Spielberg By Numbers – The Color Purple

Welcome back!

The Color Purple (1985)

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Plot: (based on Alice Walker’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel) The life of Celie, a black woman growing up in the early 20th century who, separated from her sister, endures abuse from her father and then her husband, but finds her inner strength with the help of the strong women in her life.

Seen It Before?: Read the book, but had always avoided the movie because I wasn’t sure it would do the book justice. Boy was I ever wrong!

Writing (8): The film is paced beautifully. There are a few elements that were toned down from the novel, but overall, the themes of the book are respected very well. The dialogue has a natural quality to it (something Spielberg brings out very well) while still retaining the rhythms and content of Walker’s beautiful prose.

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Adapting novels to the screen is hard to do well, and this is one of the better ones I’ve seen.

Acting (10): Whoopi Goldberg’s performance is absolutely heart-breaking. The audience feels her fear of Albert as well as her joy when Shug helps her find her sister’s letters. The beauty of the book is seeing Celie discover her strength, and Goldberg brings that discovery to life so well. You just want to cheer for her.

Margaret Avery is a delightful Shug. She’s got the rough edges as well as the warmth that draws Celie out of her shell.

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Huge kudos to Oprah Winfrey for her incredible portrayal of Sofia. The fact that she didn’t win an Oscar for her performance is just tragic. The scene at the dinner table at the end when she comes back to life is one of the most joyous things ever.

I also have to give a shout out to Danny Glover. Albert is such a despicable character, and so it’s hard to like him, but I like how Glover gives the character a helping of humanity that lets us see the man he could have been. He’s terrifying and tragic, but we see flashes of potential that he wastes in his selfish fixation on Shug at the expense of the respect he should be giving his wife. He does do the right thing at the end

Visual Style (9): There are so many iconic symbols and moments that stand out, giving this the suitable scope and sweep of Walker’s original novel. I know Alice Walker objected to the first scene, saying it was too “Oklahoma” but I love how it presents all of the film’s themes in one moment before we see Celie brought down to her lowest low. And that scene is echoed in the scenes near the end when Celie is able to find that joy again.

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I also love how the film uses color. When Celie is at her lowest, the colors are very muted and dark, but once she finds her strength, the color returns to the world.

Music (9): It’s weird not to have John Williams’ scoring a Spielberg film, but it’s all good! Quincy Jones does a beautiful job of creating a sweeping symphonic score that brings out the emotions of Celie’s journey, as well as writing many of the songs sung in the film such as Shug Avery’s “Miss Celie’s Blues” and the amazing “Maybe God is Tryin’ to Tell You Somethin'” from the finale. Both musical styles complement each other well, though it’s the vocal pieces that stay with you the most. I can definitely see why the story was adapted to a stage musical.

Genre (8): Everything about this film works together beautifully. The humor arises organically from the situations just as the more terrifying moments. My only real issue is that everything is sort of softened from the book. Celie and Shug’s relationship, which is much more explicitly addressed in the book becomes more of a girl-talk bonding moment. It’s still a sweet moment, but it is played a bit safe. Also, Albert’s abuse of Celie feels a lot less brutal. Albert is terrifying in the book, but the film makes him more of a comic inept character. I like how the film highlights his insecurity and fragile masculinity, but it misses out on just how evil his treatment of Celie is.

I suppose the cohesion this film has comes from smoothing things out and softening the extremes of joy and terror from the book. I know Spielberg initially didn’t think he could do the book justice, so it’s very obvious that he’s playing thing’s safer than he did in Close Encounters where the emotional dynamics kept the film from finding a more stable center.

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Overall Thoughts: A beautiful, inspiring film that does right by the novel, even if it plays things a bit safe.

Total Score: 44/50

Rank

  1. E.T. (45)
  2. The Color Purple (44)
  3. Raiders of the Lost Ark (43)
  4. Jaws (42)
  5. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (38)
  6. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (37)
  7. The Sugarland Express (35)
  8. 1941 (27)

Next week, we’ll be looking at Empire of the Sun. See you then!

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Spielberg By Numbers – Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Welcome back! It’s Indy time!

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

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Plot: (A prequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark) Indiana Jones infiltrates an ancient evil cult in search of mythical stones which were stolen from a peaceful village.

Seen it Before?: Tons of times!

Writing (7): The plot of this one is a lot more episodic, so there are a number of scenes that don’t contribute much to the overall movement of the story aside from being nasty scrapes to be escaped from. While that’s very in keeping with the adventure serials that inspired this series, it makes the film less cohesive than Raiders was.

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Also, there’s some clunky dialogue moments that go just a bit beyond fun cheese.

Acting (7): Harrison Ford is great as always, though the increased wackiness of the film doesn’t leave a lot of room for subtlety and even some of his dialogue feels clunky.

Willie Scott is the classic diva damsel who accompanies the hero for no reason other than to be captured and be useless. It’s a trope. I get that, but her character is grating at times and shrill at others. Granted, a lot of it is the script, but Kate Capshaw plays things so broadly that she doesn’t connect with the audience the way Marion did.

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Visual Style (8): This movie is VERY effects heavy, and while some of them still look great (the heart-ripping scene, amirite?) a lot of the other effects were so ambitious that they haven’t aged super well. As such, this film has a goofy quality that fits with the theme, but doesn’t give this film the same timeless heft as Raiders.

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Music (8): John Williams is, of course, perfectly suited to crafting an ominous musical backdrop for the film’s many spooky set pieces.

His “Parade of the Slave Children” cue is great, but the score for this one just doesn’t have the same richness as the Raiders score.

Genre (7): I feel like Spielberg needs to do at least ONE full on musical in his career. The glitzy 1930’s Busby Berkeley-esque music and dance sequence that opens this movie is a delight. It’s random as all get out, and I’m not really sure what’s happening inside the dragon head (like, the audience can’t see what they’re doing in there, so is it supposed to be a fantasy sequence inside Willie’s head where she imagines that she’s on a huge Broadway stage and not in a club in Shanghai? I mean, that’s probably what it is, but still…), but it’s a hilarious bait-and-switch on the audience who are expecting doom and they get…tap dancing.

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Aside from that, the rest of the film dials up the humor to 1941 levels (although a great deal more of the jokes work well in this film) and blends it with crazy action and the most extreme horror of the franchise.

The balance is just a liiiiitle off with this one, though. The action’s relentless, not giving the characters time to really breathe. The humor is pervasive and while it is very funny at times, it takes the impact away from the creepier elements to the point where you don’t feel a lot of the danger.

Overall Thoughts: A fun adventure with some creepy moments that would have worked better with a more consistent tone.

Total Score: 37/50

Rank

1. E.T. (45)

2. Raiders of the Lost Ark (43)

3. Jaws (42)

4. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (38)

5. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (37)

6. The Sugarland Express (35)

7. 1941 (27)

Next up, we’re taking a break from adventure and spending some time looking at the human condition.

Spielberg By Numbers – E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial

And we’re back!

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

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Plot: A boy befriends a lost alien and helps it return home while keeping it safe from government agents who are trying to study it.

Seen it Before?: Yep! I wasn’t a huge fan of it as a kid, but I grew to love it later on.

Writing (9): We get back to a lot of the “slice of life” moments that gave Jaws and Close Encounters a lot of their emotional core. Elliot’s home situation is so realistic and relateable, and the children’s reactions to E.T. are delightful.

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In terms of the overall plot, there are a few clunky moments, but overall, it moves at a good pace and culminates in a beautiful finale.

Acting (8): Overall, the acting is pretty good, especially for a cast that includes mostly children. There are, however, a few moments where Elliot just goes a bit too far over the top to be believable. Now, granted, kids are VERY over the top, but you can just see the director behind the camera miming what he wants them to do, and it sort of takes me out of it here and there. But overall, the cast is fantastic.

I LOVE the scene where Elliot is showing E.T. all of his toys. It’s got this genuine random feel to it that makes it seem like the kid’s just ad-libbing all of it (I mean, he might have been). But it works because we get a sense of this kid’s entire worldview and philosophy based on what toys he likes and what aspects of them he values. And it’s cute because he’s always been the odd one out and probably hasn’t had a chance to geek out about his sweet Star Wars action figure collection before with anyone. And E.T. has no earthly clue what he’s saying or what any of what he’s showing him means, but it just enjoys the experience of seeing new things.

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I’m also happy that one of Elliot’s favorite Star Wars characters is Lando, too. *high fives*

Visual Style (9): This movie looks great. There are so many iconic moments that stick with you (one of which became the logo for Spielberg’s own Amblin Entertainment). I love the Steampunk-esque style of E.T.’s spaceship, as well as the beautiful scenes set inside the ship at the beginning.

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I also love the creature design of E.T. itself, especially the palpitating flutter within its chest when it’s glowing. According to behind-the-scenes stuff, E.T. is a plant-based being, neither male nor female, and that detail just sends E.T. to the next level, elevating it from puppet to believable being.

Having the film be shot from kid eye-level is also wonderful The only adult you see fully for a great deal of the film is Elliot’s Mom, and that immediately puts you in his shoes. Every one else, especially Keys and Elliot’s teacher, seem threatening and antagonistic while his mother is shown without any of the same camera work. You immediately get the feeling that Elliot and his siblings all feel like, deep down, they want to protect their mother from everywhere else. They knew she was hurt but they don’t understand why. The scene where Elliot casually mentions that his dad is visiting Mexico with his girlfriend is great because his brother immediately gets angry in a way he can’t really articulate aside from saying he’s mad Elliot made his mom cry. That comment is the first to reveal to us what recently happened between their parents, and you can tell no one wants to talk about it. But Elliot does because he wants to understand.

Having the camera be mostly at the eye-level of the children makes not only the kids vs. government conflict terrifying, but it makes the looming specter of their parent’s recent separation a much scarier thing than it would be if this were, say, a rom com where a recent divorcee works to pick herself up after a messy separation and move on, aided by her wacky friends and supported by her adoring children.

Music (10): This is one of the few Wiliams scores that still makes me cry every time. The flying theme is such a moment of childlike abandon and freedom and the music captures this beautifully. On top of that, the final scene has such a massive punch that’s very different from the ethereal wonder of Close Enocunters. The final scene in E.T. is this cathartic moment where the characters are all allowed to express their sorrow over lost things and heal, and the music elevates the whole moment from a schmaltzy goodbye to a moment of powerful emotional power.

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Genre (9): Like many Spielberg films, there’s some genre-hopping, but this one is a lot more consistent than Close Encounters. It blends the humor and the ominous tone really well. Even the scene where it goes off the deep end and the government agents in space suits start invading the home works because it’s from a child’s point of view and such things WOULD be terrifying.

I think the only scene where the genre gets muddy is the scene where Drunk Elliot frees the frogs. It’s a fun scene, but I feel like it was supposed to be funnier than it turned out being. I dunno. maybe it’s just me, but it feels out of place.

Overall Thoughts: A beautiful movie that works better when you’re an adult looking back at your own childhood and wishing you rode your bike more (and got into D&D back when it was unironically cool).

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Total Score: 45/50

Rank

  1. E.T. (45)
  2. Raiders of the Lost Ark (43)
  3. Jaws (42)
  4. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (38)
  5. The Sugarland Express (35)
  6. 1941 (27)

Next week, we’ll revisit a familiar face (and a familiar hat). See you then!

 

Spielberg By Numbers – Raiders of the Lost Ark

And here we get the amazing team-up of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas!

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

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Plot: Archeologist and adventurer Indiana Jones is hired to find the famed Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis (and Indy’s rival, Belloq) find it first.

Seen It Before?: Literally hundreds of times. I love this movie.

Writing (9): I mean, it WAS written by the folks who gave us the script for The Empire Strikes Back so you know it has to be good. But apart from that, I think the script’s ability to blend genres works really well. It also balances character with action in ways that one doesn’t often see in action-adventure films.

And aside from a few brief moments of lag, the script is marvelously paced, moving along at a brisk pace without leaving the audience feeling that anything is rushed.

Acting (8): Harrison Ford is at the absolute top of his game here. His character is at once a hardened adventurer with years of experience, but he’s never let himself grow cynical. He’s not one to plan anything in advance in a crisis and yet he dilligently takes notes on what he researches. He’s not someone who’s very comfortable in front of crowds (outside of his classroom). He’s a nerd and he’s pretty clueless about women, but when he meets a woman who challenges him, he turns into a big softie.

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I’m always amazed at how multi-layered the character is, even though he’s based on any number of adventure serials from the 30’s and 40’s, all of which tended toward the formulaic end of the spectrum. But Ford is able to find a lot of depth to the character.

I also like Paul Freeman’s slimy Belloq who is the perfect foil for Indy. I really like the scene where he and Marion are drinking, and we get to see him loosen up a bit. He’s corrupt and a creep and he’s not averse to taking credit for other people’s achievements, but we get a glimpse of the charming vulnerable person he probably was in the past before the lure of money and fame drove him to abandon his morals. After that scene, we see him begin to question the Nazi’s treatment of Marion, but instead of doing the right thing and denouncing them, he chooses money and fame and convinces himself that sacrificing Marion is worth it. The script plays him pretty exclusively as a villain (although a charming one), but Freeman gives the character a bit of humanity that adds an extra layer. In another universe, he could have teamed up with Indy to fight the Nazis.

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The best villains are characters who COULD have been heroes.

The rest of the cast is a bit more uneven, but not terribly so. John Rhys-Davies’ Sallah is a delight and often the voice of reason, especially when Indy gets more and more desperate. Marion is a great leading lady, though I wish she’d kept the strength she had in her opening scene. For the rest of the film, she favors the damsel-in-distress end of the spectrum. But I love the scene where she and Indy are together on the ship. Their dynamic is expressed pretty beautifully when she accidentally smashes him in the face with a mirror and then, when he screams at the top of his lungs, she casually peeks around the mirror and asks, “What’d you say?”

Visual Style (9): This film looks incredible. It takes a lot of cues from old adventure serials and classic movies like The Maltese Falcon and The Mummy and yet it always feels new. On top of that, this film still holds up today, in terms of its visual effects. ILM never tried to reach beyond what they were capable of and as a result, the film has a timeless quality about it.

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From the ominous jungle in the beginning to the blinding light of Cairo to the creepy darkness of the Well of Souls, this film doesn’t ever stick to a single color palette or atmosphere, which keeps it interesting.

I did take off a point because the melting Nazis scene (which absolutely terrified me as a kid) does feel a bit dated nowadays.

Music (8): It’s nice to see John Williams doing more of the leitmotif work that he used in Star Wars. Before this, there was often a single theme (The shark theme, the five note message from the aliens, the 1941 march) that was augmented by a musical landscape in which that theme existed. With this one, we get multiple themes (Indy’s heroic march, Marion’s romantic theme, the ark’s ominous choir theme, etc.) and it helps to create the adventure serial tone that the film is gong for (much like how Star Wars grew out of sci-fi action serials).

I also like the creepy atonal moments of the score that hearken back to the horror films of the 1930’s. Those films often used music more as a spooky backdrop than a prominent film element, and Williams is just as good at that as he is created a memorable library of recognizable themes (a la Peter and the Wolf).

I gave it an 8 because I know how much better his scores for future Indy films will get.

Genre (9): I think Lucas’s influence with the script really helped to blend the genres together really well. With Close Encounters, we saw parts that worked and others that didn’t, but with this one, the comedy/horror/comic book action/1930’s romance elements all work together beautifully.

I think it helps that Indy himself is such an everyman hero. He makes just as much sense dressed in tweed in front of a classroom, clueless that all the girls that there taking his class are doing so because they’re in love with him, as he is leaping across chasms in a worn leather jacket and hat sporting a trusty bullwhip.

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Overall Thoughts: A fun enjoyable romp that has such a timeless quality to it that it stands up even among modern action films.

Total Score: 43/50

Rank

  1. Raiders of the Lost Ark (43)
  2. Jaws (42)
  3. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (38)
  4. The Sugarland Express (35)
  5. 1941 (27)

Next week, we’re going to be getting a visit from a stubby alien who just wants to phone home!

Spielberg By Numbers – 1941

Welcome back! This week, we’re looking at Spielberg’s first “flop.” But let’s see what the numbers say.

1941 (1979)

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Plot: (based on a number of real-life instances of paranoia and panic in the days after Pearl Harbor in the 1940’s) Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, people in California are paranoid about another attack, and an unhinged pilot, a young man who just wants to dance, and an actual Japanese sub who plans to attack Hollywood ignite things into a manic explosionfest.

Seen It Before?: No. I hadn’t even heard of it until recently.

Writing (3): This hurt because a lot of folks I respect wrote the script, but it obviously suffered through a number of re-writes before it hit the big screen.

It’s not necessarily bad, it’s just that nothing really makes sense. It has a huge cast, and the chaotic setup of every character makes no sense until we get to the explosive finale and everything sort of falls into place.

And, I hate to say it, but the comedy doesn’t work. There are a few moments where I laughed, but those few moments of comedic gold are drowned in a lot of painfully unfunny forced comedy that just doesn’t work. I liked the Jaws parody at the beginning (using the same music and the same actress, even), but a lot of the dialogue-based humor just doesn’t work, and that’s horrifying because the cast features John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, and Slim Pickens.

I think the biggest problem is that so much of the slapstick visual gags are thrown at the audience helter skelter with no regard for comedic timing, early on. By the time the movie finds its voice later on, the effective comedy gets spoiled by a lot of pointless shoehorned-in gags that detract from the heartfelt comedy of the main characters.

It tries to do too much, and muddies the waters.

Acting (6): A lot of the best comedic actors are tragically underused. John Belushi’s character is hilarious, but he spends so much of the film by himself that a lot of the gags become repetitive and unfunny, even though his character is the only one I really liked.

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Slim Pickens is another standout. His sequence doesn’t have much to do with anything, but he’s genuinely funny and his character feels like the retirement years of his Dr. Strangelove character (you know, if he didn’t explode…).

Dan Aykroyd (in his first American film) is one of the top-billed actors, but his character is held to the side, playing the straight man when needed, until he gets hit in the head. I must say, his, “I’m a bug!” scene cracked me up and made me wish he’d gotten hit on the head earlier on we could get more of him being a headcase.

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I also need to give a shoutout to Christopher Lee’s character. He speaks German so fluently and elegantly (and angrily) that it’s no wonder the script has him speaking German in every scene (even when he’s talking to people who are responding to him in Japanese and English).

The rest of the cast just feels flat. The weird love stories felt forced and awkward (especially the gal who is turned on by planes), but that may be more the fault of the script than the actors.

Visual Style (7): Believe it or not, this film was nominated for three Oscars (Cinematography, Visual Effects, and Sound Design, but it lost to Alien and Apocalypse Now for obvious reasons). And despite its shaky script, it looks great. From the atmospheric mist in the beginning to the dogfight over Los Angeles to the Japanese attack on the Santa Monica Pier, to the sight of a literal house falling off a cliff, it has a HUGE effects budget worthy of a serious war movie.

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One of my favorite action scenes involved a tank pointlessly smashing through a paint factory and then a turpentine factory, coming out exactly as it was in the beginning. The sight of giant vats of paint exploding and collapsing is really cathartic.

Regardless of how well the comedy works, the action (which just keeps getting crazier and crazier) really saves this film from being a complete write-off. It’s genuinely fun to watch, even if it isn’t super funny at the beginning.

Music (6): I wasn’t expecting the score to be as good as it was. The main theme, the “1941 March” is a delight (Spielberg has said it’s his favorite Williams march from a film he’s directed). The rest of the score has a lot of cues that suggest his later Indiana Jones scores.

My only complaint is that the score sounds like it’s for a totally different movie. It takes itself very seriously, but not in an ironic way. Its war-movie gravitas detracts from the screwball comedic tone. It’s a great score, but this film needed a kookier sound to it.

Genre (5): If it had been a black comedy like Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale’s original script, I think it could have worked a LOT better.

The comedy isn’t actually that bad, but because so much of it is crammed into every open space, it doesn’t work. But I think this COULD have been a really great comedy. John Belushi’s unhinged paranoid pilot who’s convinced there is a looming threat should have been a much more central character and he should have been allowed to play off of more characters (I would have KILLED to see him in a confrontation with Christopher Lee’s straight-laced German captain).

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As a family action film, it works, in parts, but as a screwball comedy, it could have been better.

Overall Thoughts: It’s been three hours since I’ve seen it, now, and I can’t help but keep thinking about the stuff that I genuinely loved about this one. It’s one of those films, you enjoy more once it’s done and you can see where everything was going. But watching it for the first time isn’t a fun experience because you’re not really sure why it isn’t funny yet. But in case you were curious, the film wasn’t actually a flop. It just wasn’t as massive a hit as his previous blockbusters.

Total Score: 27/50

Rank

  1. Jaws (42)
  2. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (38)
  3. The Sugarland Express (35)
  4. 1941 (27)

 

Next week, we are introduced to Indiana Jones! See you then!

Spielberg By Numbers – Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Welcome back! This is a strange mix of genres, but when it works, it works well.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

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Plot: A series of UFO encounters lead several people to begin to exhibit strange compulsions to seek out Devil’s Tower while the government tries to cover up the whole thing.

For the purpose of this blog, I watched the Director’s Cut. The Theatrical Cut was the original, but it had some limitations. The Special Edition was a departure from Spielberg’s vision, but the Director’s Cut is the closest to Spielberg’s vision, in his opinion, so it was the one I chose.

Seen it Before?: Yep! I’ve seen all three versions multiple times. Didn’t really get it when I first saw it as a kid, but it grew on me in later years.

Writing (6): This is very much a visual story, so unfortunately there are some points where the script wanders. There are several scenes that really aren’t needed, and some of the dialogue is a bit clunky. The overall plot is great and compelling, but the characters don’t always make the transition from page to screen.

Acting (7): Richard Dreyfuss’ character stands out among the cast. In his descent into manic obsession, when his family falls apart, you can’t tell if you want to sympathize with him or beat him over the head for being so clueless. His actions are completely irrational, but it’s obvious he’s under the influence of an outside force. And there’s the suggestion of an eventual homecoming where he comes back to his family with all the knowledge of what he’s seen.

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The rest of the cast just sort of fades into the background. Teri Garr’s character has to be sort of spacey so that no one else would believe her when he tells them her son was taken, but the end result is that the character ends up being more of an ethereal mother figure without much else.

Francois Truffault’s character also could have been given more characterization. He’s obviously obsessed with figuring out the meaning of what’s going on, just as everyone else is, but his interest is more academic. As a result, he’s basically just an interviewer without a lot of glimpses into his inner state. I feel like he could have been a much more compelling character.

Visual Style (9): I LOVE the look of the UFO’s. This is a very visual film, and the whole look is something that feels different from anything else out there. The bright vivid lights just make you giddy every time they show up. Plus, the culmination of everything at the end with the big reveal of the mothership is just so beautiful it hurts.

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And the effects still hold up today. It still looks completely breathtaking. It’s no mystery the cinematography won an Oscar.

I also love the camera work throughout this one. There’s a effective use of color that gives the film a rich texture, and Spielberg’s use of light (outside of the UFO’s lights) gives everything a really epic feel that I dig.

Music (9):  I can understand why it didn’t win the Oscar for best score because John Williams beat John Williams (he was nominated twice that year; how crazy is that?) with his score for Star Wars. So I totally understand.

But even still, this score is one that I really want to own eventually. It’s a gorgeous mix of ominous wonder, creeping dread, and triumphant beauty. The whole musical landscape is basically just human emotions in music form. And the fact that the climax features the humans communicating with the mothership via a musical vocabulary just gives it that much more scope (Plus, I really enjoyed that the mothership quotes the Jaws theme at one point).  It’s a beautiful score. When the end credits start rolling, you don’t want to turn the TV off because you just want to keep listening to the music and watch that mothership rise up into the sky.

Genre (7): This is definitely a sci-fi classic that’s really important to many people, and I really like it, but I wish it had stuck to one or two genres instead of twelve.

There are scenes of slapstick comedy, scenes of terrifying horror, scenes of optimistic sci-fi, scenes of action adventure, and scenes of tense family drama. Some of it works and some doesn’t.

The scene where the aliens arrive to abduct Barry is pretty much tonal and editing perfection. You feel his mother’s terror as they descned from the roiling clouds and then the aliens all start climbing down the chimney and through the air ducts while the lights blast through the open windows, ultimately stealing her son away from her.

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The finale is also a welcome dose of optimistic sci-fi in a genre dominated by hostile aliens blowing up landmarks. It’s majestic, sweeping, emotional, and uplifting.

Other sequences, like when Roy’s family begins to disintegrate around the dinner table, with him obsessing over his mashed potatoes and his son beginning to cry as he realizes that something’s wrong, is emotionally powerful, especially when it devolves into a screaming match between parents with the kids just wanting their parents to stop fighting. It’s very true to life, and very powerful.

But then we get scenes like when Roy starts building a giant model of Devil’s Tower in his house (which doesn’t add much to the story since he already built a model in his train set) that feels like it’s drifting from drama to comedy, and the tonal shift doesn’t work since that’s when his wife decides to leave him.

Overall Thoughts: When it works, it works great, but it can be inconsistent. Great music, a wonderful performance by Dreyfuss, and a beautiful visual palette that endures to this day.

Total Score: 38/50

Rank

  1. Jaws (42)
  2. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (38)
  3. The Sugarland Express (35)

Next week, we’ll be looking at 1941, a film that I hadn’t heard about until recently. See you then!

Spielberg By Numbers – Jaws

Welcome back! This one’s a different-ish film than Sugarland Express, but it feels very much a product of the same mind. Let’s see how it does!

Jaws (1975)

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Plot: (based on the book by Peter Benchley) A killer shark threatens a beachfront community, growing bolder and more dangerous with each kill until the new chief of police decides to hire an eccentric fisherman to help him kill it once and for all.

Seen it before?: Yep! Didn’t feel brave enough to watch it until my 20’s (I’m a wuss, I know) but I absolutely love it!

Writing (9): Peter Benchley co-wrote the script, so you know he made sure nobody screwed up his baby. My favorite thing about the script is how it captures a lot of genuinely true-to-life moments. Obviously, great white sharks don’t leap up onto boats, but a lot of the early scenes with Brody’s family, and the day-to-day chaos of the town of Amity feel really genuine.

Once Quint is introduced, the script moves into a heightened reality which makes the shark’s increasingly uncharacteristic behavior feel more plausible than it would have if Quint wasn’t there being all crazy and amazing. Some of the initial dialogue between Quint and Hooper feels a bit forced, but once the three of them get onto the boat, the pacing picks back up and it’s smooth sailing (kinda) from then until the end.

Acting (8): I love Robert Shaw’s Quint dearly. Especially the devastating scene where he tells the story of how his ship sank in WWII and hundreds of his men died from shark attacks.  He chews a bit of the scenery here and there, but his increasing mania makes sense as you realize he never was able to move on from the awfulness of that event in WWII.

I also really love Brody. His fear of water is very convincingly portrayed. Roy Scheider never has to resort to any melodramatic flailing to get across that he is juuuust barely keeping things together. His moment of apotheosis when he shoots the tank in the shark’s mouth and blows it up, even though his boat is sinking around him is absolutely wonderful and Scheider sells it really well.

Richard Dreyfuss is a little more uneven. I feel like his character is the least fleshed out. He seems so confident, but there’s a suggestion that he’s compensating for feelings of inadequacy (especially since his character is wealthy and probably still supported by his parents). But there isn’t a lot to go on. The script basically uses him as a means of pushing the plot forward, but the actor could have elevated the character beyond that, I think.

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Visual style (8): I like how active the ocean is as a character. We get it drenched in sunsets and darkened by twilight and, even though it is also portrayed as mysterious and dangerous, it’s allowed to be many positive things, too.

The color and energy of the town and its beach are excellent and perpetually engaging, giving background characters a chance to be more than atmospheric wallpaper.

The only points I deduct are for the design of the shark itself. The animatronic shark they created for the film is a masterwork of engineering, especially since the production team had so many problems with it. But once the shark begins inexplicably leaping out of the water and becoming much more visible, growling at the characters and doing its best to make a meal of Quint (poor guy), the rubbery reality of the shark is laid just a bit too bare.

It’s still effective because it’s shot so well, but I think the shark would have been more plausibly menacing had it stayed in the water.

Music (10): John Williams won an Oscar for this score and it’s easy to see why. Not only is the Jaws theme completely iconic, but it is part of a rich landscape of music that Williams creates, blending ominous pursuit with the beauty of the island setting and the triumph of cooperation and ingenuity. There’s no “heroic” theme per se, but the music does create a sort of false sense of security in the third act where you see the three shark-hunters working together as a team, tagging the shark with the yellow barrels, and you have no idea that, very soon, the shark is going to destroy the boat and kill Quint.

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And then we get the bittersweet music at the very end that blends into the end credits. It’s not a bombastic score filled with bold brass and whirling strings. It’s very minimalist, but it works REALLY well in context.

Genre (7): Many consider this a horror film, and it is, I suppose, in parts. The shark attacks are bloody and brutal, and the rising tension is palpable in the final scenes. In many ways, it’s a lot like a slasher flick with the killer going from the virgin girl to the child to those who try to kill it.

I guess it’s more accurately a thriller, but the light-hearted city stuff, especially when the city council is debating closing the beaches, feels a lot more like satirical comedy. The shark is a problem people don’t want to deal with, but once the problem gets worse and worse they’re forced to finally fix the problem that they ultimately created.

The best blending of genre happens in the scene where Quint, Hooper, and Brody are belowdecks drinking, sharing scars and war stories, and then singing while the shark begins banging up the bottom of the boat. It goes from fun to tragic to fun to scary effortlessly, and it’s very effective.

I think a more ominous tone in the beginning would have robbed us of those great day-in-the-life moments, but at the same time, I wonder if this awesome movie could have been more awesome?

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Overall Thoughts: A classic, despite some kooky shark effects. Great music, great characters, and a lot more “real life” than one usually finds in a thriller.

Total Score: 42/50

Rank

  1. Jaws (42)
  2. Sugarland Express (35)

Next week we’ll be looking at Close Encounters of the Third Kind!