Saturday, October 13, 2018

Triskaidekaphilia: '13 Chambers' (2017)

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

Although it's been billed as a horror anthology, 13 Chambers doesn't feature much that could be categorized as horror, and its 13 segments are closer to formalist experiments than anything scary or creepy. Most feature no dialogue and no plot, just various images and movements meant to convey a feeling or mood, and most of those fail, evoking just frustration and bafflement. Watching the 13 "chambers" in this movie felt like watching a particularly annoying avant-garde shorts program at a pretentious film festival, and by the last few segments I had almost completely tuned out.

That made it especially tough to focus on, say, the segment that is essentially just vague shadows behind a blindingly white screen for several minutes, but even the segments with more going on are just as much of a slog, with very few exceptions. By far the best segment (and not coincidentally pretty much the only one with anything resembling a plot or characters) is Lindy Boustedt's Liminal, about a man returning to the empty shell of his former elementary school and meeting the grown-up version of his childhood imaginary friend. It turns out that the friend may not have been so imaginary, and what follows is a smart and moving exploration of alternate universes and the regrets of aging.

I couldn't find anything smart or moving or even mildly engaging in any of the other segments, all of which take place within the same decaying building and are created by female filmmakers. The site-specific nature of the project (which was actually shot in a building slated for demolition) may have pushed some of the filmmakers toward making abstract pieces that could be shot quickly without a lot of advance planning, but that's no excuse for the barrage of inexplicable images (and, as one Letterboxd reviewer notes, the surprisingly substantial amount of interpretive dance).

The fact that 13 Chambers isn't actually a horror anthology isn't a problem, although the world could use more female-driven horror anthologies. The problem is that it's not much of anything, created to fill an arbitrary mandate in a limited period of time, like a fancy version of something like the 48 Hour Film Project. Challenges like this may be good learning experiences for filmmakers, but that doesn't mean that audiences should be subjected to watching them.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

VODepths anthology edition: 'A.I. Tales,' 'A Taste of Phobia'

A.I. Tales The four segments in the sci-fi anthology A.I. Tales are all independently produced shorts that were then collected together to be released as a feature, which means they have very little in common stylistically or thematically (also, none of them actually deals with artificial intelligence). Watching this movie felt a bit like watching the sci-fi program at a short film festival (that's always one of my favorites at the Dam Short Film Festival), only without the one or two shorts that usually stand out. All four of the shorts here start with solid sci-fi premises (an overpopulated future where people are forcibly euthanized at 40; a woman signing up for a mission to Mars; a post-apocalyptic band of nomads stumbling across a secret bunker; a scientist with a homemade time machine) but fumble the follow-through, with clunky dialogue, unappealing characters and weak plotting. None of the filmmakers seems to know how to craft an ending, and all four shorts just kind of stop without resolutions (it's not surprising that one is credited as being based on a feature script). Throwing all four together doesn't make them stronger; it just makes their shortcomings more glaring. Available on Vimeo and elsewhere.

A Taste of Phobia Like The ABCs of Death, horror anthology A Taste of Phobia features a collection of filmmakers creating segments around a particular theme, which in this case is various phobias (or possibly made-up phobias). Also like The ABCs of Death, Phobia is mostly terrible, as the majority of filmmakers fail to do anything interesting (or even, much of the time, competent) with the subject matter. The 15 segments are largely slapdash and amateurish, relying on gross-outs over scares and sometimes only tangentially connected to the supposed theme. There are a few with stylish visuals, but the occasional striking image doesn't compensate for the consistently poor writing, and most segments barely even craft a story, settling for cheap shock value rather than a compelling narrative. There's a framing sequence (which eventually leads into the final segment) of a woman sitting on her couch watching the other segments, and she looks bored and annoyed most of the time, like she's just waiting for the movie she's in to be over. It's disappointingly easy to relate to her. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Triskaidekaphilia: '13 Was a Judas' (1971)

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

A spaghetti Western with a plot that resembles an Agatha Christie murder mystery, 13 Was a Judas (also known as The Last Traitor) is an odd hybrid that doesn't really work, although it has some scuzzy B-movie charm. The title comes from the apparent superstition that 13 people at a table is bad luck, and that's exactly what Confederate army veteran Ned Carter (Donald O'Brien) has at his wedding banquet in Sonora, Mexico, where he's gathered a group of outlaws and miscreants to celebrate his impending betrothal to Maribel (Adriana Giuffrè). But before the wedding can even begin, the stagecoach carrying Maribel arrives with all of its passengers dead, slaughtered by some unknown assailants.

Thus begins a series of investigations and accusations among the 13 men, along with some of the residents of the small Mexican town where they've been taking refuge. There are the requisite twists and double-crosses, although most of the characters aren't particularly well-defined, so it's tough to figure out whom to root for, or even how some of the men are connected to each other. The plotting relies on flashbacks and exposition-heavy dialogue to eventually explain the motivations behind each killing, as the members of the group also start getting picked off one by one. (Not surprisingly, there's a hidden cache of gold that everyone is after.) Despite all the talk, though, the eventual explanations aren't exactly satisfying, or even entirely clear.

As is customary with spaghetti Westerns, the dialogue from the mostly Italian actors (O'Brien aside) is dubbed into English, which is always awkward but is notably poor here, with too many voices that sound similar to each other. It's hard enough to tell some of the characters apart, but it becomes even more difficult in crowded scenes when the dubbing obscures who is talking to whom at any given moment. The voice acting is stiff, which is especially detrimental to a story that features more talk than action.

There are some evocative moments, though, including the semi-impressionistic flashbacks, and while it's frustrating not to have a real protagonist to focus on, it's also impressive how committed the movie is to making all of its characters reprehensible outlaws, even the one who emerges as a sort of hero at the end. Unlike a typical Agatha Christie story, which would end with the genius detective wrapping things up neatly, Judas ends on a hollow victory, the mystery not so much solved as obliterated. It's an admirably bleak conclusion, but the journey to get there is far too clumsy and uneven to be satisfying.

Monday, September 03, 2018

VODepths: 'Euthanizer,' 'The Forest of the Lost Souls,' 'Searching for Fortune'

Euthanizer (Matti Onnismaa, Jari Virman, Hannamaija Nikander, dir. Teemu Nikki) True to its title, the bleak Finnish drama Euthanizer starts out with a cat being put to death, and things do not get cheerier from there. The title character (Matti Onnismaa) is a gruff mechanic who has a side business in putting animals down, for prices much lower than at the veterinarian's office. His methods are much cruder, too: For smaller animals, he has a makeshift gas chamber in the back of a car, and for larger animals, it's a bullet to the head out in the woods behind his shop. When Veijo the euthanizer crosses paths with the members of a white supremacist gang, it seems inevitable that he'll bring his euthanizing talents to humans. But that's not quite what happens here, since Veijo is only interested in being left alone and upholding his peculiar code of ethics, which has no tolerance for mistreatment of animals but doesn't apply the same standards to people. Veijo starts up a relationship with the nurse caring for his dying father, but this guy is clearly not cut out for normal human interaction. Parts of Euthanizer are darkly funny, while other parts are painfully difficult to watch (this is definitely not a movie for animal lovers), but Onnismaa ties them all together with a fascinating performance, and his nuanced portrayal of Veijo helps the movie earn its darker and darker turns. It's never obvious or predictable, and its off-kilter rhythms keep it from just wallowing in misery. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

The Forest of the Lost Souls (Daniela Love, Jorge Mota, Mafalda Banquart, dir. José Pedro Lopes) The prologue of the Portuguese art-horror film The Forest of the Lost Souls is a haunting, wordless sequence featuring a young woman in the title location, an eerie wilderness similar to the Aokigahara forest in Japan, where people come for solitude and isolation when they plan to commit suicide. This unknown woman moves with determination toward her death, and the movie follows that with an evocative opening-credits sequence featuring stop-motion animation. It sets the tone for a somber, reflective movie, but writer-director José Pedro Lopes doesn't quite follow through, at least not in the way that the opening would indicate. The rest of the film is divided into two sections, the first featuring another young woman (Daniela Love) and an older man (Jorge Mota) in the forest, trading thoughts on their impending suicides. It's a somewhat ponderous but still intriguing examination of mortality, that then shifts gears entirely into a sort of slasher movie, as the young woman targets a family for revenge (for reasons that are never specified). That abrupt change in location and styles leads the movie into less unique, less intriguing territory, although the black-and-white cinematography remains lovely throughout, with some striking shot compositions, and Love is creepy as the unfeeling killer. But what started out as something distinctive and stylish ends as empty B-horror provocation. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

Searching for Fortune (Brian Smolensky, Christina Moore, John Heard, dir. Joseph Matarrese) Writer and star Brian Smolensky personally asked me to review this movie (and even complimented one of my other reviews, with specific examples, in his pitch!), so I'm sorry that I don't have more positive things to say about it. Smolensky plays Mike, a hardscrabble oil driller in Colorado who spends his off time drinking, picking up women and getting into bar fights, and lives in a trailer strewn with dirty clothes because he's a man's man and can't be bothered with domestic niceties (also, he never closes the door when he comes home, which I found really distracting throughout the movie). His world is rocked when Emily (Christina Moore) shows up on his doorstep and reveals that he had an older brother who was given up for adoption, and that brother has just been killed on active military duty in Afghanistan. Emily, the brother's widow, then asks Mike to help her have a child, since he's the closest thing she has left to her late husband. What follows is an awkward mix of pseudo-romance (there is some seriously inappropriate sexual tension between Mike and Emily), earnest working-class drama and family soap opera, with some very clunky dialogue. The lead performances are decent, with John Heard (in his final role) delivering a soulful turn as Mike's dad, and there is some lovely footage of rural Colorado (captured on Super 16mm film). But the plot proceeds in awkward fits and starts, the bonding scenes between Mike and his macho buddies are painfully stilted, and the resolution is abrupt and dissatisfying. Available on Amazon.

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, Chloé 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.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Shark Week 4: 'Tiger Shark' (1932)

More of a melodrama with elements of social realism than a shark-attack thriller, Howard Hawks' Tiger Shark nevertheless includes plenty of fascinating footage of real-life sharks. It's more effective as a document of commercial fishing off the San Diego coast in the early 1930s than it is as a romantic drama, and Edward G. Robinson's hammy lead performance, while amusing, prevents it from achieving any real pathos. Robinson plays Portuguese-born San Diego fishing-boat captain Mike Mascarenhas, an exuberant but awkward guy who's great at hauling in tuna but not so good with the ladies. The movie opens with Mike, stranded in a lifeboat with two of his crew members, losing one of his hands to a tiger shark, and the genuine danger of shark attacks is a recurring theme throughout the movie.

Despite having a hook for a hand thanks to a shark attack, Mike seems to have a pretty laid-back attitude about sharks. Even when they are surrounding his lifeboat, he remains calm, and he doesn't seem bothered when one of his fellow castaways gets eaten, after falling overboard while struggling with Mike and first mate Pipes (Richard Arlen) over the last of the water. Mike is far more concerned about his luck with women, constantly bragging about how much attention he gets even though he is actually lonely and rejected. When yet another shark attack takes the life of one of Mike's crew, he sort of takes advantage of the man's unwed daughter, offering to marry her so she doesn't have to live alone (and be vulnerable to men like the sleazy gangster Mike saves her from). Quita (Zita Johann) is grateful to Mike, who's far too open-hearted to be manipulative or coercive, but she doesn't love him or find him attractive. Still, she agrees to marry him out of a combination of pity and gratitude.

She then almost immediately falls in love with Pipes, a tall, handsome American who has the leading-man confidence that Mike lacks. There's some potential complexity to the love triangle, as both Quita and Pipes feel indebted to Mike (who lost his hand while saving Pipes from the sharks), but it plays out rather tamely, with mostly chaste interactions despite the freedoms of the pre-Code era. Quita and Pipes pine for each other but don't act on their attraction, while Mike obliviously revels in his apparent good fortune. Johann gives a remarkably soulful performance, conveying Quita's vulnerability and decency, but Arlen is rather bland, and their chemistry is minimal, which makes it tough to invest in their supposed instant attraction. Robinson overdoes his cartoonish accent and Mike's bumbling cluelessness, and then ends up with an unconvincing noble death at the end.

That death once again comes courtesy of tiger sharks and in service of saving Pipes' life. The shark attacks are filmed with the kind of dangerous energy that can only come from using real sharks, and the amount of location shooting and underwater camerawork is impressive for a movie from the early sound era. Hawks clearly has an eye for working-class life, from the procedural details of commercial fishing operations to the community of wives and families of fishermen waiting for their husbands and fathers to come home, and the movie works best when it focuses on those elements. For people (often immigrants) who are just scraping by via manual labor, being exposed to potential shark attacks is just one hazard of making a living. That stark reality, rather than an undercooked love triangle, is what makes Tiger Shark stand out.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Shark Week 4: 'The Shallows' (2016)

The proliferation of cheap, lazy shark movies over the last decade or so (fueled by the ever-expanding VOD/streaming market, the Syfy channel and the Asylum, among others) has really devalued the idea of a decent shark thriller, to the point that any announced movie dealing with shark attacks is met with groans and dismissals. I admit that I felt the same way when first hearing about The Shallows, figuring that at best it might amount to a guilty-pleasure addition to this very Shark Week feature, should I decide to resurrect it. I missed the movie when it premiered in theaters, skipping the press screening for something else showing at the same time (I forget what), and assuming I'd only bother catching up if necessary for writing purposes. But the unexpectedly great reviews and word of mouth made me eager to give it a shot. A shark movie that's actually an effective, involving thriller? It seems almost too good to be true.

And to some degree, it is; I don't want to overstate the greatness of this movie, which surpasses dozens of other shark thrillers merely by not being incompetent. There are some absurdly unbelievable moments and some bits of manipulative sentiment, but the bulk of the movie is lean and suspenseful, with a surprisingly strong performance from Blake Lively as essentially the only character in the movie. At best, The Shallows resembles one-person-against-the-elements movies like 127 Hours or All Is Lost, although Lively is not on the same level as James Franco or Robert Redford in those movies. Lively's Nancy opens the movie headed to a secluded beach in Mexico, so far off the beaten path that it doesn't even have a name. After a few brief interactions, she's out all alone, and soon she finds herself on a tiny rock outcropping, just a couple hundred yards from the shore (hence the title), being menaced by a dangerous shark. Much of the movie is just Nancy attempting to survive (she has a nasty bite on her leg that she got before making it to the rock) while figuring out some way to either signal for help or make it the maddeningly short distance back to shore.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra has a sort of cult following among a subset of online critics thanks to his action movies with Liam Neeson (Unknown, Non-Stop, Run All Night), but I've never quite seen his appeal until here, where he takes a bare-bones thriller script and delivers it with just the right amount of style and restraint (for the most part, at least). He uses smart and mostly unobtrusive overlays of text messages, video chats and time stamps to convey the passage of time, Nancy's increasingly dire situation and the connections to the outside world that keep her determined to stay alive. The opening gives just enough back story to make Nancy into a recognizable person that you'd rather not see get eaten by a shark, although the movie gives in to some sentimental moments toward the end (and the epilogue is completely corny and unnecessary). The movie also gives in to some typical shark-movie shock moments, although they are handled so effectively that it's not too hard to forgive them.

Things eventually get a little too silly, but Lively keeps her character grounded even when she's performing essentially superhuman feats against a giant deadly shark. Some of the CGI effects can be a little shaky, but the mostly minimalist style means that the effects don't have to do too much of the work. It's only in the big confrontations that the limitations really show. For shark-movie aficionados, The Shallows is proof that this genre doesn't have to be just campy nonsense or inept cash-ins. The inherent fear and danger in nature, in an unpredictable deadly animal, is a real and visceral force that a good movie can tap into, and for a large part of its running time, The Shallows does just that.

Shark Week 4: Just When You Thought It Was Safe to Go Back in the Water

It's been 10 years since I first thought it would be fun to commemorate Discovery's mega-popular annual Shark Week series of shows with a week of blog posts about shark movies, and somehow here I am again, for the fourth time, introducing another week of shark-related posts. Shark movies are more popular than ever (this piece about cult classic Shark Attack 3: Megalodon is the most popular post on this entire blog, by a significant margin), with dozens of low-budget shark-themed thrillers being released every year. Most of them, of course, are very bad, and not really worth commenting on.

For this latest edition, I looked back into the past to find a few obscure older shark movies, but I couldn't resist including at least one terrible recent shark movie with a ridiculous pun for a title (although I still refuse to cover any of the Sharknado movies). And the week will end with my take on the fourth and final Jaws movie, which seems like a good way to bring this project to a close for good (at least until a bunch more crazy shark movies are released that I absolutely must write about).

New posts will start later today and go through the week. In the meantime, catch up on all the posts from Shark Weeks past:

Shark (1969)
She Gods of Shark Reef (1958)
Deep Blue Sea (1999)
Spring Break Shark Attack (2005)
Dark Waters (1993)
Open Water (2003)
Jaws (1975)
The Deep (1977)
Shark Attack 3: Megalodon (2002)
Tintorera: Killer Shark (1977)
Beyond the Reef (1981)
Sharktopus (2010)
The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl (2005)
Jaws 2 (1978)
Snow Shark: Ancient Snow Beast (2012)
The Reef (2010)
Shark Night (2011)
2-Headed Shark Attack (2012)
Bait (2012)
Dark Tide (2012)
Jaws 3 (1983)

(Image part of the Build-a-Bear Shark Week line, of course.)