Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Movie Review: "The Wolverine" by David Pretty

By focusing specifically on Logan's comic book dalliances in Japan, The Wolverine manages to make amends for the deplorable X-Men Origins: Wolverine.  Even though the film knits together several different storylines, it does so with tremendous respect.  Not once did I ever feel as if characters, plots or action beats were shoe-horned into the film in order to appease a certain demographic or make the film more "marketable".

When the film's original director Darren Aronofsky dropped out, I feared the worst.  But James Mangold, who's given us such character-driven films as Girl, Interrupted and Walk the Line, turned out to be an excellent replacement.  Regardless of the movie's flaws, you can't write The Wolverine off as your average meat-headed summer blockbuster.  Characters have pensive moments and are allowed to converse with one another.  Logan experiences a genuine arc of growth.  Lingering thematic elements from the comic book which touch on death, immortality, and obligation are all given proper consideration here.

In a gripping prologue we learn how Logan (Hugh Jackman) saved the life of a young Japanese officer named Ichirō Yashida after the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki.  Fast forward to the present day and our hero has exiled himself in the Canadian wilderness, still traumatized by the death of his beloved Jean Gray (Famke Janssen).  Eventually he's dragged back to civilization by Yukio (Rila Fukushima), chief assistant to the now obscenely-wealthy but terminally-ill Ichirō (Haruhiko Yamanouchi).  

At Yukio's behest, Logan travels to Japan to honor the industrialist's dying wish to thank him face-to-face for saving his life back in 1945.  Once there, he meets Ichirō's overly-ambitions son Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada) and his devoted grand-daughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto).  After their meeting, Ichirō offers to transfer Logan's mutant healing factor to him, unnaturally extending the magnate's life while granting Wolverine the option to age, grow old and die like a normal person.  Logan refuses, but the choice is soon taken away from him by Ichirō's mysterious physician, the nefarious Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova ).

Ichirō dies that same night and during the subsequent funeral Logan is forced to come to Mariko's aid when she's targeted by Yakuza hitmen.  Assisted by the clandestine archery of Mariko's old flame Kenuichio Harada (Will Yun Lee), the pair barely manage to escape.  Logan is understandably alarmed when he fails to regenerate from the wounds he sustained during the fight, making him decidedly vulnerable at the worst possible time.   

It's soon revealed that Shingen and Mariko's scumbag fiancé Noburo (Brian Tee) had an inside track on Ichirō's plan to will his entire empire to Mariko.  With her life now under constant threat, Logan is forced to run a lethal gauntlet to keep her safe from harm.  This sets up a final confrontation amongst the major players and serves up a few intriguing revelations about Ichirō, the duplicitous Viper and the enigmatic Silver Samurai.

Comic book fans will be pleased to see that screenwriters Mark Bomback and Scott Frank took considerable inspiration from the Chris Claremont / Frank Miller Wolverine mini-series from 1982.  Some of these are nods are direct adaptations, such as the "bear hunt" sequence at the start of the film.  Others are decidedly more esoteric.  For example, when Logan launches himself claws-first towards the camera while fighting atop the bullet train it's highly reminiscent of the cover of Issue Two.  And when Wolverine gets turned into a human pincushion, fans can't help but be reminded of several panels contained in Issue Three.

Even though the script is clearly a distillation of several stories, it still boils down to a perfectly autonomous and satisfying yarn.  As a died-in-the-wool Wolverine fan, I'm delighted to see characters like Shingen, Yukio, Mariko, Viper and Harada depicted on-screen in the spirit of their four-color predecessors.  Most importantly, thematic references to duty, honor and the path of the Ronin have all carried over from the comics reasonably intact.

I'm also delighted that Mangold and his writing team actually bothered to give the characters an occasional reprieve.  There are moments of almost sublime tranquility here, particularly when Logan and Mariko steal away to Yashida's house in Nagasaki.  The two fugitives are given ample time to get to know one another and their growing mutual attraction doesn't feel forced.

The film-makers also took great pains to ensure that the setting of Japan was more then just exotic window dressing.  By shooting on location in New South Wales and Tokyo you actually feel somewhat immersed in the culture.  This results in several memorable scenes, such as frantic foot chase through a pachinko parlor and a cheekily comedic sequence in which Logan and Mariko are forced to take refuge in a seedy "love hotel".   
Since the movie feels like a gritty crime drama that just so happens to have mutants in it, the action sequences are refreshingly free of convention.  There's no flashy visual effects or belief-suspending wire-work, just plenty of good, old-fashioned sword, fisticuff, and claw choreography.  In fact, except for the admittedly exhilarating bullet train fight, the obligatory scrap with the Silver Samurai and the needlessly-flashy manifestations of Viper's serpent-like powers, the film is downright low-fi.  At first I was worried since the funeral attack is hobbled by micro photography and Ginsu-style editing but mercifully that technique didn't infect the rest of the film. 

At this stage in the game, it's difficult to find original ways to praise Hugh Jackman as Wolverine.  Not only is he physically perfect and inhumanly committed to portraying this role, he also has the acting chops to pull off tortured, pissed-off, protective, berserk, conciliatory and emotionally tortured all in quick succession.  Even though Jackman is starting to get a little long in the tooth to play a mutant that never ages, I pity any actor who has to follow him up.  I fear that they'll quickly be relegated to "George Lazenby" status.         

Hiroyuki Sanada inexplicably gets second billing as Mariko's dad Shingen Yashida.  Don't get me wrong, his performance is fine, exhibiting restrained understatement one minute and feral rage the next.  But he doesn't get a lot of screen time and as a generic heavy, he's shockingly underwritten.  In fact, if the film has any major flaw it's that Logan doesn't have an equally-dominant and consistent protagonist to butt heads against.  At least he gets to shine during a hair-raising sword fight with a reconstituted Wolverine half-way through the film.

With her dignified bearing and gentle demeanor, Tao Okamoto does a fine job replicating Mariko's early comic book characterization as a lilting flower.  But this is 2013, so thankfully Mariko doesn't blithely accept her role as professional victim here.  Yes, her primary function in the script is to act as a contested prize but at least she also puts up some convincing resistance.  I also like how a casual reference to her knife-wielding skills pays off nicely in the end.  Despite the sixteen-year difference between her and Jackman, their chemistry is convincing and I had no problem buying their mutual attraction.

We also get a few good showings from the supporting cast.  Despite his character's cloudy motivations, Will Yun Lee is earnest and intense as Harada.  Famke Janssen puts in a welcome appearance as Jean Grey, haunting Logan's conscience whilst providing continuity between The Wolverine and previous X-Films.  Finally, Svetlana Khodchenkova really gets her grove-on as Viper.  It's almost as if she realized that her character was the only outwardly-evil presence in the film so she decided to go for broke and nibble on the scenery a little bit.  

But it's Rila Fukushima who really shines as Yukio.  Winsome, accomplished, mischievous and not to be trifled with, in many ways she's a much better match for Wolverine then Mariko.  In re-casting her as Wolverine's sidekick/guardian angel she's a bit too heroic and noble as written.  In the comics, she's a cold-blooded killer who poses an interesting love triangle for Logan.  Does he settle for Yukio, who'll take him as he is or does he strive for self-improvement in order to win the affections of the honorable and refined Mariko?  Sadly this angle is barely explored, but that's not a slight against Fukushima, who lights up the screen whenever she's present.

Honestly, I probably would have been happier if they'd just adapted that four-issue Wolverine mini-series word-for-word and used the panels as storyboards.  That way, the story would have been tighter and the character's motivations would have been a lot more pristine.  But since comic books are rarely adapted with the same slavish level of respect afforded to novels, I guess it's still a minor triumph whenever a screenplay has a modicum of the original source material's spirit.  Although The Wolverine amalgamates a long and storied narrative arc, at least it does so with heart, soul and some brains.      

      Tilt: up.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Theatre Review: "As You Like It - Two Planks and a Passion" by Michael Chiasson

There aren't enough synonyms for the word "awesome" to describe Two Planks and a Passion's Production of William Shakespeare's As You Like It. 

I didn't know the play, and was kind of daunted by this fact - Shakespearian is kind of a language all its own, and I was worried that I wouldn't understand what was going on.  My fears were put to rest quickly, as the actors led the audience through the plot beautifully.

Act 1 shaped up like this:

The show opens with Orlando, played by Mike McPhee, mourning the fact that even though he is the son of a great guy (Sir Rowland de Bois), he's the YOUNGEST son, and therefore subject to his older brother's methods of distribution of wealth. Orlando doesn't dig the way he's being treated, and chooses to strike out on his own to make his way in the world.

We are now introduced to the lovely and inseparable Rosalind (Alexis Milligan) and Celia (Jamie Konchak). Rosalind is the daughter of Duke Senior (Graham Percy), who was previously exiled by Celia's Dad, Duke Frederick (also Graham Percy - he's a chameleon). Rosalind has what could amount to Survivor's Guilt - when her dad was banished, she was left behind thanks to the favour of her confidante Celia, and although Celia tries to buoy Rosalind's spirits, it isn't until she meets Orlando, that she really starts to glow.

Orlando enters into a contest with the thrice previously victorious Charles, played by Ryan Rogerson, committing what amounts to suicide by wrestler. Charles's previous foes lie broken nearby, and the tag-team of Rosalind and Celia attempt to dissuade Orlando from his certain doom. Orlando not only survives the fight, but actually beats Charles, leaving him motionless in the dirt after an incredible suplex. Duke Frederick congratulates Orlando on his victory, but when finding out Orlando's parentage, takes back his kind words, and barely holds back his fury. Orlando is advised to get the heck outta dodge, and does so quicker than you can say "Edward DeVere", after picking up his trusty manservant Jacques (Daniel Lilliford).

The Duke's fury finally spills over, and now Rosalind finds herself in the same predicament as her dad - exiled. Celia shares her friend's fate through an act of solidarity, and the two decide to seek out Rosalind's exiled father.  They surmise that two attractive, wealthy women-folk will find life in the woods uncomfortable, and so decide to disguise themselves - Celia dubs herself Aliena, while Rosalind goes whole hog, and disguises herself as a dude named Ganymede (that's no moon).

The show progresses beautifully, and everyone ends up happy in the end (Gotta love Comedies! Happy endings for everyone!)

The cast was amazing, I followed the story, and I laughed so hard I forgot the pain of sitting on metal bleachers. This show is a must-see, and its companion "The Iliad By Fire" is delightful and unique in too many ways to be counted.


Monday, July 22, 2013

Movie Review: "The Conjuring" by David Pretty

The Conjuring proves that its not how original your premise is, it's how well you execute it.  Director James Wan and his writing partners Carey and Chad Hayes patiently set all of the pieces in place, subject us to a rising crescendo of escalating frights and then deliver a satisfying conclusion.  And, thankfully, unlike Wan's Insidious from 2011, this one stays right on target and doesn't make you pine for its superior influences.  In fact, this one can stand proudly along such classic spook stories as The Changeling or Poltergeist.      

Stop me if you've heard this one: a family gets a cut-rate deal on an isolated farm house and weird shit starts happening as soon as they move in.  Eventually they're forced to enlist the aid of paranormal investigators in order to combat the rising tide of evil that begins to assail them in increasingly terrifying ways.  If this doesn't sound very promising, you'd be forgiven.  But I'm here to assure you that The Conjuring is tight, focused and distressingly convincing.

One of the film's few welcome innovations is making the husband and wife investigative team the main focus of the story.  Ghost tracker Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson) and his psychically-sensitive wife Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) are shown tangling with demonic dolls and possessed victims long before they come to the aid of the Perron family.  Even better, they're actually shown debunking a case as nothing more malevolent then some water damage and bad piping.

But for earnest parents Carolyn (Lily Taylor) and Roger Perron (Ron Livingston), their story is far from a cautionary about the importance of retaining a good home inspector.  Before a speck of dust lands on their dining room table they're immediately plagued by an intense case of the wiggins.  The family dog drops dead.  Birds kamizake the side of the house.  One daughter habitually sleepwalks into an armoire and another is convinced that someone is pulling her leg.  A creepy basement is revealed with a player piano that isn't a player piano.

It isn't long before the Perron children are assaulted by the physical manifestations of demonic forces inhabiting the house.  In a last, ditch effort to stem back the tide of darkness, they retain the Warrens to stock the house with a gauntlet of temperature-sensitive cameras, UV lights, audio equipment and religious paraphernalia.  But instead of deterring their supernatural opponents, the attacks escalate, leading to an all-out battle for the family's collective soul.

Even though most of it is likely staged, I'm a real sucker for spooky reality shows like Paranormal State and Ghost Adventures.   And although my faith has long since lapsed, there's something inherently creepy about Catholic dogma.  Since the film is set in 1971, references to God, demonology and spiritual faith all feel era-appropriate.  Wiccans will likely roll their eyes at the negative evocation of witches as evil, forgetting that crazy people have done a lot of legitimately nutty things over the years in the guise of every religion, including witchcraft.

I'm also an easy mark for any movie that evokes the phrase "based on a true story".  Unfortunately, when most flicks roll out that crusty little cliche they either bore the audience to tears with creaking doors and flying bedsheets or generate enough CGI to give George Lucas a raging semi.  Mercifully James Wan and his crew strike a perfect balance between the manipulation of their inherently creepy environment and the escalating manifestations that follow.

As if acutely aware that their premise is shaky, Wan and chief cameraman John R. Leonetti overcompensate with a veritable playbook of excellent set-ups and innovative cinematography.  The camera is often wielded in-hand, infusing many shots with a discordant and unsettling mood.  Often we're pulled into a character's perspective via some truly immersive over-the-shoulder POV shots.  Wan also employs some really bold angles, such as the disorienting scene in which the camera pivots on the ceiling overhead, tracking Lorraine like an omniscient, malevolent spirit as she rushes to Carolyn's aid.  There's even a touch of Kubrickian symetry during the scene in which dark forces use object transference to menace Lorraine and Ed's daughter. 
Jaded audiences might roll their eyes at the tired idea of "found footage" but the concept is used very sparingly here, resulting in a unique scene that's memorable instead of conventional.  When Ed, Lorraine and company venture down into that creepy basement with their recording equipment for the first time, there are just enough weird little occurrences to set up the truly terrifying solo delves that follow.  The film stock is authentic, the camerawork is faithful and the cast really helps to sell the scene.

It's this attention to detail that keeps us invested as the increasingly-intense frights pile up.  The house is a character unto itself, with plenty of cavernous bedrooms, dark corners and distressed surfaces.  The Seventies era-clothing, decor, vehicles and props are all spot-on.  Various creepy incarnations, from the demented witch, to the young boy, to the maid to the creepy devil doll Annabelle are depicted with minimal prosthetics and make-up effects and no CGI.  The scene in which the rocking chair-bound Bathsheba and the doll terrorize Ed and Lorriane's daughter is truly the stuff of nightmares.

This effective visual assault is augmented by an equally intense audio component.  Surround sound is used to peak effectiveness, particularly during the hide-n'-seek clapping game, frantic moments in the basement and during the manic conclusion.  Autonomous piano notes, disembodied giggling, and inexplicable voices and white noise heard on the monitoring equipment all add to the effect.  Throw in a soundtrack by Joseph Bishara which is rife with ominous strains, sadistic build-up and spine-jangling stings, and you've got an auditory experience that's just as effective as the visual.

The performances are a solid match for the film's measured tone.  Vera Farmiga is particularly good as the psychically sensitive Lorriane Warren.  Given the character's ability to see manifestations of spiritual and demonic forces, Farmiga plays Lorriane Warren as someone constantly threatened with mental and emotional distress.  She does an incredible job portraying a woman who has seen some unspeakably horrific things but is obliged use her gift in the service of others.

Patrick Wilson is a great match as her husband Ed Warren.  Although he's fiercely protective of his wife, he also knows that she might slip away from herself if she were to become idle.  As such, he's an endless source of support and protection.  Wilson delivers a boundless font of determination and sympathy to the role.  Perhaps most importantly, can deliver reams of dialogue about ghost, demons and cursed objects with a perfectly straight face.  In fact, he's able to crank out the paranormal lore with such gravitas that it's as seamless as the visual effects.      

As haunted mom Carolyn Perron, the infinitely-talented Lily Taylor is given the most challenging task out of all the cast.  When the story begins, she's the typical hopefully mom, trying to acclimate her five daughters into a new environment and parley this experience into a new beginning.  But when she starts waking up with mysterious and angry-looking bruises and her kids get attacked in the middle of the night, she segues into a fierce and formidable guardian.  Taylor is so perfect in this capacity, it makes the last third of the film extremely difficult to watch.

The only actor that seems slightly out of place is Ron Livingston as Roger Perron.  Notwithstanding my own inability to disassociate him from Peter Gibbons in Office Space,  Livingston seems oddly nonplussed by everything, including the film's batshit-crazy climax.  Although his on-screen chemistry with Lily Taylor isn't particularly convincing, I don't consider this to be a liability.  Since Roger is a long-haul truck driver and absentee dad, this hints at some niggling resentment lurking just below the surface of his relationship with Carolyn.  The bottom line is: he's perfectly fine in the role.

The talented young actresses called upon to play the Perron children are equally convincing.  Bitter and intuitive, Shanley Caswell is great as the eldest daughter Andrea.  As Nancy, Hayley McFarland seems oblivious to the spooky stuff until her first encounter with Bathsheba renders her acutely horrified.  Joey King is particularly sympathetic as the eternally-besieged Christine.  With her somnambulistic habits and ghostly ESP, Mackenzie Foy actually helps contribute to the early atmosphere as Cindy.  And finally Kyla Deaver evokes shades of a young Drew Barrymore as Gertie in E.T. in her turn as April. 

Thanks to some disciplined writing, patient direction, solid performances, great camerawork and dedication to time-honored terror techniques, The Conjuring is elevated above and beyond its hackneyed premise.  Gorehounds and torture porn fans beware: there's not a lot on display here for you.  But for folks like myself who are desensitized to viscera and are just looking for a creepy, immersive horror experience, The Conjuring is one of the best examples to come down the pike in a very long time.

Tilt: up.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Movie Review: "Jaws" by David Pretty

American Graffiti did some pretty respectable bank in 1974, but the modern-day Summer blockbuster wasn't born until a year later when Jaws-mania swept the globe.  Along with Star Wars which followed two years later, Jaws inspired Hollywood's unflagging obsession with taking B-grade, high-concept ideas and inflating them with massive budgets, market saturation and an omnipresent theatrical release.  Unfortunately, the "product" being spoon-fed to audiences now makes Jaws look like Citizen Kane.  

That comparison might sound churlish, but it wasn't meant to be.  If Jaws became the template for Hollywood's current business model, it did so inadvertently.  I believe that Steven Spielberg's motivations for making the film were pure and sincere and the most convincing piece of evidence to support my claim is the film itself.  In fact, I'd go so far as to say that Jaws may very well be the best summer movie ever made, blockbuster or otherwise.

Right away the ominous tone is set during the opening credits via the haunting strains of John William's iconic score,  You know you're watching an earlier film in Spielberg's oeuvre when it kicks off with a beach party rife with dope, booze and nudity.  Oh Lord, how I miss "PG" movies from the Seventies!

The subsequent skinny-dipping nightmare segues into the introduction of Chief Martin Brody, played by Roy Scheider.  Instantly our sympathies are with the guy when it's revealed that the hard-boiled New York cop moved his entire family to the sleepy little New England hamlet of Amity in order to safeguard them from crime and violence.  When the remains of our nubile, young swimmer rolls in with the tide, a giant, glowing, neon "IRONY" sign just starts a-flashin'.

After the local coroner declares that the cause of death was a shark attack, Brody quickly shuts down the local beaches.  But since the Fourth of July long weekend is approaching, he immediately runs afoul of the local chamber of commerce who believe that a swimming ban will kill tourism.  When Amity's unscrupulous Mayor Vaughn (played by Murray Hamilton) strong-arms the coroner into reversing his declaration, Brody is forced to re-open the floating buffet.

Naturally, there's another attack, this time at a crowded beach.  You know you're watching an earlier film in Spielberg's catalog when a kid dies horribly in a giant geyser of blood!  This leads to a string of classic sequences that younger viewers might be tempted to write off as cliche.  Welp, I'm here to tell ya, kiddies, Jaws did it first and nothing has come close to doing it better!

Brody does some INDEPENDENT RESEARCH and quickly realizes that he's WAY OVER HIS HEAD.   He calls in a BRASH, YOUNG OCEANOGRAPHER named Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) who tries to warn the authorities of the LOOMING DANGER.  The two of them are then forced to team up with a GRIZZLED, LACONIC FISHERMAN named Quint (Robert Shaw) which leads to a LIFE OR DEATH STRUGGLE with THE BEAST at sea.  All of this comes wrapped up in an tense, impossibly-slick little package.

One of the main reasons why Jaws became a huge hit is because every scene is rife with tonal and emotional variety.  An early set-piece involving an aborted dockside fishing attempt by a couple of chuckle-heads gives us a sneak preview of what's to come.  A clandestine, late-night shark autopsy scene provides some gloriously icky gross-outs.  And when Hooper takes a foggy, late-night dip in order to investigate a damaged boat, we're treated to one of the best jump scares in cinema history.

Nowadays, summer blockbusters include action beats, set pieces and false endings as if they're just cogs in a machine designed to appease popcorn-munching troglodytes.  Jaws had all of these things but it wasn't because of some cynical recipe, it sprang organically out of good, old-fashioned story-telling.  The movie would have been an adequate crowd-pleaser if it just ended with the shark hunt, but when you add in Hooper's cage dive, Quint's close encounter with Bruce and Brody's miracle shot, it transcends into something truly epic.

These moments are made even more impactful thanks to some masterful editing and camerawork.  Prior to the first beach attack, Spielberg keeps his lens at the water line or below, giving us a sly P.O.V. shot of all of those flailing, chompable legs.  He then uses foreground movement to usher in tighter and tighter shots of a fretful-looking Roy Scheider.  Seconds later he clobbers us with a gut-wrenching hyper-zoom, ensuring that we experience the same stark terror and disorientation that Brody is feeling.  It's interesting to compare and contrast this with the almost whimsical "tourist arrival" montage later in the film.

There are even more examples of Spielberg's keen aesthetic in the last third of the film.  Savor the foreshadowing as the departing Orca, framed by a ring of shark teeth, dissolves into a haze of blood-red chum-water.  Thanks to John William's borderline schizophrenic score, Spielberg's lively direction and the brilliant pacing provided by editor Verna Fields (who also worked on American Graffiti) the initial engagement with the shark slowly transitions from light-hearted fishing expedition to life-and-death struggle.

A great deal of the film's realism stems from Spielberg's insane commitment to shoot on location.  Although it very nearly killed him, he did produce a genuine cinematic experience that's rarely been rivaled.  Regardless of how ludicrous the film's premise may be, when you get good actors doing a scene on the deck of a real ship with the ocean's horizon line swaying wildly in the background, you're gonna buy everything else hook, line and sinker.  There's no controlled studio environment, giant indoor water tank or green screen effect, here, boyos.  Even the film's more innocuous early scenes have an air of realism thanks to Martha's Vinyard standing in for the fictional Amity.    

Every decent film starts with a good script and Jaws is no exception.  Wisely, Spielberg retained the accomplished comedy scribe Carl Gottlieb to punch up the script Peter Benchley adapted from his own novel.  The resulting zippy dialogue is often delivered in overlapping reams, which not only feels realistic but it also demands your attention.  It's a clever technique that would become a staple in many of Spielberg's films. There are tons of memorable lines, delivered with eager zest by a flawless cast but here are just some of my favorites:

Hooper: (referring to Mayor Vaughn) I'm not going to waste my time arguing with a man who's lining up to be a hot lunch.


Ellen Brody: (to her exhausted husband) Wanna get drunk and fool around?


Hooper: I got the crème de la crème right here.  Hold on.  Yeah, you see that?  (lifts his shirt, revealing his hairy chest)
Brody: You're wearing a sweater?


Brody: (after seeing the shark for the first time) You're gonna need a bigger boat.

Armed with this stockpile of witty dialogue, the entire cast is thoroughly on point.  By all accounts, shooting Jaws was a pretty miserable experience, but it didn't negatively impact the performances in any discernible manner.  Perhaps all of that real-life strife and hardship helped their efforts in some weird way.

Roy Scheider is terrific as Brodie, acting as the perfect everyman and the audience's sounding board.  As an aquaphobic city cop, all of this shark and sea foolishness is just as foreign to him as it is to us.  World-weary yet incredulous in the face of increasingly-alarming revelations, Scheider's take on Brody is instinctively sympathetic.  Particularly relatable is the scene in which he bitches copiously about being stuck on chum-shoveling duty.  By lulling us into a false sense of banality, Scheider sets us up for one of the most unexpected film frights ever.  

In a more sensible world, Richard Dreyfuss would have won an Academy Award for his turn as Matt Hooper.  Mercifully, Jaws was made back in the Paleozoic era when writers cared enough to give interesting back-stories to secondary characters as well.  Hooper's learned testimony about the nature of sharks does more to ramp up tension then any pneumatic prop ever could.  With his snarky line deliveries and impeccable comedic timing he would have made off with every scene if not for the fact that his co-stars are equally adept.  Indeed, his camaraderie with Roy Scheider and rivalry with Robert Shaw are completely convincing.  

But perhaps the film's greatest performance is Robert Shaw as the salty and acerbic Quint.  Right from his unforgettable first appearance, Shaw depicts the veteran fisherman as a crude, slightly-creepy loner who only seems to be motivated by money.  But when Quint's backstory is slowly revealed we begin to realize that there's an interesting Ahab-like quality to the guy.  Infinitely seasoned and almost suicidally bold, he won't humor the possibility that the shark may best him until it's too late.

Together, these three characters represent one of the best on-screen troikas of all time.  Their extended scene below deck on the Orca is some of the most compelling cinema ever filmed.  It starts out light enough, with Quint and Hooper comparing battle scars, but then it turns really dark, really quick.  In the hands of a brilliant actor like Robert Shaw, Quint's "ghost story" manages to raise hackles without a single visual effect, prosthetic limb or drop of blood.  Rarely do you see such a perfect marriage between the scripted word and an actor's interpretation.  Mercifully, the impromptu sing-along that caps the scene provides some welcome levity and relieves the unbearable tension.      

The film's supporting characters are also equally proficient.  As the prototypical bought-and-paid-for movie politician, Murray Hamilton is gloriously sneaky, underhanded and weasley.  In a lesser film, Vaughn wouldn't have been given a motivation, much less an epiphany.  Lorraine Gary is also fabulous as Ellen Brody, engendering the film with considerable emotional heft.  Fueled by some note-perfect banter, it actually feels as if she's been married to Scheider for over a decade.  The scene in which she sends him off to sea is actually pretty tough to watch.  Lee Fierro also deserves a nod for her brief but powerful appearance as the slap-happy grieving mom Mrs. Kintner.

A lot of mega-budget "tentpole" Summer movies have been bombing recently and I can't say that I'm surprised.  Myopic movie producers keep vainly trying to recreate the magical formula of Jaws, without any of that film's heart, brains or sincerity.  How many pale imitations need to flop before they realize that Jaws became a phenomenon back in 1975 because it was fresh, exciting and wildly original?

Audiences don't need any more reboots.  They just need the concept of "fresh", "exciting" and "wildly original" to be rebooted.

So, c'mon, get on it, Hollywood.  This generation really deserves to have a movie like Jaws to call their very own.  

    Tilt: up.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Movie Review: "American Graffiti" by David Pretty

Sadly, American Graffiti  represents a career path that George Lucas never chose to pursue.  Four years after the release of this film, the albatross that is Star Wars would be permanently hung about his neck.  By the time he finished the original trilogy, Lucas had turned his back on the sort of collaborative film-making that made Graffiti such a well-rounded success.  

Although set in California in 1962, the film's premise is universal.  The story takes place on a late summer night with several of the characters on the verge of life-altering decisions.  All-star student Steve Bolander (Ron Howard) is gung-ho to leave town for university the following morning, to the point where he's willing to sever ties with his High School sweetheart Laurie Henderson (Cindy Williams).

Steve's best friend and Laurie's older brother Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) takes up the contrary view.  Despite landing a respectable scholarship, Curt finds himself pondering the eternal conundrum: "It doesn’t make sense to leave home to look for home, to give up a life to find a new life, to say goodbye to friends you love just to make new friends."  He spends the entire night prowling the town, looking for something to validate this stance.

Inter-spliced amongst this are the stories of several interesting supporting characters, including long-in-the-tooth greaser John Milner (Paul Le Mat), who gets stuck babysitting the prepubescent Carol Morrison (Mackenzie Phillips).  We also witness the misadventures of resident nerd and community punching bag Terry "The Toad" Fields (Charles Martin Smith) who, after gaining custody of Steve's bitchin' car, finally has a shot at getting laid for the first time in his life.

The film's visual identity is immediately established with a gorgeous shot of the iconic Mel's Drive-In at dusk, virtually swarming with vintage cars.  The beautifully-lurid nighttime cinematography really makes all of the ample neon lights pop.  Everything has a hazy, dream-like quality to it.  Throw in a massive back catalog of classic jukebox hits from the Fifties and early Sixties and you've got the makings of a nostalgia smart bomb.

I don't know how much of this was in the footage and how much of it was achieved by editors Marcia Lucas and Verna Fields, but all of the "cruising" scenes are dynamic and engaging.  Particularly impressive are the many dialogue sequences involving two characters talking smack to one another while driving in two separate cars.  This, of course, culminates with the high-speed drag race between John Milner and his obnoxious challenger Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford) at the climax of the film.

For a screenplay partially credited to George Lucas, the dialogue is actually quite clever.  In all honestly, most of the credit should go to Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck for their contributions to the script.  There's plenty of wise-assery, vintage references and, dare I say it, profundity to be found here.  Witness this amusing exchange between John Milner and Carol:

Carol: [after John turns off the radio] Why did you do that?
John Milner: I don't like that surfin' shit.  Rock and roll's been going downhill ever since Buddy Holly died.
Carol: Don't you think the Beach Boys are boss?
John Milner: You would, you grungy little twirp.
Carol: Grungy?  You big weenie!  If I had a boyfriend, he'd pound you!
John Milner: Yeah, sure.        

Lucas and his casting director Fred Roos managed to assemble a ludicrous amount of talent for this film.  Ron Howard, here in his proto-Ritchie Cunningham role, walks a very fine line.  Initially it's kind of tough to sympathize with the guy after he drops such a blatantly repugnant proposal on Laurie.  Fortunately he's redeemed by a palpable undercurrent of doubt and contrition which insures that the final act doesn't come as a shock. 

An insanely youthful Richard Dreyfuss is stupendous as Curt.  If you pay close attention you can detect a lot of interesting and subtle things that he does in this performance.  Check out his impotent objections and barely-restrained anxiety during his encounter with "The Pharaohs", his sense of wonderment while investigating a local radio personality or his barely-restrained enthusiasm when encountering his dream-girl: the T-Bird Blonde (Suzanne Somers).

And then there's Paul Le Mat as John Milner.  Like a fusion between Henry Winkler's Arthur Fonzerelli and Matthew McConaughey's David Wooderson from Dazed and Confused, John is desperate to suspend time and preserve the status quo.  He's kind of a sad figure who's clearly too old to be cruising for High School chicks or defending his drag racing title against countless younger upstarts.  Le Mat brings a tremendous amount of pathos to the role and the indignation he exhibits whenever someone mentions the concept of change reveals a lot about the character.

Charles Martin Smith's Terry "The Toad" Fields is surely one of the greatest early cinematic nerds.  In spite of fender benders, armed robberies, grand theft auto, serial killers at large and borderline alcohol poisoning, nothing deters his quest to appease the lovely and flaky Debbie Dunham (Candy Clark).  The amount of abuse he sustains in the film set the bar pretty high for nerds everywhere but though it all, Smith is awkwardly charming and relentlessly optimistic.

It was a stroke of genius to pair the cool-as-shit horndog Milner up with an annoying and pesky younger- sister type.  Played with winsome sincerity by a twelve-year old Mackenzie Phillips, it's fun to watch her tough-girl persona evaporate in the face of Milner's gambit.  In the interim, the process by which they slowly warm up to one another makes for compulsive viewing: Milner gains some much-needed maturity and Carol eventually comes to realize that it's okay to stay a kid for a little bit longer.  Their stop-light revenge scene is a giddy masterstroke of improv acting, hand-held camerawork, expert editing and evocative music.

Equally charismatic is the adorable Cindy Williams.  She does a stellar job playing a girl who's forced to act as if her world isn't in shambles.  Her relationship with Ron Howard's Steve really encapsulates the fragility of High School romance, especially when it's threatened with distance and separation.  She's invested and devoted while he's oblivious and ruled by hormones.  Indeed, Williams plays "walking wounded" to perfection and her "revenge cruise" will have you yelling at the screen.

A host of tremendous minor players round out the impeccable cast.  Candy Clark is gloriously blasé as Toad's dream girl *slash* Laverne & Shirley prototype Debbie Dunham.  When she informs Terry that she "had a pretty good time tonight" you really get the impression that this is a typical evening for her.  No less quirky is Harrison Ford's brief but memorable turn as Bob Falfa, who makes Han Solo look like Nelson Mandela.  In fact, I'm pretty sure that Ford invented the concept of douchebaggery in much the same way Charles Martin Smith codified nerdism.

This film really represents the optimal equation for a decent Lucasfilm.  George came up with a great concept, wrote a rudimentary script, let some infinitely more talented writers perfect the material and then he shot it on location and supervised a stupendous editing job.  Throw in some great music, bitchin' rides and a cast of willful and talented actors and you have a winning formula that you wish Lucas had retained in the later stages of his increasingly-insular career.

Tilt: up.