Sunday, December 26, 2010

My Holiday Movie: "Jaws 4"

It made a perfect Christmas pick - not only is it something I'd otherwise avoid, but the film is set at Christmas-time, and holiday celebrations pepper the whole 90 mins. Yes, my holiday review choice is the infamous 1987 bomb, "Jaws 4: The Revenge."

If the shark were a hammerhead, would the title be "JTWS?"

At least director Joseph Sargent can say he made something memorable. "Jaws 4" opens on a nighttime town in the distance, shot from just over water. Dipping below the surface, we track through pylons and other "underwater stuff." Finally, the camera rests on the menacing teeth and eye of a fish.

The fish is actually frying on a pan and we're in the Christmas-time kitchen of the Brody home. Roy Scheider's Marty may not have returned for this film (death by heart attack), but his family is feeling jolly in their house on Amity Island. Ellen and Sean Brody, her youngest boy, run to take a phone call from Michael, the eldest son, and his own kids.

I have to say that the acting and the dialogue are the only things right in the first 12 minutes. Even some of the camerawork is rough, and the sound isn't handled well. Maybe that's the real tension in Jaws 4: waiting to see how it's going to go horribly wrong is the actual shark.

It's surprising, then, because acting and dialogue are usually the clearest weak spots in any bad film. Yet someone put together a pretty good cast for this sequel: Mario van Peebles (yay!) is Jake, a Bahamian friend of her surviving son. 80's fans will recognize Michael Brody (Lance Guest) as the guy from The Last Starfighter.

The women are solid, but I only recognize Lorraine Gary among them. She's good enough, at the start for certain, as the widow Brody. If I can't say much about the other women, I'll at least add that the conversations between family and friends feel very natural. Everyone's interactions are perfect. I also love the fact that Michael and his wife, Carla, even if they fight, constantly pounce on each other. No pissy, sex-less marriage for them! Good on you, actors.

However, a "Jaws" movie is, ultimately, a bloody fish feature. So the fact that they handle violence poorly is a big deal. After the fish-fry beginning, Sean goes out with his mom and his fiancee for church and to hear Xmas carols. He goes for a short shift at work (he's a deputy) and takes a boat out to answer a last-minute call. Stopping not far from shore, Sean tugs at a log that’s jammed under the first buoy when a giant shark pops up, bites him fakely, and rips off most of his arm.

Nothing about this scene works. It's inter-cut with shots of the children singing by the pier, and others showing that he's still within sight of safety. That's not the problem - the moment would have just been chilling and stark if it were done right; that would have worked.

But they actually start to play the "Jaws" theme - sometimes just half a second of the sting - during all this. And the way they cut back to the town and the festivities is off. It takes all the horror out of what's onscreen.

So if the sequence isn't bleak and shocking, then maybe it's just a "casual" kill? An appetizer of danger to build the audience's tension for the rest of the picture? I don't really know... playing that music cue felt more like a moment from one of the "Friday the 13th" sequels - it's not too scary, it's just there to remind you that you're watching an Ft13th movie...

I haven't grown softer with time. Violence in movies is generally easy to accept because it's just a fiction, after all. If you have a really strong reaction to a film, however, you should take a second to judge a flick by its own standards. And I had a strong reaction, so it's only fair.

Just because you're crazy doesn't mean they're not out to get you.

Well, this kill isn't supposed to be a light-hearted throwaway death: a good man is left maimed and his calls for help are drowned out by carolers.   He cries for aid repeatedly, pathetically, then the shark approaches again and clamps onto his head in a ridiculous way.  In blatant horror films, I'd feel less sympathy since Sean apparently decided to hang onto the edge of the boat's side, where he was just bit.

And that 2nd attack doesn't end Sean's life, either.  Now he's in the water, but there's no actual sign of whatever damage that bite did to him.  I guess the movie-makers couldn't think of anything that wouldn't've killed him.  Or maybe anything at all.

Sean cries out for help and bobs up twice more, then gets invisibly pulled under.   Next, his decent-sized boat just sinks for some reason.  The whole scene, from leaving the sheriff's station to dying, takes over 4 minutes.   It’s 2 minutes between tying off the boat and that first bite.   We leave off at the 10:27 mark, and the next 2 minutes are spent with Mom identifying the body, and grieving horribly.  The tone and pace are already off and it's the first death in a violent pic!

Throughout, the music is terribly managed, distracting: that classic theme plays for a total of 13 seconds, cut up horribly.  Its first introduction is for 5 seconds of “dah-duh,” then it disappears for 6 seconds, then "Jaws 4" uses 2 seconds of “dah-duh” and literally half of a horn blare before stopping short, awkwardly.  They actually stop in the middle of a horn blare!  Then we hear part of a horn blare for 2 seconds again.  Then they use different theme music before returning to “mingled parts of the Jaws theme” for another 4 seconds.  It's schizophrenic at best, amateur at worst.

I'm getting ahead of myself but this guy cut a better ending than the director did.

And the death itself? It's awful and horrible and not fun in a “hey it’s another Jaws movie” way, like the music suggests. Heaven help me, it's piteous. So I guess the moment was supposed to be stark? Was the director was going for "depressing" as well as "badly done?"

Next, we're with the family at the funeral. Michael convinces his mom to stay with him in the Bahamas. Here, the movie changes locations and introduces Hoagie, one of Michael Caine's most infamous roles. The little plane he pilots is the craft that brings the Brodys to the new setting.

The on-screen events begin to get a little flaky here, and the problems with quality grow more obvious. Remember,  we're 17 minutes into a picture and the only things that have happened are 2 phone conversations, a death, a brief funeral, and a ride in a small aircraft.  It's like C-SPAN.

From here, describing the plots that unfold would actually be a chore. "Jaws 4" at least seems sure-footed when it's filming conversations. Jake and Michael have a marine biology field study tracking conch in the water. Hoagie keeps Ellen company, romances her.

By Buddha, so many things here don't work! For one, the shark just follows Ellen to the Caribbean. No animal travels that fast (NYC to GBI in 3 days?), nor do Great Whites stay in the beautiful Bahamas. Nor can they float, like the movie shows. Nor can they roar, much less sound like King Kong mated with a lion. Seriously, it's a "generic roar" you've surely heard used for dinos, demons, etc.

Weird turns abound - after Sean's boat sinks, we get a shot of that dead log popping back out of the water. Um, "how?" and "why?" It was under a buoy, not the craft or the shark! Did the fish keep it on a string, like bait? We also get a close shot of the same piece of wood now washed ashore, after Ellen leaves Amity. Again, "why?"

I also don't understand Ellen's terrified/mesmerized look when Michael shows her Carla's sculptures. Yes, Carla's an artist/bread-winner/sexpot (score!). Her pieces are part of the Bahamian holiday celebrations, and the main artwork doesn't look shark-like at all. It's closer to a giant reversed "G," or may be inspired by "The Nightmare Before Christmas." Ellen's reaction is just a bad attempt at tension. Or she's terrified of modern art.

Even the trailer is kinda useless, save the tag. Again, I get ahead of myself.

Returning to the real star, the shark: it appears next when it sneaks up on Jake, then pops out of the water and bites the part of the boat in front of Michael. It stays there, threatening. During this "thrilling" attack sequence, which is as exciting as watching a dog drop a frisbee at someone's feet, the camera repeatedly cuts back to Ellen... I guess the cutaways are a real part of director Sargent's style.

On the other side of this intense scene, Ellen is having some sort of psychic episode in the middle of a carnival dance - she's frozen and looking odd while the shark menaces Michael. She can sense the creature? Or her son's peril? When the shark rather placidly swims off, Ellen knowingly relaxes, ignores Hoagie's confusion, and makes him return to the dance. This goes nowhere - there's no psychic-shark fight at the end, everything just goes on...

The movie continues much like this, slightly sedated and slow. The plots are all half-developed because the monster intrudes on them. So when I wrote that nothing much happened in the first sixth of the picture, I should have written and nothing much continues to happen.

If you're into tropical vistas and nice exchanges on-screen, you're fine. But they actually re-use, in several sepia-toned montages, moments from "Jaws." This includes the "monkey-see monkey-do" moment between father and child; that one is actually shown as the actors replicate it in the Bahamas. It's a bad idea to call back to something that's exactly like, yet better than, what you've got on-screen.

More oddness: The shark appears twice - in dreams. Ugh. Also, we get three additional, actual, attacks. None of them are especially exciting: Our pesky sea monster mauls Michael's small diving machine while he's in it, jumps at a group of kids on a banana boat, and then re-stages the original pic's finale.

The end, at least, has decent aspects: Hoagie, Michael, and Jake all meet at the same spot of water in two tiny boats. Hoagie flies them all out to find and save Ellen, who’s out on the water alone even though her granddaughter was nearly bitten. They know she's "hunting" the creature because everyone realizes that the shark is stalking the Brodys. They find her large, weaponless (?), “Jaws I”-like boat just as the shark is attacking. Hoagie flies low in order to distract the beast, then lands on the water (with no skids!).

Maybe I just like that it sounds like some weird twist on the Iron Man Competition.

The plan to stop the shark - by driving it insane and ramming it with the prow - is less impressive. The inter-cutting during the climax to Roy Scheider's victory in the first film is a dumb, dumb move. Well, at least they didn't kill the only brother on the boat; the way Sharkie reaches Jake is physically impossible, so I'm doubly glad he survives. (sorry for the spoiler)

The bad judgment calls continued after filming, though. The tag-line is famous among lots of people, and stands as my all-time favorite - “Jaws 4, This Time It’s Personal.” People know and love this subtitle because it’s horrible and hysterical, and I’ll probably write a post on those last 4 words alone. Really, that tag-line makes me want to bounce up and down while hugging myself.

A final word has to go to Michael Caine, of course. His part here is famously trumpeted as another classic "so Michael was buying a house" role. His performance is never sub-standard or bad, and his presence is familiar and comforting. Yet I too love seeing good actors in bad movies (when they're not horrible, 'natch). And I also love wondering if his character Hoagie goes by other names like hero, submariner, zeppelin, grinder, torpedo, rocket, po-boy, or sub.

"Jaws 4" was a misguided attempt at sucking the last little bit out of the bottom of a soda can. They used a defective straw, however, and the leftover wasn't satisfying. The cast can't be blamed for any of this, since their work is fine and they provide most of the few highlights here.

I have to praise the film's reliance on characters and their development. The tropical setting merits a big thumbs-up, so maybe the non-action camerawork deserves some credit. Then again, it's so damn pretty I might be too generous.

In the end, I have only this slightly left-handed compliment: Jaws 4 is bad, and not quite so bad as to be fun, but (at least) it's not so bad that you'll be upset about it. Bonus points for the great Hoagie, "Oh 5#it!" moment, and the underwater escape Michael makes in the middle. Also, for Mario van Peebles, who's still kicking it at the end.

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