Jaws (1975)

★★★★★

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Jaws PosterDirector: Steven Spielberg

Release Date: June 20th, 1975 (US); December 26th, 1975 (UK)

Genre: Adventure; Drama; Thriller

Starring: Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss

It is probably fair to say Jaws cemented Steven Spielberg’s status as a prominent athlete in the movie-making race. Released in 1975, the film ushered in a fresh era of monster flicks. Those hallmarks that we deem familiar in the genre today made their mainstream debut in Spielberg’s classic: the inaugural attack and subsequent denial; the saviour who is the only one bearing initial clarity; the prevention plan executed atop a wave of mayhem.

It is a blueprint that studios and filmmakers have followed since — the pitch for Alien famously included the tagline “Jaws in space” — primarily because the structure indiscriminately appeals to audiences. You only have to glance back at the last two summers to see the formula play out in Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla and Colin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World. Speaking of summer, Jaws is often also touted as the first seasonal blockbuster (it broke box office records upon release in the US). The catch? This blockbuster is one of those intelligently composed things.

Following the watery demise of a teenage girl via shark attack, the residents of Amity Island find themselves on high alert. Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) is tasked with developing a solution, but when the problem takes the form of a person-guzzling creature solutions are hard to come by. Bill Butler’s camera focuses directly on the words “shark attack” as Brody punches them into the death certificate of the aforementioned teen, the surrounding silence signifying both the solemnity at hand and the imminent danger. Everybody is a potential target because, on Amity Island, everybody is water-bound.

The locale is a “summer town [that] needs summer dollars,” according to Mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton). Speaking to an agitated Brody, he continues, “You yell shark and we’ve got a panic on our hands on the 4th of July.” Though his use of the word panic is probably a reference to any incoming tourists, chances are he is more concerned about panic on the business front. It’s commercialism versus well-being, a duel unethically buffeted by a mayor who slinks around in a bright suit looking like a candy floss vendor selling treats that appear appetising but are ultimately bad for your health. And it’s Brody who takes the brunt of his poor decision-making: after a grieving mother vents her fury to Brody’s face, the film evolves into a tale of redemption and vengeance.

A smart and often snarky screenplay accommodates various themes and elevates Jaws well beyond popcorn entertainment (though it can be just that if you want it to). Originally written by Peter Benchley, the screenplay was reshaped by Carl Gottlieb, adapting his own novel, as filming got under way. And to his credit Spielberg values the duo’s writing just as much as he does tension building and aquatic action. This means there is wit in abundance, “we’re gonna need a bigger boat” being the obvious calling card. It is more than just a throwaway line though — the iconic scene quite brilliantly combines comedy, timing, and terror.

The shark seems to strike out of the blue. Though precautions are in place (shutting down beaches etc.) everything seems a bit rushed, a bit chaotic, as if the appearance of the creature is a wholly uncommon event. A rubbery meteor thrashing into an otherwise idyllic seaside lifestyle. Then there are the constant distractions — while Brody tries to keep an eye on swimmers, a plethora of unwary residents inundate him with random musings. And when the islanders catch a bogus shark, the local photographer is too busy taking photos for anyone to notice it’s the wrong fish.

Like an old Wild West villain, the shark has a $3,000 bounty placed on its fin. We don’t see it for a long time, but we do catch a glimpse of the consequences left in the monster’s wake: a crab-strewn arm; a volcanic bloodbath; various images of unevenly dissected limbs. You can do nothing but watch as its grey silhouette stalks the dangling legs of helpless victims whose idea of a beach vacation involves more relaxation and less chomping. Simmering in the background is this domestic strand about a father trying to introduce his sons to a dangerous world, juggling the virtues of the sea with the violence of its inhabitants.

There is a masculine theme at play too, and it particularly rears when boatman Quint (Robert Shaw) shows up, gruff and tough, parading a confidence and idly disrespecting those around him. But there is more to Quint, a clouded morality that swims beneath the surface. Robert Shaw delivers a revelatory monologue with a look on his face that denotes unsubtly disguised horror in one of the film’s more serene, excellent scenes. He joins Brody and oceanographer Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) on a voyage to oust the shark and as the three guys get grimier and drunker, you constantly wonder just how exactly they’re going to conquer the aqua beast.

Jaws’ score is often heralded for its tense beat that builds to a crescendo, but it also bears a swooping grandiosity that marks the film’s action-adventure element. Sharp high notes chirp along pleasantly, notes that composer John Williams would go on to recycle for the first few Harry Potter outings. The film isn’t an out-and-out horror flick but it does dabble in gruesome visuals and a playfully heart pounding atmosphere.

There is a bit of dip in stress levels just before the final act plays out, but you let it slide as Spielberg has spent so long admirably refraining from bluster, favouring human drama instead. Led by the quintessential everyman Chief Brody, his regular qualities superbly highlighted by Roy Scheider, Jaws manifests as a clever genre-chewer that still boasts significant bite 40 years on.

Jaws - Cast

Images credit: IMP Awards, The Guardian

Images copyright (©): Universal Pictures

Mad Max (1979)

★★★★

Mad Max PosterDirector: George Miller

Release Date: December 10th, 1979 (UK)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Science fiction

Starring: Mel Gibson

Mad Max roars into life in the midst of an increasingly tumultuous car chase. Nightrider, a crazed gang member, is on the run from a group of police officers seeking justice for the murder of one of their own. The cops — or Main Force Patrol (MFP) — aren’t the most skilled highway cruisers, bumbling in nature and even more so in execution. All except one. Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson), the definition of poise, is the key player in a rather lousy team. We only see his grazed cowboy boots and chiselled chin to start with.

Max enters the vehicular fray, rampaging down an otherwise barren motorway — George Miller took inspiration from the 1973 Australian oil crisis, and this certainly looks like a region in need of basic resources. The director acknowledges the absurdity in what is occurring, and in what is set to occur, by introducing a plethora of slapstick obstacles: a stranded caravan, a barrage of road works, and a road-crossing baby. The pursuers crash, but the maniacal Nightrider cackles his way past each distraction in his “fuel-injected suicide machine”. Of course, Nightrider eventually crumbles at the sight of cool Max. He should have frenzied at dusk instead.

The screenplay never really deviates from the antics relayed above. It turns out Nightrider was part of The Acolytes, a motorcycle gang cut from the same cloth as Alex and his droogs. Their ultraviolence really is ultra-violent; from smashing up towns to off-camera rape to fiery murder, The Acolytes are a bad bunch. In line with Miller’s preferred tone there’s also an unconventional aura to the troupe, whose members would rather roly-poly back to their vehicles than walk.

Droogs they may be but unlike Kubrick, who liked to slow events down to a thoughtful meander, Miller takes an all over the place approach, with David Eggby’s cinematography zipping around and refusing to linger. This unholstered style greatly heightens the film’s prevailing intensity. The closest we get to an extended shot is during car chase scenes, at least when vehicles aren’t flipping on their head or exploding into pieces.

An apt description of the film might be ‘western on motorcycles’. But instead of galloping into town, characters rev. Said towns are often dusty, laid back communities where every day is Sunday. We are privy to a world where civilisation is in the process of falling, where chaos is a wrongdoer’s prime weapon and justice is in tatters (the latter, visually represented by the worn-out Halls of Justice sign). Trial attendance is low thus criminals walk free, devoid of lawful comeuppance, leaving only one form of comeuppance left to dish out. It doesn’t resemble the dystopian landscapes prominent in modern outings such as The Hunger Games or Oblivion, but instead a future that still bears familiarity, in that sense more aligned with a Blade Runner.

Droves of faceless characters are the product of a relentless mindset, and as such it can be difficult to clearly distinguish who stands on which side and why. Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne), leader of The Acolytes and definite villain, is how you would imagine Russell Brand if Russell Brand was the leader of a post-apocalyptic motorcycle gang: speaker of intellectual gibberish; British accent; hair all over the place; wearing a lot of leather. Keays-Bryne successfully balances oddness with menace and is particularly effective when conversing. “That man is Cundalini and Cundalini wants his hand back,” is one of his numerous uncouth and brilliantly delivered lines. Every time he appears on screen the film instantly spruces up. Toecutter is a bit like Heath Ledger’s Joker in that sense — irresistible to watch, utterly deranged yet eternally composed.

Gibson’s Max isn’t a hard-nosed or rugged vigilante, but in fact baby-faced and emotive. He spends his evenings listening to soothing saxophone melodies and having his hair washed by his wife Jessie (Joanne Samuel). At one point the job becomes too much for him and he opts to spend more time with his family, which means lying in wheat fields and Tarzan-ing into springs. But Max is “a winner”, he’s “on the top shelf” according to his MFP overseer, Captain Fifi (Fifi in name only), portrayed solidly by Roger Ward.

This overly righteous version of Max works because it highlights the character’s purity in a bad world, and underscores the endpoint of his arc. Miller’s decision to purposefully emphasise the familial side of Max — the side pre-Mad — before entering into the final act is a simple-yet-effective ploy that makes us sympathise with greater heft.

Miller spreads his OTT prerogative across all aspects of the story, not stopping short simply at action sequences. Corny music plays over loved-up scenes between Max and Jessie. Brassy cacophonies of sound are present during dramatic moments too — for example, a gruesome hospital bed scene. Elsewhere the pillaging score is constant and somewhat overdone but, again, is a key part of the director’s ethos.

A middling lull is unfortunate, where contrivance seeps into the narrative (somehow Max and The Acolytes keep wheeling into each other) however proceedings soon pick up again and build to a gratifying conclusion. This isn’t Mad Max yet, not the iconic manifestation of the character as moviegoers know him, but it’s a superbly crafted worldbuilder.

Mad Max - Max

Images credit: IMP Awards

Images copyright (©): Warner Bros.

Annie Hall (1977)

★★★★★

Annie Hall PosterDirector: Woody Allen

Release Date: April 20th, 1977 (US)

Genre: Comedy; Drama; Romance

Starring: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton

Films are often categorised under the “escape” section of our everyday lives. We watch to disassociate with reality for short bursts of time, to be present only within the context of the tedious romcom playing out on screen. Or the spectacular science-fiction trek that hurtles us towards another planet. Or the not-so-scary slasher flick we’ve seen a hundred times yet whose economical frights we still get a kick out of. Every so often though, there’s a film that commands our attention and refrains from releasing its grasp even long after the credits have finished rolling. Woody Allen’s infectious romantic dramedy is that film. Presented in a simple-yet-effective manner, it’s the delivery of the piece that approaches astounding. Annie Hall truly is a hallmark of American cinema.

Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) is an ardent New Yorker with a panache for eccentricity and a motor mouth to back it up. He’s also a comedian who plays doubles tennis every so often, and it’s on one of these sporting jaunts that Alvy meets Annie Hall (Diane Keaton). The connection between the pair is palpable from the moment they first awkwardly converse.

This isn’t a complicated film. Sure, it gets caught up in a barrage of intellectually stimulated dialogues echoed by apparently complex characters but that’s wholeheartedly where the fun lies. And it really is fun. Alvy is an erratic guy who just about holds it together by way of his methodological consistency. He wants to know the who, what, where, when, and why about everything because this allows him to pick apart and challenge. (“Everything our parents said was good is bad: sun, milk, red meat, college.”) Maybe it’s the comedian in him, but one gets the sense that his mannerisms have been ingrained since childhood — Alvy alludes to the adolescent trauma enforced by the roller coaster that often rattled above his house.

On the other hand there’s Annie. Not quite carefree but certainly free-spirited, Annie is bubbly and bumbling. The chipper lass ain’t entirely sure of herself when we first meet, though she steadily gains resolve and direction alongside the spitfire that is Alvy. They’re quite different people and share a relationship that invariably teeters between effusive and choppy. She’s Los Angeles, he’s New York. Certainly, their premier interaction post-tennis match embodies the joyous authenticity of the couple. The scene is awkward and endearing and hilarious, and from then we can’t take our eyes off of pair’s dynamic nor remove our permanent smile induced as a result of their witty banter. The film is all about them, fortunately. In some ways we feel unduly cut short at 93 minutes, but in others the hour and a half feels like a perfect summation of director Woody Allen’s vision. For a film so focused on two people — it does flirt with a variety of issues, but hones in on their relationship — Alvy and Annie are perpetually watchable.

Aided by semi-prominent collaborator Marshall Brickman, Allen’s original screenplay ensures his characters’ long-term watchability is a certainty. It’s outstanding. The film is bookended by two Woody Allen (or Alvy, but we get the sense they’re the same person) monologues, both of which represent the writer — and actor and director — at his most prosperous. Endlessly quotable (“Joey Nichols. See? Nichols. See? Nichols!”) and unafraid to tackle a whole range of affairs from 70s New York culture to drug use to the US East/West divide, Allen and Brickman’s screenplay rightly bagged an Academy Award at the organisation’s semicentennial ceremony. The narrative never suffocates its characters; even on the odd occasion when an overly vague cultural reference escapes Allen’s cerebral pen, the film skips along unscathed, our viewing experience likewise resilient.

This might also be one of the filmmaker’s funniest outings. With light-hearted subtlety often capitalised on by Allen and his acting partner Diane Keaton, Annie Hall never stops short at provoking laughter. Whether it’s a character living up to expectations — in the case of psychiatric results, it’s two characters — or a swivel away from narrative convention, humour is always lying in wait and we’re eternally willing to guzzle. The latter of these two examples sees Alvy accuse a pompous cinemagoer of being too indulgent. Allen, in this instance himself a quasi-critic evaluating the pretentious kind, is also poking fun at himself and the plethora of ‘don’t sneeze or you’ll miss the point’ diatribes he has written into the film.

As previously alluded to, the piece is shot abiding by a mantra of simplicity that serves to position the spotlight on its characters and accentuate their presence. The camera lingers on conversations for a long period of time because it knows it’s peering into aural gold. Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy springs to mind, a romantic moment in time that shares many intricacies with Annie Hall and was undoubtedly influence by Allen’s effective candour. Periodically we do see a few neat tricks play out, such as Alvy and company breaking the third wall or random subtitles translating small-talk for real thoughts, but these aren’t just pithy inclusions. Rather, they serve a purpose, be that to inject amusement or make a specific point about life.

The performances from Diane Keaton and Woody Allen ought to speak for themselves, but it’s worth noting that they’re wonderful. Annie Hall plays out in a non-chronological fashion. We already know the ending because it’s also the beginning, but that doesn’t matter one jot. It’s the journey that counts, and this journey is one of the very best.

Annie Hall - Woody and Diane

Images credit: IMP Awards, Total Film

Images copyright (©): United Artists