Saturday, August 13, 2011

Triskaidekaphilia: '13 Months of Sunshine'

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

It's amazing what you can find while poking around Amazon's VOD offerings. 13 Months of Sunshine played a handful of small film festivals in 2008 and 2009 without making much of an impact, but thanks to Amazon, it's available to watch for anyone with an internet connection (and $2.99), and can be purchased on DVD as well, even though the movie's official site seems to have expired, and its Facebook page hasn't been updated in years. Orphaned films live on in the cloud, for people like me to randomly stumble upon.

Anyway, as much as the availability of 13 Months may be indicative of some new movie-distribution paradigm, its actual content is much less revolutionary. It's clearly a labor of love for writer-director Yehdego Abeselom, depicting life among the Ethiopian immigrant community in Los Angeles. This is certainly not a demographic that's typically represented in movies, even on the micro-indie scale, so it's interesting to get a glimpse into a sort of invisible subculture. Or at least it would be, if this movie offered up anything distinct from the typical rom-com narrative, with a few devices from the struggling-immigrant genre. The plot features main character Solomon (Sammy Amare) agreeing to a sham marriage with Hanna (Tsion Fikreselassie) so she can get her green card, and of course they eventually fall in love despite just being together for the sake of convenience.

The movie takes forever getting there, though, and the subplots about Solomon wanting to open his own coffee shop and Hanna becoming a model are tedious and awkward, the model storyline especially showing the strains of the limited budget. The acting ranges from passable to painful, but it's definitely hampered by the looping of practically all of the dialogue, which makes it sound extra stilted and false. One thing that Abeselom does well is show how casually the characters switch between Amharic and English as they're talking to each other, in a way that shows how the community has become integrated into American life while also remaining separate. A few more touches like that would have helped 13 Months seem more insightful, instead of just another generic indie dramedy with questionable production values.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Shark Week 2: 'Jaws 2' (1978)

By the time it reached its fourth installment in 1987, the Jaws franchise was basically a joke, but in 1978 it was still pretty respectable, coming off of Steven Spielberg's acclaimed and hugely successful 1975 original. Spielberg even briefly considered returning to direct the sequel, although that duty eventually fell to Jeannot Szwarc, who came in to replace original director John D. Hancock. Despite a lot of production troubles, including Hancock's firing, numerous rewrites and Roy Scheider's apparent reluctance to star in the movie (which he did only out of a contractual obligation), Jaws 2 ended up about as good as you could expect such a redundant sequel to be. It's repetitive and unnecessary, but it's not entirely bad. Shark-attack movies have been living in the shadow of Jaws since 1975, and the same is true for Jaws 2.

It also rehashes the plot of Jaws in many ways, with a giant great white shark terrorizing the resort town of Amity Island, and the town's chief of police, Martin Brody (Scheider), sounding the oft-ignored alarm. Once again local officials refuse to take the threat seriously, and once again Brody has to take it upon himself to defeat the shark. That redundancy reduces the suspense, and you can sense a bit of Scheider's annoyance in his performance, although he does convey Brody's desperation at being stuck in the same damn situation all over again. Szwarc, too, is stuck in a no-win situation when it comes to the shark, since he can't really hold off on showing it the way Spielberg did (everyone in the audience knows what it looks like by now), but the more he does show it, the sillier it appears. Szwarc opts to give the shark plenty of screen time, as well as a badass scar from attacking a boat early in the movie, and it's certainly more of a proactive, vengeful villain (which of course makes no sense). There's a brief reference to the possibility of the original shark having somehow communicated with the new shark, which is quickly dismissed, but this one clearly has it out for the residents of Amity Island.

In addition to Brody and his wife (Lorraine Gary, also returning from the original), Jaws 2 spends a lot of time focused on a group of interchangeable teenagers, including Brody's son Mike, who serve as shark fodder. In its emphasis on teen antics and peril, Jaws 2 sort of resembles a slasher film, right down to the teens who get attacked just after deciding to have sex. The slasher aspect could have been a fun angle, but it isn't fully developed, and it has to share time with Brody's brooding and the self-serving maneuvers of the town leaders. For the first half of the movie, in which Brody grows increasingly paranoid about attacks that he attributes to the shark without conclusive evidence, I was imagining a more offbeat take that would have involved no shark attacks at all, just Brody going increasingly insane as he insists that a shark is terrorizing the town, except it's all in his mind.

Sadly, this is just a by-the-number shark-attack movie instead, although the climax, which puts Brody's kids in peril, is sort of exciting, and Szwarc and the various screenwriters at least find a new and interesting way to kill the shark that doesn't duplicate the ending of the first movie. Given that this mediocre film is regarded as the best of the Jaws sequels, it's probably better for me to stop here and not move on to the later installments.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Shark Week 2: 'The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl' (2005)

Robert Rodriguez's filmmaking career is oddly schizophrenic; his movies are almost all either hyper-stylized violent pulp fantasies (Sin City, Planet Terror, Machete, etc.) or candy-coated, ultra-wholesome kids' movies (the Spy Kids series, Shorts, etc.) with essentially nothing in between (The Faculty is the closest middle ground). The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl (which was originally released in 3D) falls squarely into Rodriguez's kid-focused mode, with a story based on the dreams and ideas of his then-7-year-old son Racer Max. It's cute that Rodriguez wants to include his entire family in his moviemaking endeavors, and it's admirable that he creates his movies in such a self-contained way, shooting at his own studio in Texas and serving multiple positions in the crew himself.

But both approaches yield poor results: The story very much seems like it was concocted by a child, with a complete lack of coherence or direction, a half-formed message and a bunch of overbearing, one-note characters. And Rodriguez's filmmaking efficiency leads to ugly, bargain-basement special effects, terrible performances and no sense of pacing or modulation. It's not as grating or haphazard as Rodriguez's next family movie, 2009's Shorts (which is pretty much unbearable to watch), but it comes close. The message here is about not being afraid to let your imagination run wild, but in this case I think maybe Rodriguez should have confined his son's ideas to coloring books.

And what about the sharks? There's actually a semi-amusing prologue about the origin of Sharkboy (Twilight's Taylor Lautner, proving that he was an awful actor even at 13), who accompanied his marine biologist dad at a research station until a storm blew it apart, and Sharkboy was found and raised by crappily animated CGI talking sharks. Somehow this led to his acquiring shark-related powers, plus a really stupid-looking shark-themed outfit. That's about it for the actual sharks until the climax of the movie, when Sharkboy fulfills his destiny (?) and becomes king of the ocean, rallying his army of hideous CGI sharks to help defeat villain Mr. Electricity (George Lopez, nearly as bad as the child actors).

As for the rest of the plot, it involves lame preteen Max (Cayden Boyd) teaming up with the title characters to save Planet Drool by learning to believe in the power of dreams, or some bullshit. Again, it doesn't really make sense, and it seems like the plot heads off in a completely different direction every 10 minutes or so. The effects are not only poorly rendered but also sloppily designed, and the movie's entire visual sense is garish and exhausting. Add in the awkward, shrill acting and the repetitive positivity, and this is clearly a kid's project only a father could love.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Shark Week 2: 'Sharktopus' (2010)

There have been so many low-budget shark-attack movies at this point that their creators have to do something really different to stand out from the pack. Thus you get something like Sharktopus, an insanely stupid idea that nevertheless captures the pop-culture zeitgeist for two minutes precisely because of its insane stupidity. Sharktopus comes from two proud traditions of B-movie schlock: It's produced by low-budget legend Roger Corman, and it was created for Syfy, which despite its fancy name change is still in the business of churning out awesomely awful horror/sci-fi TV-movies on a regular basis. What makes Sharktopus stand out from dozens of other terrible Syfy productions? Other than its title, pretty much nothing. It's sloppily constructed, with terrible acting, atrocious special effects and a thin plot that strains to fill 90 minutes. Like a lot of micro-sensations that generate interest online, its entire appeal is in its title and maybe the trailer; watching the movie is essentially redundant.

But I watched it anyway, and it wasn't a horrible experience. Corman has decades of accumulated knowledge in how to package this stuff so it goes down easy, and even abiding by basic-cable standards, he knows how to throw in plenty of scantily clad hot women (the movie takes place mostly at a resort in Puerto Vallarta) and evenly space out the gory moments, plus add the requisite comic relief. All of that stuff is there, just in kind of a watered-down form. Obviously the women have to remain clothed, the violence is pretty tame (although there is plenty of blood), and the comic relief is mild. I did enjoy Ralph Garman as a snarky radio DJ who scoffs at the existence of Sharktopus (naturally right before getting devoured by the half-shark/half-octopus creature), and there's some camp value in the obviously clueless way the actors react to being attacked by a post-production special effect they can't see.

That's pretty minimal entertainment for a 90-minute movie, though, and it's spread thin enough that the rest of the time is filled with boredom, including repetitive exposition and scenes of irrelevant characters who are never seen again. Eric Roberts is the only semi-respectable actor in the movie, and most of the time he looks like he's just biding his time until he can head back to his trailer. Even the way he wears his sunglasses halfway down his face looks condescending. He plays the head of the scientific organization that has gone too far in creating the Sharktopus as a weapon for the military (why does the military want a Sharktopus?), but he spends almost the entire movie on some yacht in an undisclosed location, like he was annoyed at the prospect of sharing too many scenes with the other actors. That kind of half-assed boredom with the material pervades the movie; so many people online were taken with the supposed awesomeness of the concept, but the people making the movie don't seem nearly as impressed.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Shark Week 2: 'Beyond the Reef' (1981)

Although most of the commentary about Beyond the Reef that I found online (it's never been released on DVD in the U.S., but can be watched in its entirety on YouTube) was about how people saw it as kids and had nostalgic feelings for it, it didn't really strike me as a movie made for kids. There's a deadly shark attack within a couple of minutes of the movie starting, and a few more later on. I'm pretty sure I saw a bare breast at one point, too. I suppose it's reassuring, though, that the parents of the '80s weren't so uptight about what their kids watched, and didn't let some partial nudity and deadly violence get in the way of letting youngsters see this lame-ass movie.

It's definitely the kind of movie that only seems good in nostalgic hindsight: The acting is terrible, the frequently dubbed dialogue is clumsy, the plot makes very little sense, and the life lessons are seriously muddled. At the same time, it's cute and upbeat, and the scenery (of Bora Bora) is beautiful. Most impressively, the filmmakers get a tiger shark to behave like a puppy, as main character Tikoyo befriends a baby shark right after its mother is killed following the attack at the beginning of the movie. As a kid, island native Tikoyo saves Polynesian-American girl Diana from a shark attack, then befriends Diana and spends time with her as he teaches his shark to be a loyal pet.

A decade later, the grown-up Diana (Maren Jensen, best known as Athena on the original Battlestar Galactica) returns from studying in America to find Tikoyo (Dayton Ka'ne) all grown up and palling around with a full-sized tiger shark, which is tame enough to carry humans on its back and splash up at Tikoyo playfully through a trap door in his hut. This is the fun, silly stuff that probably appealed to kids, and it's pretty impressive to watch, to see this creature that movies have conditioned us to believe is so dangerous and see it be not only harmless but also lovable. Director Frank C. Clark seems very aware of the preconceptions about shark movies, and he sometimes will show the shark (named Manidu, and supposedly containing the spirit of its namesake, a wise old mentor for young Tikoyo) in a stereotypical attack-movie shot (filmed from low and behind, with ominous music), only to have it do something adorable instead.

The thing is, though, that Manidu still kills people, but they're all evil developers who want to encroach on the beauty of Tikoyo's little inlet (and also exploit the cache of black pearls he lives right above). So it's like a cute agent of vengeance, and the movie never really reconciles this murderous impulse with the sunny vibe of Diana and Tikoyo's romance or the fish-out-of-water scenes with Diana's clueless (and perpetually horny for island men) American best friend. The villains (led by Diana's brother) are cartoonishly evil, but their defeat is sort of ambiguous and open-ended, and the movie just kind of stops without really resolving the story. It's based very loosely on a novel by Clement Richer (here is a Time Magazine review from 1951), which was also made into a 1964 Italian movie called Tiko and the Shark, and the fact that this is the most notable version of the story demonstrates just how unremarkable the whole thing is.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Shark Week 2: 'Tintorera: Killer Shark' (1977)

The bargain-basement Mexican sharksploitation movie Tintorera: Killer Shark is just one of many opportunistic '70s Jaws ripoffs, but it achieved infamy for its use of real sea animals being injured and killed in scenes of the main characters hunting for sharks. The transition between bloody underwater slaughter and sleazy sexcapades is rather jarring, although the unseemly tone of the whole thing ties it together. It's not like director Rene Cardona Jr. was interested in some kind of radical verisimilitude, either -- there just wasn't any concern with animal welfare on movie sets in Mexico at the time, and it was a lot cheaper to spear actual animals than mock up fake ones to use. I don't know if indifference or malice would be the sadder motivation.

And all of those animals died in vain, too, bringing about this totally shitty movie. Cardona barely seems interested in shark attacks at all, spending most of his time focused on the sexual exploits of his main characters, American rich guy Steven (Hugo Stiglitz) and his Mexican friend/rival Miguel (Andres Garcia). Steven, wealthy for unspecified reasons, shacks up off the coast of a beautiful Mexican resort town in his fancy yacht, coming ashore to lure hot young women with gross pick-up lines and his ever-present creepy leer. No matter what Steven is doing, Stiglitz always has a look in his eyes like he's on the verge of sexual assault, and whoever dubbed in the English-language dialogue sounds just as sociopathic.

Steven even meets Miguel when they both happen to sleep with the same woman (she's later eaten by the shark, although neither of her paramours knows or cares), and they bond over their shared womanizing. Eventually they also bond over their enjoyment of shark-hunting, which they engage in even before they know that a killer tiger shark (or "tintorera") is on the loose. This is certainly the most environmentally unfriendly shark-attack movie of all time; in addition to killing sea animals for fun, in one scene Steven throws an empty champagne bottle off the side of his boat into the ocean, and then tosses in the glass, too. You could almost look at this movie as a revenge fantasy from the perspective of the shark, who gets back at these unfeeling murderers who are constantly killing its kin.

Cardona doesn't see it that way, though -- not that he has any sort of message here at all. The movie is just a vehicle for lots of nudity and occasional animal attacks, and a pretty weak one at that. Apparently there's a longer Mexican cut of the film that's 40 minutes longer than the American release I watched, and I can't imagine how there could be 40 more minutes of anything in this movie, unless it's just extended footage of topless girls swimming (which I suppose I could support). The sheer sleaziness can be kind of amusing, although the animal abuse certainly dampens the entertainment value. Better to stay away and not support this sort of thing at all.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Shark Week 2: 'Shark Attack 3: Megalodon' (2002)

No, I haven't seen Shark Attack or Shark Attack 2, but from what I can tell, neither of those movies has anything to do with Shark Attack 3: Megalodon, aside from featuring sharks attacking (and the original Shark Attack apparently doesn't even feature much of that). And while Shark Attack and Shark Attack 2 are undoubtedly terrible, Megalodon is the one that has built up a reputation as one of the great bad movies of all time, thanks in large part to one particularly infamous line that star John Barrowman (who's gone on to be very successful on Dr. Who, Torchwood and the British stage) will apparently never live down.

But there's more to Megalodon than just Barrowman's Ben Carpenter delivering the world's most awkward come-on. For starters, the movie takes place in Mexico but was shot in Bulgaria, and almost every supporting character is played by a local actor whose dialogue was post-dubbed, giving the movie a very stilted, unnatural feel even with the rare bits of dialogue that aren't horribly written. The "Mexican" resort where the movie takes place is decorated with Mexican flags and pictures of Mexico's then-President Vicente Fox. This seems to be the movie's primary mode of illustrating character backgrounds and roles; the former Navy man who helps the protagonists defeat the megalodon has giant photos of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney and a huge U.S. Navy logo on his wall to indicate his patriotism. Even more amusingly, paleontologist Cat Stone (Jenny McShane, who had a completely unrelated role in the original Shark Attack) is introduced with what looks like a picture book about dinosaurs sitting on her desk. That level of knowledge about anything scientific is pretty much standard for this movie, though.

Barrowman plays a resort employee who stumbles on the title creature, a prehistoric giant shark thought to be extinct. He uploads a picture of the shark's tooth to a hilariously rudimentary website, which attracts the attention of the San Diego-based Cat, who shows up hoping to study the creature. Of course, it's far too dangerous to study, and various victims soon succumb to megalodon attacks, while the fat cats who own the resort refuse to shut down the beach. The movie really kicks into hilariously awful mode when Ben and Cat discover that the megalodon they were chasing was just a baby, and the actual giant shark ("the size of a Greyhound bus," Ben says) shows up. Most of the shark scenes are just recycled stock footage, and the supposedly monster-size shark is just the same footage shown in close-up, with various items (boat, inflatable raft, jet ski) superimposed over it and made to look tiny in comparison (the shark swallows all of those things whole).

Barrowman insists that the infamous line was a joke not meant to end up in the final film, but it's hard to tell just how much of the rest of the movie is intended to be funny. It's not quite goofy enough to be a full-on satire, but certainly bits like the guy directly jet-skiing into the horribly green-screened shark's mouth aren't expected to be taken seriously. Given the proliferation of terrible shark-attack B-movies, it takes something special to rise above the pack and into the realms of the great bad movies of all time; whatever that is, Megalodon clearly has it.