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Friday, June 25, 2010

Another Summer in Amity: 35 Years of JAWS, Day 5: JAWS: THE REVENGE

As unthinkable as it seems now, there was a point in time when a fourth Jaws film seemed like a good idea to someone. How and why is hard to determine, but it would seem that Universal decided, a few years after the release of Jaws 3-D, that the cracks in the franchise were repairable and that audiences would be game for another installment involving the Brody clan’s increasingly preposterous ongoing war with enormous man-eating fish. Apparently, the studio decided to scapegoat the third entry for the diminishing returns of the series, and felt it necessary to essentially ret-con the SeaWorld-tastic events of the past and return to the peaceful, sleepy town of Amity once more. After all, how could the public resist such a tempting cinematic treat?

Supervising the resurrection of the great beast was Joseph Sargent, helmer of hits like The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 and the Burt Reynolds’ fave White Lightning, who’d transitioned into the television industry by the dawn of the 1980s. He would be both directing and producing the project, dubbed Jaws: The Revenge, and bringing to life a script by Michael De Guzman, an untested feature-film-writer who had previously penned two episodes of the Steven Spielberg-created NBC series Amazing Stories. Seemingly aware of where the property had gone astray, Sargent decided that it was imperative the new movie be character-based and continue the story developed over the course of the first two chapters.

Hence, Lorraine Gary was hired to reprise her role as Ellen Brody, while Lance Guest - of Last Starfighter fame - was signed to play her eldest son Michael, and Michael Caine as her dashing devil-may-care romantic interest. Purportedly, Roy Scheider was also asked back so he could be served up to the shark as an appetizer in the flick’s opening scene. Shocking as it may seem, he was able to resist the lofty offer and instead the script was altered so that Sean Brody (nasally Mitchell Anderson – light years away from Jaws 3-D’s douchey cowboy John Putch) would be the sacrificial victim.

Following a bumpy production period in Martha’s Vineyard, Nassau and the Universal back-lot, Sargent was forced to reassemble his cast and crew to reshoot the ending of the film following disapproving test audience feedback – a complication which would wind up preventing Michael Caine from accepting his Best Supporting Oscar for Hannah and Her Sisters in person (He later joked that though he never saw the results of his hard labor, he had “seen the house that it built, and it is terrific!”). When Jaws: The Revenge was at last unleashed onto the unsuspecting populace on July 17th, 1987 it was met with a hailstorm of harsh critical barbs and middling box-office, grossing just 20-million domestically and 31-million in foreign ticket-sales. Routinely named one of the worst films of all time, the film ultimately proved to be the final devastating blow for the franchise – as well as Joseph Sargent’s motion picture career - and a source of ironic hilarity for untold numbers of bad movie fans. On a more positive note, though, it also inspired a seriously addictive NES game and a brilliant Richard Jeni comedy routine.

The epic saga that is Jaws: The Revenge begins in picturesque Amity Island around Christmas time. While children sing heart-warming carols in the chilly open air, Chief Sean Brody (Anderson), who has followed in his now-deceased dear dad’s law-keeping footsteps, is called to investigate an errant log floating in the harbor. But no sooner has the poor sap hooked the chunk of timber than his entire arm has disappeared down the cavernous maw of a gigantic great white shark. In precious little time, the rest of his gnarled form follows suit. Did the evil animal create the wood-y diversion to catch him? (No, seriously, did it? I still have no idea) Well, crazy old lady Brody thinks it did, much to the concern of surviving son Michael (Guest) and his artist wife Carla (Karen Young). So, to cheer up the grieving matriarch, the couple invites her back to their home in Nassau, where Michael and his colleague Jake (Mario Van Peebles) are conducting research on conch snails for a Marine Biology PhD project. Flying them there is Hoagie (Caine), a mysterious pilot with a live-for-the-moment mentality and an astonishing tolerance for listening to hysterical middle-aged women spout screwball theories about ocean-dwelling carnivores.

However, apparently eager to back up Mrs. Brody’s claims, the colossal finned culprit has made the speedy journey from the east coast of the USA to the Bahamas in about two days. That is one determined fish! Rather than reunite itself with Ellen, though, the bulky creature reveals itself to Jake and Michael, who, rather recklessly, decide to abandon their trivial sea-snails in favor of secretly studying the predator instead (Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think PhD research grants quite work that way…). Despite not telling anyone of their covert research mission, Mrs. Brody senses something is wrong and is plagued by visions, nightmares and sepia-toned flashbacks to events which she wasn’t actually present to witness (The novelization states that this is due to the shark being controlled by a voodoo witch doctor, but the film isn’t quite so clear or boldly off-the-wall).

Possibly bored of swimming around doing nothing for weeks on end, the shark finally makes its presence known, interrupting the public unveiling of Carla’s latest dangerous-looking, jagged metal statue, and chowing down on a banana-boat-riding extra. Her deranged beliefs confirmed, Ellen hijacks Michael’s sailboat in order to feed herself to the shark – a loony plan which Michael, Hoagie and Jake justifiably disagree with and attempt to prevent. After attaching some sort of tracker thingie to the monster, Jake is killed (or not, depending on the version you’re watching) and the remaining trio ram the mast of the boat into the inexplicably-roaring shark causing it to spontaneously explode. We’re then treated to a recycled clip from Jaws showing its corpse sinking to the ocean floor. Then the Brody family lives happily ever after. Well, except for Sean Brody, what with the being dead and all.

Taken as a stupid whole, Jaws: The Revenge is like the most unbearable type of fan-fiction (I should know, I wrote an awful Jaws 5 outline when I was 11); assuming that a great sequel story can be made by simply ripping off the original’s most iconic scenes and inserting random obscure references to please the die-hards (Both Mrs. Kintner (Lee Fierro) and Amity council member Mrs. Taft (Fritzi Jane Courtney) have brief cameos sitting in Ellen’s living room) Although Sargent and De Guzman obviously worship Spielberg’s 1975 smash, their fawning reverence is like an anchor weighing their movie down, preventing it from being its own unique entity. Consider the father/child mimic scene, which was a heartfelt, poignant moment in Jaws, and is replicated here between Michael and his daughter Thea (Judith Barsi) almost shot-for-shot. Whereas the first film used the scene as a character-driven emotional release, introducing it at the precise time it was needed, Revenge just plunks it in haphazardly during a listless gap between shark incidents. Rather than engage in thoughtful, organic storytelling with multi-layered individuals, the film plays like an abbreviated series of perfunctory story beats that have no real aim or purpose beyond barely filling up three acts.

Even though the picture is intended to be thrilling adventure tale, the shark is almost a non-entity during the run-time and nothing exciting or interesting really happens to the characters. Instead, Jaws: The Revenge plays like a really dull soap opera in which everyone carries on tedious expository speeches and exhibits stereotypical movie behavior in order to cause badly-written crises and arguments to occur. How else to explain Michael and Jake’s idiotic behavior regarding their deadly science project? If your brother had recently been devoured alive, would you really take part in unprotected dives with a visibly hostile predator? Especially after it’d already come close to killing you once? And wouldn’t it be a wise idea to warn local authorities that there’s an aggressive man-eater in the vicinity? Lord knows, banana-boat woman would probably have benefited from a small word of caution.

Sargent occasionally tries to spice up the suffocating dreariness with a few inconsequential shark encounters, but he’s working with a robot that wouldn’t be out of place at a Chucky Cheese restaurant. It moves drunkenly, has a coarse plastic complexion, emits laughable guttural groans and is often quite evidently suspended above the water. At one point, you can even see a cable pulling it. Whereas Spielberg and Szwarc understood the limitations of the mechanism, Sargent shoots it from every possible angle – frequently altering its scale in the process - and has it commit physically impossible acts such as remaining stationary and standing on the tip of its tail in the water. It’s never scary or menacing, rarely appealing and almost always distractingly phony. Arriving a dozen years after the original design, one would have to be as nutty as Mrs. Brody to consider this progress.

In the end, Jaws: The Revenge is little more than a pathetic, whimpering finish to a once endearing film series. Although I don’t think that it was Sargent’s primary intention to cheaply manipulate the audience by calculatingly exploiting their fondness for the first Jaws, his under-baked, soggy final product seems to indicate otherwise. Rather than accomplish its sole objective of keeping the profitable Universal’s property afloat, Revenge sends the entire franchise spiraling into the same blackened abyss previously reserved for inert, decimated shark carcasses. Given the direction it was headed, perhaps its best to just be thankful for a speedy mercy killing, no matter how unintentional.

Shark Bites:

Shark-tality Count: 2 or 3 (depending on the version) – Sean Brody, Banana boat woman, Jake (Current DVDs feature this character surviving, while some theatrical cuts and TV versions end with him taking an exploratory dive down the shark’s gullet.)

Best Toothy Kill: Sean Brody, I guess. You’d think that having such a low-kill count would at least inspire the filmmakers to put some effort into the measly few they have. Sadly, you’d be sorely wrong. Certainly Brody’s actual death is nothing to write home about, but it’s elevated a bit by being crosscut with children singing Christmas carols. Oh, the cruel irony of it all.

Worst Toothy Kill: Jake. His survival in certain versions is utterly moronic, but his demise is no better. His death is intended to have a similar impact as Quint in Jaws but any drama is annihilated by the shark inexplicably standing on its tail and the Jake clumsily tripping ass-backwards off the ship’s mast.

How the Shark Finally Bites It: (Also depending on version) Ummm... I’m not exactly sure. It’s hit with the mast of the Brody clan’s sail-ship and detonates without warning or cause. One cut of the flick just features the shark being impaled (which is still goofy but at least sorta makes sense visually) whereas the other requires a team of analysts working around the clock JFK-style to decipher.

Climactic Words to Chew On: Courtesy of a pointless sepia-toned flashback, we once again get to hear Chief Brody utter his classic “Smile you son of a...” Needless to say, the impact is considerably dulled.

Shark-splosion Rating (Out of 10): Impaling demise: 3.0, Random explosion demise: 1.0

Overall Film Rating: 1 out of 5

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Another Summer in Amity: 35 Years of JAWS, Day 4: JAWS 3-D

Originally, during their development of a Jaws 2 follow-up, executive producers Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown had a very different plan in regards to the direction a third series’ entry should take. The duo were of the opinion that audiences would no longer be able to accept the premise of yet another shark arriving in Amity at all seriously, so the film best not either. Their cracker-jack plan? To produce a spoof film, along the lines of Young Frankenstein or Airplane!, called Jaws 3, People 0. The duo were so certain that this was the correct approach that they hired on Animal House producer Matt Simons and commissioned National Lampoon writers John Hughes (Yes, that John Hughes!) and Todd Carroll to conjure up a script.

However, Universal, not pleased to see that its high-banking tent-pole property was being turned into an ironic joke, shut down the production and fought for a more conventional threequel. This clash of opposing ideas ultimately led to Brown and Zanuck abandoning the project altogether, and the studio turning the fishy franchise over to exec producer Alan Landsburg (responsible for such masterworks as Porky’s II: The Next Day and Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo), who nabbed up Guerdon Trueblood’s story outline - which involved a shark becoming trapped in a lake after a poorly-navigated migration – and handed it off to series scribe Carl Gottlieb, Legend of the Lone Ranger screenwriter Michael Kane and author Richard Matheson (Yes, that Richard Matheson!) for expansion and polishing. It’s unknown how many versions of the script were cranked out, or which lasting elements came from which writer, but Matheson has been quoted as saying that the final screenplay as we know it was essentially cobbled together by uncredited studio script doctors.

Although Zanuck and Brown had briefly flirted with employing helmer Joe Dante - whose cheeky 1978 B-movie Piranha had proved to be a cult hit - their dismissal led to this tantalizing possibility evaporating into thin Hollywood air. Instead, the studio chose to seat Joe Alves, the franchise’s capable production designer, who also oversaw second-unit shooting on the first sequel, in the director’s chair, with a stipulation that the film be shot for 3-D so as to compete with popular trashy horror flicks like Friday the 13th Part III. While none of the original cast was expected to reprise their roles, Roy Scheider allegedly ran screaming towards Blue Thunder just to ensure that he’d be unavailable if Universal came a-calling. Instead, the lead was handed over to an unknown, named Dennis Quaid, who would play Chief Brody’s all grown-up son Michael, with support coming from Bess Armstrong, newcomer Lea Thompson (Just two years shy of Back to the Future) and recent An Officer and a Gentlemen Academy Award-winner Louis Gossett Jr.

Released under the oh-so-cheesy moniker Jaws 3-D on July 22nd, 1983, the water-logged effort (Which, to be fair, did have a really wicked teaser trailer) would end up generating just under half the worldwide box-office of Jaws 2, bringing in 45-million US and 42-million overseas. Though not a financial disaster by any means, it was readily apparent that the series had slipped out of the cultural zeitgeist and was unlikely to recover it’s once illustrious status. Just to further hammer home this point, at the close of the year the flick would garner five Razzie nominations,
for film, director, screenplay, supporting actor (Gossett Jr.) and newcomer (the movie’s two dolphin sidekicks). This, of course, would have little bearing on the regrettable decision to green- light a fourth film a few years later.

Abandoning the calm environs of Amity Island, Jaws 3-D transplants the aquatic action to balmy Orlando, Florida, where none-too-bright businessman Calvin Bouchard (Gossett Jr.) – who, judging by the actor’s tenuous accent, may or may not hail from New Orleans – is opening up a colossal new SeaWorld(™) theme park. Folks, this park has it all; an Undersea Kingdom decorated with hokey mechanical eels and tentacles, a water show featuring trick-skiers in lederhosen performing a human pyramid, a pair of wacky dolphins named Cindy and Sandy and a plausibility-busting 35-foot man-eating great white shark. Obviously that last attraction isn’t an intentional addition, but its present nonetheless, alongside its cute lil’ 10ft off-spring, and making short work of greasy-looking maintenance workers and inept coral robbers. Thank the heavens, then, that Philip FitzRoyce (Simon MacCorkidale) is on the scene! He’s a hotshot British photographer/hunter who feels the best method of dealing with the problem is massacring the beast on live television for publicity. While logic would seem to dictate that most media outlets and animal protection groups would be rather upset by a high-profile zoo murdering a protected animal for entertainment purposes, Bouchard is a dope, so he’s fine with the deal.

Enter the sole voices of reason: Kathryn Morgan (Armstrong), a senior biologist eager to contain and study the creature, and Michael Brody (Quaid), her boyfriend and the park’s engineer, who mostly stands around and does nothing. Oh, a cowboy-hat-wearing Sean Body (John Putch) is also kicking around, alongside his barfly professional-skier girlfriend (Thompson), but they don’t really add much to the already convoluted equation. After Kathryn and FitzRoyce capture and sedate Jaws Jr. during an unnecessarily dangerous night-hunt, the biologist attempts to nurse it back to health. But Bouchard wants moolah, dammit, so he puts the sick shark on public display. Where it promptly dies. This ensures that Momma Shark is officially pissed and she begins attacking the Undersea Kingdom, to woefully unsatisfying effect. FitzRoyce, ever the wannabe hero, attempts to lure the creature into the pump system, but brings along rope that’s about as strong as a wet noodle. Hence, he winds up mashed to a pulp. In a confusing last-ditch crack at saving the day, Michael Brody does some high-stakes welding, which proves pointless when the shark, shortly after, attacks the underwater control-room holding himself, Kathryn and Bouchard. All is looking grim until they notice FitzRoyce’s arm flopping around the behemoth’s maw, still clutching a grenade. Utilizing a rudimentary hook, they pull the pin and KA-BLOOEY!!!, the shark dies, Cindy and Sandy celebrate in high-pitched dolphin fashion and Bouchard vanishes without a trace. The end. Or is it?

Jaws 3-D is a pretty terrible movie, albeit a pretty terrible movie that’s strangely watchable. Indeed, there is so much camp on display that it makes for a thoroughly amusing “Bad Movie Night” choice. From the laughably ludicrous 3-D effects themselves (Not only do we get eternity-length shots of dead fish, butchered arms and cartoony-looking sharks, but also Pussy willows and plastic tri-pronged spears!) to the painfully awkward acting and wretched dialogue (Bouchard: “Well, you know, uh, it's that old shark screen, the bubble screen. You know, shark's don't like that. It's what they call, uh, marine segregation”), you’re guaranteed a solid 99-minutes of incompetent hilarity. To take it a step further, I’m even going to declare that if you don’t collapse into a spastic bundle of giggles during the climactic scene where the great white “smashes” through the glass barrier protecting the control-room, you, sir or ma’am, have no soul!

It’s generally acknowledged that the shark grows more and more fake-looking with each installment, and this film truly doesn’t disappoint in making the once fearsome predator resemble a taxidermy patient. Rarely moving at all, the creature inches along at a crawl in almost every scene it’s featured in. Whereas, in the first two entries, there was brutality and speed to its attacks, in Jaws 3-D the gilled antagonist looks logy and disinterested in prey; snacking only on those stupid enough to virtually crawl into its yawning oral cavity. It also swims backwards multiple times, which recalls crucial information given in Deep Blue Sea dictating that sharks simply can’t perform such an unnatural feat.

Certainly a large part of the blame for Jaws 3-D can be pinned on Alves (he, unsurprisingly, never directed again), whose efforts feels slack and mechanical, but the whole enterprise reeks of studio interference. It is fairly obvious that no one involved in making the movie had any real enthusiasm or inspiration for doing so other than a chance at raising Universal’s bottom-line. The tension is long gone, the players cut-rate and dull and the attack scenarios wholly unimaginative (Minus FitzRoyce’s gloriously goofy demise). Heck, even the score by Alan Parker (No, not that Alan Parker!) feels workmanlike and lifeless – a sad successor to the mighty John Williams. You know there’s something rotten in the aquarium when even the iconic Jaws theme can’t quicken your pulse an iota.

At the time, Jaws 3-D marked a new low for the franchise; a crass attempt to copycat the slasher genre with a giant fish and outrageous technological gimmickry. Gone was the attention to characterization and drama that made the first and, to a lesser degree, the second, compelling suspense pictures. Ultimately, despite boasting a gargantuan killer bearing hundreds of dagger-edged chompers, this third Jaws picture couldn’t be more toothless.

Shark Bites:

Shark-tality Count: 5 – Shelby Overman, Two black-clad coral-thieving morons in a dinghy, Philip FitzRoyce, Anonymous SeaWorld control-room tech guy.

Best Toothy Kill: Easily FitzRoyce. For all of its innumerable descents into awfulness, “Jaws 3-D” at the very least gives us something new in the kill department: a POV fatality from inside the shark’s gullet. The results are both riotously corny and insanely cool.

Worst Toothy Kill: I gotta go with Shelby Overman’s death by stupid montage. I’d probably be more willing to forgive its terrible staging if it didn’t end with a craptastic shot of the muscular, porn-moustached welder’s arm “floating” in eye-scraping 1980’s 3-D.

How the Shark Finally Bites It: Conveniently positioned hand grenade – still gripped in FitzRoyce’s cold, dead hand, no less - lodged in the creature’s throat.

Climactic Words to Chew On: As the entire finale is filmed underwater, in silence, we only get a few rather underwhelming breathing sounds and gurgles.

Shark-splosion Rating (Out of 10): 4.0 (Extra point added for silly-looking shot of shark’s jaws flying towards audience.)

Overall Film Rating: 1.5 out of 5

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Another Summer in Amity: 35 Years of JAWS, Day 3: The Top 5 Coolest Foreign JAWS Posters

Obviously, as a motion picture, Jaws is packed to the gills with iconic characters and moments. Whether it be Brody facing down the shark with only a shotgun and an oh-so-slim chance of triumph, or Quint, atop the Orca’s viewing platform, quietly whistling in the twilight, the images contained within the film have left an indelible stamp on not only the psyche of movie-fans around the sphere, but also on the language of cinema itself. Heck, consider how many times you’ve seen Spielberg’s virtuoso Vertigo-esque dolly-zoom shot of Brody’s stunned reaction to Alex Kintner’s death recreated by other filmmakers (You can put Spike Lee, alone, down for at least a dozen tries).

However, outside of the film, and all the wondrous details and artistry contained within its taut 125 minutes, one would be remiss to not acknowledge Jaws’ remarkable one-sheet poster design. Created by artist Tony Seiniger, who updated and tweaked Roger Kastel’s very similar Bantam books paperback cover, the artwork has appeared on an endless parade of shirts, collectible cups, trading cards and novelty art (I have a 3D sculpt of it hanging over my bed). It’s was also retrofitted for every subsequent sequel’s ad campaign. Ultimately, Seineger and Kastel’s contribution to the property has been, in many ways, crucial to the continued success in the marketing of the classic.

Over the course of my many years of fandom, and while doing research for this 35th anniversary event, I’ve encountered a number of foreign theatrical posters that eschew the traditional art-work in favor of something stranger, riskier or more experimental. Hence, it seemed like a fun idea to gather some of the more outstanding efforts for your perusal and enjoyment. You’ll no doubt note that only the first two films are represented by these choices, but this is only because, beginning with Jaws 3D, Universal seemingly abandoned the multiple-concept approach and simply used the same artwork in all markets. A true pity.

Nonetheless, here are my Top 5 Coolest Foreign Jaws Posters:

5) Jaws (Thailand Version) – Although fairly close to the American original, I have to admit that I’m somewhat tickled by the overhead images featured on this work. It looks almost as if the fearsome aquatic predator is being confronted by an extremely vengeful and colorful storm cloud, or perhaps is having a particularly unsettling nightmare about the events of the film (Presupposing, of course, that fish dream). That said, it’s terrific to see the Orca featured and Brody’s bloody-machete swing (Nitpick: it should have been Quint wielding the weapon) is totally bad-ass and oddly reminiscent of the many slasher film posters which would follow. On the whole, this design is a bit busy, but nicely captures the romanticized sense of adventure that the movie so thrillingly captures.

4) Jaws 2 (Polish Version) – What’s scarier than a great white with one set of razor-sharp teeth? How about one with two alarming sets of razor-sharp man-mashers? Taking the film’s title amusingly literal, this design, rendered by Edward Lutczyn, could almost boast the tagline “New shark. Twice the bite.” Come to think of it, how much cooler would it have been had the bather-chomping star resembled this creation? Perhaps toxic waste could have been the culprit... Okay, now I’m engaging in absurd fan-wankery, but there’s no arguing that this poster – though seriously weird – would look pretty damn nifty hanging on your wall.

3) Jaws (Czech Version 1) – Though a movie-goer could easily be forgiven for having absolutely no idea what Zdenek Ziegler’s abstract one-sheet is advertising, it’s definitely an awesome artistic interpretation of a shark feeding frenzy. The swath of bright red blood, mixed with the choppy depictions of a furiously vicious predator, is pretty breath-taking, and nicely echoes the frantic brutality of the film’s gruesome attack scenes. It’s too bad the credits at the bottom weren’t printed with the little more flair, but the image is so visceral and eye-catching that I almost don’t care.

2) Jaws (Czech Version 2) - Geez, what’s in the water over there in Czechoslovakia? And why can’t there be a little of it over here? Another impeccable attempt at illustrating the energy and feel of the film, this poster, by an uncredited artist, is far less emotion-driven and intense than the previous version, and more fitting in regards to the shark’s coldly methodical, instinct-driven approach to survival. The blood-in-the-water motif is again vibrantly prominent but I’m actually more intrigued by the shark’s placement on the poster; just a hair away from vanishing from the scene. Very much in keeping with the strike-and-retreat behavior of the on-screen leviathan, I’d have to say.

1) Jaws (Polish Version) - I unabashedly adore this one-sheet, designed by Andrzej Dudzinski, and would love nothing more than to find an affortable copy of my very own. Again, the violence of the attack is front and centre, but the otherwise tranquil nature of Amity is perfectly encapsulated in this portrayal. The frothy, churning sea, offset against the more uniform, gentle waves, and the rich, untouched greens of the surrounding cliffs? Gorgeous. The ominous, never-ending expanse of dark blue ocean stretching out into oblivion under the striking sunrise (or sunset)? Captivating. Even if I didn’t have any idea what this poster was advertising, wild horses couldn’t prevent me from buying a ticket to find out. It’s just that effective and mesmerizing.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Another Summer in Amity: 35 Years of JAWS, Day 2: JAWS 2

When Steven Spielberg’s Jaws became a surprise global phenomenon, it ensured two things – that the director would go on to bigger endeavors and that Universal would do its darndest to plague Amity with future great white shark problems. Thus, returning writer Carl Gottlieb and new recruit Howard Sackler (who, to be fair, did some uncredited touch-ups on the first flick) were presented with the unenviable task of recreating a cinematic miracle and finding a means of continuing the story without it feeling like an opportunistic rehash job. While Roy Scheider – who was under contract with the studio – would be reprising his role as Brody, alongside supporting players Murray Hamilton (Mayor Vaughn), Lorraine Gary (Chief Brody’s wife Ellen) and Jeffrey Kramer (Deputy Hendricks), Richard Dreyfuss would, regrettably, not be joining the party.

However, the real conundrum was in determining who best to pass the directorial reigns over to. Spielberg was rightly dismissive towards cranking out a sequel (and probably terrified of having to go through another hellish production on the open ocean) and had instead set his sights on the skies with Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Hoping to strike gold a second time, producers Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown cast their eyes back towards Spielberg’s old television stomping grounds, handpicking French helmer Jeannot Szwarc – another veteran of shows like Night Gallery and Columbo – to make the pilgrimage to Martha’s Vineyard and pilot their clunky ill-tempered mechanical fish. The team’s resulting effort, Jaws 2, was released on June 16th, 1978 and became a solid – if somewhat underwhelming – hit, grossing just over $81 million at the domestic box-office and north of $100 million dollars overseas.

For my money, Jaws 2 is best viewed as a glimpse at how the 1975 original might have turned out had it been handed over to a less gifted and ambitious helmer than Spielberg. It’s not a bad film by any stretch – In fact, it has a number of genuinely fantastic moments – but, outside of John Williams’ impeccable score, there’s no pulse-quickening dramatic punch, rich characterization or grueling tension to the proceedings. Rather, this second Jaws is a fun, lightweight B-movie with a slightly higher – albeit infinitely less gory - body-count, a handful of nice locations, an endearing movie monster and a compelling performance from lead Scheider, who affords the material an almost unthinkable level of integrity. Although it’s doubtful many ticket-buyers sincerely considered swearing off swimming upon exiting the theatre, they likely also weren’t cataclysmically disappointed.

The film opens on a nice nostalgic note, with a duo of anonymous scuba-divers exploring the sunken wreck of the Orca in search of Poseidon only knows. Unfortunately for them, just as they begin goofing around and taking dorky muscle-man photos of each other another great white happens upon the scene and gnaws them into the afterlife via a really confusing, badly assembled montage. Then, apparently not satiated by its neoprene-clad lunch, the shark decides to make short work of a female water-skier. So far so good. But the fish bites off more than it can chew (*giggle*) when it attempts to devour the boat-driver, who turns out to be a complete and utter moron. Her hysterical defense against the shark, you ask? Well, she douses herself in gasoline and fires a flare-gun at her toes, of course. It sort of works too, as she avoids being consumed and actually torches the left side of her attacker’s face. The downside: she’s blown to ever-lovin’ smithereens. You can’t win ‘em all, I suppose.

Yep, it’s shark season in Amity again, but will anyone notice other than the paranoid Chief Brody? Not content to make Murray Hamilton’s character the sole doubting Thomas this time around, the film introduces a new antagonist, developer Len Peterson (Joseph Mascolo), a cigar-chomping blowhard who’s a lot like Mayor Vaughn, only uninteresting. He has complete rule over the island, for some reason, and is resistant to the police chief’s obsessive rants about shutting down the beaches and gathering a hunting posse (“I don’t intend to go through that hell again!”). There’s real estate to sell, people! But after Brody freaks out on the beach and begins firing his weapon at a school of bluefish, and crashes a council meeting with uber-vague photos of the beach-goer-swallowing leviathan, he’s forced to turn in his badge, cop movie style. Redemption doesn’t take long to arrive, though, when the local teens, including Brody’s sons Michael (Mark Gruner –a charisma-deficient Jim Carrey clone) and Sean (precocious ragamuffin Marc Gilpin, who has a sweet moment picking up his dad’s shell casings after his volatile false shark alarm), head for the high seas in their dinky sailboats in search of adventure. Let’s just say they find it, and it’s hungry, and disgraced former-chief Brody must once again brave the water and summon up the courage to take part in an explosive mano-e-fisho-to-the-finish.

Certainly, it’s easy to kid Jaws 2’s fairly by-the-books plot, which hits all the notes you’d ever expect, but Gottlieb and Sackler do deserve credit for allowing the story to unfold gradually and with enough human drama injected to prevent the film from feeling crass and wheezy. Scheider has a few indisputably great scenes, such as his aforementioned spazz attacks, as well as a touching drunken post-firing chat with his concerned wife and Deputy Hendricks. Even though the shark never feels anywhere near as menacing of omnipresent as in Spielberg’s film, I appreciate that, rather than revisiting the same environments, the duo decided to use their attack scenarios to further explore Amity’s water-culture, with generous sections given to depicting diving (perhaps a little too much of this one), skiing, parasailing and boating. It’s a nice touch that goes a long way towards staving off been-there-done-that syndrome.

For his part, Szwarc does a pretty decent job of keeping the momentum going and making the story flow like a natural extension of the first picture. Amity and its occupants look and feel almost the same (I really dig the lovably square High School “Scholarship Fund Opening Ball” scene at the beginning. Also, bonus points for the yellow shark barrel in Brody’s front yard!), and are deliberately lit and shot in almost the exact same unassuming palette as the original. The director also does serviceable, but not spectacular, work with his carnivorous star, developing some new methods of capturing the shark in action – such as a nifty POV from astride the creature’s back – without exposing the mechanism’s restraints too badly (there are a couple wonky moments in the third act that I can forgive due to the beast’s effective and awesome electrified send-off). Less convincing, though, is the grainy stock shark footage intercut into the action (complete with thin black burn lines running from top-to-bottom), a few segments of which were also previously used to far better effect in Jaws.

What truly prevents Jaws 2 from being anything other than a slightly above-average genre entry, though, is that it never feels like it’s playing outside of the long-established rules of Hollywood filmmaking. Whereas “Jaws” introduced us to characters that felt convincingly realistic and human, the players in the sequel operate almost solely on movie behaviour and logic. It makes little sense for Mayor Vaughn to be as pig-headed as he is, given the fact that a handful of people have gone missing, a dead, half-eaten Killer whale has washed ashore, and the area has a well-documented history of high-profile shark attacks. You’d think he’d at least respect Brody enough to order a survey or something. And don’t get me started on the bitchy marine biologist (Collin Wilcox) who behaves so stereotypically dunderheaded that it’s infuriating. Plus, the gaggle of teens (one of which - Keith Gordon - I suspect was hired solely for his resemblance to Spielberg) who drive the story at a certain point feel too “Archie and the gang” one-dimensionally wholesome to be viewed as sympathetic victims. They’re mostly shark-fodder, although Donna Wilkes, as Jackie, is believably panic-stricken and pretty, heroic Marge (Martha Swatek) has the only truly terrifying demise.

Ultimately, the best compliment that can be given to Jaws 2 is that it’s a breezily entertaining, well-acted funhouse experience that in no way desecrates or needlessly exploits the original film (*Cough* Jaws the Revenge *Cough*) in order to cut corners. It’s also easily the best popcorn flick Jeannot Szwarc ever made – not an extraordinary feat, given that he followed this up with “Supergirl” and “Santa Claus: The Movie” – and by far the most admirable of the sequel attempts. Just three short years after the Universal-produced original had shocked the world into an enthusiastic frenzy, Jaws 2 proved that there was still a tiny bit of life left in the trusty ol’ eating machine and that going into the water a second time would not be without its modest rewards.

Shark Bites
Shark-tality Count:
8 – Two divers, Terry the waterskiing babe and her female boat-driving accomplice (a technicality, as stupidity is her actual cause of death), Eddie Marchand, bearded helicopter pilot, Marge.

Best Toothy Kill: Marge’s self-sacrificing trip down the shark’s digestive tract. Whereas the majority of Jaws 2’s victims are essentially filler characters (or, at worst, non-descript extras), Marge’s cruel end, which occurs after saving lil’ Sean Brody’s hide, is the only death which feels in any way impactful. It’s also aided immensely by a doom-drenched John Williams musical cue.

Worst Toothy Kill: The bearded helicopter pilot, for two reasons. Firstly, the concept of a shark dragging down a helicopter is absurd and laughable. Then we don’t even get to see the dude ferociously masticated. Lame.

How the Shark Finally Bites It: Flossing with a high-voltage cable.

Climactic Words to Chew On: Brody: “Open wide! Say Aaaaaaaah...!”

Shark-splosion Rating (Out of 10): 8.0

Overall Film Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Another Summer in Amity: 35 Years of JAWS, Day 1: JAWS

Hard to believe, but it was 35-years ago yesterday that director Steven Spielberg boldly made his formidable presence known to both Hollywood and audiences alike with a “perfect engine” of a crowd-pleaser; a film which forever changed the rules and practices of the movie-making industry and inspired generations of viewers to develop instantaneous aquaphobia. Based on Peter Benchley’s best-selling novel, and bearing the economical and pointed title Jaws, the picture would be the first film to receive opening-weekend wide-release distribution and go on to earn over $470 million at the box-office – a record at the time, which would prove short-lived once Star Wars erupted in 1977 – and give birth to the modern blockbuster.

While it’s often tempting, from our current vantage point, for critics to vilify the movie for helping to pave the way for the legions of soulless four quadrant-geared tent-poles which followed (and plague us to this very day) – a paradigm shift which proved lethal to the popularity of the intelligent, experimental and thematically complex adult-driven cinema of the 70s - it’s also impossible to not commend Jaws for how marvelously well it accomplished what it set out to achieve. Viewing the film – which still remains a singularly staggering exhibition of white-knuckle tension – one has to appreciate the idealistic purity and whimsical innocence that exists just below the churning surface of the blood-streaked surf, where the unproven director’s richly artistic and broadly commercial sensibilities potently merged for what would be the first of many glorious times (Although strong early glimmers were previously evident in both Duel and The Sugarland Express). As a cultural marker, Jaws looms gargantuan and mighty, but as a transcendent work of pure cinema, it’s a flawless masterwork; a relentlessly haunting and joyful experience which has altered career courses and irrevocably changed countless film-lovers’ lives forever.

Certainly, one of the movie’s greatest assets, and a critical component in establishing a vice-like grip on the audiences’ emotions, is the iconic opening involving Chrissie Watkins’ (Denise Cheshire) ill-fated night-time skinny-dip. Other than Psycho’s classic shower-stabbing of Janet Leigh, has there been a more unforgettable act of on-screen murder towards a shrieking naked female? (Curiously, Spielberg would later mine the famous scene for laughs in 1979’s 1941, to pretty lame results) Notice, however, how Spielberg initially establishes the serenity of the moment, elegantly capturing the lithe girl’s slender form gliding gracefully across the moonlit ocean’s rippling surface. We are at once alternately awed by the picturesque splendor of the images and unsettled by the subtly foreboding rumblings buried within John Williams’ powerful Oscar-winning score and the director’s vaguely predatory POV from below. Suddenly the infamous DUM-DUM-DUM-DUM begins to throb on the soundtrack, gradually increasing in intensity, as the camera begins to ominously close in on the unsuspecting victim and we nervously lean forward in our seats. Then the panicked thrashing and guttural, frenzied screaming starts and we’re completely and utterly hooked; frozen in horror, but so completely under the director’s spell that we dare not turn away. Finally, after what feels like an eternity of dreadful pandemonium, calm returns and we relax. It’s over. For now…

Indeed, the devil has come to peaceful Amity Island and he couldn’t have found a more unsuspecting vacation spot. With its quaint Norman Rockwellian d├ęcor (Not a single franchise restaurant or major-market retail chain in sight!) and populace of genial, easy-going small-town dwellers it might as well be called Hometown, USA. Spielberg’s lovingly picks out little details to help sell the reality of this world, such as the salty presence of Harbor Master Frank Silva (Donald Poole) cheerfully smoking his pipe on the sidewalk, or the emphasis on everyone referring to each other on a first-name basis, and it works. We like and understand these people, and can literally feel the low-key pulse of their half-empty streets, slightly run-down buildings, over-crowded meeting rooms and heavily trafficked beaches (filled out with almost distractingly normal-looking extras). When our hero, Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), emerges from his humble, white picket-fence-bordered house, you can’t help but smile. If ever there was a town ill-equipped to deal with the sinister problem presently navigating their coastline, it’s this one.

The amusing dichotomy between the gentle, unworldly masses of Amity and the ravenous, unstoppable shark provides the film with a great deal of its escalating urgency. Unlike similar genre entries and cheapo horror flicks, the violence here is ugly and brutal and has genuine consequences. Consider the fall-out from the gruesome demise of young Alex Kintner (Jeffrey Voorhees) and how it inspires both full-scale shark hysteria – resulting in a disorderly city council meeting overseen by the greedy, tourist dollar-obsessed Mayor Vaughn (a priceless Murray Hamilton, in an endless parade of gaudy suits), a wildly funny and incompetent hunting party and an animated public gathering around the fishermen’s small fry quarry (complete with a stray arrow sticking out of its side!) – and, more tragically, a tearful condemnation of Brody’s lack of action from the boy’s grieving mother (Lee Fierro). Scenes like this illustrate why Spielberg is the best at what he does; he never fails to factor humanity into his material, no matter how pulpy. These deaths cause shockwaves within the close-knit community and the film tastefully doesn’t take them for granted or treat them like a repulsive gag.

The indisputable heart of Jaws, though, is the last-ditch hunting voyage undertaken by Brody, marine biologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss, mixing impish goofiness and fierce intelligence with cool aplomb) and local shark-killer extraordinaire Quint (Robert Shaw, never better) aboard the cramped, weathered sea-craft the Orca. Their expedition - a series of day-trips in Benchley’s novel, combined into one satisfying whole by clever screenwriter Carl Gottlieb - supplies the film with a remarkable character-driven third act in which we realize, well before the mismatched trio, that it’s the behemoth shark doing the hunting and not vice versa. There is a brief striking moment, wherein Quint watches the shark drag three large barrels beneath the depths, which completely sells the magnitude of the situation. The look on Shaw’s face registers a series of conflicted sentiments; surprise, concern, exasperation and even a hint of begrudging respect. Although Hooper may be the most academically educated party aboard, Quint has the most personal score to settle – explained during his beyond-brilliant monologue detailing the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis (“Sometimes that shark he looks right into ya. Right into your eyes. And, you know, the thing about a shark... he's got lifeless eyes. Black eyes. Like a doll's eyes. When he comes at ya, doesn't seem to be living... until he bites ya, and those black eyes roll over white and then... and then you hear that terrible high-pitched screamin'”) – and for him to express even surpressed shock and awe significantly raises the dramatic stakes.

Although Quint and Hooper are arguably more suited to slaying the beast, it is ultimately Brody who gets to achieve the Herculean feat. Scheider has the least-flashy role of the three, but he is also given the most room to grow and develop. He’s portrayed as an outsider in almost every situation within the story; a native New Yorker living on an island of indigenous inhabitants, a lone sane man overpowered by local bureaucracy, a non-entity in his two shipmates’ competitive clashes for alpha-male supremacy. On board the Orca he assumes the lowly role of chum-thrower while Hooper steers the boat from the second-story steering column and Quint stands, champion-like, atop the lofty viewing platform. However, Brody’s advantage lies in his perception of the creature. While his two fellow adventurers only acknowledge the shark in natural terms – an animal that needs to be dispatched by routine methods – Brody sees it for the malevolent force that it is and isn’t hampered by personal prejudice or stubborn ingrained beliefs or assumptions. He triumphs, not through knowledge or expertise, but through ingenuity, bravery, fear and dumb luck. And when he does pull that trigger, and the shark explodes in a shower of flesh, blood, bone and water, the feeling is electric; one of the most unabashedly rousing moments in cinema history.

Of course, one would be remiss to not credit the performance of the shark itself. By all accounts a severe pain-in-the-ass for cast and crew alike (read screenwriter Carl Gottlieb’s account of the near-trainwreck production in his fascinating The Jaws Log) the creature, which was built by Joe Alves and Roy Arbogast, still works every second he’s chewing the scenery. The beast’s attacks on the Orca have true weight and when it lays thrashing on the boat’s submerged deck, snapping violently at Quint’s ankles, the menace is palpable and very, very real. Perhaps its greatest contribution is its clunky limitations, as it forced Spielberg to rely on his inner-Hitchcock, teasingly building up the shark’s alarming presence over the course of the picture before giving it its long-desired close-up. Had this situation not transpired, there’s a good chance that we wouldn’t hold Jaws in the same high regard as we do today.

Broken down to its bare essentials, Jaws is a very simple, well-told story with archetypal characters, primal thrills, an appealing location and a finely-honed Man vs. Nature theme. In the telling, though, it’s carefully stripped-down structure and honest, sensible heroes instil it with an often profound level of integrity, emotion and truthfulness that elevates it well above its genre roots and into the realm of high art. For Steven Spielberg, Jaws was a trial by fire, a chance to prove his worth amidst the very worst production conditions. His eventual off-the-charts triumph afforded him the necessary juice to gift audiences with treasured cinematic tales like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T. For audiences, it was a delightfully frightening, exhilarating yarn that produced as many nightmares as starry-eyed dreams of movie magic. Three and a half decades after its release, Jaws still refuses to let go, and it’s unlikely it ever will.

Shark Bites:
Shark-tality Count: 6 – Chrissie Watkins, Pipit the dog, Alex Kintner, Ben Gardner (off-screen), Male Lifeguard (referred to as “Estuary victim” in official credits), Quint.

Best Toothy Kill: A toughie, given that Spielberg makes every attack a veritable extravaganza of unleashed grisly mayhem, but I have to go with Quint’s all-too-slow demise. The most dramatically impactful death in the film – not to mention most ghastly – the Orca captain’s blood-spurting descent into the behemoth’s razor-sharp triangular chompers is so unflinchingly brutal and terrifying that it sticks with you days after seeing it.

Worst Toothy Kill: Nadda. This category will be better served in future instalments.

How the Shark Finally Bites It: Death by exploding oxygen tank.

Climactic Words to Chew On: Brody: “Smile you son of a...”

Shark-splosion Rating (Out of 10): A 10!

Overall Film Rating: 5 out of 5