Archive for June 2015

Forty Years of Jaws

June 21, 2015

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This past weekend, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws turned forty. I used to consider it a horror film; after some thought, I decided it fit better in the action-adventure section; nowadays, though, it almost plays as a comedy-drama. Not that it doesn’t pack scares and thrills, but it has a peculiarly ’70s appetite for small character detail. Jaws isn’t really about a shark, or even really about the hunt for a shark. It’s about a man, Sheriff Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), looking to make an impact on his new community. Brody has moved himself and his family from New York to Amity (a thinly veiled analog of Martha’s Vineyard), and he expects his new peacekeeping gig to be, well, peaceful.

Adapted from a fairly awful Peter Benchley novel, Jaws clears away the book’s bestseller-chasing junk and flab — infidelity, the Mafia — and whittles the story down to three men against nature. In that respect, the movie actually feels more literary than the novel does, with its echoes of Melville, Hemingway, even Ibsen in its controversy over whether to close the beach. The men — ichthyologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and old salt Quint (Robert Shaw) along with Brody — represent various male responses to societal threats. You can know everything about it, you can be a hard-ass, you can have the authority of a badge — you’re still not guaranteed to beat it (“it” being death itself).

The young Spielberg, aided immeasurably by a cadre of top-flight artists — composer John Williams, editor Verna Fields, cinematographer Bill Butler — turned in a visually restless yet smoothly, supremely confident piece of work that suggested this was his twenty-second feature as director rather than only his second (if we don’t count such TV films as Duel, which I suppose we should). Aside from the much-cited suspense that came about from not being able to shoot the problematic mechanical shark, Spielberg gets the fierce adrenaline and joy of the seafaring hunt for the monster, who at this point in the movie could be a submerged leviathan or the Kraken or a dragon as easily as a shark. Past a certain point it hardly matters.

The concept goes back to Grimm: the villagers are imperiled by a beast, and brave men must face it. It did not, of course, occur to Benchley or his adapters that brave women could also face it, but then this isn’t a movie that especially values machismo, either. If anything, a woman — the grief-stricken Mrs. Kintner — is the one who finally gets the ball rolling, shames the mayor into authorizing the hunt. The first attacks, as in a horror film, happen under cover of darkness; when the emboldened monster feasts in daylight — and on a child, no less — the conflict shifts, and most of the second half at sea unfolds in the sun. The major exception is the rightly celebrated Indianapolis monologue, which takes the form of a historical campfire tale.

In the intervening decades, during which movies have often been said to have degenerated from the glory days of the ’70s, we have been asked to imagine a contemporary blockbuster that would take so much time out for the story of the Indianapolis. It’s assumed that today’s audiences wouldn’t sit still for it, but I think they would, if the scene were as tightly edited, sharply written, and beautifully acted as it is in Jaws. The movie has been blamed for creating, or at least cementing, the box-office worship of the blockbuster era; the movie also happens to be brilliantly crafted, and I’d like to think that, more than anything, is what changed the face of the blockbuster (which for several years had been the province of generally klutzily-directed disaster movies like Airport). In Spielberg’s hands Jaws becomes a gleeful, sometimes sadistic celebration of pure cinema, man against beast, all the chthonic symbolic stuff that makes the story work even on people who’ve never been near the ocean. Forty years on, let’s raise a glass to that.

Honeyglue

June 14, 2015

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Passion counts for something — passion and respect for idiosyncratic detail. In Honeyglue, the parents of a dying twentysomething stand in their living room and try to talk their way through their agony. They want their daughter dead and out of her pain — no, they want to die instead of her — no, they want to do something, but nothing can be done. The exchange, with all its awkward pauses and its rise and fall of emotion, takes up perhaps two minutes but feels much longer. The language is strange, stilted, grasping. It doesn’t sound like the way normal people talk, but these aren’t normal people; they are unwilling tenants of a land called Our Daughter Has Terminal Cancer, a place full of derangement and grief.

This is not a perfect movie. Parts of it are straight-up terrible. But those are the parts that grew on me, because they attempt something, and the movie fearlessly works its time-honored trope — dying young woman falls in love — in order to illuminate and to explore weirder corners. The woman, Morgan (Adriana Mather), meets Jordan (Zach Villa) in a nightclub. She has gone there alone on her birthday, telling her parents she was at a movie. Jordan, a sardonic crossdresser, steals her wallet, then thinks better of it after a bee stings him. Jordan is putting together a kids’ book about a bee who falls in love with a dragonfly, and he’s the bee, and Morgan is his dragonfly.

I believed in the affection that developed between them, because the actors have a tender, unstable, witty rapport. Morgan’s dad, a former detective, distrusts Jordan on sight and is implausibly rude to him; I agreed to accept that as the father’s way of trying to protect his daughter from whatever hurt he can spare her. But Jordan is for real; he turns out to be Morgan’s perfect gentle knight, albeit one in a skirt and Louise Brooks wig. Jordan lives in a tent on an apartment building roof; his presence there is tolerated by a junkie acquaintance (Fernanda Romero) who is pointlessly vicious to him, and who is connected to ethnic baddies to whom he owes money (which he borrowed for art school). This thread of the movie is ludicrous and needed to go.

Morgan and Jordan soon get married, after he shaves his head out of solidarity with her, and their honeymoon is extended and sometimes feels padded. There’s a truly terrible sub-subplot in which Jordan seems to have kidnapped a doctor — though we don’t see it happen and don’t know how it was accomplished — so that the doctor can be on call in case of emergency, I guess. It’s an idiotic thing for Jordan and the movie to do, and it has no consequences. This detour more or less kills the film.

But before it dies, it has a bizarre life. I respected the difficulty of many scenes. When the couple go to visit Jordan’s mom (a fine turn by Amanda Plummer), it feels almost as if the writer-director, James Bird, gave Plummer a basic outline and invited her to run with the scenario — you haven’t seen your son in a decade, you thought sure he was gay, and here he is married to a dying girl. Like Jordan, Bird has Native American ancestry, and he has a simple, unstressed and unfaked sympathy for the outsider that a more polished tearjerker like The Fault in Our Stars couldn’t quite reach. (If anyone is still going to adapt Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Bird has the chops and the heart for it.) Honeyglue — the title refers to a plot point in Jordan’s book — has its bad and pompous moments, but it also feels lived-in and genuine. I could see why these two cared for each other, and I cared for them. That is far from anything to sneeze at these days.

L.A. Slasher

June 7, 2015

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The horror/satire L.A. Slasher is the kind of film that has no character names, just generic labels: The Actress, The Reality Star, etc. They don’t matter as people, just as abstract concepts symbolizing how TV is ruining culture and society. Well, not if you don’t watch it, but never mind. The eponymous villain dresses all in white and an emotionless, androgynous mask, and he goes after people famous for being famous. There’s The Heiress (Elizabeth Morris), who hangs out with The Socialite (Korrina Rico). Both are abducted to add to the L.A. Slasher’s collection, along with The Teen Mom (Tori Black) and The Reality Star (Brooke Hogan). There’s The Actress (Mischa Barton), whose best friend is The Stripper (Marisa Lauren).

The filmmaking, by debut feature writer-director Martin Owen, is woozy and candy-colored — aggressively trippy overall, with many Dutch angles, swimmy camerawork, and general indifference to coherent action. When a character is run over by a truck, I couldn’t tell whether the murder’s awful staging is due to low budget or to directorial ineptitude. Another character seems to be drowned, but later shows up alive, just in time to be axed to death. The movie doesn’t like any of the victims, so we don’t either; in fact, the movie seems to agree with the L.A. Slasher that they deserve to die. As I’ve said of similar films in the past, it redefines “black comedy” as a movie in which people die and we don’t have to care.

The closest thing to a hero is The Actress, by virtue of not being openly obnoxious. Like a lot of performers here, Mischa Barton is asked to draw from some degree of personal experience in playing The Actress, who has a history of drug problems. Doofus pop star Drake Bell, most noted lately for an unkind tweet about Caitlyn Jenner, plays The Pop Star, a doofus. Eric Roberts is around for a few minutes as The Mayor, who drinks and whores around, in case you started to think the movie’s contempt was strictly female-focused. Even so — and throwing in The Producer (Tim Burke), a scuzzy casting-couch type — the film does relish the torture and bloodletting visited upon the women far more than that upon the men. I point this out merely to discredit the film’s stance that everyone in it gets what’s coming to them — they do, but some get it in a much more sadistic manner that belies satire and sidles up to misogynistic wish fulfillment.

L.A. Slasher is fairly awful and useless, with a fixation on the ’80s (including a soundtrack full of real or fake ’80s music) that doesn’t do it many favors. Slasher movies, after all, were less pretentious and more fun in that decade; they didn’t pretend to make heavy statements about the media and its various parasites. Worse, the killer talks, going on and on about L.A. and its menagerie of freaks and poseurs, and the voice belongs to none other than Andy Dick. At least we don’t have to look at him, but we still hear his tinny mocking honk as the Slasher, and it severely challenged any attempt on my part to sympathize with the devil. I may agree with some of the Slasher’s jaundiced commentary, but that doesn’t mean I want to see the Kardashians or Snooki tortured, and the experience becomes rancid and mean. Even Danny Trejo and Dave Bautista as two drug dealers (credited as, yes, Drug Dealer #1 and #2) can’t redeem it.