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.

Review: “Hannibal” (Seasons 1 and 2)

If you’re like me, you’re a little nervous about projects that involve Dr. Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter.  Don’t get me wrong, “The Silence of the Lambs” was an integral part of my development as a film nerd, but “Hannibal” and “Red Dragon?”  Not so much.  I didn’t even bother with “Hannibal Rising.”  Between the sequel and two prequels, it seemed the boogeyman of my teenage years had been whittled down to a punch line.

Well, until now.

hannibal and skull

Bryan Fuller’s “Hannibal,” which is based on the book by Thomas Harris and has its third season premiering tonight on NBC, brings the character back to his menacing roots.  A far cry from the grubby realism of Jonatham Demme’s “Lambs,” the show adopts a surrealist approach.  This is evident from the very first scene of the first episode, where Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) investigates a murder.  Gifted — or cursed — with hyper empathy, Will’s able to see into the scene of a crime.  He assesses what was done and how.  We watch as a pool of blood retracts into the victim and breath re-enters her body, only to see her killed again, Will standing in as the murderer.

This approach is pretty unique, particularly for network television, and it feels wholly appropriate for a franchise in which one character convinced another to swallow his own tongue.  Will’s visions fuel some of the show’s creepier images.  His relationship with Hannibal is visualized as a black stag — a motif that’s poignantly used in the final moments of Season 2.  Will sees Hannibal himself as a Wendigo, a half-man-half-stag.  One of the show’s more chilling (and darkly comic) moments comes when Will envisions the Wendigo taking the stand in a courtroom.

wendigo

Speaking of unsettling, Brian Reitzell’s Ligeti-inspired score is a real highlight.

But let’s get to the main event: Mads Mikkelsen as Dr. Lecter.  I’d only seen Mikkelsen as one of the baddies in “Casino Royale,” but he’s a revelation!  His Hannibal is harder to read than Hopkins’s, playing his cards close to his chest while secretly making his puppets dance a sick charade.  Like many great monsters, he’s got a hell of an introduction.  At its worst — which is still better than most — “Hannibal” is a standard procedural complete with wise-cracking investigators, but the titular character’s reveal halfway through the first episode was the moment I went all in.

One of the series’s real strengths is the pairing of Hannibal and Will.  Dr. Lecter has a deep fascination with this man who’s become his patient, and Will’s hyper empathy allows him to appreciate Hannibal’s eccentricities.  There’s almost a romantic edge to their relationship, and I love how it takes on tragic dimensions by the end of the second season.

will and hannibal

The main thing I could see driving viewers away is the gore.  While there are passages that make “Silence of the Lambs” look like Disney, I’m not sure the squeamish would come to the show in the first place.  And the carnage is displayed…dare I say it…beautifully.  Most striking might be a human totem pole discovered on a beach in season one.

totem pole

Also, the food cinematography, disturbing as that sounds, is sensational.

“Hannibal” struggles with ratings — maybe because of its violent content or surrealist approach — but I sincerely hope you’ll check it out.  At the risk of fanboying, I’m so glad this show exists.  Not only is its non-traditional approach a breath of fresh air, but its revitalization of a pummeled pop culture icon is really exciting.

So long as you have the stomach for it.

Review: “Avengers: Age of Ultron”

Marvel fans will assemble — heh, heh — at theaters this weekend for the hotly anticipated sequel to 2012’s “The Avengers.”  So the big question on everyone’s lips, metallic or otherwise: Can “Age of Ultron” live up to its predecessor?

Well…not quite.

But that’s okay.

avengers banner

The film opens with the Avengers — Steve Rogers’s Captain America, Tony Stark’s Iron Man, Natasha Romanoff’s Black Widow, Bruce Banner’s Hulk, Clint Barton’s Hawkeye and Thor’s…uh…Thor — attempting to recover Loki’s scepter from a Hydra base in Europe.  There we’re introduced to the brother-sister pairing of super-fast Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and telekinetic Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen), their powers the result of Hydra’s experiments.

Avengers-2-Quicksilver-Scarlet-Witch-645x370

After recovering the scepter, Tony (Robert Downey Jr.) and Bruce (Mark Ruffalo) use it to secretly develop an A.I. that will bolster a robotic defense system to supplant the Avengers.  Tony envisions a suit of armor around the world.  He calls it the Ultron program.  Once activated, Ultron (voiced by James Spader) decides to push his maker’s agenda to the nth degree:  the only way to save the planet is to eliminate the human race.

The first act of “Ultron” left me worried.  Despite the use of some CG-enhanced long takes, there’s very little sense of geography in the opening sequence.  The storytelling is more convoluted this time out.  (Seriously, my eyes went crossed writing those last couple paragraphs.)  We suffer through some pretty knotty exposition.  More than once, I found myself going Wait, who’s that?  Am I supposed to know this character?  Where’s so-and-so now?  Still, writer-director Joss Whedon weaves in some wonderful setup.  My favorite instance involves a pissing contest over Thor’s hammer.  Tony, Steve and Bruce try to lift it in an effort to prove themselves worthy.  The payoff to this is hugely satisfying and a great development at a critical juncture for our heroes.

The new additions to the Marvel Cinematic Universe are mostly strong.  This is the best Elizabeth Olsen has been since her acclaimed performance in “Martha Marcy May Marlene.”  Aaron Taylor-Johnson is sleepy as ever, but his screen time is short and lines of dialog even shorter.  Ultron is one of studio’s best villains, though the competition is admittedly light.  I enjoyed Spader’s dulcet tones as Ultron cracks wise – “I wanted to take this time to explain my evil plan” – though he does tend to prattle on.

Ultron

And yes, he’s involved in another destroy-the-world plot.  Think about successful sequels like “Skyfall” and “The Empire Strikes Back.”  No fights for world domination, no planet-destroying battle stations.  Just personal struggles that make the stakes that much higher.

But “Ultron” isn’t without those intimate dramas.  There’s an attraction between Natasha and Bruce.  Though it’s pretty standard path – unfortunately, as Black Widow is the series’ most prominent female — the forbidden love angle works.  With the monster that rages inside him, Bruce is reluctant to let anyone get too close.  We also learn about Pietro and Wanda’s troubled past, which complicates their relationship to the Avengers.

Like many second chapters – I’m looking at you again, “Empire” – this one’s darker than the first.  Literally.  Ben Davis’s cinematography brings shadows into the frame, which are a nice change of pace from the brightly lit and generally flat “Avengers.”  Even the action feels heavier this time what with the percussive editing…though it can get tedious.  Crash!  Bang!  Repeat.  One sequence that benefits from the strategy is the fight between Hulk and a souped-up Iron Man.  To borrow from another comic book movie, this is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object.

The film isn’t all doom and gloom.  Whedon’s wit is as sharp as ever.  In one of the more comical scenes, Hawkeye embraces the absurdity that super hero movies traffic in: “We’re fighting a robot army, and I’ve got a bow and arrow.  None of this makes sense!”  Renner has a lot more to work with than he has in other Marvel outings.  Fans of Whedon’s “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer” might see parallels to Xander.  I certainly did. Hawkeye is a normal person amidst Gods (and some with God-like egos).  It affords him an opportunity to see things the others can’t.

Despite not being as strong as “The Avengers,” “Age of Ultron” is a very successful sequel.  It expands on the universe, introduces new characters, develops old ones and, per usual with Marvel, sets up things to come.

Review: “Daredevil” (First Season)

Warning: controversial statement ahead!  Marvel’s “Daredevil” owes a lot to The Dark Knight Trilogy, but it might just surpass its gritty, real-world super hero predecessor.  Christopher Nolan’s Batman films have trouble blending the filmmaker’s darker impulses with the expectations of a huge blockbuster.  As a series not even intended for network or cable TV, creator Drew Goddard’s latest is free from those constraints.  It rubs the viewer’s face in the muck of New York City, questioning the nature of vigilante justice: how far is too far?

daredevilheader

The first season draws on familiar tropes.  From the outset, we know that a childhood tragedy resulted in Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) losing his sight and set him on the path to become the titular hero.  Flashforward to the present and Matt is in confession.  He recalls his father, a boxer, and stories his grandmother told of the Murdock boys.  They were headstrong and relentless, they refused to go down without a fight – “there was a bit of devil in them.”  Matt asks the priest for forgiveness, “not for what I’ve done, but for what I’m about to do.”  Cox is strong in the role.  He’s a man with a smooth exterior, but there’s a lot of anger roiling under the surface.

Daredevil-Charlie-Cox

The violence in the show is stomach churning – decapitation by car door, anyone? – but never gratuitous.  It demonstrates why this type of vigilante justice might be warranted; yet it also acknowledges the cost.  Murdoch’s wounds need more than ice packs and band-aids.  A nurse (Rosario Dawson) is regularly stitching him up.  What kind of man would subject himself to this kind of bodily punishment?

Duality between the hero and villain: it’s not just a staple of comics but crime stories as well.  The villain here is Wilson Fisk.  In his early scenes, actor Vincent D’Onofrio commands empathy.  We meet him at an art gallery as he admires a painting.  In the next episode, we watch him squirm through a first date.  Then we see the consequences of his child-like outbursts, a notion underscored by Fisk’s own backstory and the juvenile gestures he often makes when he’s nervous.  Memorable villains have been a struggle for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but they may just have found one for the small screen.

wilson_fisk_daredevil

The series has a strong visual signature.  Where most of Marvel’s big screen work is lit very flatly (high key lighting for the filmmakers among you), “Daredevil” takes the opposite approach.  Shadows are deep and plentiful, but the show doesn’t sacrifice color.  Matt starts a law firm and invites a client (Deborah Ann Woll) to his apartment after she’s been attacked.  He lives next to an electronic billboard  that floods his home with purple-pink light.  It’s the only reason he’s able to afford the apartment – no one else wants it – but it’s one of my favorite visual flourishes, creating a safe haven.

daredevil apartment

“Daredevil” is a nice alternative to the safe albeit fun sandbox that Marvel usually offers its viewers. It even bests some of the genre’s more grounded and serious entries thanks to its moral complexity and genuine stakes.

Have you seen Marvel’s “Daredevil?” What did you think? Comment below. If you haven’t seen it, the show is available on Netflix Streaming. Check it out!

Review: “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night”

Like it or not, the success of “Twilight” brought a resurgence of all things vampire.  From the multiplex (“Dracula Untold”) to the art house (“Let the Right One In”) to television (“True Blood”)…they saturate our culture.  Talk about the undead!  It would be easy to say Die already, vamps! were it not for signs of life like Ana Lily Amirpour’s “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.”

A girl walks home alone poster

A young man, Arash (Arash Marandi) and his heroin-addicted father are preyed upon by a local drug dealer.  That is, until the drug dealer has a run in with the titular vampire (Sheila Vand).  The Girl — that’s how she’s referred to in the credits — has her sights set on more than just the neighborhood underworld.  In one of the movie’s most chilling scenes (and a great twist on standard gender roles), she menaces a mischievous young boy.  “Have you been good?” she snarls in his ear.  After the boy flees, she commandeers his skateboard and rolls down the center of a desolate street, her lonely eyes gazing up at the lights.

A girl on skateboard

Produced in Southern California but set in a fictional Iranian ghost town called Bad City, “A Girl Walks Home Alone” has a number of interesting dichotomies.  Indeed, none more than Vand in the main role.  She’s a real marvel in the way she balances sad and sinister.  We meet her, listless, sitting alone in her apartment, listening to music.  We don’t yet know she’s a vampire, but her small frame belies a real ferocity.  When she’s on, she’s unblinking and invasive.  She leans forward and imposes herself on the other actors like a cobra lording over its prey.  When the Girl meets Arash at a party, he’s dressed as Dracula.  Not knowing how she’d react had me on edge.  The character is great for creating that kind of tension.

Ca-agirlwalkhome-e

The film isn’t heavy on plot or narrative.  The more languid passages, characters searching for connection in a lonely town, recall the work of Jim Jarmusch.  (Just last year, Jarmusch took a stab at the vampire genre with “Only Lovers Left Alive.”  It was set in another ghost town known as Detroit.)  Like that indie filmmaker’s early work, ”A Girl…” was shot in gloomy black and white.  Amidst a dilapidated landscape, Director of Photography Lyle Vincent’s 2.35:1 compositions serve to isolate the characters.  The film feels like a Western with its barren and wind-swept streets, making the need for human connection that much greater.

Even if kinship isn’t always in the characters’ best interest.

Have you seen “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night?” Comment Below!

If you haven’t, check it out! It’s available on iTunes.

Review: “It Follows”

“It Follows” opens wide this weekend, and what follows is my review.  No real spoilers, especially if you’ve seen the trailer, but if you wanna remain completely in the dark — so creepy! — see the film first.

I’m a little reluctant to compare new films to seminal pieces of work.  “‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ is the new ‘Star Wars!’”  Who wants that kinda baggage?  These things need time.  Well how about this: “It Follows” ain’t “Jaws” or “Psycho,” but it might just do for strangers what those films did for beaches and hotels.  You may find yourself keeping a safe distance from everyone as you leave the theater.

It-Follows-poster

The second feature from writer-director David Robert Mitchell, “It Follows” is about Jay (Maika Monroe), a young woman who finds herself pursued by an evil specter.  After having sex with Hugh (Jake Weary), he takes her to an abandoned building and ties her to a wheelchair.  In one of the film’s more harrowing passages, Hugh explains that he’s passed this entity on to her.  She’ll start to see someone following her, and this thing is only visible to those who’ve been afflicted.  It can look like anyone — a complete stranger or even a friend.  (Strangely, the film doesn’t mine the latter as much as it could.)  It moves at a walking pace, but if it catches her, it will kill her.  Jay’s best bet is to pass the curse on to someone else.

Mitchell wears his influences on his sleeve, and there’s a lot to appreciate for horror aficionados.  The basic premise, a quiet neighborhood under threat, brings to mind…well, any number of slashers from the 70s and 80s.  Disasterpeace’s nerve-jangling synth score recalls John Carpenter.  Like so many horror films from generations past, this one could be read as a cautionary tale about adolescent sex.  (“Cautionary” is a strong word — I don’t think it’s the first or even twenty-first concern for Mitchell.  But it’s certainly a clever nod.)  Even the persistence of the threat reminded me of Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers, slowly stalking their prey and eventually catching up with them despite their best — okay, sometimes not-so-best — efforts.

Above all, Mitchell brings an understanding of how to use the frame.  What’s in it and what’s out — that’s really a bedrock of cinema and especially horror.  An oft-cited shot from this film is one where the camera turns 720 degrees.  Jay and a friend are at Hugh’s former high school trying to track him down.  The camera remains outside the office as they consult a secretary.  It turns to reveal a series of windows looking onto the lawn.  Students walk back and forth, but one off in the distance seems to be headed straight for us.  Then the camera passes over an empty hallway and back to the office — they’re still talking to the secretary — and then we’re looking out the windows again.

That student is closer.

When we get back to the office, the bell rings.  We hear doors open, and I started to worry that it would sneak up on Jay in the crowd.  The threat in this film could come from anywhere.  It’s one that the director puzzlingly undercuts a few times by depicting the entity with cheap ghoulish makeup.  More often than not, creepy makeup isn’t creepy.  And I’m sure going to avoid someone who looks half-dead.  But a student in a crowd of students?  Anyone would be a goner.

So much of what’s done with the camera involves smooth and elegant movement, but one of my favorite flourishes involves Mitchell and cinematographer Mike Gioulakis strapping it to the wheelchair that Jay is tied to such that the lens is pointing back at the actress.  She struggles against her restraints, and the whole frame rattles.  It’s used to great effect when she and Hugh are being pursued by the specter in an abandoned building.  As he hurriedly pushes her toward the exit, the camera bounces around her terror stricken face and the dark figure in the background.  It’s as though the whole frame might collapse.

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Maika Monroe is really strong in the main role.  There’s a wistful quality to her performance, particularly during the first act.  Once the shit hits the fan, she plays horror with the best of them.  You’re really in her corner, which is why it’s disappointing when the film takes a turn in the second half.  By then, many of the characters have come down with stupid decision-itis, which is a disease prevalent in the horror genre wherein people on screen lose the ability to make rational decisions.  Their actions don’t come from a place of logic, they come from a need to set up more scares.  And this is never more prevalent than in the film’s climax.  I’m going to try and remain spoiler-free, but I really don’t know what the characters intended or what they thought would happen in that scene.

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Even if David Robert Mitchell leaves some scares on the table, “It Follows” is an enviable horror film.  Enviable in the way that it constructs, for the most part, empathetic characters.  Enviable in the way it eschews gore and cheap tricks to make us shiver.  And, most of all, enviable in the way that it uses the camera to instill fear.

But don’t worry, you’ll be fine.

Just don’t go anywhere with only one exit.

What did you think of “It Follows?”  Comment below!

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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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”

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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”

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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”

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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”

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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!