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The Conversations: Jaws

Its sensational content aside, Jaws doesn’t have a whole lot in common with what we now think of as summer blockbusters.

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The Conversations: Jaws

Ed Howard: The sudden resolution at the end of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is one of those great, absurd movie moments that makes me really giddy, that never fails to put a grin on my face. It’s a (literally) explosive climax to a film that, despite its reputation as a nonstop fright-fest, isn’t liberal with these kinds of grand, cathartic gestures. I realize that’s maybe an odd thing to say about a movie that’s credited with being one of the very first summer blockbusters. In 1975, buoyed by a massive national marketing campaign and one of the earliest applications of the “wide release” distribution strategy, Jaws quickly achieved unprecedented commercial success, becoming the highest grossing film of all time. Although Jaws’ record was surpassed just two years later by George Lucas’ Star Wars, another harbinger of a changing Hollywood, the success of Spielberg’s film was a big factor in shifting movie distribution from slow release patterns and word-of-mouth hype to huge marketing pushes and national saturation.

In retrospect, Jaws the film (as opposed to its marketing) is an unlikely candidate for such an important place in movie history. It is a thrilling, scary, often darkly funny movie, a great and entertaining movie, but its sensational content aside, it doesn’t have a whole lot in common with what we now think of as summer blockbusters: grandiose effects spectacles with massive budgets, amped up as loud and fast as possible. In comparison, Jaws feels like a very classical film, a taut thriller where the first half is a succession of build-and-release suspense/horror sequences, and the second half is exclusively about three men in a boat, alternately bullshitting in the cabin and chasing a killer shark. The special effects are rough, the shark is often unconvincing, and indeed Spielberg and his crew were plagued with problems involving the mechanical sharks. The effects limitations led to what turned out to be a brilliant aesthetic as well as practical decision: the shark is often not shown, especially in the first half, where the briefest glimpses of a fin or a tooth-filled maw, coupled with indirect evidence of the beast’s viciousness and tremendous size, are sufficient to induce dizzying terror.

This is a long way from Transformers: technologically of course, but also in spirit. Although Jaws wound up ushering in an era where bloody, explosive spectacles dominate the summer moviegoing season, Spielberg’s film is clearly working on a much smaller scale. The film is rooted in Hollywood classicism, populated with idiosyncratic characters who have plenty of room to speak and interact in between the action/horror set pieces. About the closest the film comes to modern blockbuster territory is the improbable mayhem of the climax, but by that point a moment of excess after two hours of simmering tension and restraint feels more than earned. That climax can still make me giddy, over thirty-five years after the film debuted, because it’s a true catharsis, a product of an era before blockbuster filmmakers strove to make every moment seem cathartic and overpowering. Unlike successors that pummel viewers with nonstop “thrills” for two hours or more, Jaws modulates its violence and action with Hitchcockian suspense and quiet character moments, and as a result its bigger notes (like that irresistibly grin-inducing final showdown) hit that much harder.

Jason Bellamy: I see where you’re coming from. Thirty-five years after its release, the effects of Jaws are glaringly dated, but the effect of Jaws remains vital. There are numerous reasons for this, and the Hollywood classicism is just one of them; also worthy of being mentioned up front are John Williams’ score, which in its own way might be the most powerful and iconic score in cinema history, and mankind’s timeless natural phobia of the ocean. (There’s a chicken-or-egg debate to be had when it comes to attributing our fear of sharks—did Jaws tap into it or create it?—but I think we’ve always been innately aware that man is a land animal by nature and that we’re vulnerable, in all sorts of ways, in water), and yet as far as Jaws feels from the Transformers series, I have no doubt that they’re related, because in the end this is an overpowering effects film, too.

As much as the brilliance of the suspense and horror are tied to what we don’t see, which was inspired at least in part by what Spielberg was too embarrassed to show us (the malfunctioning mechanical shark), Jaws is ultimately reliant upon its big whammy of a special effect: that massive shark head that chews through the stern of the Orca and then rams its way into the ship’s cabin. Spielberg gets a hell of a lot of mileage out of showing the effect of the shark without utilizing the shark effect itself, but for all of that foreplay to pay off, eventually he had to bring the suspense to climax by giving us a physical representation of the shark that lives up to all that is suggested by the scene in which the skinny-dipper is thrust around like a ragdoll, or the scene in which the dock is split in two, or the scene in which the shark manages to dive deep below the surface with three barrels harpooned into its skin. Without the mighty mechanical shark to provide the exclamation point, all of Spielberg’s much praised suspense would be nothing more than a run-on tease, or, worse, an unintentional joke.

Thus, to some degree what’s changed in the decades since Jaws premiered isn’t the blockbuster filmmaker’s need to fill the screen with incredible, impossible awesomeness so much as the amount of incredible, impossible awesomeness it takes to (metaphorically speaking) “fill the screen.” To put it another way, filmmakers like Michael Bay, Christopher Nolan and Roland Emmerich are adjusting for inflation. Whether that works is another matter. Indeed, as you implied, the typical modern blockbuster is so jammed with (supposed) awesomeness that it often throws off our sense of scale, allowing the extraordinary to become ordinary, which defeats the purpose. Still, there’s no denying that Jaws is like the modern blockbuster in at least one crucial way: it attempts to overpower us through an effect-based visual that in order to succeed must be awesome beyond the scale of our imagination.

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EH: What makes Jaws special, in my opinion, is the way it balances those (necessary and satisfying) sensational moments with more nuanced effects, effects that don’t require large-scale mechanical constructions or demolitions experts but are no less special. Spielberg’s first film, the made-for-TV thriller Duel, managed to create menace and foreboding from very little, using camera angles and judicious editing to frame an ordinary truck with an unseen driver as the terrifying embodiment of masculine violence and random destruction. Jaws has a more inherently frightening villain, but it similarly creates most of its effect through pure filmmaking bravado.

The opening sequence, after the credits, is a perfect example. The film begins with a gorgeous nighttime scene as a group of young summer tourists have a party around a fire on the beach. A guy and a girl catch each other’s eyes from across the campfire and run off across the dunes, the girl stripping in silhouette, laughing as she runs, the guy stumbling drunkenly after her. Anyone who’s seen a few horror or slasher movies know that only doom is awaiting them in the dark, as it always does for young people who run off into the night to have sex. The imagery is dim and shadowy, the dark blue of the sky blending into the denser darkness of the water, which could hide anything, but the mood of these opening scenes is initially as poetic as it is foreboding. The sight of the girl’s head bobbing in the water is chilling, as are the point-of-view shots from beneath the water. Those shots, ostensibly from the shark’s perspective, recall the underwater shots in Creature From the Black Lagoon, one obvious old Hollywood reference point for Spielberg’s film, announced right up front in these early scenes. As these moody images slowly lead towards the horrifying moment when the girl first feels a faint nibble below the water and then begins frantically thrashing around, John Williams’ infamous dun-dun-dun-dun-dun shark theme starts stealthily creeping into the music, increasing the sense of dread.

Later, the girl’s hand washes up on the beach, the first evidence of the shark that will soon terrorize the area, and Spielberg delivers a sensational closeup of the detached hand with crabs scuttling all over and around it, a horrifying image that reinforces the impact of the opening sequence. But Spielberg leads into this gory image patiently, with a shot of the police officer who’d discovered the hand, blowing a whistle to summon help. The whistle slides out of his slack mouth as he sits weakly in the sand, facing away from his discovery, which is hidden from the audience as well by the tall dune in the background. Spielberg understands that this shot, in which we feel the horror through the policeman’s reaction without knowing precisely what he’d found, is just as important as the explicit closeup that follows, if not even more so.

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JB: That’s very true. And it leads us to what I think is the biggest difference between Jaws and the modern blockbuster: its recognition of the significance of the loss of human life. Consider for starters that you can count on one hand the human deaths in Jaws: 1) Crissy, the skinny-dipper at the outset; 2) Alex Kintner, the boy on the inflatable raft; 3) Ben Gardner (memorably discovered after the fact); 4) the guy in the dinghy on “the pond”; and 5) Quint (Robert Shaw), the film’s Captain Ahab, whose death seems inevitable from the very start. That’s it and that’s all. Five deaths. That’s all it takes for “Jaws,” the shark, to be one of the most fearsome monsters in movie history, and it takes less than half that for the shark to be monstrous: other than the town’s mayor and the touchingly fearless kids, no one in the quaint beach village of Amity is too crazy about going in the water after Crissy’s and Alex’s deaths—and it’s Crissy’s death alone that sends this story into motion and the water-phobic police chief, Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), into panic mode. By today’s blockbuster standards, five deaths isn’t the sum of the carnage; it’s the remainder of a much larger equation.

And yet what’s so striking about Jaws isn’t the modesty (in number) of the carnage. It’s the sincerity of the horror that the carnage creates. When the police deputy, who in appearance and slumped posture in that early scene always reminds me a bit of John Cazale, comes across what’s left of Crissy, yes, his crumpled reaction beautifully heightens the tension of the reveal, as you noted, but it also reminds us of the significance of Crissy’s death. A shark has taken a beautiful young woman and shredded a night of (quasi)innocence into gruesome death and dismemberment. Through this single death, Jaws achieves the kind of impact that the Transformers films level entire cities in search of. And why? Because Jaws doesn’t treat Crissy’s death as a prelude to or sideshow of tragedy. It treats it like a tragedy in its own right.

This appreciation of the significance of death is further reinforced by the scene in which Brody’s apparent triumph—some fishermen have captured what they believe to be the deadly shark—is undercut by the arrival of the second victim’s mother, Mrs. Kintner (Lee Fierro). Clad in black, apparently coming straight from the funeral, Mrs. Kintner walks through the parting crowd at the bustling dock and slaps Brody on the face, chastising him for allowing the beaches to stay open in the aftermath of the shark attack on Crissy, thus leading to the death of her son. Most films would be unlikely to include such a scene, but even fewer would allow Mrs. Kintner’s slap to linger like Spielberg does. In the next scene, we find Brody eating a quiet dinner with his wife, clearly overcome with guilt and shame. Make no mistake, Spielberg is accomplishing other things with these scenes, too. He’s increasing our terror. He’s bonding the audience with Brody. He’s increasing Brody’s personal investment in the shark hunt. And, true enough, later on Spielberg will quickly move on from the death of the man in the dinghy without pausing to reflect. Still, Jaws avoids treating its human victims like they are merely targets in a carnival shooting gallery, made for annihilation, as so many modern blockbusters do. In one scene, in fact, Brody walks past some kids on the boardwalk playing a video game in which they blast away at attacking sharks until their quarter runs out. That shot pretty well sums up the modern approach to blockbuster death and destruction, as well as Spielberg’s awareness that real killing is never that casual.

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EH: In that respect, it’s notable that when Mrs. Kintner slaps Brody, blaming him for the death of her son, he doesn’t protest but admits that yes, he does feel responsible. Spielberg doesn’t allow his hero to come out of this with completely clean hands; he knew that there was a shark in the water, and that it had killed someone already, but he caved to political pressure from above and went along with the alternate boating accident explanation. After Alex Kintner’s death, that slap resonates for quite a while, and so too does the mayor’s quiet, shamed admission that his own kids were also on the beach that day, a devastating admission that’s almost as affecting as Mrs. Kintner’s slap.

That scene on the docks, when the first shark is caught, is just so great in general. The mood is ostensibly celebratory, but it’s undercut not only by the lingering sadness of the two deaths so far, but also at a meta level by the knowledge that the movie has more or less just begun, so of course the actual killer shark is not dead. Spielberg cuts away from the dock celebration to Quint, pulling into the harbor on his own boat, laughing, as though to say, “Ha-ha you know the movie’s not over yet, right?” There’s a certain dark humor to this scene, in that the audience, merely by virtue of knowing they’re watching a movie, has access to information that the characters couldn’t possibly know. The characters, unaware they’re in a story, think that the threat has passed, and only Quint, with his knowing grin, seems to know that it can’t possibly be that easy.

As this scene shows, Jaws is distinguished not only by its serious approach to death but also by a balancing sense of playfulness that is often interwoven with the grimmer currents of the film. Even the scene where Alex Kintner dies displays Spielberg’s balance of seriousness and dark humor. The way he builds tension throughout this scene is almost playful and comical. Brody is on shore, intently watching the water, but he keeps getting interrupted by townspeople bothering him with petty troubles, to which he half-listens while craning his neck to look over the shoulders of the people he’s talking to. Out on the water, Spielberg cuts between multiple swimmers: a woman floating on her back, a couple wrestling and kissing, a dog paddling after a stick thrown by its owner, a kid on a flotation device (the doomed Alex), other kids splashing and screaming, attracting Brody’s nervous attention with each squeal or shout. The cutting is lively and playful, knowingly generating suspense that takes the form of a question: Who’s going to die? Is it this person? This one? This one? Is the shark going to appear now? Now? Now? Spielberg seems to be having fun drawing out the moment, engaging in some Hitchcockian manipulation, delivering multiple false scares before finally getting to the real deal. The scene is very complex in its tonal blend, with black humor running through the slowly building suspense, before the scene climaxes with bloody horror and then gives way to the sad aftermath.

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JB: Yeah, I think one of the big reasons that Jaws is so rewarding over multiple viewings is due to Spielberg’s ability to juggle so many seemingly converse moods so adeptly (Hitchcockian, indeed). People rarely refer to Jaws as a complex film—indeed, “complex” is a word that’s hardly ever applied to summer blockbusters, unless, as with Christopher Nolan’s Inception, narrative convolution is basically the point—but what Spielberg does here is really quite intricate. The scene of Brody sitting on the beach prior to Alex’s death is probably the best example. Each time someone passes in front of Brody — blocking his vision of the beach and our vision of Brody—the ensuing camera angle of Brody is tighter. All Scheider really has to do in this scene is look toward the beach, but the cinematography makes Brody’s tension palpable. And yet, like you said, humor is just a few beats away: the gray hump headed toward the woman floating on her back turns out to be an old man in a gray swim cap; a screaming woman turns out to be wrestling with her boyfriend; and so on. Back and forth it goes: tension and release, tension and release. At one point in the sequence, Brody has to crane his head to peek over the shoulder of one of the islanders, and in the reverse shot both the man in the foreground and the people frolicking in the water in the background, over the man’s shoulder, are in focus. In that shot, we fully sense Brody’s preoccupation with what’s happening in the ocean and the intensity of the distraction he feels from everyone else.

Brody is fearful. Of the water, we’re told, but it’s deeper than that. In some sense, Jaws is a study of the human response to danger and fear. There’s a terrific sequence in which Brody is flipping through a book, reading about sharks, and he is so absorbed by the images, so gripped with fear, that he leaps in surprise when his wife sits down beside him, which in turn startles her. Brody laughs at himself, at his fear, but when he hears that his son is playing on a small boat tied to the dock, his fear instantly returns. That’s where the scene really gets interesting. As Brody yells at his son to get away from the water, his fear seems unreasonable, overprotective, and we can sense that his wife thinks he’s overreacting. But then Brody’s wife casually opens his book, and the first image she sees is an illustration of a shark tearing into a small boat, and now she’s the one screaming at her son to get off the water. That sequence is principally designed for a laugh, but it’s deeper than that: the wife’s response perfectly exemplifies how quickly our sense of security can be shattered. Is her fear reasonable? In a sense, of course it is: a shark has killed someone. And yet, what is she responding to? Actual danger, or perceived danger created by an illustration in a book? Although the man-eating shark is real, what we see from the wife is typical fear of the unknown, wherein a lack of familiarity increases one’s level of distrust and paranoia.

Of course, lack of familiarity doesn’t always lead to fear. It can lead to foolish bravado, too. The reactions of Brody and his wife stand in contrast to that of Amity’s population of dick-measuring men, who respond to the shark hunt as if it’s a game, overloading small boats with men, guns and beer. They’re fearless, so long as the danger is abstract and unseen. But in a subsequent scene, Spielberg observes what happens when danger is imminent. When a dorsal fin crests the surface of the ocean near the beach, it’s every man, woman, and child for him or herself, as everyone in the water goes stampeding toward dry land, at one point knocking over and trampling a fully grown man. That the dorsal fin turns out to be made of cardboard, belonging to two snorkeling kids pulling a prank, further underscores what seems to be the film’s point: our emotional response to danger, our sense of fear or security, is often out of balance with the actual danger at hand.

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EH: That’s a good point. Back in our conversation about Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day, I suggested that really great horror movies don’t just provoke reactions of fear, they’re also about fear. You can see that in Jaws in the way that Spielberg cleverly manipulates the audience’s fear so that sometimes we’re responding to genuine threats and sometimes it’s not so clear. The dorsal fin prank is a good example, especially since it’s immediately followed with a scene in which the real shark’s fin appears, heading towards “the pond” to threaten Brody’s kids. I love that shot of the fake shark fin unobtrusively appearing in the background behind two bathers; it’s so casual that it takes a moment or two to even register, and when it does it’s utterly chilling, a moment of surreal calm before the chaos begins. Once again, there’s some meta gamesmanship going on here: the people on the beach respond more slowly to the second threat because, having been pranked already, now they’re suspicious of being fooled a second time. But the audience’s reaction is the opposite, partly because we know how narrative works: the second shark fin is unlikely to be another prank because that would be narratively pointless, whereas following a fake scare with a real one is a common horror movie device. Once again, Spielberg uses such extra-filmic knowledge to place the audience a few beats ahead of the characters in the film, ramping the levels of fear up and down as though he’s conducting an orchestra of emotions.

You’re right that this film is about fear and the loss of security. Sometimes the tension builds only to be released, generating fear from the unseen shark and then refusing to resolve the tension, letting the fear of the unknown linger. At one point, two local fishermen try to catch the shark by leaving a hunk of meat dangling in the water off a dock. Predictably, the dock gets pulled apart and one fisherman falls into the water, desperately struggling to make it back ashore ahead of the shark. A large fragment of the dock floats along in his wake, presumably pulled by the shark that’s chasing him, and the editing emphasizes that this is a chase sequence, with the detached piece of dock standing in for the unseen shark the same way Quint’s yellow barrels will in the film’s second half. We can’t see the shark, so watching the dock float along the surface, growing closer and closer to the floundering man, we can only assume that the shark is closing in and will soon devour yet another hapless victim. But then the man makes it back up onto the dock, after multiple shots of his feet dangling tantalizingly in the water or just above it, and the dock floats harmlessly back to shore nearby, seemingly pulled only by the tide. The scene ends with an unspoken question, leaving it ambiguous whether the shark was ever chasing the fisherman or if it had simply slipped off to sea again after tearing the dock apart.

This scene underscores just how much of the film’s effect depends on the viewer’s imagination, tweaked and manipulated by Spielberg: a shark could pop up at any moment, but just as often the threat fails to materialize. As you say, the men of Amity don’t fear the shark as long as it remains abstract and unseen, but Spielberg counters their unwarranted confidence with the idea that sometimes we most fear precisely those things which are unseen and unknown. The unknown often provokes anxiety and uncertainty, and Jaws remains so destabilizing because it’s never certain if and when the shark is lurking in the water nearby. As viewers, we often have to rely on indirect clues to guess at the shark’s presence, like a fin sticking out of the water or something being pulled along in the water by the shark below, but Spielberg takes care to include scenes that call into question such indirect evidence. The film is about the ways in which fears can be amplified and warped by the imagination, which inevitably leaps to wilder and wilder conclusions when confronted with an unseen, unpredictable threat. Much of the film’s first half is about misdirection, making our fears turn out to be foolish or exaggerated in comparison to what actually happens. And then, when the tremendous shark finally begins appearing with its gaping jaws and huge head, Spielberg suggests that sometimes our fears do come true, sometimes the monsters of our imaginations might make the leap into terrifying reality.

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JB: That brings us back to the shark itself, the malfunctioning contraption that Spielberg famously nicknamed Bruce, after his lawyer. We’ve already touched on how the clumsiness of the shark encouraged Spielberg to predominantly rely on mystery rather than spectacle, but the primitiveness of the mechanical monster had another significant effect, too, in that its limited maneuverability also forced Spielberg to slow down the action in a way that amplifies the film’s horror. Judging by most modern blockbusters, you’d think “slow” and “action” are mutually exclusive qualities, but Jaws proves that they aren’t. Indeed, there’s something absolutely chilling about the casualness with which the shark haunts, hunts and harms, the best example being the attack on the man at the pond, when in a terrific bird’s-eye-view shot we see the shark approach the man from below, its mouth open, its pace unhurried, its target obvious. The shark doesn’t thrust itself at its prey. Rather, it recognizes it has the upper hand and proceeds accordingly, less a high-strung velociraptor in Jurassic Park than an eerily calm Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men. On the most basic level, this restrained pace has the benefit of ensuring that the action is comprehensible, and that’s no small thing (after seeing the trailer for the most recent Transformers film, I marvel that the series’s fans can apparently tell the difference between the good bots and the bad bots during fight scenes where all I see are tumbling scrap heaps). But beyond that, the slowness of the shark’s actions enhances our awareness of its primal indomitability. This is a shark that sits at the top of the food chain and knows no fear. To borrow from Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, when I see this shark slowly opening its mouth to snare the boater, or casually lifting its head to eye Brody as he throws chum into the ocean, “I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy; I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature.”

And that leads us to the film’s almost excruciating realism. Certainly it’s a stretch when near the end of the film the shark leaps onto the Orca’s stern and, in one motion, starts it sinking, but when I say that Jaws has excruciating realism, I’m not so much referring to what is or isn’t possible or even plausible. Instead, I’m referring to the way Spielberg grounds this film in reality. For instance, the second time Brody flips through his shark book, Spielberg alternates between shots of Brody looking at the book (its pages reflected in his glasses) and the book itself, which includes photographs of actual sharks and the aftermath of actual shark attacks, the most gruesome image being the last one: a thigh with a healthy arching bite out of it. Later, when Richard Dreyfuss’ Matt Hooper enters a cage and descends into the ocean, Spielberg inserts a few tight shots of actual sharks, which allow him to get around the clumsiness of “Bruce.” And in between, Robert Shaw captivates when Quint tells the true-to-life story (embellished, of course, as are all fish tales) of the USS Indianapolis, which was torpedoed by the Japanese in World War II, leading an unknown number of momentary survivors to be attacked and killed by sharks. In these scenes, and others, many of which were shot on an actual ocean, Spielberg continually reinforces the idea that this could happen, that this shark isn’t larger than life but simply really fucking big. So many modern blockbusters thrive on escapism. Jaws comes at us from the opposite direction, as Spielberg does his best to blur the line between fiction and reality until, at least momentarily, we can’t tell the difference between them.

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EH: That’s a telling line, because in so many ways Jaws is very far from realistic. We may see the “overwhelming indifference of nature” in the shark’s unblinking eyes and stiff, inexorable movements, but in fact it’s so blank and unfeeling because it’s not alive at all, just a poor facsimile of the real thing. The film is not so much realistic as it is physical; its effects are rooted in tangible reality rather than existing solely in a computer, as the shark doubtless would be were the film made now.

More importantly, what’s realistic about the film is the way people react to the threat of this not-so-realistic shark, and the way they interact with one another. Shaw’s Indianapolis monologue is riveting, but it’s not the only example of the film’s surprising facility for non-shark character-building. The entire second half of the film shifts the focus away from the seaside community besieged by the shark, and onto the three men who go out onto the ocean to kill the creature: Quint, Hooper and Brody. After the first half of the film establishes the stakes of the shark threatening this small tourism-focused community, the cast is whittled down to three men whose archetypal character traits complement each other: the grizzled veteran tough guy, the intellectual eager to prove himself, and the reluctant authority figure. The film becomes all about not only their attempts to kill the shark but about their interactions and the ways in which they come to respect and admire each other.

Late last year, Adam Zanzie wrote about Jurassic Park, claiming that it was Spielberg’s Howard Hawks movie, specifically comparing it to the John Wayne safari adventure Hatari!. I disagreed in the comments, arguing that Spielberg’s dinosaur film, while a great action flick, is too plot-driven to ever be comparable to a languidly paced Hawksian hangout movie. On reflection, I’d cite Jaws, not Jurassic Park, as Spielberg’s true Hawksian movie, with its emphasis on the theme of male bonding under pressure, its alternation of action scenes with character-building, and its quirky characters spouting idiosyncratic dialogue. I think Adam was right, though, to pinpoint Hatari! in particular as a key film for Spielberg, since that film’s sense of free-wheeling masculine adventure winds through much of Spielberg’s work. It’s a key aspect of Jaws that goes hand-in-hand with its horror: the almost boyish sense of wonder that’s so recognizable in so many of Spielberg’s films and that crops up here in the way he celebrates the heroic expedition to catch the shark. Everyone remembers John Williams’ creepy two-note shark theme from this film; it’s easier to forget the oddly jaunty, upbeat adventure themes that propel much of the film’s second half, capturing a very different mood. Spielberg wants us to be scared by his film, but he also wants us to be awed and excited.

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JB: Sure. And, like Quentin Tarantino after him, Spielberg clearly wants us to enjoy Jaws not just as adventure but as a movie adventure. That is, for all the ways Jaws is grounded in realism, it has another foot (fin?) planted in celluloid staginess. We’ve already identified a few scenes that match that description, like the equally tense and comedic early beach sequence, or the mishap when the villagers go fishing for the shark with meat that’s been set aside for a winter roast. But perhaps an even better example is Quint’s arrival into the story. As some of the townspeople sit in a classroom at a hastily arranged town hall meeting, debating whether to close the beaches, Quint sits quietly in the back of the room until—SCREEEEEEEEETCH—he announces his presence by dragging his nails across the blackboard. That, in and of itself, makes for quite a colorful introduction, but the topper is that while the others were debating the safety of the beaches, Quint has managed to surreptitiously draw a cartoon on the blackboard of an enormous shark with a tiny stick-figure human in its mouth. Spielberg gives us a few shots of befuddled villagers staring at this odd man in the corner, and then he slowly zooms in on Quint, who casually snacks on crackers while warning them about the shark and offering his services to catch it. “I don’t want any volunteers,” Quint says. “I don’t want no mates. There are too many captains on this island. Ten thousand dollars for me by myself. For that you get the head, the tail, the whole damn thing.”

From that scene forward, Quint is more oversized than the shark he’s chasing. Robert Shaw is tremendous, giving a performance so memorable, so vibrant, so flamboyant yet restrained that when I noticed on IMDb that he didn’t receive an Academy Award nomination I went scrambling to the AMPAS database to see who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor that year—out of surprise more than outrage, to be clear. (If you’re curious: George Burns in The Sunshine Boys, Brad Dourif in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Burgess Meredith in The Day of the Locust, Chris Sarandon in Dog Day Afternoon and Jack Warden in Shampoo.) The tale of the plight of the Indianapolis is of course Shaw’s/Quint’s signature moment, with Spielberg keeping the camera steady as the overhead lamp in the Orca sways with the ocean’s current, enhancing the scene’s eerie tone. Quint’s eyes are fixed on Brody, off camera, and when Quint describes the sharks attacking the survivors, Spielberg doesn’t cut and Shaw doesn’t blink.

As I implied earlier, Quint is just a wooden leg short of being Captain Ahab, so there’s no question that he’s an archetypal character. But watching Shaw in Jaws makes me appreciate the degree to which Quint seems to have shaped the modern cinema version of the fearless and hell-bent dangerous hero. For example, when the shark cracks the ship’s hull and the Orca starts taking on water and a small fire breaks out, Quint’s unflustered reaction—he calmly tells Brody to put out the fire without even looking in its direction—reminds of Robert Duvall’s Kilgore four years later in Apocalypse Now, kneeling amidst warzone explosions without flinching, a move that’s been emulated ad nauseum ever since. Quint, like the shark he’s chasing, can’t seem to imagine losing the fight, even while he is thrilled by the stubbornness of his opponent. Of course, at the movies, that kind of confidence gets you killed. And so when Brody eventually reports Quint’s death to Hooper, it’s a confirmation of the inevitable.

Jaws

EH: Quint, more than Brody (the ostensible lead) or even the shark itself, is really the defining character of this film. It’s Quint’s rugged, snarling masculinity and casual self-assurance that make the biggest impact out of the human cast. And if the film’s most memorable and oft-quoted line is Brody’s “You’re gonna need a bigger boat,” it’s Quint’s indifferent reaction that really solidifies the mix of humor and terror in that famous line. Quint is so focused on his work that he can’t even spare a glance or a word in response, while all Brody can do is back slowly away, repeating his words with even more desperation this time: “You’re gonna need a bigger boat, right?”

Quint’s unblinking intensity also serves as a contrast with his two companions on the shark hunt, who represent very different masculine archetypes. Quint is defined by his toughness, his grim determination, the working man’s confidence that’s grounded in a lifetime of doing everything for himself. Hooper naturally clashes with Quint, initially, because he embodies an opposing archetype, an intellectual whose ironic, twinkly-eyed demeanor and readiness with a quip is very different from the older man’s gruff, abrupt manner. In one scene, after Quint makes a show of chugging a beer and crushing the can in his fist, Hooper responds by drinking down a small Styrofoam cup and crushing it, sarcastically mocking the other man’s hyper-masculine competitiveness. It’s a clever visual joke that suggests that even if the two men are very different in how they express their masculinity, they are essentially competing on the same grounds.

This point is driven home by the scene where Quint and Hooper compare scars, competing and accumulating a grudging respect for one another as they realize that they both have lots of wounds from lives spent on the water. There’s an element of homoeroticism to it as the two men undo their clothes, wrapping their legs over each other, laughing and baring their chests, bonding and growing closer, both physically and emotionally. Brody is left out of this masculine closeness, standing nearby, glancing momentarily at the scar on his own stomach but remaining silent, aware that his own meager wounds (like this appendectomy scar) don’t belong in the competition. Quint and Hooper have both led wild and eventful lives, had lots of girls, and have the scars to show for it, including Hooper’s half-joking baring of his chest as evidence of a broken heart.

Brody, unlike these men, is a family man, settled with a wife and two young sons, and the earlier scenes of comfortable domesticity with his wife suggest a relatively happy, easy existence. He’s not made for adventure or action: he hated his job as a New York City cop, overwhelmed by all the crime and violence, and seems to have taken a job as a small-town police chief mainly because it promises to be a cushy position with not much to do. There’s irony in Brody being a police officer, because he seems like the kind of guy who requires protection rather than a defender or hero in his own right. Quint and Hooper are, in very different ways, easy to accept as heroic types—the tough guy and the clever, wise-cracking intellectual—but Brody is the audience’s stand-in and perhaps Spielberg’s as well, the ordinary guy in over his head, who’d be happiest at home with his family. Quint and Hooper live for this kind of intimate encounter with nature’s violence, but Brody, yearning for peace and quiet, for domesticity and ordinary routine, provides a subtle link back to the film’s otherwise eclipsed first half, to the families and the children for whose sake this expedition has been mounted.

Jaws

JB: You’re right, of course, that Brody comes off like a man who needs security and safety more than like a man who should be counted on to provide it. Jaws is filled with nuances, provided both by Spielberg and Scheider, that evoke Brody’s anxiety and cautiousness. In the beach sequences, for instance, Brody runs toward danger while everyone else runs away, but once he gets to the water’s edge, he shuffles horizontally. Likewise, in the scene in which Hooper guts the tiger shark, Brody keeps his distance while Hooper reaches his hands inside the carcass to see what it has eaten. Then, when Brody and Hooper first go out at night looking for the shark, Brody wears a prudent yet comically awkward orange life preserver while Hooper dives into the water to investigate the wreckage of a shark attack. Brody is certainly a determined cop, and one who never shirks his duty, but to recall our first edition of The Conversations, Brody certainly isn’t a Fincherian character: he doesn’t like to get dirty.

So, yes, Brody is the fearful audience surrogate in many respects. But I’ve always felt that the primary surrogate for Spielberg was Hooper. True, Hooper is a touch too heroic, but he’s the character that a then geeky young director with “city hands” seems to have fashioned to undercut macho bravado. You mentioned already the scene in which Hooper crushes the Styrofoam cup, but from his very arrival Hooper is used to undercut “working class hero crap” with sarcasm and intellectualism. Hooper knows more about boats than most of the islanders. He’s the one who figures out that the shark that gets caught is a tiger shark (one of the villagers wonders if it’s a maco shark, which he pronounces “muh-COH,” further underlining his idiocy). He’s the one who figures out that it’s a great white shark that they’re pursuing. He’s the one who can’t help but laugh when the mayor of Amity refuses to acknowledge the imminent threat. He’s the one who turns Quint’s challenge to tie a sheepshank knot into a display of his own superiority. In short, he’s the man with all the answers. Hooper is the kind of cocky youngster rolling his eyes at the establishment that you figure Spielberg might have been at the time, or at least might have wished he were at the time. But even if that’s correct, it’s only trivia.

In the end, the most significant character isn’t Hooper, Brody or Quint. It’s the shark. The shark’s character is built of many things, from the mechanical “Bruce,” to the footage of actual great whites, to the illustrations in Brody’s book, to shots of blood rising to the surface or a severed human leg falling to the ocean floor, but the soul of the shark is provided by John Williams’ score. I mentioned at the outset that Williams’ famous theme might make for the most powerful and iconic score in cinema history, and here’s why: Can you think of any other score that’s more identifiable among the general population? Can you think of any other score that can be recognized in just two notes (DUHHHH-DUN!)? Can you think of any other score that more completely transcends its film to become the soundtrack to real life? (Put a city slicker on horseback and there are a number of Western ditties he or she might hum for the occasion. When we view sharks, however, only one tune comes to mind.) Williams’ score is more than just the shark theme, of course. And, indeed, it does well to amplify the adventurousness of the shark pursuit or the menace of the attack on Hooper in the shark cage. But what we remember are those repeating groaning strings, escalating as the shark nears and our pulse quickens.

Jaws

EH: Williams’ score in general encompasses many different moods and tones, but it’s no surprise that the shark theme—simple, effective, utterly unforgettable—tends to dwarf the rest of the music, just as Spielberg’s masterfully executed suspense sequences make it easy to forget the film’s dark comedy, character nuance and thematic depth. As we’ve been discussing, this film deftly balances many different tones and ideas, and Williams’ music does the same. The shark theme, though, is so simple that when Williams first played it for Spielberg, the director thought that Williams was joking. But, as Spielberg himself quickly realized, this pulse-quickening theme is the perfect music to announce the presence of the film’s big threat. The music, in its simplicity, its unblinking forward drive, mimics the blank determination of the shark itself.

The shark’s character, such as it is, is of course much less complex than that of the men on the boat, and that’s part of the film’s point. The shark, much like the avian swarms of Hitchcock’s The Birds, represents the unthinking, unrelenting force of nature, a primal creature whose only purpose is to stalk its prey and feed. Earlier, I pointed out how Spielberg had derived his point-of-view shots from Creature From the Black Lagoon, but there’s a crucial difference. The creature’s POV in Jack Arnold’s horror classic (and even more so its sequel, Return of the Creature) suggests a psychology that is alien to our own, a relic of an earlier stage of evolution, but nevertheless comprehensible. The creature has desires and perhaps even feelings, especially sexual and romantic feelings; when the creature looks up from beneath the water at a bathing beauty, her legs flailing in the water, we feel the pathetic and impossible yearning of this primitive being. The shark, less a true character than a force of nature, doesn’t have any such feelings, and when it looks at a woman swimming in the water, all it sees is dinner.

In that respect, the shark has more in common with the truck in Spielberg’s TV movie Duel, which first demonstrated the director’s penchant for teeth-gritting suspense. Just as the protagonist of Duel is pursued and assaulted by a mysterious truck, seemingly for no reason, with no motive or explanation, the characters of Jaws are being subjected to a force beyond psychology, beyond rationality, a pre-modern creature driven by simple impulses. The film is about the loss of control, about the cruelty of nature reminding us just how fragile our seeming mastery of the world really is. This theme is especially enhanced by the setting of the film’s first half, the way that the shark disrupts the comfort and leisure of a beachside community dedicated almost exclusively to the tourism industry. There’s nothing more modern, more indicative of privilege and comfort, than the idea of a vacation, which only makes the shark attacks even more upsetting: the shark isn’t just feeding, isn’t just killing, it’s undermining one of the primary symbols of status, security and happiness in our society.

Jaws

JB: You’re on to something there, because while many of Amity’s leaders and business people initially object to closing the beaches on (understandable) economic grounds, beyond that there’s also some pretty thinly veiled anger over the idea that a shark would dare to fuck with the 4th of July. The looming threat of shark attacks, in addition to the attacks themselves, shatters the spirit of innocence, playfulness and, yes, friendship that are Amity’s understood brand. Amity, after all, is the place to get away from it all, even for Brody who has arrived there as a result of fleeing New York.

Of course, to some degree setting the action in an oceanfront vacation getaway is a matter of narrative practicality. Peter Benchley, who wrote the original novel and co-authored the screenplay with Carl Gottlieb (John Milius, uncredited, reportedly helped to shape Quint’s Indianapolis monologue), needed a reason to keep people in the water where the shark could reach them. And having already praised the film’s intricacy, realism, theatricality, performances, score and more, it strikes me that the greatest achievement of Jaws isn’t just that we believe that Amity’s residents and vacationers would continue wading into the ocean after the first attack but, furthermore, that the threat of the shark is almost unceasingly omnipresent.

Truly, soak that one in for a moment: The only thing any of these people need to do to avoid the shark is to remain on dry land. That’s it. And that’s what makes Jaws so different from The Birds (where going indoors proves not protection enough), or Alien (where the humans are trapped in the same physical space), or Open Water (where the difficulty of getting to dry land is the whole point), or the dozens upon dozens of monster movies in between. The threat isn’t omnipresent; it just feels that way. And while that’s partially due to the screenwriters’ knack for keeping people in the water, it’s also due to Spielberg’s knack for bringing shark imagery to dry land, whether through Brody’s book, or Quint’s blackboard illustration, or the Amity billboard of a happy swimmer that’s been vandalized to include a menacing dorsal fin, or Quint’s business headquarters, festooned with the jaws of his kills. Mentally, we know that dry land is safe. But emotionally Spielberg makes us feel as if the shark is always close by, as if confronting the beast is unavoidable.

Jaws

EH: That ties back to the scene you mentioned earlier, in which Brody’s wife is initially unconcerned about their kids playing in a boat until she sees the picture of a shark leaping out of the water to take a bite out of a similar small boat. There’s a certain amount of irrational fear in the response to the shark: yes, the shark is deadly, if one goes in the water, although Spielberg stages several scenes to suggest that dry land isn’t always entirely safe either, like the scene where the shark rips the dock to pieces. And then, in the film’s second half, the shark increasingly appears as the embodiment of everyone’s worst fears made flesh: exaggeratedly huge, implacable, stalking the Orca like prey, eventually leaping up out of the water and onto the boat’s deck just like the shark in Brody’s book. For the most part, though, the shark is a creature of the water and if everyone had just been willing to stay out of the water for a while then they would have been safe. The town of Amity, though, reacts to this sensible precaution as a violation, not only of their economy but of their deepest principles, their freedom, their whole way of life. There’s something un-American about ruining a holiday celebration like this, but the shark tramples over all of it, uncaring, and in a way that’s what really shakes everyone up so much. There’s a complicated mix of emotions here, ranging from the somewhat irrational terror of the unknown to a sense of entitlement and security so strong that it takes much more blood than it should to wake most of the townspeople up to the threat.

These tangled, surprisingly complex emotions and the at times deeply submerged subtexts of the material may account, in part, for the remarkable longevity of Spielberg’s bloody thriller. Jaws helped to usher in changes in the movie industry, but it has remained a pop culture staple for so long not for its historical importance but for its enduring ability to shock, provoke and frighten multiple generations of filmgoers. Iconic lines and images from the film are recognizable even to those who haven’t seen it, and its legendary status is unavoidable, but familiarity has done little to dull or disguise the alternately raw and sophisticated thrills of Spielberg’s visceral filmmaking.

Jaws

Jason Bellamy ruminates on cinema at The Cooler. Follow his updates on Twitter.

Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema. He can also be found on Twitter.

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Review: Parasite Satirically Feeds on the Ills That Divide a Society

Bong Joon-ho’s excoriation of a dehumanizing social culture is mounted with dazzling formal invention.

3

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Parasite
Photo: Cannes Film Festival

The first film Bong Joon-ho has made in 10 years that’s set entirely in his native South Korea, Parasite finds the eccentric, genre-driven auteur scaling back the high-concept ambitions of his prior two films, the post-apocalyptic Snowpiercer and the globe-trotting ecological fable Okja, in favor of examining a close-knit family dynamic that’s reminiscent of the one at the center of The Host, Bong’s 2007 breakout monster flick. Except this time the monster isn’t some amphibious abomination that results from extreme genetic mutation, but the insidious forces of class and capital that divide a society’s people.

In a cramped apartment, a family of four are sent into a panic when the WiFi network they’ve been pirating goes offline. Ki-jung (Park So-dam) and her brother, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), scurry about as their father, Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), instructs them to try holding their phones up to the ceiling, and to stand in every nook and cranny of their home until they find a new connection. All the while, Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun) bemoans her husband’s laziness and prods him to find work. But it’s Ki-woo who pulls his family out of their impoverished life, when he gets an opportunity to tutor Da-hye (Jung Ziso), daughter of the rich Park family.

Parasite essentially puts an absurdist spin on both the concept behind Hirokazu Kore-eda’s sentimental Shoplifters from last year and the bitter class commentary that underpins Nagisa Oshima’s 1969 film Boy. Bong positions Ki-taek and his family as grifters so adept at pulling off cons as a unit that they successfully convince the Parks to bring them all into their employ, in one capacity or another. Ki-jung becomes an “arts therapy” teacher for the Park clan’s precocious young son, Da-song (Jung Hyeon-jun), and, later, the rich family’s driver and nanny are pushed out of their jobs through elaborate scandals manufactured by the poor family, in order to install Ki-taek and Moon-gwang, respectively, into those roles.

Bong pulls off a neat trick by insinuating that the parasite of his film’s title must be Ki-taek’s family; after all, they certainly live off the “host” to which they’ve attached themselves. But in typical fashion, Bong starts to lace Parasite with all sorts of complications that begin to challenge the audience’s perceptions—left turns and big reveals that not only bring new layers to the film’s social commentary, but also develop the characters and their attendant psychologies, which encompass the psychic toll of shame, lack of empathy, and deception.

The twists in this narrative also activate some of Bong’s more inspired and sociopolitically loaded visual ideas. At one point in the film, the slum village where Ki-taek and his family live is devastated by a massive flood during a night of severe weather. Meanwhile, in the upper-class neighborhood where the Park clan lives, a backyard camping trip is ruined by rain. The particular layout of one unexpected setting, which sees members of the lower class literally occupying a space below the rich, doubles as an ingenious metaphor for class subjugation. Remarkably, Bong even finds room for a commentary on Korean peninsula relations.

The only thing that keeps Parasite just slightly below the tier of Bong’s best work, namely The Host and his underrated and similarly themed 2000 debut film, Barking Dogs Never Bite, is the overstuffed pile-up of incident that occurs toward the end. This is frequently an issue for Bong’s films (both Snowpiercer and Okja climax with busy and disorientating action set pieces that lose sight of their characters in the process), and here it manifests in a boldly gruesome scene of violence that’s undercut by a lengthy and rather contrived denouement.

Ultimately, Bong’s excoriating indictment of South Korea’s dehumanizing social culture isn’t far removed from that of Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, but he mounts it with a dazzling control of genre conventions that he continues to seamlessly bend to his absurd comic rhythms. Parasite also reinstates the emotional core that’s been missing from Bong’s recent work, and even feigns a concise narrative structure. It’s the kind of bold and uncompromising work that confirms why Bong is one of our most exciting auteurs, for how his sociocultural criticisms can be so biting, so pungent, when they’re imbued with such great focus and sense of intent.

Cast: Song Kang-ho, Choi Woo-shik, Lee Sun-kyun, Park So-dam, Cho Yeo-jeong, Lee Jung-eun, Chang Hyae-jin, Jung Ziso, Jung Hyeon-jun Director: Bong Joon-ho Screenwriter: Bong Joon-ho, Han Jin-won Running Time: 131 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: The Perfection Walks Impersonally Though a Labyrinth of Gimmicks

The crazier Richard Shepard’s film gets, the more routine and mechanical it comes to feel.

2.5

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The Perfection
Photo: Netflix

Richard Shepard’s The Perfection is, for better and worse, an ingenious toy. The plot is clever, but the film is all plot. Shepard and co-writers Eric C. Charmelo and Nicole Snyder repeatedly paint themselves into corners, only to free themselves with twists that bring about increasingly diminishing returns. The first switchback is legitimately startling, but the fourth is exhausting and belabored even by the standards of self-consciously cheeky exploitation shockers. As The Perfection mutates from gothic-tinged lesbian romance to body-horror thriller to revenge film, its lack of atmosphere becomes apparent, and the characters begin to seem as if they exist only to move through a labyrinth of gimmicks.

The film opens, promisingly, in Black Swan mode, introducing us to women with potentially rickety senses of self who may come to eat one another alive for our delectation. Charlotte (Allison Williams) travels to Shanghai to reconnect with her mentor, Anton (Steven Weber), who nurtured her to become one of the world’s great cello players, before she retired to care for her ailing mother. (We also pointedly learn, via shock cuts, that Charlotte was institutionalized after her mother’s death.) Charlotte meets Anton’s new pet prodigy, Lizzie (Logan Browning), at a swanky party, and Shepard springs the first and subtlest of the narrative’s many surprises. Conditioned by films such as All About Eve, we expect Charlotte and Lizzie to resent one another and fall into a catty rivalry. However, Lizzie worships Charlotte, and Charlotte doesn’t seem to want to return to the industry, and so the women, free of envy, connect after a night of collaboration, drinking, dancing, and sex.

Shepard’s handling of Charlotte and Lizzie’s lovely, companionable night together is telling of his direction of the film at large. He rushes through it with a montage, collapsing Charlotte and Lizzie’s cello duet, their clubbing, and their coupling all together, reducing their union to a math equation: Meet Cute + Flirtation + Sex = Inciting Incident. For, say, Peter Strickland, this sequence might’ve taken up half the film, allowing him to celebrate and fetishize these gorgeous women while stylishly exploring their loneliness and alienation. And for Dario Argento in his prime, this scene might’ve been an opening aria of erotic terror.

For Shepard, though, it’s just business, and his disappointing haste squanders the heat that’s been worked up in one of The Perfection’s best scenes, when Lizzie observes an infidelity at a concert and whispers to Charlotte that it makes her wet. Even more egregiously, Shepard glosses over a significant bit of information, as Charlotte claims to have lost her virginity to Lizzie. What would it feel like to be sexually arrested and then to so suddenly fall into bed with someone as attractive, worldly, and confident as Lizzie? Shepard doesn’t care to know—and this confession is eventually revealed to be fodder for one of the film’s many twists.

Shepard’s mercenary pace at times serves the film well. When Charlotte and Lizzie awaken the morning after, the filmmaker sustains, for about 15 minutes, an expert tone of slow-dawning dread. Both women are hungover, but Lizzie is dramatically ill, and Shepard plunges us into her panic and helplessness, capping the scene with the perverse spectacle of Lizzie vomiting yellow maggots against a bus’s windows, clutching her head in pain. Several tensions merge at this point in The Perfection: the fear of being sick in another country, of having to grapple with a new lover’s biological eccentricities, and a basic tension wrought by the violation of narrative expectation, as we’re meant to wonder how we moved from a film in the vein of Black Swan to something in the key of a zombie-outbreak movie. Shepard merges these tonal disparities with a lurid reveal, at which point his film goes completely bonkers.

Funny thing, though: The crazier The Perfection gets, the more mechanical it becomes. Shepard appears to be so proud of the film’s first twist—which pivots on a spectacular gaslighting—that he can’t leave well enough alone. It’s then that the film’s narrative “rules” start changing every few minutes, with Charlotte, Lizzie, and Anton trading the batons of “hero,” “villain,” “victim,” and “avenger” back and forth between them. A film as impersonal and plot-centric as The Perfection needs at least some kind of warped logic to sustain a sense of there being stakes at play. In this case, if anything goes then nothing matters.

Cast: Allison Williams, Logan Browning, Steven Weber, Alaina Huffman, Milah Thompson, Molly Grace, Winnie Hung Director: Richard Shepard Screenwriter: Eric C. Charmelo, Richard Shepard, Nicole Snyder Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 90 min Rating: TV-MA Year: 2019

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Review: Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood Is an Elegy to an Era’s Sunset

The film is Quentin Tarantino’s magnum opus, a sweeping statement on an entire generation of American popular culture.

4

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Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood
Photo: Columbia Pictures

Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is presented, right down to the ellipses in its title, as a diptych. But instead of just being a way to structure a piece of entertainment for commercial reasons—like the Grindhouse double feature, the two-part Kill Bill, and the “roadshow” version of The Hateful Eight, which was broken up by an intermission—this demarcation separates two distinct periods: the beginning of the end (February 1969) and the end itself (the summer of ‘69). And it’s a juxtaposition that shows old Hollywood in a time of transition, from dog days to death throes.

While Tarantino’s films tend to provide audiences with much evidence of where the auteur’s love of Hollywood’s lurid lore finds root (in blaxploitation, World War II dramas, kung-fu movies, or spaghetti westerns), Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood gets the closest of any to giving us the complete picture. In this sense, the film is nothing less than Tarantino’s magnum opus—a sweeping statement on an entire generation of American popular culture and an almost expressionistic rendering of the counterculture forming at its margins, gradually growing in influence. It’s an uncharacteristically thoughtful and sobering film for Tarantino, while somehow also being his funniest, and most casually entertaining.

In the film’s first section, old Hollywood comes to life through montages of flashing neon signs, majestic old movie theater marquees on the Sunset Strip, and long-haired hippies hanging out on street corners, trying to bum rides from people who pass them by in their hot cars. Tarantino’s late-‘60s Hollywood is an immersive playground of opulence and iconicity, and thanks to the many exhilarating driving sequences that dot the film, the Los Angeles neighborhood conjures the adrenalized sensation of velocity and acceleration.

Navigating through this fast-paced Hollywood is Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a fading star of TV westerns trying to break into the movies, and his best friend and longtime stuntman, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Both characters are complete fabrications, as are most of the titles they’re associated with, like Kill Me Now Ringo, Said the Gringo and Three in an Attic. And as Tarantino detours his narrative through depictions of these fictional projects, subjecting us to many scenes of Dalton playing different characters, this at first just seems like an excuse to make spoofy versions of disposable Hollywood product, like the fake trailers that appear between Planet Terror and Death Proof in Grindhouse. But these scenes actually serve to sketch the shifting dynamics on film sets of the late-‘60s, like the emergence of Method acting, and they also position Dalton as a kind of Tarantino surrogate.

In one of the film’s most clever sequences, Dalton regales his eight-year-old co-star (Julia Butters), in between takes on the set of some low-budget western, with the story of the novel that he’s been reading. The character in the story is an aging cowboy who used to be the best but now is a shadow of his former self. As Dalton tells the story of the man’s misfortune, and all his aches and pains, he starts to well up, obviously recognizing how much this all applies to him. But the way the sequence plays out, with the young girl with the forceful feminist outlook putting Dalton in his place when he tries to call her by a cute nickname, effectively puts Tarantino in the hot seat, and for that matter DiCaprio, another artist whose aging career comes with the danger of obsolescence and of falling out of step with the times.

Progressing on a parallel track to Dalton and Booth’s narratives is another storyline, and the one that Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood has already become infamous for. The real-life Sharon Tate (Margo Robbie) comes to feel like the flipside of Dalton and Booth, her next-door neighbors in the film. The “It” girl flits through parties with her celebrated Polish filmmaker husband, Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), and good friend, Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch). If the changing times threaten to discard and ignore Dalton and Booth, they’re bringing Tate too much attention: At various points in Tarantino’s film, she’s watched and coveted from afar, as in a scene in which Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) gossips while ogling her at a party.

In the film’s finest scene, Tate even watches herself: at a matinee screening of Phil Karlson’s 1968 Dean Martin vehicle The Wrecking Crew. The sequence is resonant in no small part for its layers, with Robbie, as Tate, watching the real Tate (Tarantino uses actual footage from The Wrecking Crew for the scene). The whole thing suggests a kind of eerie feedback loop of celebrity and its cycles of consumption, but it’s also a profoundly moving scene: Effortlessly nailing the moment, and without any dialogue, Robbie responds, in character, to the film on a diegetic level, watching her own performance, but at the same time, there’s also the added metatextual layer of Robbie watching the very actress whom she’s playing.

It’s the film’s commitment to fortifying its themes with such layers of self-reflexivity, while still anchoring its concepts to fully realized, emotionally invested characters, that makes it one of Tarantino’s great films—a dense but focused effort that validates the divisive artist’s status as one of American cinema’s preeminent pop-cultural figures. It’s also that self-reflexive lens through which to read Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood that makes its finale harder to write off as the misstep that it would otherwise seem to be. Tarantino does, perhaps unsurprisingly, revert to some of his more vexing shock-jock tendencies, and even squanders some of his film’s emotional gravitas. But it’s difficult to deny how effectively he sets up what’s to come, when, in the midst of a tense debate between members of the Manson Family, one young woman (Mikey Madison) delivers an incendiary edict: “If you grew up watching TV, you grew up watching murder—my idea is to kill the people who taught us to kill!”

This chilling sentiment becomes the nexus of the film’s significantly darker second half, which jumps six months ahead to take the temperature of Hollywood on the eve of the Charles Manson murders. As the landscape and the sociocultural identity of Hollywood continue to change, inching toward a post-Flower Generation comedown, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood takes on an elegiac quality. The shift facilitates one of Tarantino’s more brilliant needle drops to date: of the Rolling Stones’s wistful, wounded, and ominous “Out of Time” playing over a montage of Dalton and Booth returning to L.A. from a sojourn to Europe and a pregnant Tate preparing her home for the arrival of her baby boy.

The flash and fun of the film’s first half gives way to a haunting decline into the valley of alcoholism, and to increasing signs that a new generation is about to push the old one out. And, then, inevitably, those tensions come to a head one August night on Cielo Drive in the Hollywood Hills. It’s this sequence, and the Tarantino-branded ultraviolence that it ushers in, that puts the greatest strain on a film that had been setting itself up for tragedy but ends far afield from that. Still, this subversion points a path to our understanding of the broader intent of Tarantino’s commentary in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, which is less about addressing the violence that people commit against each other than it is about lamenting the existential violence that sustains some and leaves others out of time.

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, Margaret Qualley, Timothy Olyphant, Julia Butters, Austin Butler, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, Mike Moh, Luke Perry, Damian Lewis, Al Pacino, Nicholas Hammond, Samantha Robinson, Lorenza Izzo, Costa Ronin, Perla Haney-Jardine, Damon Herriman, Lena Dunham, Kurt Russell, Scoot McNairy, Michael Madsen, Rumer Willis, Rafal Zawierucha Director: Quentin Tarantino Screenwriter: Quentin Tarantino Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 159 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Jeonju IFF 2019: Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, L. Cohen, & Introduzione all’oscuro

These are three enigmatic, challenging, and weird works of art by filmmakers pushing at the boundaries of the cinematic form.

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Coincoin and the Extra-Humans

Shortly after arriving in Jeonju, the mid-sized Korean city about 200 kilometers south of Seoul that serves as the site of the Jeonju International Film Festival, I pulled my bedraggled, jet-lagged body over to the guest center to pick up my press credentials. As I made my way through the carnivalesque open-air city block known as Jeonju Cinema Town, I found myself, to my surprise, in the midst of a rather peculiar, almost surreal scenario as a bunch of white- and black-suited stormtroopers marched in lockstep toward me, weapons at the ready, flanking none other than the Grand Imperial Poobah himself, Darth Vader.

The group maneuvered around me without incident, eager to pose for selfies with the crowd of locals assembled in the area, but after over 20 hours of travel, the encounter took on a vaguely sinister air, as if the forces of Hollywood monoculture had been dispatched to this relatively remote cinephile retreat to ensure that no one here got the wrong idea: Have fun with your cute little art films, but remember who really wields the power in the world of cinema.

I suppose these are the sorts of strange inclinations that strike you when your body’s circadian rhythms have been shaken up like a snow globe, but, despite the presence of the Walt Disney Company as one of the festival’s premier sponsors, the films I saw—personal, challenging, at times exhilarating work from all across the world—couldn’t have seemed further away from the market-tested franchises that clog American cineplexes. Having said that, it’s with some irony that one of the first films I took in at Jeonju IFF was in fact a sequel—albeit one whose eccentric sense of humor and repetitive, unresolved narrative mean it’s never going to be mistaken for the latest from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The sequel in question is Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, Bruno Dumont’s follow-up to Li’l Quinquin. One of the great left turns in the history of auteurism, Dumont’s 2014 miniseries signaled his transition from austere Bressonian miserablism to a singular brand of deadpan grotesquerie that gleefully explodes the thin line between the clever and the stupid. Dumont doesn’t vary his style too much for the sequel, as it’s another bizarre sunlit mystery set in the windswept countryside of Dumont’s native Nord-Pas-de-Calais. And Dumont has reassembled the same cast of non-professional local oddballs led by Bernard Pruvost as Commandant Van der Weyden, a twitchy, hapless police detective investigating matters way beyond his depths.

Dumont, though, still finds ways to mess with his audience’s expectations, starting with the baffling and completely inexplicable change of the title character’s name. If the earlier film felt like Dumont’s riff on popular international crime dramas like Broadchurch and The Killing, Coincoin turns out to be his spin on The X-Files, a sci-fi pod-people procedural featuring a mysterious black goo from outer space that inhabits its victims and forces them to give birth to their own uncanny clones. Like many stories about body-snatching, the series is a satire—here on provincial racism, the poor treatment of African migrants, and the rise of the French far right—but Dumont isn’t simply interested in topical point-scoring against Marine Le Pen, the anti-immigrant politician who represents Nord-Pas-de-Calais.

Rather, with its ambling, directionless narrative and lackadaisical long shots that perversely undercut the screenplay’s gags, Coincoin evokes a deep-rooted spirit of reactionary malaise, of people whose lives are hopelessly circumscribed by their own fears and prejudices. Dumont rigorously resists developing his plot or deepening his characters: They’re all trapped in an absurd loop, doomed to endlessly say the same things and reenact the same jokes.

Van der Weyden sums up that mentality in a single line: “Progress isn’t inevitable.” There’s a group of black men who periodically appear throughout the film only to be consistently and summarily dismissed in a fit of racist panic. Each time, we expect the film to create some meaningful interaction between the white townsfolk and these migrants, and each time we’re rebuffed—that is, until a final musical explosion of kumbaya-like camaraderie that’s somehow goofy, moving, tedious, and invigorating all at the same time.

Dumont is one of the few artists in cinema willing to risk exhausting his audience to induce a particular effect, but he’s not the only one, as demonstrated by James Benning’s L. Cohen, a 45-minute static shot of a seemingly unremarkable field with a mountain visible in the distance. It’s an elegantly composed frame, reminiscent of an American Regionalist painting and whose centrally located peak perhaps coyly refers to the Paramount logo.

After 20 minutes, even the most hardened cinephiles are bound to be squirming in their seat, at which point Benning reveals his remarkable trump card: As the sky quickly darkens and blackness falls over the Earth, we realize that we’ve been watching the leadup to a total solar eclipse. It’s a moment of quiet astonishment and confusion for anyone who doesn’t know it’s coming, bringing us close to the feeling a caveman might’ve had when the same event occurred. With typical mathematical precision, Benning has placed the eclipse at the exact center of the film, allowing us to explore the subtle shadows that precede and follow it.

The film, however, isn’t just some academic structuralist exercise, as it’s also a meditation on death, a fact highlighted by the next startling moment: the inclusion of Leonard Cohen’s “Love Itself” on the soundtrack, a stark divergence from the ominous drone (identified by Benning during his festival Q&A as the hum of airplanes flying overhead) that fills the rest of the film. This song and the dedication of the film to the recently deceased Cohen add a deeper layer of meaning to Benning’s precisely calibrated study of light and time.

L. Cohen is in essence a meditation on temporality. All things are fleeting, even grand interplanetary ballets. Considering the brief alignment of these celestial bodies puts one in a cosmic mood and calls to mind a cryptic, haunting line from a different Cohen song, “Stories of the Street”: “We are so small between the stars, so large against the sky.”

One could also find the specter of death looming over Introduzione all’oscuro, an expressionistic tribute to director Gastón Solnicki’s good friend, Hans Hurch, the recently departed director of the Viennale, the Vienna International Film Festival. Described by the director not as a film about Hurch, but a film for him, Introduzione all’oscuro dispenses with biography entirely, instead evoking its subject’s buoyant, ragtag spirit in an almost subliminal fashion: through music, film, and the city of Vienna. Hurch “appears” in the film primarily through his letters and through his voice, recorded by Solnicki when he provided notes on one of the director’s previous films. Solnicki does appear on screen: a comically lonely figure visiting some of Hurch’s favorite Viennese haunts—such as the Café Engländer, from which he would periodically steal cups—on a journey that drolly recalls Holly Martins’s investigation into the apparent death of his pal Harry Lime in The Third Man.

Like Solnicki’s Kékszakállú before it, Introduzione all’oscuro is what might be called “slideshow cinema”—a procession of taut, piquant compositions whose relationship to one another isn’t precisely clear but which, when taken together, create an indelible impression of a highly specific milieu. Structured more like a piece of avant-garde music than a narrative work or traditional documentary, the film has a hypnotic yet often dissonant allure. It pulls us into a strange liminal zone where Hurch seems to be simultaneously present and absent, haunting the film like a benevolent spirit. Solnicki simply has one of the best eyes in cinema today, and it’s the pungency of his images which makes the film such an endlessly compelling experience, even when the reasons behind Solnicki’s individual choices remain obscure.

Abstruseness, though, is no crime. In fact, the greatest pleasures of Jeonju IFF were to be found in grappling with “difficult” films such as Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, L. Cohen, and Introduzione all’oscuro: enigmatic, challenging, and even downright weird works of art made by filmmakers pushing at the boundaries of the cinematic form.

The Jeonju International Film Festival ran from May 2—11.

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Review: As Teen Comedy, Booksmart Is Sweet and Nasty in Fine Balance

It’s an R-rated teen comedy that proves that you can center girls’ experiences without sacrificing grossness.

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Booksmart
Photo: Annapurna Pictures

An uncharitable way of describing Olivia Wilde’s feature directorial debut, Booksmart, is as a gender-flipped version of Superbad. Like Greg Mottola’s 2007 film, it concerns a pair of best friends who’ve spent their high school years as outsiders but, at the end of their senior year, decide to attend the biggest, coolest graduation party imaginable. As in Superbad, getting to the party devolves into an almost picaresque gauntlet through suburban nightlife, consisting of comical encounters with outlandish characters (both films even feature a “creepy car guy”). Booksmart and Superbad also share a ribald, R-rated sense of humor and a sex scene interrupted by vomit—even the same casting director (the venerable Allison Jones).

For all that, Wilde’s film is less a derivative of Mottola’s teen comedy than a corrective to it. Its exaggerated universe is less mean-spirited than the one depicted in Superbad, where so much of the humor depended on Jonah Hill loudly proclaiming his character’s misogyny. Booksmart isn’t above getting laughs from sex jokes that land somewhere between honest and outrageous—there’s a recurring bit about Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) masturbating with her stuffed panda doll—but it does show that teenage conversations about sex can be funny without being demeaning. And its belief in its main characters as more than just stand-ins for the most distorted beliefs that virginal high schoolers have about sex gives the film a fuller, more satisfying arc.

Amy and her best friend, Molly (Beanie Feldstein), are their elite Valley High School’s A-type-personality do-gooders, well-meaning in their ambition and their wokeness, but with streaks of haughtiness and self-righteousness. Beanie is class president, the kind of kid who pushes the school principal (Jason Sudeikis) to arrange a budget meeting with the juniors on the last day of class. In contrast to the brashly assertive Molly, Amy is meek, barely able to eke out syllables when talking to her crush, Ryan (Victoria Ruesga), but she’s also intensely woke, adorning her denim jacket with feminist-slogan patches and her car with “Elizabeth Warren 2020” bumper stickers. The pair are so close that they’re often mistaken for being a couple (Amy has been out since the 10th grade), and they definitely don’t party.

As school is letting out, Molly discovers that her and Amy’s monk-like approach to high school life has been for naught. Although the two pride themselves on respectively getting into Yale and Columbia, it seems that virtually all of their classmates have a similarly propitious future lined up. Even the horny goofball Theo (Eduardo Franco), who repeated seventh grade three times, was recruited for a six-figure job with Google. Molly adopts partying as her new project, dragging the reluctant Amy, all the more anxious because Ryan will be at the party, along with her. The problem is that, not being a part of their school’s social scene, they have no idea where the party actually is, and limited means of figuring it out.

The obliviously indefatigable Molly is a star-making role for Feldstein, who keeps let her highly dynamic character—Molly can be both very rigid and very foolhardy—from feeling inconsistent, or leading to broad caricature. As the quieter Amy, Devers’s role is mostly reactive, but, in the tumultuous climax, she supplies the film’s most poignant and relatable moments. As the omnipresent Gigi, a troubled party girl who inexplicably appears at each of the girls’ wayward stops on their journey to the party, Billie Lourd channels a chaotic energy, becoming the film’s strung-out jester. Lourd is just part of an altogether impressive ensemble that also includes Jessica Williams as the teacher who loves Amy and Molly perhaps a bit too much, and Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow as Amy’s super-Christian, super-supportive parents.

For the most part sharply written, and tighter and more consistently funny than the fragmented improv-style Superbad, Booksmart nevertheless has a couple of stretches that don’t quite land. There’s a claymated ayahuasca-tripping sequence that neither suits the rest of the film nor is followed up on in any way by the narrative. And the film’s conclusion is more than a little formally messy, with Wilde relying on a too-rapid succession of non-diegetic pop songs as emotional accents and to fast-forward the plot—at one crucial moment even drowning out the dialogue. But despite these small missteps, Booksmart feels like an innovation, an R-rated teen comedy that proves that you can center girls’ experiences without sacrificing grossness, and that you can be gross without being too mean.

Cast: Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Jessica Williams, Jason Sudeikis, Billie Lourd, Diana Silvers, Mason Gooding, Skyler Gisondo, Noah Galvin, Eduardo Franco, Lisa Kudrow, Will Forte, Mike O’Brien Director: Olivia Wilde Screenwriter: Olivia Wilde Katie Silberman, Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins Distributor: Annapurna Pictures Running Time: 102 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Terminator: Dark Fate Official Trailer: Going Back to the Well with Sarah Connor

Linda Hamilton at least makes a killer impression as Sarah visits fiery justice upon Gabriel Luna’s terminator.

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Terminator: Dark Fate
Photo: Paramount Pictures

Today, Paramount dropped the trailer for the sixth entry in the Terminator series, Terminator: Dark Fate, which promises to deliver…more of the same? With this film, Deadpool director Tim Miller aims to give the series a reboot: by pretending that none of the films that came after Terminator 2: Judgement Day ever existed (sorry, Rise of the Machines fans), maybe even Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. “Welcome to the day after judgment day,” reads the poster, promising the badass return of Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor. And on that front, the film looks to deliver, as Hamilton certainly makes a killer impression as Sarah visits fiery justice upon Gabriel Luna’s terminator.

But based on everything else that’s on display throughout the trailer, we’re worried that there’s not anything new that a film in this series stands to bring to the table besides running and gunning, with the occasional wink thrown in for good measure. Cast in point: Mackenzie Davis stars as Grace, an “enhanced human” who looks to fill the hanger-on role to Connor that Edward Furlong’s John Connor did to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800, now apparently living in woodsy retirement, and at the ready to give sage advice. In short, we’re not impressed, and that also holds true of that cover of Björk’s “Hunter” by some zombie man singer.

Watch the official trailer below:

Paramount Pictures will release Terminator Dark Fate on November 1.

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Review: Woodstock Offers a New Look at the Three Days that Defined a Generation

Throughout, the era-defining yet problem-plagued music festival astounds in large part for all the disasters that didn’t occur.

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Woodstock: Three Days that Defined a Generation
Photo: PBS Distribution

According to Woodstock: Three Days that Defined a Generation, the 1969 Woodstock festival seemed fated to fail. But a rare convergence of good luck, good intentions, and good vibes somehow snapped into place and crystallized over a few days in August the aspirations of a counterculture about to hit its peak. The festival’s planners, mostly promoters and music-industry pros, talk off-camera throughout this gloriously gleeful documentary about their somewhat spur-of-the-moment concept in a purposefully overlapping mosaic that makes it difficult to determine who’s saying what. Their original idea was simply a big concert that would celebrate the opening of a recording studio in the bucolic artist community of Woodstock, NY and take advantage of the musicians living nearby.

That conceit ballooned into a sprawling three-day cultural amoeba of feel-good psychedelia billed as “An Aquarian Exposition” to be held in a bucolic setting. It would ideally seem, according to one organizer, “like visiting another world.” Creating that gateway to paradise, however, hit one snag after another. Conservative fears about an invasion of hippies led to much anger among locals and triggered permitting issues. Original desired stars like Bob Dylan, the Doors, and the Rolling Stones all passed on the vent. Months’ worth of construction at the original site in Wallkill, NY had to be scrapped at the last minute.

But Woodstock shows also how both lucky circumstances and in-depth planning saved the day. The lineup swelled with a killer roster of acts whom David Crosby defines simply as “everybody we thought was cool”: Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Sly and the Family Stone, Santana, Creedence Clearwater, Janis Joplin, and so on. According to writer Bob Spitz, interest grew as the organizers put the word out through the underground press, and though their top estimates of attendance topped out at 150,000, the eventual total was closer to a potentially unmanageable 400,000. Seemingly foolhardy ideas like hiring Wavy Gravy’s Hog Farm commune to handle what they termed “security” and what Wavy defined as trying to “spread grooviness,” helped the increasingly massive enterprise maintain an appealingly mellow tone. Then, a Republican dairy farmer named Max Yasgur, who just happened to have a visually gorgeous sweep of land shaped like a natural amphitheater, agreed to host the festival.

Just about everyone interviewed in Barak Goodman and Jamilia Ephron’s documentary still marvels a half-century on at the scope and tranquility of what happened, though the potential for disaster provides some dramatic grit to the narrative. Much of the festival’s harmoniousnes was a result of on-the-spot empathetic resourcefulness, from Hog Farm’s thrown-together Sunday-morning “breakfast in bed” and “freak-out” tents for people on bad acid trips to the previously resentful locals who spontaneously emptied their pantries to feed the long-haired kids who had been tromping through their front yards. The crowds were soothed by the reassuring voice of the festival announcer, whose “we”-focused addresses over the PA system strengthened the communal spirit, which is then echoed in the film’s starry-eyed reminiscences of interviewees who all sound as though they wish they could go back.

Woodstock cannot hope to supplant Michael Wadleigh’s more symphonic and experiential 1970 documentary. But conversely, its tighter, narrower focus on narrative and context ultimately tells a bigger story at roughly half the length. Co-director Goodman has shown in some of his darker work for PBS’s American Experience, like his episode about the Oklahoma City bombing, a knack for building suspense. He deploys that skill here marvelously when showing the sea of humanity converging on Yasgur’s farm, balancing a fear of impending disaster (short supplies, last-minute glitches, a crowd many times larger than the highest estimates) with the dawning realization that things might just work out.

That tightrope-walking drama is maintained through the actual concert portion of the movie. The musical highs, Hendrix’s squalling “Star-Spangled Banner” and Richie Haven’s raucous two-hour jam (filling the gap while helicopters ferried musicians in over the blocked roads), play out while the vast crowd contends with food shortages and an unexpected rainstorm. But even though the attendees rushed past the mostly unbuilt fencing and by default created what organizer John Roberts here terms “the world’s greatest three-day freebie,” he and his partners appear now happier about the instant community that metamorphosed in the mud than the fact that as a business venture the concert was “in deep shit.”

Woodstock hits many of the expected notes about the concert’s place in the nation’s cultural history. But it’s refreshingly less self-satisfied than awestruck at the simple beauty of what happened at the Woodstock festival and the utopian example it provided to the world. Though unmentioned here, the disastrous music festival that occurred four months later at Altamont Speedway, in the hills of Northern California’s East Bay, where the organizers’ callous indifference to advance planning led to chaos and multiple deaths, shows just how rare the event that occurred in Bethel across three days back in August ‘69 remains to this day.

Director: Barak Goodman, Jamila Ephron Distributor: PBS Distribution Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir Is a Knotty Trip Down Memory Lane

Its stylistic fluctuations are a sign of a filmmaker really wrestling with how she became the woman and artist she is today.

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The Souvenir
Photo: A24

True to the mission of its protagonist, a well-meaning student filmmaker working on a thesis feature about a community foreign to her, writer-director Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir is engaged in a running dialogue with itself around the notion of how—and how not—to make a personal narrative. Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is a London-based, upper-middle-class young woman coming of age in Margaret Thatcher’s England who feels a moral imperative to transpose her own experiences onto a fictional story set in working-class Sunderland, and she’s given ongoing opportunities in her film workshops to try to articulate why that is. Hogg, who based the character on her own early experiences as an artist, views Julie’s trajectory tenderly but through the lens of a greater maturity, dotting the young woman’s path with interlocutors who challenge and redirect her inclinations. Gradually, Julie’s certitude seems to fall out from under her, transforming Hogg’s film in the process.

Pivotal among these forces is Anthony (Tom Burke), a spectacularly smug older man with ambiguous professional and personal affiliations who becomes inexorably drawn to Julie, and she to him. When he first appears on screen across a table from Julie at a café, Hogg frames the scene in the kind of spacious, sophisticated master shot that defined her 2013 film Exhibition, snapping The Souvenir out of the close-up-heavy, fly-on-the-wall aesthetic with which it opens. The shift in style registers the exhilarating impact Anthony has on Julie, who is up to that point seen as a wallflower at college parties, taking photos and rolling a Bolex in the corner while bouncing in and out of conversations. Sizing up Julie’s film project with suave dismissiveness, Anthony suggests that she might heed the influence of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who were able to express personal emotions free of the constraints of realism, and later proposes that “it’s not enough to be sincere or authentic.”

Julie takes such counseling in stride even when it comes from her casually condescending professors (also men), giving her a headstrong resilience that Swinton-Byrne beautifully underplays. But Julie’s toughness doesn’t equate to stubborn pride, and soon The Souvenir turns away from its portrait of early filmmaking ambition and toward the knotty dynamics of Anthony and Julie’s strengthening relationship—itself modeled off a fling in Hogg’s past. The director orchestrates this formal shapeshift with sly subtlety, first introducing the couple’s scenes together as elliptical diversions from the central storyline, then gradually lengthening them until the sequences set in and around Julie’s film school take a backseat entirely. Now sharing an apartment, Anthony and Julie go through the growing pains of coexistence—the former posits a “Wall of Jericho” made of pillows in a reference to It Happened One Night to solve his discomfort in bed—but nonetheless find a strange harmony in their dissonant personalities, with his brutal honesty charming her and her placidity disarming him.

In Anthony’s case, however, this apparent personality yardstick proves misleading, as it turns out that he’s frank about everything but his own life. Talk of a vague government job creates an impression of a posh background belied by Anthony and Julie’s trip to visit his parents, and later, an offhand remark made by one of Anthony’s friends when he’s in the bathroom yields the startling revelation—cued by spatially disorienting mirror shots and the gentle use of Dutch angles—that Julie’s boyfriend is a heroin addict. Hogg omits the scene where Julie confronts Anthony about this revelation, but the mark it leaves on their relationship is implicitly, delicately apparent in every part of The Souvenir moving forward. The neatly organized, white-walled apartment where much of the action takes place becomes charged with tension, not only from the threat of dissident bombing that percolates outside its windows (a reality contemporaneous to the film’s early-‘80s setting), but also from Anthony’s frequent, unexplained comings and goings, which starkly contrast Julie’s more fixed physicality as she spends her time hunched over a typewriter.

The Souvenir flirts with a few conventional movie premises—the doomed romance, the spiral into the hell of drug addiction, the pursuit of self-actualization—without ever fully engaging one, which doesn’t indicate an uncertainty on Hogg’s part so much as a supreme confidence in the intricacies of her own material. Likely to some viewers’ dismay, Julie’s story isn’t one that ever comes to hinge on an a-ha moment, a sudden realization that she’s strayed from her artistic passion in her entanglement with a toxic partner. Rather, Hogg evokes both the seductive appeal of an irrational romance and the less sexy but nonetheless potent comfort of falling into the role of nurturer, a discipline shown in a few touching scenes to be inherited by Julie from her mother (Tilda Swinton). What’s more, it can’t be said that Anthony’s influence is purely deleterious, as his bouts of real vulnerability, carried off with a persuasive display of wounded pride by Burke, repeatedly push Julie toward greater sensitivity and awareness.

Perhaps ambivalent herself to Anthony’s recommendation that Julie seek inspiration from Powell and Pressburger’s work, Hogg shoots in a grainy, underlit 16mm palette that has less to do with period fetishism than with draining the sparkle from Julie’s privileged upbringing. The Souvenir is shot from a measured distance, often with the camera in rooms adjacent to the actors so that walls and other objects populate the foreground, and the resulting sense is of being simultaneously immersed in the spaces of Hogg’s early adulthood and at an intellectual remove from them, a fusion seemingly reflective of the director’s own mixed emotions in revisiting this story. In this case, however, that quality of fluctuation isn’t a deficiency but a virtue, a sign of a filmmaker really wrestling with how she became the woman and artist she is today, and the mark of a film that’s beholden to no recipe but its own.

Cast: Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton, Jack McMullen, Frankie Wilson, Richard Ayoade, Jaygann Ayeh Director: Joanna Hogg Screenwriter: Joanna Hogg Distributor: A24 Running Time: 119 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Aladdin Is a Magic Corporate Ride to Nowhere Special

Guy Ritchie’s live-action remake is content to trace the original’s narrative beats with perfunctory indifference.

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Aladdin
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Compared to a few other recent live-action remakes of Disney’s animated films, which at least attempted to bring striking story wrinkles or an auteurist perspective to bear on their interpretations, Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin is a remake in the most literal sense. Much of the film’s first act traces the narrative beats of the 1992 animated feature, and in shot-for-shot fashion: Thieving street rat Aladdin (Mena Massoud) meets and charms the princess of his native Agrabah, Jasmine (Naomi Scott), and ultimately runs afoul of scheming grand vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), before obtaining a magic lamp containing a genie (Will Smith) who has the power to transform the young pauper into a prince worthy of Jasmine’s station.

The steadfastness with which every aspect of the original is replicated by this new Aladdin makes Ritchie’s film a grueling example of the streaming-era notion of art as content. Because there’s no chemistry between Massoud and Scott, the legitimacy of Aladdin and Jasmine’s flirtations is largely sold on the basis of the viewer’s preexisting knowledge that these two will become a couple. Elsewhere, the relationship between Jafar and the Sultan (Navid Negahban) is an even paler imitation. In the original, Jafar’s viciousness was at least partially driven by his hatred of the Sultan, who issued inane commands to his grand vizier in all sorts of parodically infantile and buffoonish of ways. Here, though, the Sultan is a negligible figure, neither callous nor especially influential, thus robbing his subordinate of a compelling motive. The Jafar of this film is evil simply because he’s been designated as the story’s big bad.

If the dogged faithfulness of Ritchie’s film to the original proves consistently stultifying, it’s the most noticeable deviations that ultimately damn the remake. In an attempt to give Jasmine something to do other than be the object of men’s affections, Ritchie and co-writer John August blend the character’s traditional frustrations at being trapped behind palace walls with a newfound resentment over how her capacity to rule as sultan is thwarted by traditional gender roles. Nonetheless, her desires to lead are bluntly articulated and reflective of a broader tendency among the film’s characters to express their awareness of their own repression by tilting their heads back and staring off into the distance as they speak extemporaneously about their dreams. Poor Scott is also burdened with the film’s big new song, “Speechless,” an instantly dated empowerment anthem that suggests the sonic equivalent of that old woman’s botched restoration of the Ecce Homo fresco in Borja, Spain.

The film does come somewhat to life during its musical numbers. Though these sequences are marked by simplistic and unengaging choreography, they don’t quell the verve of Howard Ashman and Tim Rice’s original songs. Less successful is Smith, who, unable to match the intensity of Robin Williams’s performance as the Genie in the original film, leans into his signature drawling sarcasm to bring his spin on the character to life, effectively draining the Genie of everything that made him so memorably larger than life in the first place. Even when portraying some of the Genie’s more antic behavior, Smith mostly takes the path of least resistance, injecting just enough energy into his performance to hint at Williams’s memorable take on the character but without seeming as if he’s actually working up a sweat.

Elsewhere, Massoud mostly goes through the motions in establishing Aladdin as a rakish pauper, but the actor comes alive in a comic scene that sees his street urchin, newly styled as a prince by the Genie, presenting himself to the Sultan’s court. Having never been trained on any points of social graces, Aladdin can only stammer out pleasantries, using strange honorifics to refer to the Sultan as he curtsies instead of bows. Later, the Genie helps Aladdin perform an elaborate dance by controlling the young man’s body in order to wow the Sultan’s court. Impressively, Massoud manages to perform complicated steps while looking as if every movement is done against his will, giving Aladdin’s flailing motions a slapstick quality.

Such flashes of personality, though, are few and far between in this remake. Certainly there was a lot of room to bring a contemporary perspective to this material—to counter the original’s problematic representation of its Middle-Eastern milieu and deepen its characters. Instead, the film settles for telling you a joke you’ve already heard and botching the delivery.

Cast: Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Will Smith, Marwan Kenzari, Navid Negahban, Nasim Pedrad, Alan Tudyk, Frank Welker, Billy Magnussen Director: Guy Ritchie Screenwriter: John August, Guy Ritchie Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 128 min Rating: PG Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack

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Review: Brightburn Is a Soulless Mishmash of Disparate Genre Elements

The way the film shuttles through its 90 minutes, it’s as if it’s been stripped of its most crucial narrative parts.

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Brightburn
Photo: Screen Gems

Like a lot of kids squirming through puberty, Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn) is an asshole. Unlike most, however, he’s from outer space and possessed of formidable superpowers. Soon after learning of his abilities, he stalks a classmate, Caitlyn (Emmie Hunter), who consoled him in class after he was teased for his incredible smarts. Brandon makes a show of controlling Caitlyn’s laptop before appearing outside her bedroom window, eerily floating in the air. By this point in director David Yarovesky’s Brightburn, one is still optimistic that Brandon’s creeper tendencies will be the most insidious of his problems. But when Caitlyn calls him a pervert, after letting him fall to the ground during a “trust fall” exercise in gym class, Brandon crushes the bones in her hand after she’s forced to help him up. By the end of the film, Caitlyn will prove to be one of the lucky ones.

That Yarovesky and screenwriters Brian and Mark Gunn don’t exactly push the link between Brandon’s pubescence and his growing self-awareness isn’t the first sign that something is amiss here. Right out of the gate, Brightburn reveals itself unwilling to animate its characters’ emotional dramas, using visual shorthand to simply hint at them. In the opening scene, set more than 10 years in the past, the camera pans across a bookshelf full of fertility books, informing the audience that Brandon’s parents, Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle (David Denman), really want to have a baby. Later, while helping his dad with chores, Brandon accidentally throws a lawnmower halfway across the family farm. This is when he recognizes that he has superpowers, but rather than prolong the kid’s doubt across more than one scene, the film zips straight to the moment where he’s about to shove his hand into the lawn mower’s spinning blades to confirm his suspicions that he’s nothing short of invincible.

More genre films—more films, period—could stand to have a lot less fat on their bones, but the way Brightburn shuttles through its 90 minutes, it’s as if it’s been stripped even of its most crucial narrative parts. Outside of one pulpy hallucination sequence, the film stubbornly refuses to give a concrete sense of the desperation that drove Tori and Kyle to adopt Brandon, just as it can’t be bothered to give shape to the mythology of his creation—or rather, his arrival. For a spell, though, this suggests a purposeful show of evasion. Much is made of the red light that peeks out from the floorboards in the family barn and to which Brandon is drawn throughout the film. If you’re a fan of Larry Cohen’s canon, you may wonder if the kid will be revealed as a kindred spirit of the ever-glowing human-alien antagonist from God Told Me To, here to make sport of our biological urge to procreate in our increasingly decaying world.

No such luck, as Brightburn is a meaningless mishmash of disparate genre elements. The truth of what lurks beneath the floorboards turns out to be of no particular consequence—not exactly a red herring, just a bit of hogwash that confirms Brandon to be a gene splice of Damien and Superman. Maybe a sense of majesty, of mythic grandeur, might have made him feel as if he was less arbitrarily willed into being, though Yarovesky certainly conveys the weight of the kid’s killing spree. Not its existential weight, only its repugnant force. At one point, one of his victims struggles to hold up the lower part of his grotesquely shattered jaw, as Brandon pulls off the mask that he wears because, presumably, he understands that that’s what someone with superhuman powers should do. Brightburn never shows us how Brandon came to such a realization, but it does let us glimpse the stone-cold delight he takes in erasing human life—a spectacle of violence that exists for its own soulless sake.

Cast: Elizabeth Banks, David Denman, Jackson A. Dunn, Jennifer Holland, Matt Jones, Meredith Hagner, Becky Wahlstrom, Gregory Alan Williams, Steve Agee, Emmie Hunter Director: David Yarovesky Screenwriter: Brian Gunn, Mark Gunn Distributor: Screen Gems Running Time: 90 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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