Monday, August 13, 2018

Triskaidekaphilia: '13' (1986)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

Also known by the more accurate title City in Panic, the 1986 Canadian exploitation movie 13 is a weird mix of surprisingly forward-thinking social commentary and typically grubby low-budget slasher-movie aesthetics. The acting is terrible, the pacing is awkward, the dialogue is blunt and utilitarian, and some of the camerawork is seriously questionable (although I saw the movie on Amazon Prime in what was obviously a rip from a degraded VHS copy, so I may not be able to accurately judge the visual style). But this is a movie from 1986 that explicitly takes on the AIDS epidemic, with an often compassionate (if also sometimes clueless) perspective on tolerance and understanding for those afflicted.

That is, of course, contained within a plot about a serial killer stalking the streets of an unnamed city (shot in Toronto), and an edgy radio talk-show host basically taunting the killer. The movie's hero is Dave Miller (David Adamson), who's kind of a smarmy know-it-all, and who becomes bait for the killer known as M when he encourages the mysterious figure to call in to his show. M brutally slashes his victims and carves an M into their flesh, and police soon discover that all of the victims have AIDS, and most are gay men. There are some crude ideas about homosexuality and the spread of AIDS in this movie, but there's also a blatantly homophobic and sexist police detective who is consistently chastised and corrected by his colleagues, as a sort of avatar of outdated, intolerant attitudes (that also hinder the investigation).

Somehow Dave's friends and colleagues seem to be disproportionately afflicted with AIDS (and are all keeping it a secret), so a bunch of people that he knows fall victim to the killer. Some of the murders are staged with style, including an opening that mimics the famous shower scene from Psycho and a particularly gruesome scene in which a man gets his penis chopped off at a glory hole. The movie tries to walk a line between salaciousness and thoughtfulness, and it doesn't really succeed, in part because the acting is so uniformly awful that none of the more sensitive moments are particularly convincing, and in part because the low-budget effects are also not all that convincing, despite the homages to classic films (Fritz Lang's M, namesake of the killer, also gets referenced). The AIDS angle is really just a framework for your typical serial-killer cheapie, with a rushed resolution to its mystery topped off by some condescending moralizing by Dave in a closing voiceover. It's not exactly a shining example of social progress, but at least it has a few distinctive elements.

Monday, August 06, 2018

The stilted cowboy poetry of 'The Rider'

Positioned somewhere between naturalistic drama and impressionistic documentary, ChloĆ© Zhao’s The Rider never quite captures the strengths of either one, even with a cast full of compelling characters (or are they subjects?). Zhao casts former rodeo competitor Brady Jandreau and his family and friends as versions of themselves, telling a story drawn from their real-life experiences. The result is a movie that has moments of unvarnished honesty, but is also full of stilted, uncomfortable interactions with the occasional undercurrent of exploitation.

Brady Jandreau plays Brady Blackburn, who when the movie opens has just checked himself out of the hospital against medical advice following a serious head injury suffered in the rodeo ring. After a fairly graphic scene of Brady using a knife to pry out the staples holding a bandage to his head wound and a reunion between Brady and his dad Wayne (Tim Jandreau), the movie cuts to some amount of time later, with Brady’s hair now mostly covering the scar on his skull, although he’s clearly not completely recovered.

Brady may never completely recover, and the conflict between his desire to return to the rodeo and his need to preserve his fragile health forms the core of the movie. Brady putters aimlessly around the family home (which is a trailer), joking and arguing with his dad and his autistic sister Lilly (Lilly Jandreau). He reluctantly takes a job at a local grocery store, and also starts working as a horse trainer, even though he isn’t in stable enough physical condition to ride horses for any amount of time. Whenever anyone asks, he says he’s taking a little time off before returning to professional riding, although it’s pretty clear that he’s fooling himself.

Brady also spends time visiting his buddy Lane Scott (as himself), another former rodeo star who’s now mostly paralyzed and unable to speak, living in a full-time care facility. They watch videos from Lane’s rodeo glory days and even prop Lane up on a makeshift saddle to practice riding as if he, too, could someday return to the ring. These are the scenes that feel the most exploitative, as Scott (like Jandreau) suffered very real injuries (albeit in a car accident, not in the rodeo), as is readily apparent in his performance.

Brady’s interactions with Lilly also have a sort of queasy awkwardness, although most of the movie is more sensitive, especially to Brady’s internal conflict over whether to ignore his doctors’ advice and literally get back on the horse. There’s nothing quite as bad here as the non-professional performances in Clint Eastwood’s The 15:17 to Paris, but most of the dialogue scenes come off as artificial and forced, which is surely the opposite of what Zhao was aiming for. Brady Jandreau gives the most convincing, fully realized performance, conveying his anguish and melancholy in quiet scenes of solitude, as he slowly trains a new horse or just stares off into the South Dakota skyline, pondering his uncertain future.

That South Dakota scenery is one of the movie’s major assets, and Zhao and cinematographer Joshua James Richards take full advantage of it, shooting gorgeous vistas of empty, open prairie, capturing the loneliness and isolation (along with beauty and tranquility) that surround the characters. Zhao immersed herself in the South Dakota Native American community for both The Rider and her debut feature, 2015’s Songs My Brothers Taught Me, and her affection and respect for the culture and the people come through in the film she’s made. It’s a lovingly shot ode to a dying corner of American society—it’s just not particularly effective as a dramatic narrative.

Available on home video tomorrow.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Shark Week 4: 'Jaws: The Revenge' (1987)

There are many, many (many, many) shark movies that are worse than Jaws: The Revenge, but probably none are quite as notorious for their awfulness. Bad low-budget shark movies are a dime a dozen, but there are only four official movies in the Jaws series, so for one of them to be among the worst movies ever made (by some estimations) is far more noteworthy than some indie filmmaker producing a terrible shark movie with a pun for a title and a budget of $1.98. The Revenge was a major studio release of summer 1987, bringing back one of the main stars of the first two Jaws movies (Lorraine Gary as Ellen Brody) and co-starring big-name actor Michael Caine. And yet it's nearly as entertainingly terrible as something like Snow Shark: Ancient Snow Beast.

Blatantly ignoring the events of Jaws 3, The Revenge picks up with the Brody family in pretty good shape, although patriarch Martin (Roy Scheider, running far away from this movie) has apparently died of a heart attack between movies. His widow Ellen seems relatively upbeat, however, happy that her younger son Sean (Mitchell Anderson) is following in his father's footsteps as a sheriff's deputy in their coastal hometown of Amity Island, and keeping in touch with older son Mike (Lance Guest), who's working as a marine biologist in the Bahamas, where he lives with his artist wife Carla (Karen Young) and their ultra-annoying five-year-old daughter Thea (Judith Barsi). But their tranquility is soon shattered when Sean is killed by a shark, and Ellen becomes obsessed with the idea that the shark from the previous movies is coming to seek revenge on the Brodies.

Never mind that two separate sharks terrorizing Amity Island were killed in the first two movies, or that the sharks in the third movie (which, again, is completely ignored here) had no connection to those other sharks. No one bothers to remind Ellen that her late husband already killed two sharks, and there's no speculation about whether this is somehow a relative of the original shark(s), or a reincarnation or what. She seeks a fresh start by temporarily moving in with Mike and his family in the Bahamas, and the shark somehow follows her all the way there, targeting family members including little Thea, who wasn't even alive when the original shark(s) were killed (or not killed, or whatever).

The idea of the shark taking revenge on the Brodies is absurd, of course, but the movie could be more fun to watch if writer Michael de Guzman and director Joseph Sargent played up the pseudo-mystical angle a bit more, going all-in on Ellen's psychic premonitions about the shark and the shark's apparently preternatural abilities to identify and track the members of the Brody family. Instead the movie wastes time with a half-assed romance between Ellen and Caine's roguish pilot Hoagie, who get thrown together seemingly just because they're the only two middle-aged people in the cast. There's also far too much material with Mike's Bahamian research partner Jake, played by Mario Van Peebles with an "island" accent that sounds like the characters from the In Living Color "Hey Mon" sketches.

Perhaps worst of all, the production values are so low that the shark attacks aren't remotely scary or intense. Despite more than a decade of advances in special effects, the shark looks faker than ever, and Sargent completely fails to build up any suspense for the attacks. Although it features a few quotably awful lines ("I've always wanted to make love to an angry welder" is Mike's come-on to his sculptor wife), The Revenge isn't self-aware enough to make any clever commentary on its own ridiculousness. and any comedic value comes from the general lack of filmmaking standards. Almost every micro-budget shark attack movie these days knows to make a few jokes at its own expense, but The Revenge plays everything depressingly straight.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Shark Week 4: 'Sharkansas Women's Prison Massacre' (2015)

For the most part, I've tried to find movies with at least some redeeming cinematic value for this latest edition of Shark Week, but when putting together the list of stuff to watch, I knew I had to include one movie solely on the basis of its endearingly dumb title. The final choice came down to Raiders of the Lost Shark and Sharkansas Women's Prison Massacre, and Sharkansas won out because it looked like it might be a marginally more entertaining movie (plus "Sharkansas" is a more creative and nonsensical pun). Obviously this is not a good movie, and really the title is the best part about it, so I probably could have just had an appreciative chuckle at that and moved on.

Of course, that's not what I did. I watched the whole thing, which I can't exactly recommend. For starters, there's no prison in this movie, although most of the main characters are in fact inmates at a women's correctional facility. The closest they get to prison comes at the beginning of the movie, when six female inmates (all dressed, of course, in denim cut-offs and tight white tank tops, apparently standard prisoner attire in Arkansas) get into a van marked "Arkansas Department of Corrections" from what looks like a low-slung trailer. From there, the van heads off into the woods, where a fracking operation has inadvertently unearthed a prehistoric underground ocean and released the giant ancient sharks living there (y'know, under Arkansas).

These sharks can apparently burrow in the ground as well as swim in the water, and the movie often depicts them as tunnels of dirt that look like Bugs Bunny taking a wrong turn at Albuquerque. They're more like the creatures from the Tremors movies than aquatic predators, although they do still attack from marshes and underground streams, including when the main characters decide that the best way to escape from the subterranean sharks is to, uh, head into some caves. Keeping the sharks underground the whole time presumably allows the filmmakers to save money on special effects, since the sharks themselves only show up onscreen a handful of times. There's also very little gore in this movie, even though many characters get eaten alive, with most of the kills happening offscreen.

And despite the presence of numerous well-endowed actresses in skimpy outfits, there's no nudity or sex in this movie either, so it doesn't offer much to prurient interests of any kind. There's minimal humor in the screenplay by William Dever and director Jim Wynorski, although Traci Lords (apparently having entered the "world-weary veteran cop" phase of her career) is amusing as the detective attempting to track down the missing inmates. Wynorski is a bit of an exploitation legend, who's churned out dozens of movies including one genuine cult classic (Chopping Mall); several cash-in sequels (The Return of Swamp Thing, 976-Evil II, Ghoulies IV); other ridiculous creature features (Piranhaconda, Camel Spiders, Komodo vs. Cobra); and a bunch of straight-up softcore porn. Sharkansas was probably just another day at the office for him, throwing together some boobs and some blood to go with a silly title dreamed up for marketing purposes. The end result is nothing more, and nothing less, than that.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Shark Week 4: 'Deep Blue Sea 2' (2018)

The original Deep Blue Sea has become something of a cult classic, skirting the line between campy and clever, and it remains one of my favorite silly shark movies (as well as one of the highlights of director Renny Harlin's uneven body of work). I guess it's built up enough of a following to be worth a cheap brand extension, in the form of this straight-to-video "sequel" that is more like a bargain-basement remake. None of the characters or storylines carry over from the previous movie, and instead Deep Blue Sea 2 mostly rehashes the ideas from its predecessor, only in a cheaper, less engaging form.

Once again, the action takes place at a remote research facility in the middle of the ocean, in this case off the coast of South Africa, where scientists are doing top-secret research using sharks as test subjects. Here, billionaire pharmaceutical titan Carl Durant (Michael Beach) is using bull sharks (instead of mako sharks as in the original) to develop a drug that will unlock the potential of the human brain (this is the latest movie to trot out the tired fallacy about humans only using 10 percent of their brains). Why does he need to develop this drug? To prepare humans for the coming war against super-intelligent machines, of course! Sadly, this bizarre motivation only gets explored in a few lines of dialogue, although Beach gives the movie's best performance by completely committing to Durant's megalomania.

In his effort to defeat super-intelligent machines, Durant has instead created super-intelligent sharks, which, uh, doesn't seem like a very good trade-off. These sharks are so smart that at one point there is a scene of a shark eavesdropping on the human characters' conversation through a porthole! Of course, the sharks get loose on the day that Durant has invited absurdly named shark conservationist Dr. Misty Calhoun (Danielle Savre) and a couple of other disposable scientists to visit the lab, and Misty has to use all her shark-conserving skills (and team up with a hunky former Navy SEAL) to get herself and the rest of the crew out of the isolated lab alive. (Spoiler alert: Most of them do not make it.)

Director Darin Scott (whose credits include a Lifetime movie called Megachurch Murder and a direct-to-video sequel to House Party) and the three screenwriters dutifully re-create some of the iconic elements of the original, including the famous scene in which a shark jumps out of the pool in the middle of the lab to eat Samuel L. Jackson mid-speech (the version here is decidedly less amusing). They also throw in a scene of Misty in her underwear in a similar manner to Saffron Burrows' character in the previous movie, although less elegantly, and then make sure that Misty keeps her wetsuit unzipped enough to show plenty of cleavage for the rest of the movie.

Mostly they have the characters wander around a bunch of poorly lit corridors in water up to their waists (poorly lit corridors being a hallmark of low-budget genre movies), while some CGI sharks occasionally show up to chomp on them. The biggest shark-related innovation is that one of the sharks has given birth to a bunch of baby sharks, who swarm like piranhas when they kill. It's a good way to save on effects, since all that's needed to indicate a shark attack is a bunch of churning water. That shortcut pretty much sums up this cut-rate movie, which is far from the worst shark B-movie out there, but in no way lives up to the campy entertainment of its namesake.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Shark Week 4: 'The Sharkfighters' (1956)

Its title conjures up images of strong men punching sharks in the face, but The Sharkfighters is actually a dull docudrama with a stolid patriotic tone, based on the real-life Navy research into creating a shark repellent during World War II. There is one deadly shark attack in the movie, and plenty of footage of actual sharks, but the characters mostly treat the sharks with a detached scientific attitude. Even main character Lt. Cmdr. Ben Staves (Victor Mature), who has a personal vendetta against sharks after they killed much of his crew following the sinking of his battleship, mostly keeps his attitude calm and clinical, after he's assigned to the so-called Project Shark Chaser unit on the Isle of Pines in Cuba.

Since they can't just ask Batman, the Naval scientists of Project Shark Chaser use the unusually shark-infested waters around the Isle of Pines to test various compounds for their shark-repelling abilities, in the hopes of developing a formula that can be used by U.S. sailors and pilots who find themselves stranded at sea. Ben clashes with Naval ichthyologist Lt. Cmdr. Leonard Evans (Philip Coolidge), who prefers a methodical and slower approach to research and testing, and young Naval chemist Ensign Harold Duncan (James Olson), who wishes he were serving on the frontlines instead of in a lab on a peaceful island. But those conflicts are exceedingly mild, and the movie proceeds at a leisurely pace, although it only runs 74 minutes.

After one of the dumbass local teens working with the Americans gets himself killed by a shark, things seem like they might get serious, but even that incident is just a blip in the project's progress. Eventually when the team gets close to a solution, Ben insists on speeding up the testing process, and in the movie's finale he volunteers himself for a human test, to be absolutely sure that the formula works. That's not until the final 10 minutes or so, though, and even when Ben is in the water, deliberately attracting sharks to see if the repellent works, there isn't a whole lot of suspense. Mature is such a wet blanket that Ben's anger at sharks and post-traumatic stress barely come across, and the movie isn't really interested in character development.

Aside from the shark footage, the best thing The Sharkfighters has going for it is the local color. It was shot entirely on location in Cuba, when such a thing was easily possible for American movies, and it features some gratuitous (but enjoyable) scenes of Ben and Leonard out and about in Havana, checking out local clubs and dancers. Karen Steele brings a bit of feistiness to her role as Ben's wife, and it's fun to see the cosmopolitan life in Havana that existed at the time. There isn't as much of the village life on the island, but the funeral scene of the teen who gets killed by a shark is a moment of stark naturalism in the middle of hokey patriotism. More of that, and less of Mature's bland manliness, could have helped make this movie slightly more memorable.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Shark Week 4: 'Shark Tale' (2004)

In my review of Shark Tale on its initial release in 2004, the only praise I had for the DreamWorks animated movie was for its "impressive visuals," but 14 years later, the visual style has not aged well, and watching the movie again recently I couldn't find a single good thing about it. It's painfully dated despite not being all that old, and what was once cutting-edge animation looks clumsy and artificial. Plenty of animated movies from years past still look great despite their outdated techniques because there's creativity and artistry behind the images, regardless of how they were created, but Shark Tale has nothing but crass commercialism as its motivation, and that shines through even more clearly when it's not covered by state-of-the-art CGI.

Looking back at that review, I discovered that there was apparently a protest against the movie at the time by some Italian-American advocacy group, which seems sort of prescient for the current age of constant outrage. It's the kind of thing I would usually ignore, but this movie is built on so many lazy ethnic stereotypes that it's impossible to just write them off as coincidental. Shark Tale isn't necessarily morally offensive so much as it is offensively shoddy, reliant on those stereotypes as well as tons of empty pop-culture references and product placement in place of any actual jokes. It's yet another animated movie in which non-human entities populate a human-like world, but the fish metropolis of Shark Tale is created with virtually no imagination, merely swapping out a few fish-based puns for the names of everyday activities, people and products and then grafting them onto a "perils of fame" story that makes no sense.

Will Smith tries way too hard as the voice of slacker fish Oscar, but at least he's the one person involved in the movie who seems to be trying at all. Oscar has big dreams but lacks the follow-through to pursue them, instead working a dead-end job at the local whale wash (it's like a car wash, but with whales!). All the fish in the city live in fear of the sharks, who've been imagined here as Godfather-style gangsters, led by Don Lino (Robert De Niro). When Oscar is mistaken for the killer of a shark who died accidentally, he runs with the idea, becoming rich and famous as the "shark slayer." Meanwhile, Don Lino's effeminate son Lenny (Jack Black), who refuses to eat other fish, enlists Oscar to help him escape his judgmental family.

Lenny's storyline is a sort of half-hearted metaphor for coming out of the closet, although he's pretty much a mincing stereotype, in line with the other broad stereotypes throughout the movie. Oscar learns a hollow lesson about staying true to his roots and telling the truth, thanks to being torn between the wholesome best friend who pines for him (voiced by Renee Zellweger) and the sultry, shallow temptress who just wants him for his money and fame (voiced by Angelina Jolie). Those are basically the only female characters in the movie, so you can add sexist stereotyping to all the other gross oversimplifications in the story. The shark/gangster connection doesn't even hold up, as the family-friendly story requires Don Lino and his gang to eventually make friends with the fish and agree to stop eating them, for no good reason. Maybe the sharks will just starve? It doesn't matter, because in the manner of all shitty modern CG-animated movies, Shark Tale just ends with a giant dance party set to an annoying pop song (a painfully rewritten version of "Car Wash" performed by Christina Aguilera and Missy Elliott), shifting all further plot questions to a sequel that mercifully was never made.