Thursday, 9 September 2010

Classic Performances: Robert Shaw in Jaws

Jaws has a fairly unique position in cinema history in that it helped create a mythic fear of a creature that endures till this day. Sure, people were aware of the stories of man-eating sharks but for most they were rarely regarded as a direct threat. However, after seeing Jaws, an awful lot of people became hesitant to go back in the water. Steven Spielberg had given us the ultimate movie monster; powerful, relentless, remorseless, and a significant threat to human beings.

I, like most youngsters upon first viewing Jaws, was captivated by it. But unlike many, the shark was never the star for me. I saw Robert Shaw's Quint as the best thing about the film, and I still do till this day.

The character has plenty of critics; Quint is often viewed as too much of a caricature, a character to be parodied. It's true that he was a part of the film that perhaps required a further stretch of the imagination than for the shark itself, but for me he was such a charismatic and menacing character that I was fascinated by him.

Many would suggest that Quint wasn't too much of a stretch for Robert Shaw. His grizzled and temperamental attitude was something that Shaw had made a career out of, playing similar characters to Quint before and after Jaws. But Robert Shaw was a brilliant actor, and demonstrated it in a single speech which, to me, was the most memorable thing about the film;

Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into her side, Chief. We was comin' back from the island of Tinian to Leyte. We'd just delivered the bomb. The Hiroshima bomb. Eleven hundred men went into the water. Vessel went down in 12 minutes.

Didn't see the first shark for about a half-hour. Tiger. 13-footer. You know how you know that in the water, Chief? You can tell by lookin' from the dorsal to the tail. What we didn't know, was that our bomb mission was so secret, no distress signal had been sent. They didn't even list us overdue for a week. Very first light, Chief, sharks come cruisin' by, so we formed ourselves into tight groups. It was sorta like you see in the calendars, you know the infantry squares in the old calendars like the Battle of Waterloo and the idea was the shark come to the nearest man, that man he starts poundin' and hollerin' and sometimes that shark he go away... but sometimes he wouldn't go away.

Sometimes that shark looks right at ya. Right into your eyes. And the thing about a shark is he's got lifeless eyes. Black eyes. Like a doll's eyes. When he comes at ya, he doesn't even seem to be livin'... 'til he bites ya, and those black eyes roll over white and then... ah then you hear that terrible high-pitched screamin'. The ocean turns red, and despite all your poundin' and your hollerin' those sharks come in and... they rip you to pieces.

You know by the end of that first dawn, lost a hundred men. I don't know how many sharks there were, maybe a thousand. I do know how many men, they averaged six an hour. Thursday mornin', Chief, I bumped into a friend of mine, Herbie Robinson from Cleveland. Baseball player. Boson's mate. I thought he was asleep. I reached over to wake him up. He bobbed up, down in the water, he was like a kinda top. Upended. Well, he'd been bitten in half below the waist.

At noon on the fifth day, a Lockheed Ventura swung in low and he spotted us, a young pilot, lot younger than Mr. Hooper here, anyway he spotted us and a few hours later a big ol' fat PBY come down and started to pick us up. You know that was the time I was most frightened. Waitin' for my turn. I'll never put on a lifejacket again. So, eleven hundred men went into the water. 316 men come out, the sharks took the rest, June the 29th, 1945.

Anyway, we delivered the bomb.

This speech is rightly viewed as one of the greatest in cinema history. The intensity with which it is delivered is mesmerising and it is one of the academy's great mistakes that Robert Shaw was not even nominated for an Oscar; he should have got one based on the strength of the delivery of this speech alone. It contributed so much to the depth of Quint's character; a complicated, often dangerous man bordering on obsession who has experienced the true horror of his aquatic enemy.

Jaws is fundamentally a horror film; the shark is not too far removed from slashers like Freddy Kruger and Michael Myers, but one of the reasons it rises so far above these genre conventions is the strength of its main characters; Chief Brody's cautious heroism, Hooper's boy-like enthusiasm, and most of all, Quint's maniacal intensity. It will always be one of my greatest film performances.

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Wednesday, 1 September 2010

8 Memorable Movie River Trips

Sometimes the movie road trip gets too much credit. It's one of cinema's great clichés; the voyage of discovery or bonding experience that comes from taking a drive. It's not the only way to travel though, and some of cinema's great journeys have been taken down (or up) river, and it's time they got their moment in the limelight. This is a list of 8 great movie river trips. It's by no means definitive; I chose to leave out great scenes that take place on rivers (The Deer Hunter) or indeed great scenes of crossing rivers (Temple of Doom) but instead focus on journeys, whether by boat, canoe or even paddle steamer. This is simply 8 films that use a journey on a river to great effect:

Deliverance (1972)

Burt Reynolds leads a group of friends on a canoe trip down the Cahulawassee River in a determined effort to experience it one last time before it gets turned into a giant lake. It doesn't exactly go to plan.

For its time this was a truly provocative film and even today it has the capacity to shock. Along the way Reynolds, Voight and co. experience raging rapids, jagged rocks and a group of back-country yokels that set the standard for stereotypical, backwards Southern folk that most horror movies can't even come close to. The tension rises as the group make increasingly unwise decisions about how to deal with the problems that befall them, leading to an edgy finale of nervous glances and suspicious questions.

Although "dueling banjos" and the infamous rape scene will be the ones that stick in people's minds, one of the true stars of the show is the river itself. Filmed on location on the Chattooga River in Georgia, the rapid scenes are beautifully shot and bring about a real sense of excitement. Of all the journeys on this list, its probably the one you'd least want to go on. Except, maybe for....

Apocalypse Now (1979)

During the Vietnam war, Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) is sent on a dangerous journey up river to Cambodia to assassinate the dangerous and charismatic Colonel Kurtz.

This is one boat trip you don't want to go on. As Willard and his crew head "75 klicks above the Do Long bridge," they encounter the full horror and insanity of war, and that's before Willard encounters Kurtz at the end of his journey. Along the way they encounter the eccentric Colonel Kilgore and his interesting appreciation of certain scents, negotiate the natural perils of the jungle, and come under attack from the locals. Not only do the crew experience the horrors of war, they even commit atrocious acts themselves. The entire journey is an escalating descent into madness, with a destination that will top it all...

Fitzcarraldo (1982)

Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald (Klaus Kinski) has a dream of building an opera house in Iquitos in Peru. To do this he needs money. To get money, he needs rubber. Fitzgerald buys a paddle steamer and enlists a crew to reach an unclaimed patch on the Ucayali River. Its unclaimed for a reason though, and getting there is easier said than done.

In a way, this feels like a cheat. Sure this is a movie about a man trying to reach a place on a river, but the most impressive, and most memorable, part of the journey is Fitzgerald's attempt to physically pull the steamer over a hill to reach the inaccessible Ucayali River. Its a study into obsession, made all the more fascinating by the infamous on set difficulties and the conflict between director Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski (one of the native extras famously offered to kill Kinski for Herzog). The film shows an increasingly inconceivable attempt to overcome the obstacles of nature in pursuit of the ultimate dream. Likewise, the film was an ambitious project that had to overcome numerous obstacles to get made.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)

As Willy Wonka takes the five lucky golden ticket winners on a tour of his extraordinary chocolate factory. The best way to get around the factory is by boat, and Willy Wonka takes the group on a psychedelic and thrilling ride along a chocolate river.

"There's no earthly way of knowing, which direction we are going."

This may well be the creepiest song ever sung in a children's film, and the journey's a little bit intimidating too. A seemingly relaxing and docile trip along a chocolate river (as you do) descends into a dark and fast roller-coaster ride with multicoloured lights adding increasing menace to Gene Wilder's face. Demented images with no place in a children's film flash up, as the increasingly nervous group begin to question Willy Wonka's sanity. It's creepy as hell, but it's one of the reasons why this adaptation of a very dark children's book is such a classic.

The World is Not Enough (1999)

Or, if you'd rather, Live and Let Die (1973)

In an explosive opening sequence, James Bond uses a prototype MI6 speed boat to chase an assassin along the Thames, taking in London's biggest landmarks, soaking the odd traffic warden, and destroying a few things along the way.

Let's get one thing straight, The World is Not Enough is not a great film. In fact, it's one of Bond's worst outings. But the opening sequence promised so much. The scene was an attempt to make Bond a bit more up to date, accounting for the climax of the chase taking place against the backdrop of the Millennium Dome. The action's some of the most exciting we've seen in the modern Bond era and, as always, London provides the perfect cinematic backdrop, especially for such an iconic British character.

Special mention has to go to the swamp chase in Live and Let Die, but it loses out because of the presence of Sheriff J.W. Pepper; to date the most annoying character to appear in the Bond universe.

The African Queen (1951)

Rose Sayer (Katherine Hepburn) persuades a grizzled riverboat captain (Humphrey Bogart) to attack an enemy warship in WW1 era Africa.

An all time classic. The interplay between Hepburn and Bogart is the real star of the show, and the film is classic movie example of mutual hate turning to love. However, the thing that drives the film is the treacherous trip down the Ulanga River. The African Queen is a rust bucket, but its trustworthy and negotiates Hepburn and Bogart through rapids, jagged rocks and dangerous animals. At the end of the journey there's the biggest challenge of all; the Louisa, the warship they are determined to sink. This is one of cinema's truly great journeys.

Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

Having left Lothlorian, the remaining members of the fellowship set off down the River Anduin towards Parth Galen, where they will eventually part.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy did a pretty good job of leaving impressive and epic images in you head. The Two Towers and Return of the King would take this to the next level with their vast battle scenes but one of the most impressive and memorable visions from the first film happens as the group rides down the River Anduin. The fellowship passes huge statues of past kings of Gondor, showcasing impressive CGI and creating one of the defining images of the trilogy.

The river would also be the setting for the breaking of the fellowship and the site for Boromir's final farewell. All in all, a pretty important part of the journey.

Into the Wild (2007)

During his voyage of self discovery around America, Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) takes a kayak trip down the Colorado River, disobeying the orders of park rangers, and encounters two of the many eccentrics he meets on his travels.

Depending on who you ask, Into the Wild is either massively overrated or massively underrated. Either way, its hard to deny that the film takes in some impressive scenery along the way. The journey down the Colorado River not only showcases its beauty but also provides an important insight into McCandless' character; impulsive, often reckless, and determined to live out his dreams regardless of the consequences. Along the way, we also meet a quirky Danish couple, which naturally means nudity. They're not the most important people that McCandless will meet on his journey, but at least they're not Vince Vaughn...

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