(Second viewing, Netflix Streaming, April 2017) When people point to Jaws reprovingly as the one movie that changed cinema (for the worse) ever after by introducing the concept of the blockbuster, I usually have to smile. I was born almost exactly three months after Jaws’ release date, and for a cinephile such as myself it feels amusing to think that my year of birth was the year that cinema changed. Après moi le deluge, or something like it. Still: Jaws is Jaws, the very definition of an iconic film, from its musical theme to the poster image to a handful of classic quotes and shots. As an action movie, Jaws shows its age, but as a suspense film, Steven Spielberg still knocks it out of the park—and that’s still true even after four decades of shark movies inevitably compared to granddaddy Jaws. Rob Scheider is the likable everyday man, while Richard Dreyfuss turns in a likable performance as a dedicated scientist. Jaws has the added particularity of having very distinct halves—the last act dispenses with nearly everything coastal to focus on three men in a boat and a shark around them. It still works. It really still works: the terror of the shark is still visceral, and the joy in which the final explosion is greeted rivals the Death Star’s explosion in Star Wars. It’s a compulsively entertaining crowd pleaser, but it’s also crafted with care, and reflects the mid-seventies in a way that seems almost quirky today. As a kid, I remember being half-terrified by the film’s occasional showings on TV—I don’t remember much of the rest of the film, although I do note that its original PG rating is ridiculous—it’s at least a PG-13 now, bordering on R due to gore. But no matter how you see it, Jaws remains a great movie.
(Third viewing, On DVD, April 2017) There are many reasons why I shouldn’t like Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It’s a bit too cozy with bunk-science UFOlogy, for instance, and the plot (especially in its first half-hour) falls apart as soon as you look too closely. It’s long, meandering, is far too fond of weirdness for weirdness’ sake and the “goodbye kids, I’m going to space” ending leaves a sour taste in my mind. (Although Spielberg has, since becoming a father himself, recanted that ending.) On the other hand, most of these reasons are why Close Encounters of the Third Kind still works fantastically well today. Even forty years later, it still stands as a well-executed take on the well-worn first contact scenario. It’s a film that plays heavily on pure wonder, which remains an all-too-rare emotion in Hollywood cinema. It tricks our point of view (our hero is justifiably mad from any other perspective than his), is comfortable in blue-collar suburbia, paints aliens as benevolent (if unknowable) and spends no less than a final half-hour in a nearly wordless light-and-sound show. It’s also a movie that’s unusually emotion-driven: it doesn’t always make logical sense, but it’s certainly effective at creating suspense, awe or surprise. As flawed as it is, it remains one of Steven Spielberg’s best movies. The special effects of the 1998 Director’s Cut are still convincing (well, except for some of the alien shots), the seventies period detail is now charming (even the reliance on UFOlogy lore now seems less and less harmful), Richard Dreyfuss makes a great next-door-neighbour protagonist, and it’s kind of cool to see film legend François Truffaut in a strong supporting role. I recall my parents discussing Close Encounters of the Third Kind with their friends once it hit television broadcast, along with my own memories of sequences such as the five tones, first backroad pursuit and, of course, the ending sequence which was completely enigmatic as a kid. I saw it again as a teenager and kept a good memory of the experience. So I’m very pleased to confirm, decades later as a middle-aged adult, that the film more than holds up as a SF classic.
(On TV, March 2017) There’s an exceptionally tricky balance at the heart of What About Bob? that would have been easy to mishandle. Making a comedy about a blatantly annoying protagonist taking down a respectable professional sounds terrible as a premise—how to balance the humour and the darkness? Fortunately, this is a movie with Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfuss as assets, and a pretty good sense of structure in the way the script is put together. The initial impression are that the patient (Murray) is an annoying pest while the psychologist (Dreyfuss) is a competent family man. But as the story progresses, things start shifting. Our annoying pest proves resourceful, kind and entertaining. Our competent psychologist turns out to have issues of his own, alienating much of his family. (Along with a crucially-important couple of neighbours). When the two clash, the patient progresses and the psychologist regresses, all the way to an explosive climax. What About Bob? wouldn’t be what it is without the combined acting talents of its lead (with Julie Hagerty turning in a small but very enjoyable performance as the voice-of-reason.) To its credit, it also becomes funnier as it goes along—the first thirty minutes are a bit too awkward and off-kilter to be truly enjoyable, but the film ensures that it becomes more and more acceptable to laugh along as it progresses. While I’m not sure that What About Bob? is a classic, it has aged pretty well in the past 25 years, and manages to play with some tricky material.