Fall Movie Preview

Well, it’s that time…my favorite season for movie watching.  Fall is when studios tend to release their better films (i.e. the ones they think’ll make a splash during the end-of-year awards).  Prestige season begins in earnest for me on September 18 — seven days and counting — so I’ve compiled a list of the films I’m most looking forward to.

September 18 sees the release of “Black Mass” — the story of real-life mobster, Whitey Bulger.  Johnny Depp plays Bulger, and judging by the trailer, this looks like a welcome return to his more menacing and nuanced work (think “Donnie Brasco,” which happens to be another crime film).  On top of that, I was a fan of director Scott Cooper’s first feature, “Crazy Heart.”

Also out on September 18 is “Sicario.”  (It’s in limited release that weekend and goes wide on September 25.)  The trailer for this drug war drama makes it look like a real nerve shredder.  It’s from another promising young filmmaker, Denis Villeneuve.  After “Prisoners,” itself a lesson in suspense, this seems like another fruitful collaboration with could-make-a-dumpster-look-great cinematographer, Roger Deakins.  The cast is spectacular as well, headlined by Emily Blunt (in full bad ass mode), Benicio del Toro and Josh Brolin.

I haven’t liked a Ridley Scott film in several years — really since the Director’s Cut of “Kingdom of Heaven” — but I’m hoping that will change on October 2.  “The Martian” is about an astronaut left for dead and his struggle to survive on…you guessed it…Mars.  Scott’s susceptible to selecting scripts that are beneath his talent, but Drew Goddard (of “Cabin in the Woods” and “Daredevil” Season 1) is the screenwriter here.  And again, we have a phenomenal cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, and Michael Peña.

martian

And then there’s the pairing of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director Danny Boyle, whose film “Steve Jobs” hits screens on October 9.  The former is a self-described writer of “People talking in rooms” and the latter’s known for his bold and vibrant filmmaking.  Michael Fassbender plays the titular tech genius.  He’s one of my favorite actors working, but I’m mostly excited to see what Sorkin and Boyle bring out in one another.

The weekend of October 16 is stacked.

First up is “Beasts of No Nation.”  It’s directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, the man behind the first season of “True Detective.”  It stars Idris Elba as an African warlord recruiting children into a civil war.  The film is getting a very limited theatrical release, but it’s also going to be available on Netflix streaming the same day it hits screens.  I love “True Detective,” so I’ll see anything Fukunaga touches.  The positive buzz for the film has only gotten me more excited.

Bridge of Spies” comes out the same day.  This one’s from a young, upstart filmmaker named Steven Spielberg.  (I see big things for this guy.  Very talented.)  The director’s track record has been spotty lately, but even mid-tier Spielberg is better than most.  I’m excited to see him reunite with Tom Hanks, who plays a lawyer focused on rescuing a US pilot who went down over the Soviet Union.  Oh, and the Coen Brothers have a screenwriting credit!

But the movie I’ll see first that weekend is “Crimson Peak.”  Guillermo del Toro is one of my favorite directors working, and this marks his return to the haunted house genre.  If you haven’t seen “The Devil’s Backbone,” you should remedy that right away.  Based on the trailer, the visuals looks as lush and vibrant as you’ve come to expect from del Toro.  Yet another great cast here with Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain.

crimson-peak

And finally, “Room” comes out in limited release the same day.  I’ve heard good things about the novel on which the film is based, but there’s one reason I’m really excited for this one…and her name is Brie Larson.  She gave a stunning performance in “Short Term 12” (actually my favorite performance of 2013).  I was disappointed to see her relegated to Love Interest in “The Gambler,” but it looks as though “Room” will be another opportunity for her to flex her acting muscles.

November 6 brings the latest entry in the James Bond franchise, “Spectre.”  “Skyfall” director Sam Mendes returns here.  Aficionados will recognize Spectre as the nefarious organization that reared its head in early Bond films.  The inclusion of talent like Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux and Andrew Scott is very exciting.  The only thing that gives me pause is that, after the release of “Skyfall,” Mendes stated he’d said everything he had to say about Bond.  Presumably, the studio offered him enough money to keep talking.  That’s usually not the best reason for a director to sign on, but based on the strength of the previous film, I’ll be there opening weekend.

On November 20, “Carol” gets a limited release.  Director Todd Haynes tackles a similarly taboo subject matter as his own “Far From Heaven.”  This one’s about a younger woman falling in love with an older woman in 1950s New York.  Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara star, and they’re two of the best actresses working today.  The film’s screened at festivals to rave reviews.

This year brings not one but two Pixar films.  After the summer’s “Inside Out,” I’m really looking forward to “The Good Dinosaur” (November 25).  The premise is pretty basic — What if the dinosaurs didn’t go extinct?  (The trailer plays this out in a hilarious visual gag.)  When the animation studio is on its game, there’s nobody better.  The film’s had a troubled production, with Disney announcing in June that nearly the entire voice cast had been scrapped.  Still, “Inside Out” felt like a real return to form for Pixar, so I’m hoping their latest picks up where it left off.

good-dinosaur

The performer pairing I’m most excited for is Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard in “Macbeth,” which is getting a limited released on December 4The trailer is gorgeous.  I’ve already talked about how much I like Fassbender, but Cotillard is every bit his equal (if not superior).  The prospect of these two playing off each other in a Shakespeare adaptation sounds fantastic.

Finally, we come to it — the main course!  “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is unleashed on December 18.  When the first teaser was released last November, I wrote about my reluctance to get excited for this new trilogy.  But as we’ve gotten closer to release and with the second teaser, my hesitance has almost completely faded…except for a minor concern that the film may delve into fan service (see: director JJ Abrams’s own “Star Trek Into Darkness”).  But I’m so ready for this!

star-wars

(The next two are technically Winter titles, but what’s dinner without a little dessert?)

On December 25, Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” will go into limited release (with a wide release soon to follow).  It’s about a group of bounty hunters — and a valuable quarry — holed up in a cabin during a blizzard.  Tarantino is one of the most consistently excellent filmmakers working.  I’m excited by the prospect of him tackling something with a limited setting.  If “Inglorious Basterds” was any indication, with its farmhouse and tavern sequences, he knows how to wring suspense out of a confined space.  And there’s a great cast: Kurt Russell, Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Michael Madsen, and Bruce Dern.

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s follow up to “Birdman” also comes out on Christmas Day — “The Revenant.”  The trailer is tense as hell, and the images (composed by two-time Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki) are breathtaking.  There looks to be an extraordinary amount of movement and coordination within the frame, as you’d expect from the DP of “Children of Men.”  Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy star.

So those are the movies I’m most looking forward to!  What about you?  What are you excited to see this Fall?

Why CG Sucks (Because Sometimes It Does)

Freddie Wong recently uploaded a video on why computer-generated imagery (or CG) sucks.  “Except it doesn’t,” he qualifies.  I’m a big fan of Wong’s work, most of which is available on YouTube.  He’s a talented artist and entertainer, and he’s done a number of informative behind-the-scenes videos.  His channel is a great resource for fledgling filmmakers.

The general thrust of his latest is summarized in an opening line:  “I think the reason we think CG looks bad is because we only see bad CG.”  He asserts that there’s a lot of great CG work that goes largely unnoticed, precisely because it’s so strong and seamless.

And while I agree with that, I think Wong brushes some significant negatives under the rug.

Something that can’t help but color the video is its intended audience.  “Do your fingers rage across subreddits and message boards about a simpler, better time…back before computers ruined movies?”  Wong’s audience is filmmakers and aficionados.  Unless I’m grossly underestimating the general populace’s interest in CG, who else is bemoaning the loss of practical effects?

And many of his examples are minor touch ups.  Note the snow on the ground in the shot with Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara.  It’s a relatively still camera with limited movement in the frame — not a huge challenge to paint in effects.  Or the stadium shot from “Forrest Gump.”  The filmmakers hired enough extras to fill a section.  What you’re seeing is a bunch of practical elements composited on a computer.

Forrest shoot Forrest finished effect

I think these two examples constitute good and, indeed, invisible uses of CG.  Critically, they’re also limited.  Computers were used to augment reality, not fabricate it whole cloth.  To my mind, this is all those lamenting an overuse of digital effects are asking for — a little restraint.

Now, I don’t want to blanketly condemn computer-generated effects and certainly not the artists who create them.  As Wong points out, it’s a segment of the industry that gets pummeled on a regular basis.  And sometimes it can be hard for practical methods to achieve a desired effect.  I’m a big fan of Japanese giant monsters, and those films are known for using men in suits and miniatures.  That said, I appreciate that recent kaiju films, such as “Pacific Rim” and “Godzilla,” opted for CG instead.  Rendering the physics of something that big (and the destruction it causes) can be difficult with a suit or even animatronics.

I’m for whatever looks best.  Yes, sometimes costs are going to demand one approach over another, but having something physically on set is almost always going to trump the thing that gets added in post.  Even if you as an audience member aren’t aware of what strategy is being used, I bet you’ll have a more visceral reaction to a practical effect than a digital one.  After all, it’s not just you reacting to that robot, alien, dinosaur or what have youit’s the actors.  Imagine you’re a filmmaker, and you’re spending vast sums of money by the hour.  You’re going to get better results a lot faster if your actors have something to act to.

Wong concludes:

“So maybe the reason why people seem to think visual effects are ruining movies isn’t really a problem with the visual effects, maybe it’s just a problem with the movies themselves…CG, just like every innovation in cinema, is simply a tool on the filmmaker’s tool belt to tell a story.  But when the end result is bad, maybe it’s not the tool’s fault.”

Clearly CG is not a sentient being out to destroy movies.  It’s still grossly misused.  Wong cites practical elements in the “Transformers” movies and praises their digital effects work, but don’t get me started on the exaggerated and overcomplicated animation of its title characters.  Is that the fault of the digital artists?  Of course not!  That was Michael Bay’s vision…one made possible by computer animation.

TRANSFORMERS, Optimus Prime, 2007. ©Paramount/courtesy Everett Collection

And that’s ultimately my point.  Some filmmakers have become so enamored with being able to put anything and everything up on screen that they forget how it looks.  CG’s become a crutch — one that fosters laziness and poor choices.  The set pieces of many tentpole productions are established before there’s even a script so that digital artists can get to work (including “The Avengers,” which is cited in this very video).  That’s backwards thinking, and it underscores the studios’ priorities when it comes to effects and story.

What are your thoughts on the film industry’s use of CG?  Comment below!

A lesson in basic narrative structure, courtesy of “Stairway to Heaven”

Last week I revisited James Cameron’s “Aliens” for the umpteenth time and marveled at its slow burn structure.  Like its predecessor, Ridley Scott’s “Alien,” it takes a whole hour for the titular critters to show up.  But this storytelling model has fallen by the wayside.  We rarely see it employed, and it’s rewarded even less.  Instead we shovel money at Michael Bay and his Transformer movies…upwards of a billion dollars domestically to a franchise with more explosions than stakes, tension, or story.

I don’t mean to sound like an angry old man shaking his cane, but how do you determine the end of a story if not by the climax?  A climax is something you have to build toward, so if your film is nothing but climaxes, then your ending is going to feel as meek and tepid as limp chestburster.

chestburster

But let’s consider this strategy from a different angle, from a smaller and more easily digestible approach: Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.”

It’s pretty much unanimously regarded as one of the great rock songs and maybe the greatest rock guitar solo.  And for good reason, but I would argue a critical element to the song’s power is its construction.  It builds to that solo.  Were the whole thing wallpapered with Jimmy Page’s virtuosic playing, we would be desensitized to it.  I don’t think we’d be as enamored with that version of the song.

”Stairway” clocks in at 8:03.  During the first 2:13, we get Robert Plant’s vocals, an acoustic guitar and some recorders.  Led Zeppelin is laying the groundwork.

In the first 20 minutes of “Aliens,” a salvage crew finds Ripley floating in deep space.  She makes a report to the Powers That Be, during which, she learns that while she was in hyper sleep, a colony was established on the alien world.  We also witness Ripley’s nightmares of an alien exploding from her chest like a grotesque jack-in-the-box.

At 2:14 into “Stairway,” we get a little electric guitar.  Now the song is taking shape, rooting itself more firmly.  This is rock ‘n’ roll after all!

Ripley learns from Company Man, Burke, that communications with the colony have been cut.  A team of marines is sent in.  Hoping to silence her fears, Ripley agrees to tag along.  When they arrive, they find the colony in shambles — the only survivor is a young girl named Newt.

ripley and newt

Now, we’re 4:19 into this roughly 8 minute song, and here come the drums.  This is what we signed up for!

Likewise, halfway through “Aliens,” we get our first look at the creatures.  Having stumbled into a hive in the basement of a power planet, the marines are ambushed by dozens of xenomorphs.  They regroup, only to discover that during the fire fight, the plant was damaged and is ready to explode…like a 40-megaton thermonuclear weapon.  Complications arise.  It’s revealed that Burke is trying to sabotage the mission by bringing creatures back to his company’s bio-weapons division.  The aliens launch an attack on the marines, resulting in Newt’s capture.

And at 5:56, we arrive at the famous guitar solo!

Ripley goes on a one-woman mission to recover Newt from the aliens’ nest.  She rescues her, and the two come face to face with the Alien Queen.  Ripley torches her eggs.  They take off, escaping an immense explosion, but then discover that the Queen has boarded their ship.  Ripley drives the creature into an airlock and finds herself in its clutches.

alien queen

“And as we wind on down the road, our shadows taller than a soul…”

She opens the airlock, which sucks the Queen out into space.

At 7:46, the solo draws to a close, and we come back to where we started with Robert Plant’s eerie vocals.

Ripley returns to hyper sleep with Newt.

“Can I dream,” the young girl asks.

“Yes, honey.  I think we both can.”

This model isn’t just meant for creature features.  “Die Hard” isn’t plastered with wall-to-wall action.  Indeed, it’s also a slow burn.  A fair amount of time passes before the first shots are fired.

And obviously, this template isn’t going to apply to every film.  “Raiders of the Lost Ark” opens with a bang.  Though it’s a film that’s generally thought of as unrelenting, things quiet down after that initial set piece.  I also think there’s something to be said for dynamic range.  Yes, the opening of “Raiders” is exciting, but the ending is literally — as far as our characters are concerned — face melting.

But back to “Aliens”…You’d be hard pressed not to find a pantheon-level monster movie that doesn’t follow this structure — from “Alien” to “Aliens,” from “Jaws” to “Jurassic Park,” from the original “King Kong” to the original “Godzilla.”

If you’re firing at 10 nonstop, eventually 10 loses its luster.

Agree or disagree?  Comment below!

My 40 Favorite Moments from “Jaws” (Part 2 of 2)

Welcome back!  If you missed the first part of my 40 favorite moments from “Jaws,” click here.  Don’t forget to check out the film on the big screen this evening, courtesy of TCM and Fathom Events.

21.) Quint’s shark shack

Quint ribs Hooper about his city hands, and the Chief can’t stomach Quint’s homemade booze.  The scene sets up a lot of the conflict to come.  These characters and their dynamic are a real strength of the film.  I could watch these guys on a road trip.

22.) “Farewell and adieu…”

Before setting out, Quint sings “Spanish Ladies.”  (It’s catchy as hell!)  I’ve always loved the smile Hooper gives him.  I like to think it’s a rare moment of camaraderie between them, Hooper perhaps recognizing a song he’s heard on the ocean.  But you could also read it as “Just nod and smile at the crazy loon.”

Farewell and adieu

23.) Genre hop

An interesting things about “Jaws” is that it changes genres halfway through.  It starts as a horror film — an unseen force preying on a white picket fence community — and then it becomes an adventure when our three heroes embark on a hunt for a killer shark.

24.) Drinking contest

One of the things that makes “Jaws” so special is its sense of humor.  It leverages the suspense and excitement, and it comes naturally from its characters.  Consider Quint and Hooper having a drink.  Quint drains his beer can and crushes it, Hooper does just the same…except his is a Styrofoam cup.

Drinking contest 1

Drinking contest 2

25.) Air tank exposition

Hooper chews Brody out for sending air tanks across the Orca’s deck.  It’s a great bit of exposition, because it accomplishes three things at once.  (1) It ups the stakes and the possibility for disaster.  (2) It reinforces that Brody is not at home on the water and isolates him from the other characters.  (3) It sets up the shark’s final scene and the climax of the film.

26.) Whose [fishing] line is it anyway?

An attempt to capture the shark involves piano wire and a fishing rod.  Brody and Hooper are busy, so only Quint notices that something seems to be nibbling on the end of his line.  The sound work is fantastic, allowing tension to build.  Click, click, click.  The line twitches in the water.  Creak.  And Quint fastens himself to his chair.

Fishing line

27.) The shark is ready for its close-up

Martin:  “I can go slow ahead.  Come on down and chum some of this shit!”

And boom, more than an hour into the film, the Great White finally gets his close-up.  Timed perfectly, I love the way Spielberg turns a laugh into a scream.

Shark's close up

28.) Shark’s limited screen time

I adore the judicious use of the shark, a strategy that would surely fall flat today.  (Remember all that bellyaching about Godzilla’s screen time in last year’s reboot?)  Still, few things take the majesty and menace out of a monster like overexposure.

29.) “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

C’mon, what else do I need to say!  The perfect encapsulation of an insurmountable problem.

30.) Pirate music

John Williams’s work highlights that transition from horror to sea-faring adventure.  Nowhere is that more prevalent than the first chase.  Listen to the track here.  Still gets my heart racing.

31.) Fish stories

Quint and Hooper, a little tipsy, compare scars in a game of one-upsmanship.  I got this from a bull shark.  Well, I got this from a thresher.  The Chief lifts his shirt, takes a look at his appendectomy scar, then quickly dismisses it.  The scene’s a welcome reprieve after the first thrilling chase and before…

32.) “You were on the Indianapolis?”

I love the way Hooper’s laugh deflates when he learns that Quint was on the USS Indianapolis.  It’s a great bit of acting by Dreyfuss.  If you’re not familiar with the story — I certainly wasn’t as a kid — it lets you know that you’re in for something. Also note how Brody isn’t aware of the event.  Yet again, he’s the outsider.

33.) The Indianapolis monologue 

Robert Shaw delivers the movie monologue to end all movie monologues.  The language is so evocative: “You know the thing about a shark, he’s got black eyes.  Lifeless eyes, like a doll’s eyes.  When he comes at ya, he doesn’t seem to be livin’…until he bites ya.”  Whether a conscious choice or not — Shaw was a drinker on set — I love Quint’s drunken portrayal.  As though his boat-mates wouldn’t be hearing this story if he were sober.  It also serves as a basis for some of Quint’s more questionable decisions.

Indianapolis

34.) The sound of silence

After conditioning the audience to expect the shark’s theme before an attack, Spielberg and Williams pull a great switcheroo.  When the barrels attached to the fish surface, the audience knows the threat is there.  Its attack comes out of silence.

35.) “He’s chasing us, I don’t believe it!”

I love the characterization – I’m using that word loosely — of the shark. He’s driven by more than just instinct, and, yes, there wouldn’t be much of a movie if he just moved on to another beach.  He almost mocks our heroes before bringing his full strength to bear.  The way he passes by Hooper in the cage before striking (more on that in a bit).  And the way the tables turn and he starts chasing the Orca.  The shark’s final scene is spectacular, but it’s earned.  You feel as though that’s what it’d take, nothing less, to kill this unstoppable force.

36.) Life jackets

Quint tells Brody and Hooper that he’ll never put on a life jacket again.  So when he hands each of them one, the boat hanging low in the water, it speaks volumes about their predicament.  This is as close as Quint gets to apologizing.  And I love the visual of him finding the life jackets: hanging from the ceiling, dripping with water.

Life jackets

37.) Cage match

With Hooper in the cage, we finally get our first full-body look at the Great White.  It appears out of the din, Williams’s theme chugging along in the background.  It glides by the cage, not even fitting inside the 2.35 framing.  As it disappears into the murk again, the theme fades.  So haunting!

Cage match

38.) “The ocean turns red…”

A shark attack in all its grisly horror, Quint comes face-to-face with the thing he fears most.  Shaw’s committed performance sells it and makes for one of the best movie deaths of all time.  Oh man, and the foley work — the snap-crack when the shark bites into Quint’s leg.  Ouch.

Ocean turns red

39.) The end

Martin:  “I used to hate the water.”

Hooper:  “I can’t imagine why.”

The end

40.) Source of inspiration

Okay, not really a moment from “Jaws,” but I owe my love of movies to this film.  I’ve told the story before, but when I was seven years old, I wanted to be a marine biologist.  So my mother showed me “Jaws,” and I wanted to be a filmmaker.  When you hear about all the production’s trials and tribulations — ballooning budgets and schedules, a malfunctioning shark, weather, location politics — it’s a marvel it got made at all and a testament to art coming from adversity.  That the film turned out as well as it did, well, that’s just icing on the cake.  Or chum in the water.  I liked “Jaws” as a kid, but it took getting older to appreciate how good it is.

Thanks for reading!  Do you have a favorite moment from “Jaws?”  Comment below.

My 40 Favorite Moments from “Jaws” (Part 1 of 2)

Today marks the 40th anniversary of “Jaws.”  Directed by Steven Spielberg, written by Carl Gottlieb and Peter Benchley, and starring Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss.  The film changed the course of Hollywood…and it changed the course of my life.  Note the name of the blog.  In honor of its big anniversary, part one of my 40 favorite moments from “Jaws.”

1.) Duuh dunnn…duuuuh duun…

“All this machine does is swim and eat and make little sharks.”  What better way to characterize something so simple than with two notes?  Once John Williams’s theme gets going, it does indeed sound like an engine.  A big, unstoppable engine…with teeth.

2.) Peeping shark

Suspense builds as we watch an unsuspecting menu item, her feet dangling beneath the surface.

Peeping Shark

3.) The first bite is the deepest

The minimalist approach here was the way to go.  There isn’t so much as a shadow or flick of a fin.  Just violent jerking motions.  Primal and visceral.

First bite

4.) Meeting Martin Brody 

Martin:  “How come the sun didn’t used to shine in here?”

Ellen:  “We bought the house in the fall.  This is summer.”

Ellen:  “In Amity you say ‘yahd’.”

Martin:  “[The kids] are in the yahd, not too fahr from the cahr.  How’s that?”

Ellen:  “Like you’re from New York.”

In a few quick lines, we learn so much about the Brody family and Martin in particular.

5.) The ferry long take

The mayor corners the chief for a meeting about tourist season.  There’s minimal camera movement, but since we’re on a ferry, the background is spinning and Spielberg keeps the actors moving such that we don’t notice the long take.  It’s a dynamic way to deliver exposition.

ferry

6.) Brody’s POV

Spielberg places us in the shoes of the paranoid chief as he watches bathers from his chair.  Beach-goers walk in front of the camera — they wipe off Brody and wipe on what he’s looking at.  Someone will be talking to the chief, their face wedged into the corner of the frame and an expanse of ocean over their shoulder, letting us know what’s really on our his mind.

Brody POV

7.) Let’s [not] paint the town red!

Red is used so sparingly in the film that when it does appear, it pops off the screen.

Paint the town red

8.) There’s chaos in the air

“We have to talk to Mrs. Kintner, because this is going to turn into a contest.”

“I have a motel!  How do you feel about this?”  

“Go out there tomorrow and see that no one gets hurt!”  

Overlapping dialog during the town meeting accomplishes so much more than a traditional, staged approach.  It adds texture and makes Amity feel lived in.

9.) There ARE strings on me.

Brody, on the left side of the frame, talks about keeping the beaches safe.  He has no lead room — no vision or conviction.  Behind him, the mayor and his cronies watch their puppet dance.  A whole story in one shot.

Puppet dance

10.) Quint’s intro

Nails on a chalkboard rake across a shark that’s devouring a swimmer.   And so we meet the film’s most indelible character.  Quint’s entrance encompasses all the bluster that he’ll come to embody.  And yet his line, “There’s too many captains on this island,” cuts right to the heart of the problem.  Bureaucracy and commercial interests have indeed run amok on the island.

Quint intro

11.) Brody’s studies

Brody glances through a series of photographs depicting real-life shark attacks.  Reflected in his glasses, the horror on the book pages consume his vision.

Brody studies

12.) Fickle fin

Martin:  “I don’t want him on the ocean!”

Ellen:  “He’s not on the ocean, he’s in a boat!”

Fickle fin pt 1

Fickle fin pt 2

Ellen:  “Michael! Did you hear your father? Out of the water now.  Now!”

13.) Attack of the Pier!

After a bounty is placed on the shark, two fishermen attempt to catch it.  When the fish takes the bait chained to a pier, half the pier goes with it and one of the men gets dragged out to sea.  In one of my favorite gags, the pier turns around and follows him.  Shark-by-proxy, far spookier than actually seeing the creature.

14.) Brody and his son

Few and far between are the blockbusters that would make room for a scene like this.  Having been blamed for the death of Alex Kintner, the chief finds himself goofing off with his son.  The young boy mimics his father, and Martin plays along.  It aligns us firmly with our hero.

Brody and his son

15.) Ellen & Hooper

Ellen laughs just a little too hard and a little too long at some of Hooper’s jokes.  It’s a nice bit of characterization and a nice nod to Peter Benchley’s novel, which contained a subplot about an affair between the two.

16.) “Drowning”

Ellen:  “Martin sits in his car when we go on the ferry to the main land.  I guess it’s a childhood thing.  There’s a clinical name for it, isn’t there?”

Martin:  “Drowning.”

You’ve got to love Schieder’s off-handed delivery.  In a lesser film, Martin Brody would have been too broadly comic or just a wet blanket.  But Spielberg and Scheider strike the right balance.

17.) Boo!

While we ponder Hooper’s discovery of a tooth the size of a shot glass — Bam! — a pale and bloated corpse floats out to greet him.  Like a magician, Spielberg draws our gaze away before the trick.

Boo

18.) Water-level camera

One of the visual strategies Spielberg employs is a water-level camera.  This usually involves water lapping over the lens and swimmers in the background.  It amps up the tension as it feels like we, the audience, are treading shark-infested water.

Water-level camera

19.) “Michael’s in the pond!”

After a false alarm on July 4th, a woman spots the shark.  “There’s a shark in the pond!”  The camera tracks with Brody in profile as he makes his way through a crowd, faster and faster until the beach goers are blurs around him.  It’s a great means of visualizing the chief’s rising panic as his son happens to be playing in the pond.

20.) Mayor of Shark City

“I was acting in the town’s best interest.” Murray Hamilton says this to himself as much as Brody, as though he was already practicing for the media gauntlet.  By the end of the scene, he’s just a broken man: “Martin, my kids were on that beach too.”  It’s a glimmer of humanity in a character that’s otherwise pretty sleazy.

Tune in tomorrow for the second and final installment in “My 40 Favorite Moments from ‘Jaws’.”  Also tomorrow, Fathom Events will also be screening the film throughout the country.  If you’ve never seen “Jaws” on a big screen with a large audience, it’s a real treat!  Click here for location and ticket details.

Remember Your First Time?

Matt Zoller Seitz recently published an excellent article about watching “Aliens” with his 11-year old son and a handful of his fifth grade friends.  He wrote, “I realized…that while unfortunately you can’t see a great movie again for the first time, the next best thing is to show it to people who’ve never seen it.”  Which is a sentiment I’ve always found to be true.  Watch a comedy you enjoy with someone who’s never seen it, and you’ll find yourself laughing harder.  Watch one of your favorite horror films with someone who’s never seen it, and you you’ll find your palms sweating.  In honor of Seitz’s writeup, I thought I’d share my experience showing “Jaws” to my college roommate.

Indeed, my freshman year roommate — and we would remain roomies throughout college — had never seen “Jaws.”  I felt determined and obligated to remedy this as quickly as possible.  He was a good sport, but he went into the experience with notions of what he thought the film would be.  Though he didn’t say anything beforehand, I could read it on him.  “Oh yeah, ‘Jaws?’  I’ve heard about the robotic shark.”  Or “I’ve seen other movies from this period, and I didn’t like them very much.”  Or “Horror movies have changed so much since the 70s.  Scary?  Yeah, we’ll see.”

One early autumn evening, we had three or four friends over to watch the film.  The viewing circumstances were less than ideal.  We were all stuffed into a small dorm room.  It was stinkin’ hot in upstate New York, and our door was open for circulation.  I still remember intoxicated voices bouncing around the hall outside as students were enjoying their weekend.  The television set was in the neighborhood of 15 inches, and it was wedged between the ceiling and the top of some large cabinets.  (They’re called “closets” in some circles.)

There was idle chit-chat among our friends over the opening credits.  I grimaced, not wanting to be a killjoy but also trying to maintain some semblance of a proper presentation.  With that first tug on poor Chrissie Watkins’s leg, things started to quiet down.  As she was ripped through the water by an unseen menace, the chatter completely turned to silence.

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Cut to 15 minutes later, Chief Brody sits on the beach with his family.  He anxiously watches bathers enter and exit the water, believing a shark was responsible for the young woman’s death.  A couple townsfolk strike up a conversation with him, but his eyes are fixed on the expanse of ocean.  The Chief explodes out of his chair at the sound of a young woman’s screams, only to discover that her boyfriend has surfaced beneath her.  He leans forward as a shape approaches a woman floating on her back.  It’s just a swimmer.  Little Alex Kitner enters the water and paddles out on his raft.  I watched with anticipation as John Williams’s menacing score started to thump and Spielberg’s roving camera — the shark’s POV — approached the boy from below.  The raft is overturned, and there’s a geyser of blood as Alex is taken under.

kitner

My roommate screamed:  “Oh God!  OH MY GOD!”

brody reacts

Movie viewings are rarely this gratifying.

As the full gravity of the community’s situation sets in, marine biologist Matt Hooper investigates a boat that was struck by the shark.  A moody night-time scene: lights from Hooper’s vessel filter through the inky water.  Eerie music indicates that danger could strike at any moment.  And then, my phone went off.  I can’t for the life of me remember why I didn’t have it on vibrate.  As it rang out, one of our friends piped up, “Well, that ruined the mood!”  Without bringing the phone to my ear, I spoke into the receiver: “Hold on.”  As Hooper approaches a hole in the hull of the boat, the craft’s former owner, dead, floats into frame to greet him.  Screams erupted all around me as I walked to the hallway to take the call.

boat scare

Afterward, my roommate would admit that he thought the film would be a victim of its times.  The next day, he posted a picture of the “Jaws” DVD online and simply stated: Best.  Movie.  Ever.

Do you have a memory of sharing a favorite film with a friend?  Comment below!

An Odyssey of the Mind

Apologies for the dearth of blog entries, everyone!  In addition to helping some friends shoot their first feature, I’ve been giving a lot of my time to a program called Odyssey of the Mind.  I’ve been involved with it for roughly 20 years.  I competed from elementary school through college, and since then, I’ve volunteered as an official.

I hate describing the program, because it’s easy to over-explain or under-explain, and, either way, it often leaves people scratching their heads.  In a nutshell, it’s a creative problem-solving competition.  Teams of five to seven students work for several months on their Long Term solution.  There are five types of LT problems to choose from: one is centered around a vehicle created by the team, another is centered around a performance based on classic art or literature, another involves a balsa wood structure and how much weight it holds.

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The team does everything.  They design their vehicle or structure, they research classic art and literature.  They write a script and build their props and sets.  Everything.  In addition to performing their Long Term solution, teams are given a Spontaneous problem on the day of competition.  In the months leading up to the tournament, teams solve practice problems, but they have no idea what they’ll face in the Spontaneous Room.  Problems can be hands-on, requiring them to build a structure out of toothpicks and mailing labels and then receive points for the amount of weight it holds.  Or they can be verbal, which might involve each student contributing a line to a team-created story that receives points based on creativity and the number of responses in a set period of time.

The program offers many takeaways, like budgeting and time management, but there are three real pillars.  The first is independence.  Did I mention the students do everything?  The second is creativity.  The program demonstrates that often there’s more than one right way to solve a problem.  And finally, the program teaches the value of teamwork.  As an only child, this was the most valuable lesson I learned.  During my early years with Odyssey, I was shocked (SHOCKED!) when my teammates didn’t immediately accept my ideas.

But my ego sustained a few blows, and I turned out all right in the end — certainly better than I might have without Odyssey.  It’s given me a lot to be thankful for.  I’ve made so many wonderful friendships through the program, even my wife and my best friend.

Lyss, Ben & I - States_smaller

Winner Predictions for the 87th Academy Awards

If you’re a film fan, you probably know that the 87th Academy Awards are this weekend (Sunday, February 22).  I’ve got a love-hate relationship with Oscar, but it’s always fun to take a stab at predicting the winners.  Below, you’ll find my picks for all the feature film categories.  I’ve gone in depth with some of the more prominent awards.

Best Picture Nominees:

“American Sniper”

“Birdman”

“Boyhood”

“The Grand Budapest Hotel”

“The Imitation Game”

“Selma”

“The Theory of Everything”

“Whiplash”

This is really a two-horse race between “Birdman” and “Boyhood,” though over the last few weeks, “Birdman” has pulled ahead.  The film is about a has-been movie star trying to revitalize his career on stage in New York.  Its idiosyncrasies and darkly comic tone, while uncharacteristic for a Best Picture winner, won’t be enough to overcome the sentiment that the Academy members have for, well, movies about themselves.  (See other recent winners about show business:  “Argo,” “The Artist,” and “Chicago.”)  Sorry “Boyhood,” but when’s the last time a movie about normal people in normal circumstances won top prize?

What will win: “Birdman”

What might win: “Boyhood”

What should win: “Boyhood”

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Best Director Nominees:

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, “Birdman”

Richard Linklater, “Boyhood”

Bennett Miller, “Foxcatcher”

Wes Anderson, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”

Morten Tyldum, “The Imitation Game”

As goes Best Picture, so usually goes Best Director.  And I think that’ll be the case here.  It’s generally safe to predict the film that’s “most” directed (or most acted, scored, etc.).  “Birdman” was conceived as a series of longtakes seamlessly edited together to give the impression of one continuous shot, and I think the Academy will vote in favor of that over Richard Linklater’s less invisible technique in “Boyhood.”

Who will win: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, “Birdman”

Who might win: Richard Linklater, “Boyhood”

Who should win: Richard Linklater, “Boyhood”

Best Actress Nominees:

Rosamund Pike, “Gone Girl”

Julianne Moore, “Still Alice”

Felicity Jones, “The Theory of Everything”

Marion Cotillard, “Two Days, One Night”

Reese Witherspoon, “Wild”

Julianne Moore can already taste this one.  She’s a respected actress, and she’s been nominated four times already.  In “Still Alice,” she plays a professor with early-onset Alzheimer’s.  The role’s rife with heavy, dramatic Oscar bait-iness to seal the deal.

Who will win: Julianne Moore, “Still Alice”

Who might win: Seriously, take Moore to the bank

Who should win: Marion Cotillard, “Two Days, One Night”…though I haven’t seen “Still Alice” or “Wild”

Best Actor Nominees:

Bradley Cooper, “American Sniper”

Michael Keaton, “Birdman”

Steve Carell, “Foxcatcher”

Benedict Cumberbatch, “The Imitation Game”

Eddie Redmayne, “The Theory of Everything”

Again, it’s usually fruitful to predict the “most” acted.  In this case, that’s Eddie Redmayne.  That he’s playing a real-life figure with a disability is the cherry on top of the Oscar sundae.  These types of roles are catnip for voters.  I’m a little reluctant to go against Michael Keaton, an industry vet, but Redmayne has gotten too much support from critical precursors like the Screen Actors Guild and BAFTA.

Who will win: Eddie Redmayne, “The Theory of Everything”

Who might win: Michael Keaton, “Birdman”

Who should win: Michael Keaton, “Birdman”…though I haven’t seen “American Sniper”

Best Adapted Screenplay Nominees:

“American Sniper”

“The Imitation Game”

“Inherent Vice”

“The Theory of Everything”

“Whiplash”

This is a pretty weak field, but I’m going with “The Imitation Game.”  It’s got eight nominations, and while it could go home empty handed, that’s not likely.  The film is set during World War II, and it’s about real-life Alan Turing who cracked the Nazi code and was later prosecuted for his homosexuality.  I think the social and historical significance of the story will appeal to the Academy.

What will win: “The Imitation Game”

What might win: “Whiplash,” though any of the nominees, aside from “Inherent Vice,” could spoil

What should win: “Whiplash”  (Again, I haven’t seen “American Sniper”)

THE IMITATION GAME

Best Original Screenplay Nominees:

“Birdman”

“Boyhood”

“Foxcatcher”

“The Grand Budapest Hotel”

“Nightcrawler”

This race is much stronger than Adapted Screenplay.  I think the Academy will go with “The Grand Budapest Hotel” for its dense plot, list of characters and memorable dialog.  Besides, Wes Anderson’s been nominated in this category a handful of times, and he’s carved out a loveable niche for himself in the industry.  Voters will want to honor that.

What will win: “The Grand Budapest Hotel”

What might win: “Birdman”

What should win: “The Grand Budapest Hotel”

Best Supporting Actress:

Emma Stone, “Birdman”

Patricia Arquette, “Boyhood”

Keira Knightley, “The Imitation Game”

Meryl Streep, “Into the Woods”

Laura Dern, “Wild”

This one pretty safely belongs to Patricia Arquette.  “Boyhood” ain’t going home empty-handed, and hers is a great performance.  She closes strong as well, her final scene a stirring monolog about expectation and how quickly time flies.

Who will win: Patricia Arquette, “Boyhood”

Who might win: No really, take Arquette to the bank as well.

Who should win: Patricia Arquette, “Boyhood”

Best Supporting Actor Nominees:

Edward Norton, “Birdman”

Ethan Hawke, “Boyhood”

Mark Ruffalo, “Foxcatcher”

Robert Duvall, “The Judge”

J.K. Simmons, “Whiplash”

J.K. Simmons is a beloved character actor, he played a juicy role, he’s won every precursor under the sun, and he’s in a Best Picture nominee. Let’s just say the Academy will be playing to his tempo.

Who will win: J. K. Simmons, “Whiplash”

Who might win: If it’s anyone else, they risk having a cymbal thrown at their head.

Who should win: Edward Norton, “Birdman”

Best Foreign Language Film:

“Ida”

“Leviathan”

“Tangerines”

“Timbuktu”

“Wild Tales”

What will win: “Ida”

What might win: “Wild Tales”

ida-smaller

Best Animated Feature:

“Big Hero 6”

“The Boxtrolls”

“How to Train Your Dragon 2”

“Song of the Sea”

“The Tale of the Princess Kaguya”

What will win: “How to Train Your Dragon 2”

What might win: “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya”

Best Documentary Feature:

“Citizenfour”

“Finding Vivian Maier”

“Last Days in Vietnam”

“The Salt of the Earth”

“Virunga”

What will win: “Citizenfour”

What might win: “Finding Vivian Maier”

Best Cinematography Nominees:

“Birdman”

“The Grand Budapest Hotel”

“Ida”

“Mr. Turner”

“Unbroken”

What will win: “Birdman”

What might win: “The Grand Budapest Hotel”

Best Editing Nominees:

“American Sniper”

“Boyhood”

“The Grand Budapest Hotel”

“The Imitation Game”

“Whiplash”

What will win: “Boyhood”

What might win: “Whiplash”

boyhood-smaller

Best Production Design Nominees:

“The Grand Budapest Hotel”

“The Imitation Game”

“Interstellar”

“Into the Woods”

“Mr. Turner”

What will win: “The Grand Budapest Hotel”

What might win: “Into the Woods”

Best Costume Design Nominees:

“The Grand Budapest Hotel”

“Inherent Vice”

“Into the Woods”

“Maleficent”

“Mr. Turner”

What will win: “The Grand Budapest Hotel”

What might win: “Into the Woods”

Best Original Score Nominees:

“The Grand Budapest Hotel”

“The Imitation Game”

“Interstellar”

“Mr. Turner”

“The Theory of Everything”

What will win: “The Theory of Everything”

What might win: “The Grand Budapest Hotel”

Best Original Song Nominees:

“Lost Stars” from “Begin Again”

“Grateful” from “Beyond the Lights”

“I’m Not Gonna Miss You” from “Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me”

“Everything is Awesome” from “The Lego Movie”

“Glory” from “Selma”

What will win: “Glory” from “Selma”

What might win: “Everything is Awesome” from “The Lego Movie”

selma

Best Sound Mixing Nominees:

“American Sniper”

“Birdman”

“Interstellar”

“Unbroken”

“Whiplash”

What will win: “Whiplash”

What might win: “American Sniper”

Best Sound Editing Nominees:

“American Sniper”

“Birdman”

“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies”

“Interstellar”

“Unbroken”

What will win: “American Sniper”

What might win: “Birdman”

Best Makeup and Hairstyling Nominees:

“Foxcatcher”

“The Grand Budapest Hotel”

“Guardians of the Galaxy”

What will win: “The Grand Budapest Hotel”

What might win: “Guardians of the Galaxy”

Best Visual Effects Nominees:

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier”

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”

“Guardians of the Galaxy”

“Interstellar”

“X-Men: Days of Future Past”

cosmic vista

What will win: “Interstellar”

What might win: “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”

What do you think is going to win at this year’s Academy Awards?  Comment below!

Trust me. I’m the Doctor.

Ever have a case of the Mondays?  If you live in Los Angeles, there’s an antidote for that.  A good friend of mine, Brian Saa (he’s the guy below who’s not James Corden), organizes a Doctor Who Happy Hour called Gallidays.  It’s a spin on Gallifrey, which is the home world of the titular character.  On the first Monday of every month, District Pub in North Hollywood hosts a screening of an episode with drink specials.

Brian Saa

For those who don’t know, “Doctor Who” is a BBC show that has aired off and on (mostly on) since 1963.  The premise: a Time Lord explores time and space in his TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space), which happens to look like a police box.  The Doctor embarks on adventures with a companion, always a young woman from Earth.  And he can regenerate…which is how the series has lasted and why so many actors have played the character.

TARDIS smaller

Both Brian and I came to the show through our mutual friend, Ben.  He’s contributed to the blog on a couple occasions (click here for our discussion of “Guardians of the Galaxy” and here for some of his favorite Mystery Science Theater episodes).  Ben devised a road map for Doctor Who virgins.  It starts with the first season that starred Matt Smith (Series Five*).  Ben programs a few early detours through some of the best episodes, including “Blink” and the two-part “Silence in the Library”/ “Forest of the Dead.”  I’ve been in hot water with some Whovians for not starting with Series One, which featured Christopher Eccleston in his only collection of episodes.  Having gone back to it, though, I question whether I would have made it to Matt Smith’s run as the Doctor.

Brian started Gallidays in June of 2014.  On February 2nd, it reached record participation with 80+ attendees.  Did I mention James Corden was there?  (He’s the star of February’s episode “The Lodger”, “Into the Woods” and the newest host for “The Late Late Show.”)  Brian’s done giveaways as well as photo and costume contests.  He even organized a toy drive benefitting Children’s Hospital LA.

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So if you live in the Los Angeles area and you’re free on March 2nd, c’mon up to District Pub at 5249 Lankershim Boulevard and enjoy a few drinks with “The Bells of Saint John.”

Trust me, I’m the Doctor.

doctor thumbs

* The show went on hiatus between 1989 and 2005, and the newest block of seasons are actually called series.

Biggest Surprises and Discoveries of 2014

Last week’s post was a bit of a downer, so how ‘bout a positive spin on 2014? Here are some surprises and discoveries I had at the movies last year…

Mica Levi’s score for “Under the Skin”

It might be the most terrifying movie music since Kubrick borrowed the work of György Ligeti for “The Shining.”  The film’s about an alien entity (Scarlett Johansson) with nefarious intent.  Non-traditional scores are popular right now, and Levi’s atonal work fits the bill.  It would be a disservice to put her music into words, but, appropriately, there are stretches that sound like an insect barreling down a highway.  It’s difficult to imagine Jonathan Glazer’s nightmarish landscape sounding any other way.

Carrie Coon in “Gone Girl”

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Prior to David Fincher’s “Gone Girl,” I had never seen Carrie Coon on screen.  While certainly under duress — her brother (Ben Affleck) is being investigated for the disappearance of his wife — Coon might be the first “normal” person to inhabit a Fincher film.  His work is so often populated by misanthropes and nihilists, it’s rare to see someone so…personable.  And that’s not a backhanded compliment.  In a book-length interview for Cameron Crowe, Billy Wilder explains that one of the most difficult things for an actor to do is captivate while “being everyday.”

Jake Gyllenhaal in “Nightcrawler”

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Jake Gyllenhaal is a fine actor, but I’ve always been able to see the gears turning.  He often falls back on ticks and other actorly crutches to make a performance feel “real.”  In many ways, he’s using those tricks in “Nightcrawler,” but they’ve never been more shocking or unsettling.  He plays an amateur videographer who prowls Los Angeles at night, looking for auto accidents or home invasions that he can record and sell to local news stations.  Like an alien himself — speaking of “Under the Skin” — Gyllenhaal’s interactions feel rehearsed and calculated, as though he learned how to relate to others from a book or website.  It’s a startling performance, one that left me appreciating the actor like I haven’t before.

“The Lego Movie”

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I don’t think I was more cynical about any project in 2014 than “The Lego Movie.”  It was released in the first quarter of the year — typically a dumping ground for studios — and it was based on a toy.  But this film by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller reminded me that a good movie can come from anywhere.  Thematically deep and infectiously entertaining, it’s saturated with jokes, gags and pratfalls…and virtually all of them land.  And the voice cast is superb — it even includes some actors, Morgan Freeman and Liam Neeson, who aren’t normally associated with comedy.

What were some of your biggest surprises and discoveries of 2014?  Comment below!