Wednesday, April 13, 2011

We've Got a Bite!

So what has a head full of saw-blade teeth, sneaks up on you without warning, and has an unending appetite for whatever it can reach? If you said Great White Sharks, you can congratulate yourself on getting pretty close. Still, the answer we were looking for here at Hello, Mr. Anderson is far more insidious than any mere meat-eater: Steve from Stevereads and I are teaming up once more, this time to look back at one of the all-time classics of film and a former #1 literary bestseller, Jaws. The famous Peter Benchley novel spent an amazing forty-four weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List... but I'm not looking to move in on Steve's territory. Since he likes to sink his teeth into the literary arts stuff, I'll let him focus his beady eyes on the original novel. I don't need him going into a frenzy, and I'm a chummy sort anyway. All I needed to see was supplied by a Netflix account and two-plus hours of free time, and while this was far from my first go-around with the granddaddy of summer blockbusters, I was still excited to view this old film with fresh eyes and an open mind.

Hey! Seafood!
The first major release by future Hollywood stud Steven Spielberg, Jaws takes place on the fictional vacation island of Amity, off the coast of Massachusetts. After a young woman disappears into the ocean one night only to reappear the next day torn to shreds by an unknown animal, new Amity Police Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) wants to close down the beaches to protect the people on the island. The Mayor and town selectmen fight against this action however, as shutting down the beaches so close to the Fourth of July weekend would be disastrous for the island's tourist industry. Not wanting to scare off the potential visitors, those in power wanted any whispers of shark attack to be suppressed, and so when more attacks terrorize the small island, Brody finally goes after the monster, hiring an eccentric shark hunter named Quint (Robert Shaw) and helped by an ichthyologist by the name of Hooper (Richard Dreyfus). Together, the three very different men must hunt down one of the most ferocious predators ever to patrol the blue depths.

Let me start off by saying that it feels good to be able to say something nice about Steven Spielberg. Before the director tackled important topics and historical events in films like Munich and Schindler's List, Spielberg was a young up-and-comer being handed the reigns of a brand new franchise. Before his films were marred by cliches, self-importance and mediocrity - a cursory glance of his filmography reveals some of the most overrated films in the industry - he simply focused on telling stories. The Opinioness has told me in the past of Duel, a thriller featuring car chases involving tanker trucks and feats of awesome. I have yet to see the film, but its simplicity is on full display in Jaws. While I had forgotten some of the film's early events, it's surprising how once the three men get on the Orca, there's not one bit that I've forgotten over the years. This is when the film TRULY begins, three men against the elements and a force of nature. The ultimate man vs. beast tale, Jaws was more about the men than the actual animal, and seeing them interact from varying points of view almost makes the finale unimportant, though I still wouldn't miss it for the world.

A SI Swimsuit shoot gone horribly awry
Part of the film's success came not only from the premise, but the talented actors they got to play the big parts. Between the twilight of Shaw's career and the dawn of Dreyfuss's, Roy Scheider played the perfect outsider, a New York native who moved to the tiny island because it would be easy, only to be presented with the more serious pandemic of his life. In the role of Chief Brody, Scheider has been given perhaps his most legendary role; it's almost a shame that he's overshadowed by just about everyone on the set, including an animatronic shark. Robert Shaw had maintained a long, healthy acting career before coming aboard the set of Jaws; The Sting and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three were among his legendary films. Yet just about everybody who's anybody KNOWS Captain Quint, the fisherman and shark hunter with his roguish charm, foul mouth and deadly instincts for the sea. Shaw succeeded in creating not just a character, but an ICON, and his memory will long outlast those of many of his contemporaries. Richard Dreyfuss, fresh off a Golden Globe nomination for his role in George Lucas's American Graffiti, amazes just in the fact that he's such a young man in Jaws, and that's before he puts on a good face as the scientist Matt Hooper, who constantly finds himself at odds with people who he doesn't think are as smart as he. Hooper can be pretty arrogant, and a bit much for the other characters to take sometimes, but he gets to redeem himself in the end. A great job making the character sympathetic, and for that matter the three men together work wonderfully, helping especially to make the film's final act so engaging. Lorraine Gary does some good work as Brody's wife Ellen, but can't hope to put on the same level as her three co-stars.

Rub a Dub Dub
The special effects have held up nicely in the past thirty-five years, especially the shark effects. When the creature lunges out of the water for a snack, it's always a surprise, and looks extremely realistic. Spielberg's underwater shots, though cribbed to death by others, really did a great job of setting the scene for mayhem, letting you know when your favorite sea killer was looking for a new meal. Brilliant pacing early on meant you were never sure who was going to get attacked, and this made for one of the more intense experiences you can have watching a movie. Only an early scene featuring one of the victims being strewn back and forth across the sea looks less than perfect, with many jump cutting, but otherwise the SFX is perfect. John Williams's score is also legendary, though only his classic Jaws theme is really timeless. Many of the other songs on the soundtrack sound remarkably similar to his other work, so much that you can imagine him twisting a few passages around and BAM... Star Wars music.It's fairly easy to ignore, however, as you're rarely focusing on the music long enough to detract from the film quality.

In the fight of Shark vs. Boat, Shark is a bit ahead at this time
Jaws is rightfully known as one of the greatest films ever made, hearkening back to the days when Spielberg could make a great movie without it having to brim with importance and superfluous messages. Those kinds of films can be fine, but so often we as audience members want to sit, stare at a screen, and get terrified. Jaws did this not by creating aliens and monsters to frighten its viewers; the creature depicted was real, dangerous, and plentiful enough that to this day beach-goers will not risk treading the tide. Never a dull watch, Jaws might not be one of my all time favorites, but like a light beer goes down easy on any given evening. After seeing it, however, you might get a hankering to grab Peter Benchley's novel and see how it inspired the film. If you're interested, check out Stevereads. Steve will be glad to see you; just don't get close enough to see his pearly whites, if you catch my meaning.

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