watch.

However, Billy Bob Thornton ended up pulling the scene around, which is where Bad Santa gets interesting… with the exception of Thornton, John Ritter and Bernie Mac, the acting in Bad Santa is awful. The kid–to whom Thornton becomes a surrogate father–is fine. He’s really good with Thornton (or Thornton’s really good with him), but Zwigoff also has a good way of directing those scenes. Anyway, besides him… the acting is atrocious. Lauren Graham’s useless, Tony Cox is occasionally okay, occasionally terrible and Lauren Tom provides frequent motivation for turning off the film. But Thornton’s amazing. Even though the script is a melodramatic albatross, Thornton pulls the lines off wonderfully. In many ways, it’s a shame his performance was wasted in this film.

Zwigoff’s poor choice of music hurts a lot of the scenes in the second half–there’s one sequence where the music appears to be too loud or something, it’s disconcerting, but a more appropriate volume wouldn’t have made it a better choice–and the film’s definitely at odds with itself. The mix of absurd and real doesn’t work out–mostly the script, but also the direction (and the editing is schizophrenic).

But Thornton’s performance is a marvel and it makes the film. It’s just too bad the film doesn’t make anything for itself.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Terry Zwigoff; written by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa; director of photography, Jamie Anderson; edited by Robert Hoffmann; music by David Kitay; production designer, Sharon Seymour; produced by Sarah Aubrey, John Cameron and Bob Weinstein; released by Dimension Films.

Starring Billy Bob Thornton (Willie), Tony Cox (Marcus), Brett Kelly (The Kid), Lauren Graham (Sue), Lauren Tom (Lois), Bernie Mac (Gin), John Ritter (Bob Chipeska) and Ajay Naidu (Hindustani Troublemaker).


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King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962, Honda Ishirô)

I thought movies about giant monsters fighting were supposed to be exciting, but apparently not. I haven’t seen King Kong vs. Godzilla in maybe fifteen years and now, this time, I watched the original Japanese version. Frighteningly, it’s only seven minutes longer, so I imagine the Americanized version is boring too. The main problem with the film is its stupidity. It’s supposed to be a comedy, except Honda Ishiro’s direction doesn’t take humor into account. Honda’s direction doesn’t take a lot of things into account–like coverage or shot continuity, but whatever. He visibly doesn’t know how to shoot for 2.35:1 here, filling the middle of the frame with action; the film is VHS safe twenty-five years before anyone else was worried about it.

To compensate, there’s a lot of stuff with the lame people in the story. A pharmaceutical company captures King Kong to be their corporate mascot and there’s all these people who run around–with high level military access apparently–and they’re mostly useless. The boss, who’s doing a Groucho Marx impression, is mildly amusing, but the lead is real broad. The romantic male lead (interested in the lead’s sister), played by Sahara Kenji is actually all right. So is Hirata Akihiko (who died in the original Godzilla, playing a different scientist). He’s actually the funniest, walking around, spouting off useless commentary. The scenes where people bet on the outcome of the fight are lame.

I couldn’t tell what was wrong with the movie until I realized no one got hurt. Both King Kong and Godzilla destroy trains, but there are no victims. They destroy houses, they stomp things… no one gets hurt. The tone isn’t light, it’s stupid.

Another technical problems involve the music–it’s terrible, especially when Honda fills the running time with montages of Godzilla trap preparation–and the sound design. The sound design’s just incompetent.

No movie called King Kong vs. Godzilla was going to be good, but there’s usually something amusing about Godzilla movies (from my cursory reading, it seems like the dubbed, Americanized version might be a cleaner cut). Honda’s repeated failures throughout really make the original Godzilla even more of an achievement (and shock).

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Honda Ishirô; written by Sekizawa Shinichi; director of photography, Koizumi Hajime; edited by Kaneko Reiko; music by Ifukube Akira; production designers, Abe Teruaki and Kita Takeo; produced by Tanaka Tomoyuki; released by Toho Company Ltd.

Starring Takashima Tadao (Osamu), Sahara Kenji (Kazuo), Fujiki Yu (Kinsaburo), Arishima Ichiro (Tako), Tazaki Jun (General Shinzo), Hirata Akihiko (Dr. Shigezawa), Hama Mie (Fumiko), Wakabayashi Akiko (Tamiye), Negishi Akemi (Dancing Girl) and Omura Senkichi (Konno).


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