‘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 * * * *

Suicide Squad

Suicide Squad poster

Oh lord, what happened here? This was supposed to be the movie of the summer where, for a change, we got to root for the bad guys. “Suicide Squad” was a movie I couldn’t help but have high expectations for as I was expecting something along the lines of John Carpenter’s “Escape From New York” which had us rooting for a sociopath more interested in his own survival than saving the world. Instead, we got a mess of a motion picture which is not the least bit exciting. While the previous DC comic book movie, “Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice,” proved to be a dour experience, “Suicide Squad” is just flat out boring.

I’m not going to bother going over the plot of “Suicide Squad” as there wasn’t much about it worth remembering. All you need to know is the worst of the worst have been recruited against their will to fight an antagonist bent on (what else?) world domination. We do, however, get a laborious introduction to the squad of the movie’s title which includes characters who are so seductively evil. There’s Floyd Walton/Deadshot (Will Smith) who never misses a target, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) who has gone from being a psychiatrist to an insane supervillain thanks to the Joker (Jared Leto), the assassin Digger Harkness/Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), former Los Angeles gang member Chato Santana/ El Diablo (Jay Hernandez) who puts all pyromaniacs to shame, Waylon Jones/Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) who looks more like a reptile than a human being, and Dr. June Moone/Enchantress (Cara Delevingne) who is an archaeologist possessed by an evil spirit (is there any other kind?).

These characters represent a path to the dark side which moviegoers like ourselves are eager to eat up onscreen. It’s no secret we revel in their exploits which go against all the laws we grew up believing in as the movies are a great way to explore humanity’s dark side. Instead, their adventures are unforgivably watered down to where we wonder what he was thinking or if Warner Brothers meddled with his vision too much. The PG-13 rating should have been a warning as this kind of material demands an R like “Deadpool” did.

“Suicide Squad” was written and directed by David Ayer who has given us some strong motion pictures like “End of Watch,” “Harsh Times,” “Street Kings” and “Sabotage.” His movies never sugarcoat reality which makes them all the more viscerally entertaining, but here exits his comfort zone and has made a movie which is not the least bit visceral. It would have been cool to see Ayer combine his real world aesthetic with the DC comic book universe, but what we get instead is something which is astonishingly banal. Not even the appearance of Batman (Ben Affleck, once again proving he was a terrific choice to play the Caped Crusader) does much to make the proceedings the least bit interesting.

Furthermore, the movie is poorly photographed to where everything feels so drab and lifeless. From the posters it looked like this would be an infinitely colorful motion picture as the villains leave their mark on a society which has long since abandoned them. Instead, every scene looks like it was illustrated from the same pastiche which makes it all the more depressing to sit through.

This is also not to mention the choppy editing which robs the action scenes of any excitement they hoped to have. Not even the clever music selections of songs by Eminem, Kanye West or Queen does much to raise our adrenaline levels as the characters show off their devilish talents. Ayer also introduces certain character driven scenes at the most inopportune moments in “Suicide Squad.” While they are meant to give more depth to the characters, they instead slow down an already tedious movie that pretty much lost me from the start.

In terms of the acting, some performances here are better than others. Will Smith and Margot Robbie pull off strong turns as Deadshot and fan-favorite Harley Quinn, but they are saddled with an endless stream of pathetic one-liners which fail to amuse in the slightest. Other are not as lucky such as Jai Courtney who looks more like Tom Hardy to where I thought Hardy was cast as Captain Boomerang. As for Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, he suffers the same indignity Oscar Isaac and Idris Elba endured in “X-Men: Apocalypse” and “Star Trek Beyond;” getting covered up with way too much makeup which robs him of his natural charisma.

One of the best performances in “Suicide Squad” comes from Jay Hernandez who makes El Diablo into much more than just a one-dimensional schmuck. While the other actors have little room to move around, he manages to humanize his character to where we see much beyond the various tattoos covering his body to where his plight is ultimately heartbreaking. Hernandez manages to generate some genuine emotion here, and it’s in a movie which could have used more of it.

But the big surprise is Jared Leto’s turn as Joker in that Cesar Romero’s was far more threatening and memorable on the campy “Batman” television show. Leto does make the role uniquely his own and has a chilling laugh, but there’s nothing particularly special or invigorating about his portrayal. He doesn’t have the ghost of Heath Ledger haunting his every move, but he never comes across as much of a villain. Instead, Leto’s portrayal is nothing more than a cartoon, and his performance here is more of a cameo than a starring role.

Looking back, the most threatening character to come out of “Suicide Squad” is not a superhero or a supervillain, but instead a government official named Amanda Waller. From start to finish she is ruthless and single-minded in her approach to forming this squad and infinitely devious in keeping the team of supervillains under her complete control. It also helps that Amanda is played by the always fantastic Viola Davis who makes this character into a fascinating psychological case study as she proves to be an even bigger sociopath than those she has employed to save the world.

I came out of “Suicide Squad” depressed and wondered how so many talented people came together to make a comic book movie so lifeless and boring. Even if you come into it with low expectations as many are doing now, there’s not much of anything to like here. I was hoping to see an exhilarating motion picture with a devilish sense of humor, but instead we got what is so far the most disappointing movie of 2016. Warner Brothers may have started their own cinematic universe with some success, but now they need to start making better movies because they are way behind Marvel Studios.

To all the DC Comics fans out there who enjoyed “Suicide Squad,” please believe me when I say I’m happy for you. It’s good to know somebody got something out of this movie because I sure as hell didn’t. Here’s hoping and praying that “Wonder Woman” and “Justice League” are infinitely better.

* out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

 

Jason Bourne

Jason Bourne poster

In a summer filled with superhero movies and blockbusters filled with aliens looking to decimate planet Earth, it’s nice to see one with an earthbound action hero who hurts and bleeds like the rest of us. That’s the great thing about watching Matt Damon as Jason Bourne; he makes this formerly amnesiac soldier completely human even as he performs superhuman feats. And now the latest Bourne adventure, simply titled “Jason Bourne,” has Damon reuniting with director Paul Greengrass in another globe-trotting adventure that has Bourne, or David Webb if you want to call him by his real name, once again risking his life more often than not. What results is one of the most solidly entertaining movies to come out in a rather blah summer movie season.

We catch up with Bourne several years after the events of “The Bourne Ultimatum” as he makes a living participating in illegal fighting rings. Bourne has since recovered from his amnesia to where he remembers everything, but he still finds himself haunted by what he has done and plagued by demons he can only expunge by beating up opponents, sometimes with a single punch. But then Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) turns up out of the blue to give Bourne some important information regarding Bourne’s father, Richard Webb (Gregg Henry). Just when you thought Bourne was done with the past, it turns out he doesn’t actually remember everything, or at least not yet.

I still vividly remember watching “The Bourne Ultimatum” at the Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles when it came out in 2007. Few action movies thrilled me the way “Ultimatum” did as Greengrass grounded it in a reality not all that different from our own. Both he and Damon know what makes these movies ticks, and this proves to be “Jason Bourne’s” greatest strength and its greatest weakness. Some have called this entry in the franchise “The Bourne Familiarity,” and it’s not hard to understand why. It follows many of the same beats of its predecessors to where the freshness we discovered in “The Bourne Identity” is largely lost here. Still, “Jason Bourne” is still a pulse-pounding thrill ride as we are led from one insane action set piece to another to where we can’t catch our breath.

Aside from Damon, Stiles is the only actor from previous installments to appear in “Jason Bourne.” This time around we are introduced to a new set of CIA employees that are either out to terminate Bourne or eager to learn more about him. Among them is CIA Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) who is eager to punish Bourne for his exposure of the Blackbriar program. Dewey is also heading the Iron Hand program, a Treadstone for the new millennium, and it’s no surprise that while he doesn’t intend to make the same mistakes, it’s highly likely he will make a bunch of new ones.

Jones is great fun to watch here as he is so devilish in his portrayal of a man eager to bury the past in order to ensure the security of America’s future. You never catch “The Fugitive” actor playing Dewey as a one-dimensional bad guy, but instead as a man eager to control the uncontrollable. Not once does Jones overact here as he warns others not to tell Bourne all they know, and he is an actor who doesn’t need to speak up much to show just how threatening he can be. It’s great to see him react to the havoc Bourne brings to his carefully laid plans as he does his best to remain cool under pressure.

But I have to tell you, the person almost steals “Jason Bourne” from Damon and Jones is recent Oscar winner Alicia Vikander who portrays the head of the CIA Cyber Ops Division, Heather Lee. Vikander is to “Jason Bourne” as Rebecca Ferguson was to “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation;” a wonderfully enigmatic character whose motives are never entirely clear until the very end. Some will complain that Vikander gives an emotionless performance here, but that’s missing the point. Her character is one who has to hold her cards close to her chest as any reveal could compromise not just her, but the movie as a whole. You can’t take your eyes off of Vikander as she grabs your attention from start to finish.

Greengrass still knows how to direct an action movie to maximum impact. As with “The Bourne Supremacy” and “Ultimatum,” he succeeds in putting you into the action as opposed to making you sit comfortably in your seat. The shaky cam remains a favorite of his which will drive some audience members nuts, but it serves to make all those bullets, car chases and punches feel all the more visceral. As “Jason Bourne” reaches its furious climax, Greengrass keeps our pulses pounding as we wonder how much more damage its hero can take.

Speaking of car chases, Greengrass still comes up with the craziest ones ever. This movie has Bourne chasing down a nameless “Asset” (played by Vincent Cassel) up and down the Las Vegas strip. It’s hard to remember the last time so many parked cars were destroyed in a movie, but “Jason Bourne” may very well have set a new record. While we watch this chase confident Bourne will survive, you still wonder how he will survive when he’s racing at speeds even Sammy Hagar wouldn’t approve of.

“Jason Bourne” doesn’t feel quite as thrilling as “The Bourne Ultimatum” did, and the familiarity it shares with its predecessors does take away from the excitement a bit. But after a seven-year break, Damon and Greengrass still know how to get our adrenaline pumping to where we come out of the theatre thoroughly exhausted. In a summer that feels surprisingly low on thrill rides, we finally have one which delivers.

There’s certainly room for another Bourne adventure in the future, but here’s hoping our hero looks forward instead of back. That should make a future installment stand on its own a bit more.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

Ghostbusters (2016)

Ghostbusters 2016 poster

After being stuck in development hell for much longer than it took to get “Independence Day: Resurgence” to the silver screen, the new “Ghostbusters” movie is now playing in theaters everywhere. The filmmakers should get an award for actually getting this movie made as we spent years hearing news that production was on again and off again, that Bill Murray wasn’t interested in playing Dr. Peter Venkman again, and whether Ivan Reitman or Harold Ramis was going to direct. Well, it’s just as well we never got a “Ghostbusters 3” as the reasons to not make it kept piling up. Instead we have this reboot which proves to be a lot of fun for fans and a new generation eager to prove they ain’t afraid of no ghost.

We meet Dr. Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig), a teacher at Columbia University who is ever so eager to get tenure. The problem is that her former friend, Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) is once again promoting a book they wrote together that deals with the existence of ghosts and paranormal activity. This book, however, proved to be unpopular and Erin has tried to distance herself from it ever since. But upon meeting Abby at her laboratory where she works with eccentric engineer Dr. Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), they get word of a ghost sighting at a haunted museum that is actually haunted, and from there they start their own paranormal business that Erin calls the Department of the Metaphysical Examination. Of course, we all know they will be blessed with a catchier name before they know it.

This “Ghostbusters” starts off following the same path as the 1984 original as our heroes get tossed out of the world of academia as their love of the paranormal makes them untrustworthy and frauds in the eyes of non-believers everywhere. But being cast out of “normal society” forces them to go into business for themselves, and they set up shop in an office on the second floor of a Chinese restaurant. From there, the movie takes on a tone all its own to where it cannot be considered a shot-for-shot remake.

I found myself laughing a lot as the jokes came at a rapid pace, and if the pace ever slackened the actresses were quick to pull it back up. My only real issue with the humor is that it threatens to be too broad throughout. The 1984 original was very funny, but it was nowhere as broad because Reitman kept the characters grounded in a reality that separated them from the ghosts they pursued. Director Paul Feig doesn’t have that same success here as things are played up a little too much. Still, I can only complain about that so much.

Many are still apoplectic about this being an all-female “Ghostbusters” movie as if it were some of sacrilege that should be hidden from moviegoers everywhere. Frankly, the gender reversal is welcome as it gives this reboot an energy and a freshness it would not otherwise have. It was also a smart move not to have them playing the same characters from the original as those actors are irreplaceable.

Now let’s talk about this cast as they are not just female; they also have names. You really can’t go wrong with “SNL” veterans like Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon and soon to be 5-timer “SNL” host Melissa McCarthy. Wiig brings her wonderfully unique sense of humor to Erin Gilbert and combines it with a vulnerability which gives us a vivid picture of the rough childhood Erin had to endure. McCarthy remains a comedic fireball, busting down everything in her path for the sake of a good joke. And then there’s McKinnon brings that same crazy energy that makes her impersonations of Hillary Clinton and Justin Bieber so hilarious to the role of an engineer who seriously loves her work.

Also in the cast is Leslie Jones who steamrolls her way into becoming a Ghostbuster without any hesitation. As her work on “SNL” has proven, you better stay out of her way if she has a good punchline coming. Her street savvy character of MTA worker Patty Tolan is more than just the female Ernie Hudson of this movie. Jones makes her an unapologetic hero ready to do battle with ghosts dumb enough to get in her path. That is, unless one of those ghosts is resting on her shoulders.

Are these actresses believable as scientists and paranormal experts? Does a movie like this need them to be? Did we wonder if the male actors from the original were believable as scientists? If the cast of this reboot was instead male, would we even be asking that question?

But as terrific as this cast is, they almost get upstaged by Thor himself, Chris Hemsworth. He is simply hilarious here as Kevin Beckman, the Ghostbusters’ receptionist who is as sexy as he is dim-witted. Hemsworth proves to have great comic chops, and he steals every scene he has as he fumbles about his duties while trying to look cool. Be sure to stay through the end credits as he leads the NYPD and the FBI in a most hilarious dance sequence.

Feig peppers “Ghostbusters” with a number of artifacts from the original, and even the 1984 cast (with the exception of Rick Moranis) took the time to cameo in it. Still, he manages to make this “Ghostbusters” stand on its own. It has terrific special effects which look even better in 3D (I can’t believe I just said that), and even Slimer makes a return to the franchise and has a blast at everyone’s expense. The only other issue I have is with the movie’s villain, Rowan, a geeky hotel clerk and an occultist eager to open a portal to the ghost dimension. Neil Casey does good work, but Rowan is nowhere as threatening as Zuul, Gozer or even that old dude in the painting from “Ghostbusters II.” Had this movie featuring a more dangerous and despicable villain, it would have been even better.

There’s no way this “Ghostbusters” could have equaled or surpassed the original in terms of laughs or freshness, but I pretty much considered that a given when I sat down to watch it. All that matters is that this movie is a lot of fun and I think kids will get a huge kick out of it as well. In a dreary summer season where most blockbuster movies have failed to deliver, this one delivers enough to keep us riveted to our seats. For those who still fear that this reboot will “rape” your childhood, stop saying that. No one can rape your childhood, not even George Lucas.

* * * out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.