All-Time Favorite Trailers: ‘Star Wars Episode I – The Phantom Menace’

With the unveiling of the first trailer for “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” many generations were once again reminded of how thrilling it is to get our first glimpse at the latest episode which will take us to a galaxy far, far away. Seeing the fans cheer the trailer on at the recent Star Wars Celebration in Chicago, Illinois also took me back to the times when I got to witness any of the them on the silver screen with a large and incredibly enthusiastic audience as there are few cinematic experiences people are as passionate as a “Star Wars” movie.

After watching “The Rise of Skywalker” trailer, I found myself going back to the year 1998 when I was at the enormous movie theater located in the Irvine Spectrum Center to watch “Star Trek: Insurrection.” This was in the winter before “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” was set to be released. I remember hearing about the development of the prequel movies when I was in junior high school when time moved by way too slowly. Those movies could not come soon enough, and it would feel like an eternity before they finally arrived on the silver screen.

Never will I forget this particular evening as I watched the lights go down in the theater and the trailers began to appear. We thought we were getting “The Phantom Menace” trailer right at the start, but it turned out to be a teaser for “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me,” another all-time great movie trailer. But as soon as the Lucasfilm Ltd. Logo appear on the silver screen, the audience members began to applaud and cheer loudly as this was the one thing they were eager to see more than anything else.

Knowing this was particular “Star Wars” movie was the first new one since “Return of the Jedi,” which was came out almost 16 years before, and understanding how it marked George Lucas’ return to the director’s chair since “A New Hopes” (22 years to be exact), there was no way you could not be the least bit excited about this particular motion picture. We keep hearing about this movie or that one is the most anticipated movie in history, but this saying could not be truer when it came to “The Phantom Menace.”

This trailer hits all the right notes. John Williams’ famous themes never sounded as good as they did here, and the visual effects looked simply amazing. Seeing Yoda back in action earned an extra few cheers as few characters have given us such endless wisdom as he has. Plus, you had Samuel L. Jackson as a Jedi master, so you now there will be at least one bad ass motherfucker in this PG-rated movie. Plus, that Sith lord Darth Maul looked especially evil even by Darth Vader standards, so there was something else to look forward to. And when the trailer climaxed with Williams’ music, the crowd cheered louder than I have ever heard anyone cheer at a trailer before. It goes without saying that everyone was all set to see this sucker on opening night and perhaps even sleep outside the local movie theater so they could be the first ones inside.

Forget about what you thought about the finished film (that’s for a separate article). There was no cinematic experience you could have been more hyped about back in the 1990’s than “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.” I love this trailer because it reminded me of the many things I love about these movies, and of how important it was to see it before people spoiled it just as Homer Simpson spoiled “The Empire Strikes Back” for those waiting in line for it. Even today, 20 years later, this is still a thrilling trailer to sit through.

Star Wars Phantom Menace teaser poster

Star Wars Phantom Menace movie poster

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‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’ is Not the Droid You Are Looking For

Solo movie poster

Here we are again in a galaxy far, far away, and it is the third time we have ventured there in three years. We also head back to an even longer time ago when one of our favorite “Star Wars” characters, in this case Han Solo, was young, full of vigor and demographically desirable. But while the “Star Wars” movies have always been filled with tremendous imagination and unforgettable characters, I have to be honest and say that “Solo: A Star Wars Story” proved to be an underwhelming space adventure. While I am as big a Han Solo fan as the next person, seeing his early years portrayed here felt strangely ordinary to where this didn’t feel like a “Star Wars” movie, but instead an average science fiction movie yearning to be.

This movie begins with a routine chase sequence in which Han (Alden Ehrenreich) and his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) attempt to escape a criminal gang, and from there I started to have a bad feeling about this. Usually these movies have me totally hooked in right from the start, but I did not feel the same kind of excitement I usually feel with the average Lucasfilm adventure. When Qi’ra and Han are suddenly separated at a transport station, Han tells her he will come back for her. Will he? Well, she is played by Emilia Clarke. Will Qi’ra and Han live happily ever after? Did Greedo really shoot first?

“Solo” reminded me of the problems I have with most prequels as they seem more concerned with connecting the dots between their story and the ones we have seen a thousand times. Like “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” and “The Thing” prequel, the filmmakers are saddled with a cinematic history they are forced to adhere to, and it results in a lack of surprise and suspense as we know how things will turn out. And, like “Hannibal Rising,” it tells us more than we need to know about an iconic character to where I walked out feeling how certain things are best left to the imagination instead of being made into a movie.

Alden Ehrenreich has been an actor on the rise ever since his scene-stealing role in “Hail, Caesar,” and he certainly has a strong screen presence as Han Solo. At the same time, he ends up giving a one-note performance as the intergalactic smuggler which lacks the charisma Harrison Ford brought to the role. While he tries to play it cool throughout, Ehrenreich never quite comes to life here, and what results is a disappointing case of miscasting.

We do get introduced to some new characters, and among which is Tobias Beckett who is played by Woody Harrelson. As always, I am reminded of how Harrelson can play just about any character he takes on, and he provides us with the mentor Han Solo was always destined to have. Tobias, like Han, is a smuggler, but he also represents the darker road Han could find himself on if he is not careful.

Other actors are not as lucky. Thandie Newton shows up as Val Beckett, Tobias’ wife and partner in crime, but she is gone way too soon. Jon Favreau voices the alien character Rio Durant, but Rio merely functions as an easily disposable member of Tobias’ crew who we know will not last long. Paul Bettany makes Dryden Vos into a wonderfully ruthless crime lord, but his presence in “Solo” feels a bit uneven as if he is there to fill in the missing blanks. It should be noted how Bettany took over this role after the original actor cast, Michael K. Williams, was unable to return for reshoots. Things had to be changed to accommodate Bettany, and it shows.

Production problems kept plaguing “Solo” before its release, the biggest of which was the firing of the original directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, both of whom still received an executive producer credit. It was one of several instances which showed how protective Lucasfilm was of this franchise. The word behind the scenes was that Lord and Miller were looking to mix things up and did not want to give audiences the same old thing, but Kathleen Kennedy was not about to let anyone change things up. While I commend Kennedy and Lawrence Kasdan for taking extra special care of this franchise, I came out of “Solo” thinking they should shake things up in the future if they want it to maintain the relevance it still has.

Replacing Lord and Miller is Oscar-winning director Ron Howard, and this had me excited as this is the same man who directed “Apollo 13.” That film was based on a real-life event everyone knew the outcome of, and yet he turned it into a riveting piece of entertainment. I figured he would bring this same energy to “Solo,” but even he is saddled with the characters’ history which he cannot easily maneuver around. Apparently, Howard reshot 70% of this movie, and I came out of it wondering how much of the finished product was his. As a result, the whole movie feels inescapably uneven.

For what it is worth, “Solo” does improve when Donald Glover, a man of many talents, arrives on the scene as Lando Calrissian. Glover brings the kind of charisma to this role I expected Ehrenreich to bring a wealth of to Han, and it makes me want to see Lando get a film of his own. From the first moment he appears onscreen, Glover makes this character the epitome of cool to where he does not need a can of Colt 45 to prove it, and he brings an infectious joy to a movie which needed it sooner.

We also get to meet another unforgettable droid here, L3-37. As voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, she is a sardonic delight as she shows more attitude and resilience than any other droid I have seen in any previous installment. It is also a kick to see L3-37 discuss the possibilities of sexual compatibility between her and Han with Qi’ra. After all these years, the “Star Wars” movies are proving to be more progressive than ever before! As for Lando, I think it is safe to say this is the droid he was looking for.

While certain moments like the first time Han meets Chewbacca (played here by Joonas Suotamo) and the initial appearance of the Millennium Falcon end up feeling uninspired and anticlimactic, the scene where Han makes the infamous Kessel Run in less than twenty parsecs is thrilling to watch, and it reminded of why I love the “Star Wars” movies so much. Yes, we know how things will turn out, but Howard keeps us on the edge of our seats as he subverts our expectations and plays with our emotions with glee.

Sure, “Solo” does have its moments, but they only served to remind of everything about it which does not work. The screenplay by Jonathan Kasdan and Lawrence Kasdan features dialogue which feels lifeless even when spoken by talented actors. Granted, there is none of the god-awful dialogue Hayden Christensen was forced to utter in “Attack of the Clones,” but it still feels derivative of lesser sci-fi movies which cannot even compare to “Star Wars” in general. I was also surprised at how uninspired the film score by “Jason Bourne” composer John Powell ends up sounding, and it only comes to life when he utilizes the immortal themes of John Williams.

“Rogue One” was also a prequel, but it had a cast of characters you really cared about, and its story of sacrifice pushed all the right buttons as we came to deeply admire the heroic actions they took. Even though we know the secret plans of the Death Star would end up in the hands of the Rebels, getting there was more than half the fun. “Solo,” however, is nowhere as effective, and what results is a big disappointment and a missed opportunity. This marks the first time I have ever given a negative review for a “Star Wars” movie, and yes, I have seen “The Phantom Menace.”

Lucasfilm would be better off looking to the future instead of going back to the past. Enough backstory has been established for these iconic characters to where we don’t need any additional information. We will certainly be looking forward when “Episode IX” is released in December of 2019, but it appears other “Star Wars” origin movies are in the works such as one on Obi-Wan Kenobi. Seriously, I am with Ralph Garman when he said, wouldn’t a movie about Obi-Wan watching Luke Skywalker growing up from a distance be a little too creepy?

* * out of * * * *

‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ Still Leaves Us in Awe 40 Years Later

Close Encounters of the Third Kind 40th poster

On this week’s edition of yes, this movie really is that old, we have Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Released back in 1977, it is now being re-released in a new 4K remastered version in honor of its 40th anniversary. I first watched it on laserdisc at a friend’s house back in the 80’s, and I remember being somewhat traumatized by it as there were scenes which proved to be quite scary. I have since watched the film several times, but this 40th anniversary re-release allowed me to see it on the big screen for the first time. Suffice to say, this is the way you should view this particular Spielberg classic.

The film begins with strange discoveries being made in various parts of the world which include the appearance of Army airplanes reported to have gone missing back in the 1940’s, a lost cargo ship which has reappeared in the Gobi Desert for no discernable reason, and witnesses living in India are found singing a five-tone musical phrase which is revealed to be the distinctive sounds of UFO’s. Meanwhile, out in Indiana, Ray Neary a blue-collar worker, husband and father to three very loud kids, is working late at night after a large-scale power outage takes place, and he finds himself having a very close encounter with a UFO, one which lightly burns his face with its bright lights. From there, he becomes obsessed with finding out more about these alien visitors to where he gets left with subliminal messages he is desperate to find answers for.

Throughout the decades, there have been countless movies dealing with human beings and their first contact with extra-terrestrials, many of which feature the last remnants of humanity fighting off an alien invasion determined to wipe them out with extreme prejudice. As I got older, I came to realize how rare it is to have a science fiction movie which deals with aliens in a highly intelligent way. Among them are Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Robert Zemeckis’ “Contact,” Spielberg’s “E.T.,” and Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival” which was one of the very best movies of 2016. Even rarer these days is the motion picture which leaves you in an extended state of wonder and awe from start to finish and even after you leave the theater.

Even 40 years after its release, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” still has an immense power to enthrall us as its characters come into contact with something they have longed to see. There is nothing about it which comes across as unintentionally laughable, and while technology has evolved to a whole other level since the 1970’s, this movie feels timeless in its exploration of possibilities and discoveries. It also works on many different levels in that it is funny, scary, thrilling, and deeply emotional.

This film is especially unique on Spielberg’s resume as it is one he directed and also wrote the screenplay for. It would also mark the last time he would direct his own screenplay until he made “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” in 2001. As a result, there should be no doubt of just how personal this film is to him. It turns out he wanted to make this one before “Jaws,” but he didn’t have the commercial clout at the time to get the budget he wanted. Of course, when “Jaws” came out, this changed forever.

Spielberg has said “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is not actually a science fiction film, and watching it again has me agreeing with him completely. Yes, it does feature aliens and UFO’s, but they are not really the point. Also, this film takes place in a reality we all know and relate to. “Close Encounters” does not take place in some future dystopian world, but instead one we all inhabit as the main characters are regular people working regular jobs and supporting their families. They don’t want to see UFO’s, but they did, and now they cannot and will not deny their existence. Throughout this movie, we remain in the human universe and we never enter an alien one, and this is very important to point out here.

“Close Encounters” also deals with stories which would become a hallmark of future Spielberg films and productions such as “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial” and “Poltergeist” among others. Seeing the government conspire to keep this alien visitation a secret is presented in a way which feels not only realistic, but also very possible to pull off back in the 1970’s. But he also shows how the truth of things cannot be kept a secret forever, and, like Ray Neary, we want to see this all the way to the end because we won’t stop and until we get answers to fulfill our curiosities.

When it comes to the actors, Spielberg really just lets them loose here. He doesn’t direct them as much as he lets them run wild, and I don’t just mean the kids who are a noisy bunch as presented here. Richard Dreyfuss is perfectly cast as Ray Neary as he brings a crazed and enthusiastic energy to the role of a man who has seen things he wasn’t supposed to see, and he is not in a position to unlearn what he has learned. Even as Ray’s actions increasingly alienate him from his wife and kids, Dreyfuss makes us empathize with his plight as he is caught up in something he cannot turn his back on.

Melinda Dillon is equally wonderful as Jillian Guiler, another character who, along with her fearless son Barry (Cary Guffey), experiences a close encounter of her own. She also suffers the indignity of her son being kidnapped by aliens, but she is eventually reunited with him in the movie’s last half. It may sound like I’m giving plot points away here, but I’m not because Dillon’s performance is such an emotionally fulfilling one to witness as she takes Jillian through the stages of fright, grief, desolation, and eventually joy and happiness. She makes you experience these emotions with her, and seeing her smile when Barry reappears is a moment of pure elation.

Spielberg’s casting of filmmaker Francois Truffaut as Claude Lacombe, a French government scientist, was truly inspired. Along with Bob Balaban who plays David Laughlin, Lacombe’s assistant and interpreter, he portrays a government official who brings sanity to a situation which has other government officials responding to in a panic to where the quick answer is cover everything up and keep the number of witnesses to a bare minimum. Truffaut brings a strong level of thoughtfulness and wonderment to his character as Lacombe shows an openness to first contact others would not be quick to embrace. While military officers are eager to keep Ray and Jillian out of the area, Lacombe tries to make them see they were invited to be here.

Many images from “Close Encounters” will forever remain burned into my consciousness. The most prominent image of all is when young Barry opens the front door where an alien ship hovers outside, waiting to make contact with someone, anyone. This is still the defining image of who he not just as a filmmaker, but as a human being. Spielberg’s eagerness to make contact with aliens from another galaxy is no secret, and here’s hoping a UFO does make contact with him in his lifetime. Better they meet him than a certain person who is currently occupying the White House.

I think people these days who are seeing “Close Encounters” for the first time might say it takes too long to get to the last half where humans finally get to communicate with aliens. But like Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now,” this film is more about the journey than the final destination. Spielberg wants us to question what we believe and how far we will go to get answers to questions which have plagued us for an infinite amount of time, and we share the awe of the characters once those answers are delivered to us here. And it’s not just that the characters get answers here, they truly earn them as well.

This is also one of those films its director couldn’t stop tinkering with over the years. Ridley Scott couldn’t leave “Blade Runner” alone years after its release, and Oliver Stone continued to tinker with his dream project “Alexander” to where the final cut he gave us still doesn’t feel final. As Spielberg was finishing up “Close Encounters,” Columbia Pictures was in dire straits financially and begged the filmmaker to release his pet project sooner rather than later. What came out in 1977 wasn’t his complete vision, and he eventually got to make a special edition of the film which was released in 1980. The 4K restoration of “Close Encounters” is essentially a combination of both versions, but the scenes with Ray Neary exploring the inside of the mothership have been cut out. Spielberg has said over and over he never should have taken us inside the ship, and I completely agree. While Spielberg provides the characters with many answers, there are still some things better left to the imagination.

Seeing “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” at the Cinerama Dome afforded me the opportunity to see the movie in its most desirable format. The audience I saw it with was left spellbound at what unfolded, and this says so much about this movie’s staying power. Just when I think I have become so jaded and embittered a filmgoer as studios continue in their desperate search for the next big franchise, a motion picture like this comes along to remind us filmmakers still have the power to leave us in a state of sheer wonderment. It feels like we have had an overabundance of movie anniversaries lately to where these celebrations feel more like a ploy to get more money out of our pockets. But this particular anniversary is one worth acknowledging as it continually reaffirms the power of cinema to truly transport to another time and place and, in the process, rescue us from the real world even if it’s only for a temporary time.

The only thing which bugs me about “Close Encounters” these days is Ray’s decision to leave his family behind and travel with the aliens. Essentially, he is presented with the same question Captain Decker is faced with in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture;” Would you leave everything and everyone you have ever known behind just to explore another world and dimension? Seeing Ray getting on board the ship made me wonder how his family would have reacted to this decision, and it plagues my mind long after the end credits have finished. Then again, Spielberg did make this film before he had any kids of his own. Had he made it after he became a father, there’s no doubt Ray would have made a different decision. Still, one could not blame Spielberg or Ray for being tempted to go. I certainly would be tempted.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Jaws 2’ Proves to Be a Pretty Decent Sequel

Jaws 2 movie poster

WARNING: THIS REVIEW DOES CONTAIN SPOILERS, BUT YOU PROBABLY KNOW WHAT THEY ARE ALREADY.

“Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water…”

Ah, what a great tagline to a halfway decent sequel. “Jaws 2” is easily the best sequel to Steven Spielberg’s horrifying classic which became the first movie to make over $100 million dollars, so of course a sequel had to be made. Another shark is off the coast of Amity Bay, to get revenge or just to feed or just to scare the crap out of the residents who depend on the summer months for their very existence.

Some people seem to think this is the same shark from the first movie… What are you, stupid? IT GOT BLOWN UP! This is probably the wife of that shark, or maybe it’s his mother. Maybe it was the shark’s gay lover or something. We never do learn about the shark’s relatives, do we? I am assuming that the shark in “Jaws 3-D” was not a distant relative, but someone who just hates Florida theme parks with a passion. As for the shark in “Jaws: The Revenge,” that one was definitely a relative. It had to be to swim all the way to the Bahamas to go after the damn Brody family!

Anyway, back to this shark, also a relative who waited a little while after the first one to strike. This sequel takes place a couple of years after the original and opens with some divers exploring the wreckage of the Orca who get attacked by the shark. Immediately, we zoom ahead to Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) rushing off to the opening of a new hotel on Amity Island which his wife (Lorraine Gary) has helped out with. We meet up again with Mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) who is as excited about the summer months as he was previously. We also get to see the two Brody boys, Mike and Shaun, who have grown up a lot since we saw them last.

Then the darn shark appears again when he (or is it a she?) is least expected. There is a good scene involving a water skier which is “Jaws 2’s” first big action sequence. Of course, no one actually sees this shark attack the skier, so they just assume it was some sort of boating accident. Otherwise they would have found out earlier and got rid of the shark sooner, and there wouldn’t be a movie to watch. But then some kids find a beached killer whale on the sand which has had huge chunks of his skin bitten off, and this catches the eye of Chief Brody who becomes convinced there is another shark on the hunt. He has no proof and only his instincts to go on, so naturally no one believes him.

One of the many great things about “Jaws” was the human drama on the island was very strong. Spielberg wasn’t just interested in giving us shark attacks. That brings me to this film’s biggest weakness; the scenes on dry land suffer without the buddy relationship between Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss. The characters are more like clichés this time around instead of fully realized human beings, and the story is more contrived. One guy standing in Brody’s way is Len Peterson (Joseph Moscolo) who doubts his sanity every step of the way. He is the movie’s key idiotic character, and the one guy we desperately want to see get eaten by the shark. When movies have characters like these, it doesn’t take long for audiences to get aggravated by them.

You’d also think Mayor Vaughn would know better this time around. He went through all this crap with the first shark, and now he thinks Brody is misguided in his assumptions yet again. He urges Chief Brody not to press it this time around, and their working relationship in “Jaws 2” ends up seeming completely ridiculous. If the Mayor is not going to be trusting of Brody’s instincts, then he should have fired him a long time ago.

There was a naturalness to the characters and acting in “Jaws” which unfortunately does not carry over to “Jaws 2,” and this sequel is deeply affected as a result. It would have been great to have Spielberg and Dreyfuss back for this one, but they had better things to do like making “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Actually, it would have been a huge shock if Spielberg came back to direct this one, considering the hell he went through making the original.

However, if you can get past the contrived screenplay, there are still plenty of shark attacks to enjoy. The shark is still a very threatening villain like its predecessor. Every time that fin comes out of the water, I get goose bumps all over my skin. The tension is still pretty taut as the shark sneaks up on its prey stealthily. There are also a couple of good jump out of your seat moments here, especially one involving Scheider slowly going into the ocean to retrieve some boat wreckage.

While the first shark was indiscriminate in who he, or she, killed, the shark in “Jaws 2” seems to have a big hankering for teenagers, especially ones who won’t stop screaming. One critic, I can’t remember who, said this movie would be a good time for those who enjoy seeing teenagers getting eaten, so I can only imagine what parents around the globe feel about this sequel. After a while, it just seems like the shark is going after these teenagers in order to get them to shut up. It makes you wonder what the shark is thinking throughout, “WHAT ARE YOU STUPID?! I CAN HEAR EXACTLY WHERE YOU ARE YOU STUPID SHITS!!”

The teenagers do a great job of screaming and acting when they are in shock. The moments where they are in shock are very effectively done, and it helps quiet things down before the great white pops up again. Among the kids is Keith Gordon who later went on to star in “John Carpenter’s Christine” and “Back to School” with the late Rodney Dangerfield. Seeing him looking so young here is a bit of a shock after all these years.

The last half of “Jaws 2” has the teenagers out sailing, basically laying themselves out as shark meat. Among these kids are the Brody boys, both who have been grounded from getting into the water because of their father’s suspicions. But what’s a boy to do when a girl’s cousin wants to go with him to the lighthouse? She tempts Michael with that line we often hear teenagers say, “Do you always do what your parents tell you to do?”

Furthermore, why should the older brother have all the fun? Little Sean hitches a ride with Mike who really doesn’t want him around. So, they have the typically brotherly relationship which adds quite a bit to the story. When the teenagers find their lives in danger upon the appearance of the shark, how they feel about each other becomes completely irrelevant as they have to band together in order to survive.

Actually, I wonder if the filmmakers went with teenagers as shark meat in response of the sudden popularity of the slasher genre. I mean, the great white shark is in many ways the ultimate serial killer. He has sharp knives for teeth, and he (or she) can cut you up good. This one leaves no leftovers even if we wanted any, and much blood is spilt.

“Jaws 2” was directed by Jeannot Szwarc, and it is a good thing I am writing down his name instead of trying to pronounce it. He takes on daunting task of following a Spielberg masterpiece with a sequel which can only hope and pray to match the power of the original. The fact he does not entirely succeed is not altogether his fault. No one could ever have expected this sequel to be better than the original, and this certainly could have been a lot worse. Szwarc pretty much films “Jaws 2” in the same manner Spielberg did in terms of the shark attacks, but he also shows us more of the shark as well. While showing the shark takes some of the suspense away, he still does a good job of keeping the viewer on edge as we wonder when the shark will strike next.

Scheider made it clear on several occasions of how he did “Jaws 2” as a contractual obligation to Universal Pictures. I doubt he was all that excited about doing the sequel while the other key players went off to do other things. At least Robert Shaw had a good excuse; his character got eaten in the original. All the same, Scheider is still very strong here as Brody as he tries to convince the town there is another shark out there and makes it clear he’s not going to wait around for everyone to realize this. Scheider is one of the best reasons to watch “Jaws 2,” and he gives the audience a lot to cheer for as the film reaches its inevitable conclusion.

Of course, we all know what happens to the shark at the end. If you haven’t seen the movie yet and don’t want to know, don’t read any further. But it is a very cool death as Brody gets the shark’s attention by banging on a power line and drawing it in by sound. Holding the power line out for the shark to take a bite out of, his glee and anxiety are ever so apparent as he invites the shark to “SAY AHH!!!!!” The death of the shark by electrocution is right on a par with the way the first shark died, and it’s a scene I’m sure audiences cheered like crazy.

Another key ingredient of “Jaws 2” was also one of the main ones from Spielberg’s film, John Williams’ music. His score to the original remains one of the best and most frightening pieces of music ever created for a movie. With “Jaws 2,” Williams takes those themes from the first film and mixes them up with new ones for the characters inhabiting this sequel. It’s another great score which captures the heart and terror which unfolds onscreen. None of the other composers in this franchise came close to matching what Williams did. They simply lost the heart of the music and relied too much on the main “Jaws” theme to carry them through.

“Jaws 2” is understandably no masterpiece, but it is “Citizen Kane” when you compare it to the other sequels which followed it. “Jaws 2” was the last good movie in a series which soon descended into mediocrity. If you have to watch something on cable in the afternoon, you could certainly do worse than watch this one. Besides, it gave us one of the greatest taglines in movie history:

“Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water…”

Of course, by the time “Jaws: The Revenge” came around, the tagline sounded more like this:

“Just when you thought it was safe to go back to a movie theater…”

* * * out of * * * *

‘Jaws’ Remains a Thrilling Experience Decades After its Release

Jaws movie poster

Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” is one of those movies I thought I watched a few years after it came out, but in retrospect I had only seen bits and pieces before finally watching it all the way through. It came out in 1975 a couple of months before I was born, and I can still vividly remember people talking about it while in a carpool to school. One of my kindergarten buddies kept telling me about all the blood the great white shark ends up spilling, and what he said made me NOT want to see “Jaws” for the longest time.

I do remember seeing certain scenes from “Jaws” for the very first time, and those moments remain forever burned in my conscious mind. When ABC presented its network television premiere of the movie, I remember those giant red letters coming out at me from the TV screen, and it was enough to have my hair standing on end. It was also the first time I saw little Alex Kintner getting dragged down to his bloody death, a very frightening image to be featured in any movie, let alone one with a PG rating.

Years later, I was watching an episode of “At the Movies” with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert where they were talking about Spielberg’s movies in general. This was when I first saw the scene where Roy Scheider is throwing chum into the water, and the great white shark ends up rising out of the water which leads Scheider to tell Robert Shaw, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” This appearance of the shark scared me to death back then, and I felt exactly like Scheider’s character did as he slowly backed away from the boat’s rear.

A few years later, “Jaws” was again showing on television, and it was one of the few motion pictures shown unedited on television. Most movies, when they make their network television debut, are edited for content, but “Jaws” is so highly regarded to where it had to be shown with all the good parts intact. It was then I got my introduction to when Richard Dreyfuss was exploring Ben Gardner’s boat and Gardner’s head pops out of the hull. This proved to be another sequence which almost stopped my heart.

By the time I reached junior high school, I was already fully aware “Jaws” ended with the shark getting blown up. In fact, I had seen all the sequels by then and watched those other great white sharks bite the dust in their individual ways. Heck, I remember my brother renting “Jaws 3” on videotape, and we watched the shark getting blown up by a grenade and parts of his teeth getting thrust out at us with those 3D effects which never translated to the small screen.

While watching the last half of “Jaws” at a friend’s house all those years ago, I was truly astonished at how thrilling the movie was. I figured knowing the movie’s ending would rob it of any suspense or tension Spielberg managed to generate for audiences back in 1975, but man was I wrong. Seeing Dreyfuss trapped in the shark cage while the great white makes an effort to “reach out and touch someone” by attempting to smash through those metal bars had me begging for someone to kill it. Watching Scheider trying to keep his head above water as the boat sank had me wondering how the hell he was going to make it back to shore in one piece as his character hates the water.

I eventually rented “Jaws” on VHS in the days before Blockbuster Video became a dominant force in the video rental market. Seeing the movie in its entirety was a great experience, and it’s still one which I cannot ever get sick of watching. Even though I knew certain moments were coming, the anticipation of them still had me on the edge of my seat.

Having watched “Jaws” so many times before its Blu-ray release, the thing which keeps bringing me back to it is the human element. What Spielberg does best here is give us characters who are human and not mere clichés. Whether you’ve ever lived on an island like Amity or not, we know its inhabitants up close and why they depend on the summer months for their very lives.

Now while Spielberg did have problems with the mechanical shark which he named after his lawyer, he did have tremendous luck with his cast. What I love about Scheider, who plays Police Chief Martin Brody, is he doesn’t act the part as much as he becomes it. Those who read my reviews know I love talking about actors who inhabit their roles more than act, and Scheider proved to be one of those actors who did this very effectively. Brody is not out to be the hero, and he is like any other husband and father who just wants to keep his family safe. Scheider also makes you admire this ordinary police chief as he faces his fear of water so he can to put an end to the shark’s reign of terror.

Dreyfuss proves to be endlessly entertaining as Matt Hooper, a man whose love of the ocean and the animals inhabiting it keeps him from ever becoming a cynical bastard. Even after all these years, Dreyfuss is so much fun to watch as he shares his shark expertise with Scheider’s character and endures constant battles with Robert Shaw’s Quint who thinks this oceanographer is a little too domesticated to be sailing the ocean with him.

Speaking of Shaw, he has always struck me as one of those actors who proved to be as tough as the characters he played. This must be why he inhabits Quint so effectively, and his performance is one of the most unforgettable I have ever witnessed. Quint proves to be very hard to get along with, but then he goes into his long speech regarding his experiences on board the USS Indianapolis and of what happened after it sank. This monologue still gives us all chills every single time.

It’s the strong human element which makes “Jaws” work so phenomenally well as we come to care deeply about these characters and their hairy predicament. This could have been one of those pictures which lived or died on the quality of its special effects, and here they really could have been a detriment here more than anything else. The stories behind the making of this movie have long since become legendary as the filmmakers dealt with endless obstacles in making anything about the shark work.

But I also love how what worked against “Jaws” actually helped it in the long run. Dreyfuss loves to joke about how he kept hearing crew members saying “the shark is not working” on their walkie talkies, but it turned out the less we saw of the shark the better (something the sequels would quickly forget). “Jaws’” overall effectiveness came from the terror of what we didn’t see as opposed to what we did see. Many may prefer to see the monster, but the lack of its appearance forces our imaginations to go into overdrive, and this makes the monster so infinitely frightening.

“Jaws” is also aided tremendously by John Williams’ unforgettable music which still freaks us out whenever we hear those “dum-dum-dum-dum” sounds. So much attention is placed on this part of his score, however, to where other parts of it don’t get the praise they deserve. The music where Brody’s son mimics his dad’s every move at the dinner table is beautiful, and the same goes for the end theme which is mournful of what’s been lost and yet thankful this ordeal has finally come to an end.

This was the first movie to make $100 million at the box office, and that forever changed the way movies were made and distributed. As a result, many blame Spielberg for putting an end to the thoughtful, character-driven movies of the 1970’s, but that’s not fair. “Jaws’” success got Wall Street interested in the money which could be made from movies, and this proved to be the death knell to 70’s filmmaking. If Wall Street had looked more closely at the success of “Jaws,” they’d see how it focused as much on its characters as it did on the shark.

“Jaws” inspired a lot of filmmakers like Robert Rodriguez, Kevin Smith and Eli Roth, and it is bound to inspire many more in the future. Many have even gone on to name their companies after famous lines of dialogue like A Bigger Boat and Bad Hat Harry. It says a lot how “Jaws” is as powerful today as when it first came out in 1975, and I hope movie studios remember this if they ever foolishly decide to remake it, and heaven forbid this ever happens.

* * * * out of * * * *

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: Empire of the Sun

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Empire of the Sun” is one of the few Steven Spielberg movies which has eluded my watching it for far too long. I remember when it was released back in 1987, and my brother and I watched a documentary on its making. What we saw did not make it look like the typical Spielberg crowd-pleasing movie people had come to expect from him back then. It also dealt with a young boy who is separated from his parents, and separation anxiety was a HUGE thing for me back in the 80’s. But with it now at its 30th anniversary of its release, and having the opportunity to see it on the big screen at New Beverly Cinema in 35mm, the time had come to give what is largely considered to be one of Spielberg’s more underrated films a look.

Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by J.G. Ballard, “Empire of the Sun” takes us back to the days of World War II where we meet Jamie Graham (Christian Bale in his film debut), a young schoolboy who lives a privileged life with a wealthy family out in the Shanghai International Settlement where he sings in the school choir, rides his bicycle everywhere and anywhere, and has a love of airplanes which knows no bounds. A key shot for me comes early on when we see Jamie taking some food out of an overstocked refrigerator which is filled with goodies as it shows how easy things come to this young lad to where he can boss the Japanese maid around like his parents do.

Of course, this all changes when the Japanese invade the settlement following their bombing of Pearl Harbor, and Jamie and his family are forced to flee their home and escape with their lives. In the process, Jamie gets separated from his mom after he picks up his metal toy airplane which he dropped on the ground, and he is forced to fend for himself as he is swept into a conflict far beyond anything he could have imagined.

When it comes to “Empire of the Sun,” it was no surprise to learn David Lean was originally going to direct this adaptation as Spielberg certainly made it look like a Lean movie with scenes filled with crowds of people struggling to survive in life during wartime. Spielberg ended up putting together scenes which must have made Lean proud as it brings to mind the epic shots the director pulled off in his masterpiece “Lawrence of Arabia.” Today, most of those shots would have been accomplished with the use of CGI effects, but “Empire of the Sun” was made back in a time where they weren’t so readily available.

Watching this movie reminded me of how brilliant Spielberg is at taking us back to a day and age many of us were not alive to see, and he does it so vividly to where we can never doubt his authenticity to the period. Spielberg has visited the era of World War II time and time again to amazing effect whether it’s the Indiana Jones movies or “Saving Private Ryan,” and he never seems to miss a detail in the process.

And then there’s Christian Bale who made his film debut in “Empire of the Sun,” and he brings to this role the same kind of intensity he would later bring to his work in movies like “American Psycho” and “The Fighter” among others. I could never take my eyes off of him as he takes Jamie from being a privileged young man to one who struggles for even the smallest reward like a Hershey chocolate bar. Was there another young actor who could have pulled off such a brave and emotionally honest performance as Bale does here? I think not.

Another great performance to be found here is from John Malkovich who plays Basie, an American ship steward stranded in Shanghai who befriends Jamie in his most desperately hungry state. Basie looks to be the Han Solo kind of character who befriends a young innocent who has yet to learn how cruel the world can be, but he turns out to be more of a manipulator than a hero in the making. Malkovich makes Basie into a fascinating study of someone who seeks to benefit themselves more than anyone else, and he constantly leaves you wondering if his character can rediscover whatever humanity he has left.

In addition, there are fine performances from Miranda Richardson as a neighbor of Jamie’s, Nigel Havers as a doctor who desperately tries to teach Jamie about humility, Joe Pantoliano has some choice moments as a companion of Basie’s, and Burt Kwouk, best known as Cato from the “Pink Panther” series, shows up in a small role which he is almost unrecognizable in. Heck, even Ben Stiller shows up here as an American soldier. Seeing him at first is a bit disorienting as he has since become a big comedy star to where he now seems out of place here, but I’ll chalk that up to one of the disadvantages of watching this movie at a later date.

Looking back, I feel “Empire of the Sun” was Spielberg’s first real foray into darker material which would soon pave the way for films like “Schindler’s List,” “Saving Private Ryan” and “Munich.” While it feels like he was taking baby steps here, as those aforementioned films proved to be much darker than this one, it was a giant cinematic leap for him to tackle something like this back in the 80’s.

Still, part of me wonders if he played a little too nice with the source material. Being that this was an adaptation of a J.G. Ballard novel, the same writer whose controversial books “Crash” and “High-Rise” were adapted into deliriously dark motion pictures by David Cronenberg and Ben Wheatley, I can’t imagine “Empire of the Sun” was any easier of a book to read. Ballard wrote some pretty dark stuff, and it makes me wonder just how dark his novel “Empire of the Sun” was compared to Spielberg’s film.

All the same, “Empire of the Sun” is an amazing achievement to watch today as he managed to pull off many epic scenes long before the use of CGI effects. Part of me wishes I had watched it when I was younger as it would have had a more powerful effect on me emotionally, but better late than never with a film like this. Along with cinematographer Allen Daviau, composer John Williams, writer Tom Stoppard and editor Michael Kahn, Spielberg created a World War II epic which stands out among the most memorable of them all, and it deserves more attention than it received upon its release thirty years ago.

* * * * out of * * * *

Lincoln

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The one thing which always drove me nuts in history class as a kid was how the teachers and the books we read made the past seem so much better than our present. We were taught about how Presidents like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were such great leaders who helped make America the country it is today, and in the process, they were turned into mythological characters to where we forgot they were human beings like the rest of us. Juxtaposing this with the politics of America back when Ronald Reagan was President, it looked like we could do nothing but complain about the state of the world. It made me wonder what we did as Americans which made us seem so ungrateful for what our forefathers brought about.

This is why I’m thankful for movies like Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” which helps to humanize those historical figures we learned about in class. In this case, the historical figure is Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States. The film focuses on the last four months of his Presidency when the Civil War was raging on and was insistent on getting the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, passed in the House of Representatives. It presents this President, one of the greatest America has ever known, as a flesh and blood human being endowed with strengths and flaws which will make you admire him more than ever before.

Much of the accomplishment in making President Lincoln so vividly human here is the result of another unsurprisingly brilliant performance from the great Daniel Day Lewis. Known for his intense method acting and laser sharp focus in preparing for each role he does, he brings his own touches to a man so defined by his historical deeds, and he succeeds in making this character his own during the movie’s two and a half hour running time.

“Lincoln” also shows how the world of politics has always been a cutthroat place to be in. The Republican and Democratic parties were much different than from what they are today, but during the 1800’s getting certain amendments passed involved a lot of tricks which were not always highly regarded. Even Lincoln wasn’t above hiring three politicians, played by Tim Blake Nelson, John Hawkes and James Spader, to lobby members of the House to vote in favor of passing the Thirteenth Amendment. But what made this President’s actions especially courageous was how he wasn’t just thinking about solving the country’s problems but of the effects this particular amendment would have on generations to come.

“Lincoln” also delves into the President’s personal life which had been fractured by the loss of a child and was also unsteady due to the fiery personality of his wife Mary, played by Sally Field. Watching Field here reminds us of what a remarkable actress she remains after all these years. Field is such a live wire as she struggles to make her husband see the consequences of the actions he is about to take. The actress had signed on to play this role years ago, back when Liam Neeson was set to play Lincoln, and she had to fight to keep it. It’s a good thing Spielberg kept her around because she has always been a tremendous acting talent, and she enthralls us in every scene she appears in.

Like many of Spielberg’s best films, there isn’t a single weak performance to be found in “Lincoln” which boasts quite the cast. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who had a heck of a year in 2012 with “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Looper” and “Premium Rush,” is excellent as Lincoln’s oldest son, Robert, who considers quitting school to join the army and fight for his country. David Strathairn is a wonderfully strong presence as Secretary of State William Seward, the great Hal Holbrook is unforgettable as the influential politician Francis Preston Blair, Gloria Reuben is very moving in her performance as former slave Elizabeth Keckley, and Jackie Earle Haley has some strong moments as the Confederate States Vice President Alexander H. Stephens.

But the one great performance which needs to be singled out in “Lincoln,” other than the ones given by Lewis or Field, is Tommy Lee Jones’ who portrays the Radical Republican Congressional leader Thaddeus Stevens. Jones is a powerhouse throughout as he empowers this fervent abolitionist with a passion as undeniable as it is undying, and seeing him reduce other congressional members to jelly is a thrill to witness. Jones is tremendous as we see him fight for what he feels is right regardless of how he goes about achieving it.

Spielberg employs his usual band of collaborators here like producer Kathleen Kennedy, director of photography Janusz Kamiński, editor Michael Kahn and composer John Williams to create a movie which captures the importance of Lincoln’s place in history while also making it intimate in a way we don’t expect it to be. He also benefits from having the great playwright Tony Kushner on board as the movie’s screenwriter. Kushner’s knowledge of history has never been in doubt ever since we witnessed his magnum opus of “Angels in America,” and word is he spent six years working on the script for “Lincoln.” His efforts do show as he gives us a riveting portrait of a divided nation on the verge of making a major change, and even back then America was resistant and deeply frightened to making certain changes regardless of whether or not it would benefit from them.

Granted, Lincoln’s life would probably be better explored in a miniseries as there is so much to explore, and this movie can explore only so much of it. Regardless, “Lincoln” is an invigorating portrait of a great American President who fought for the benefit of his country’s future. The sacrifices he made tragically cut his life short, but his legacy will never ever die as Spielberg’s film rightly proves.

* * * * out of * * * *