Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975) – Wow…Jaws, where do I even begin. Without exaggeration, Steven Spielberg’s horror/adventure/proto-blockbuster changed Hollywood filmmaking forever. In addition to launching the ludicrously successful career of the highest grossing director to ever pick up a camera, the movie single-handedly created created summer blockbuster season. Now from May until September, every major studio release to slip onto screens wants to recreate the popcorn rollercoaster experience of Jaws. Few, if any, films have pulled it off. After all, this is an entertainment machine that nimbly mixes horror movie thrills and small town comedy charm for two acts before turning into a men-on-a-mission adventure for the final stretch. All the characters are well defined, their bickering is hilarious, the suspense is gut-wrenching, the action is crowd rousing. If there’s a way that movies can entertain viewers, chances are Spielberg pulls that cord before that son-of-a-bitch shark has an explosive smile in the final moments. That might sound like over-praise, but with Jaws that’s almost impossible. Like it or not, this ended up being the most influential film of the 70s and an sheer rush of entertainment that few films have come close to matching.
There’s no need to run through the plot on this one. It’s hard to imagine anyone doesn’t know about Chief Brody’s shark troubles in Amity. Even if there are a few folks out there that don’t know the plot of Jaws, they should be allowed to see it unspoiled like the lucky bastards they are. What’s immediately impressive about Jaws while sampling it again is just how carefully crafted it is. The movie’s lore long ago leaked tales to the public of how faulty mechanical sharks delayed production and forced Spielberg to shoot from the shark’s point of view to far more terrifying effect. Those delays did more than help improve the scares though. With countless days wasted on uncooperative robot sharks and impossible ocean shooting, Spielberg would gather with his actors and writers to constantly rework the script. As a result, it’s a film without a second of wasted screen time.
Every moment either builds up the endearing ensemble cast (both the actors who took control of their roles and local eccentrics befriended and assigned small roles), advances the carefully constructed narrative, gets a laugh, or scares the shit out of the audience. Spielberg also took the time to craft of visual experience with Stanley Kubrick-like levels of perfectionism. Every suspense sequence is timed perfectly. Beauty shots were captured that clearly required waiting hours for the sun to perfectly fit the frame. Hell, even the character sequences are shot in flowing tracking shots with traditional coverage used only to tighten up pacing through editing. Even though Spielberg and co. attempted nothing more than entertainment, they had the time and talent to achieve their modest goals to bubblegum perfection.
Jaws was the long-promised crown jewel in Universal’s 100th anniversary year of catalogue Blu-ray releases and the company didn’t disappoint. As a restoration documentary on the disc proves, a team lovingly restored the film frame by frame for a transfer that probably offers more depth and clarity that theatergoers even saw in 1975. The bright summer vacation aesthetic shines in HD with splashes of garish blood popping off the screen and while the extra definition doesn’t do that rubber shark any favors…well, that’s part of the fun. The Blu-ray ports over all of the outtakes, trailers, and vintage interviews from the previous 30th anniversary DVD along with Laurent Bouzereau’s uncut 2-hour documentary from the laserdisc that remains arguably the finest making-of doc of its kind. Since previous DVDs exhausted every possible piece of Jaws lore and Spielberg loathes commentaries, the only new special feature for the Blu-ray (aside from the 8 minute restoration doc) is the fan-made Jaws documentary The Shark Is Still Working. It’s been talked up on the internet for years and despite being a little rough around the edges, the passion for the project shines through. The fans managed to interview everyone involved with the classic film and unearthed anecdotes that even Bouzereau didn’t get (which is really saying something). Sure, Universal could have trotted Spielberg, Richard Dreyfuss, John Williams or someone else out for a new interview, but honestly there’s probably nothing left to say about that isn’t covered in those two docs without delving into tales of craft service. It’s hard to imagine a more complete Blu-ray package or a film that deserves the treatment more than Jaws. If you haven’t figured it out by now, you’re going to want to buy this disc. So, get off your computer (or open up an Amazon tab) and do it already! (Phil Brown)
The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001) – It’s almost impossible to watch The Royal Tenenbaums these days and experience the same film people saw in 2001. This was the movie where Wes Anderson’s vintage, vinyl, picture box aesthetic was fully formed and cemented. That aesthetic combined with his deadpan quirk-friendly comedy was about as endlessly copied and parodied over the 2000s as Tarantino’s wise-cracking pop culture gangsters were in the 90s. Add in the fact that Anderson essentially stopped maturing as a stylist at this point and you’ve got something that will feel familiar even to viewers who have never seen it before. It might be unfair to criticize a movie for a legacy outside of the filmmaker’s control, but movies that hit the zeitgeist as hard as The Royal Tenenbaums pick up quite a bit of baggage along the way. Thankfully, that also tends to happen because they are damn good films, and Wes Anderson’s third feature still offers plenty to love. The thing is just never going to seem as exciting as it was a decade ago again, but, ah well, shit happens.
If you somehow missed out on this movie over the years, it’s about a dysfunctional family of geniuses in the JD Salinger vein. The three children (Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, and Gwyneth Paltrow) were child prodigies and adult failures. The father (Gene Hackman) was a charming asshole who was quickly rejected from the fold once everyone else grew up and discovered disappointment. In an attempt to bring the family back together, Hackman pretends he has cancer. It works, kind of. Plus, other quirky characters and Bill Murray inevitably show up along the way to crack subtle jokes, wear elaborate costumes, take part in music montages, and stand perfectly in the center of the frame. It’s ultimately a comedy tinged with sadness and one with such a unique tone, impressive performances, and a tightly wrapped screenplay that it has a peculiar power.
All these years later, The Royal Tenenbaums still holds up as a hilarious deadpan comedy with sneaky emotional heft. The hipsters embraced this movie because of the sadness-chique as well as the custom-made fashion statements and a record collection ready to be adopted. That’s s a shame because it’s such a small and delicate little family comedy that it should be a cult oddity rather than a cultural institution. Bottle Rocket and Rushmore remain far more interesting movies now, made by a Wes Anderson who was still experimenting, trying to find his style, and dipping into awkwardly personal autobiography. From Tenenbaums onward, Anderson has been locked into such a rigidly defined aesthetic and collection of pet themes that he’s become a sort of literate Tim Burton. His films can still be wonderful; they’ve just all become so similar that their cumulative power is diluted. That’s what you get for starting trends. See Woody Allen for more.
Criterion continues their quest to represent every Wes Anderson joint on Blu-ray in the best possible technical quality. Given all of the detail Anderson and his team cram into every anally composed frame of The Royal Tenenbaums, the HD upgrade makes a huge difference. Now every hidden design choice or thread on a corduroy jacket can be ogled and enjoyed. The movie hasn’t looked this good since theaters and is further proof that Criterion should probably just be put in charge of all archive Blu-ray transfers from now on. The special features are ported over entirely from their 2002 DVD set. You get a handful of EPK interviews with the cast, 2 deleted scenes, a cavalcade of stills n’ designs, faux Charlie Rose interviews with obscure cast members, a detailed audio commentary from Anderson, and an interesting thirty minute documentary from the set. Sure, a little something new might have been nice given the controversial Tenenbaums legacy, but it’s hard to imagine anything could be said that isn’t covered here other than “geez, that movie sure was great.” Yep, it’s yet another excellent package from Criterion worth picking up for all the Wes Andersonites out there. Now they can watch it on repeat while organizing their scarf collection until Wes’ latest feature is released on Blu-ray later this fall. (Phil Brown)
Grosse Pointe Blank (George Armitage, 1997) – Easily the best film to come out of the post-Tarantino riffing of the mid-to-late 90s that tried to blend bursts of extreme violence with irreverent, quirky comedy, Grosse Pointe Blank definitely owes more than a little thanks to the Pulp Fiction scribe and an equal debt to John Hughes, but that’s part of the film’s shaggy dog charms and overall likeability. It feels like a perfectly assembled bridge between two eras of cult filmmaking. Personally, this is a film that I could never get sick of watching no matter how hard I possibly try. Something always brings me back to watching it at least once or twice every year because despite some obvious surface flaws that might annoy some viewers, there are few films that were made during this period that were this consistently fun, exciting, and funny.
Martin Blank (John Cusack, who also co-wrote with the same crew that would re-team to work on High Fidelity a few years later) abandoned his girlfriend Debbie (Minnie Driver) on prom night in 1986 after simply snapping and joining the military to eventually become an independent hitman and mercenary. Ten years later he’s growing sloppy and wondering if there’s more to like, constantly looking for solace in his terrified, put upon shrink (Alan Arkin) and his personal assistant (Joan Cusack). After botching another job and getting mixed up with a fellow private contractor (Dan Aykroyd) who wants to start a hitman union, he’s dispatched to Detroit for a last second job and he decides to confront his past and look for closure with Debbie during his former high school’s 10th reunion.
Aside from cracking dialogue and two of the best performances ever given by Cusack and Aykroyd (which leads to one of the best scenes of the decade in a standoff between the two in a diner that kicks the movie into high gear), the film boasts incredible action and a structure that seems deceptively simple and straightforward on the surface, but more interesting when looked at critically. Grosse Pointe Blank functions almost as a teen movie in reverse. Instead of a story about Martin finding himself, it’s a story about Martin trying to find the man he once was. In many ways, right down to being a master of kickboxing, Martin is who Lloyd Dobbler from Say Anything… could have turned out to be had the movie ended 15 minutes earlier than it did.
The film boasts an impressive soundtrack of 80s classics that today would be accused of being a crutch, and while it would in a lesser film, this gimmick still gets a pass thanks to impeccable implementation of the songs into action sequences and dramatic beats. It’s never obvious song choices (well, except for the Guns N Roses cover of “Live and Let Die” that plays when Martin realizes his home is now a minimart), but they enhance everything instead of causing a distraction. Add to that one of the greatest fight scenes of all time in a high school hallway and a truly bravura finale, and you have easily one of the best films of the late 90s. Too bad the Blu-ray release doesn’t include more that a trailer, but it looks good and sounds amazing. (Andrew Parker)
Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (Dwight H. Little, 1988) – Following the outright hostile reaction to a third film in the fabled Halloween franchise that dared to go against the slasher movie mold by telling completely different story that didn’t involve the same dead eyed baddie from the first two films, producer Moustapha Akkad ordered anyone who would listen to him to go back to the well and give him a Michael Meyers film even if series creator John Carpenter had no interest in ever being involved in the series again outside of constantly licensing his iconic theme to be used in every sequel.
The results, seven years after Season of the Witch (which honestly isn’t that bad) and eight years after the cold and calculating Meyers made his last appearance on the big screen, was this tale that somehow took a total of four writers to come up with involving Michael breaking free from paramedics during a prisoner transport from a mental ward and making his way to find the abandoned daughter of Laurie Strode, young 7 year old Jamie Lloyd (Danielle Harris), on his favourite holiday of the year. Now, it’s up to Jamie’s sister (Ellie Cornell) and Michael’s historic foe and studier Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence) to protect her as the rest of the town gears up for potential war with an unstoppable killing machine.
The set-up for this entry is completely arbitrary, with director Dwight Little looking to do only the basics to not scare off fans that were looking for a return to form and something a bit closer to the films in the 80s slasher canon that was already starting to wane in popularity by 1988 and would be dead by the time the fifth installment dropped the following year (more on that in a moment). It’s not that the film is really bad, but there’s not that much new going on aside from the potential excitement of seeing a great horror villain back in the saddle. What elevates the film somewhat and saves it from being boring aside from the always watchable presence of Pleasence, is the performance of a then young Danielle Harris, who as Jamie seems wise beyond her years, and overall the decision to actually place a child in danger for a change in one of these films raises the stakes quite a bit. Even if the action on screen is just so-so, in the back of the viewers mind, it’s impossible not to feel for the youngster caught in the middle of what one character in the film aptly describes as “the worst thing that could happen to anyone.”
Arriving for the first time on Blu-ray alongside the next entry in the series, Halloween 4 doesn’t have too much going for it. The sound mix is quite nice, but the picture quality is obviously not remastered in any great way with print damage still openly visible and some pixellation is noticeable in daylight sequences on larger screens. The extras are also a bit disappointing. There are two commentary tracks, one with Little and series historian Justin Beahm that offers some good insight into the thought process behind making the film, and one with Harris and Cornell that’s genial, but very anecdotal about things after making the film and filled with long pauses where they just geek out over watching the movie again after such a long time. Aside from that there’s just a trailer and a Halloween 4 & 5 panel from a horror convention that looks and sounds like it was filmed on a cell phone camera from the middle of the room. Oddly enough, while Halloween 5 is decidedly a lesser film, it actually has the better Blu-Ray package. So let’s talk about that one now, shall we? (Andrew Parker)
Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (Dominique Othenin-Girard, 1989) – Conforming even more to the late 80s slasher mold that the original films helped to create, a fifth entry in the series was release one week shy of the previous film’s first birthday, and despite picking up more or less exactly where Return of Michael Meyers left off, the film couldn’t be any more tonally different. French director Girard (who co-wrote with only two other writers this time) crafted what’s easily the sleaziest feeling entry in the series that acts in many ways like a carbon copy of part 4 even in the sense that it’s darker and blurrier around the edges.
Following the big twist reveal at the end of the last film, Jamie (still played by Harris) has been remanded to a children’s psychiatric hospital, and one year to the day after the last film, Michael Meyers has awoken and escaped his fate from the last film to once again try and kill his last remaining relative. Loomis is back and a couple characters from the previous film, some of whom don’t last as long as one would think this time around.
If anything, Halloween 5 speaks to the talents of Harris as a young actress (constantly described in every commentary track across both films as “a trooper” by literally everyone). While the previous entry placed Jamie in peril, she’s put through absolute torture here, starting the film as a mute and having levels of physical punishment inflicted upon her here that would make Lt. Ripley squirm uncomfortably. It’s not a very pleasant film to watch, even by slasher standards, and it’s oddly made worse by the slickest direction in a sequel since Carpenter left. (Unsurprisingly, this was the only second film in the franchise to be given an X-rating on its first pass through the MPAA.) But the biggest problem here aside from the appropriately icky feelings is the film’s controversial ending that sets up for the next film in the series that would ultimately piss off people almost more than Season of the Witch did, but less than Halloween: Resurrection would over a decade later. It’s a silly conclusion that doesn’t go anywhere, but will lead to the silliest explanation of Michael’s seeming immortality yet.
The Blu-ray for Halloween 5 fixes a lot of the problems from the Halloween 4 disc. The sound mix is a bit stronger, and the picture looks far better. There’s also a bit more in the way of extras. Justin Beahm comes back again, this time for a commentary track with actor Don Shanks, who plays Meyers in the film, an old promo video, a trailer, and some vintage B-roll and behind the scenes footage. It might not be better and it still features an ending that irked even the original director, but for fans, it’s an oddly better buy than the fourth film. (Andrew Parker)