Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Officer Thirteen' (1932)

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

The dull, dreary morality play Officer Thirteen runs only 59 minutes, but it feels like twice that, with its slow, monotonous story about a wholesome police officer killed in a hit-and-run accident and his wholesome partner's quest for justice. Shot in the flat, static style of a lot of early talkies (albeit with some inadvertently fascinating footage of 1930s Los Angeles), Officer Thirteen starts with some lead-footed comedy about jovial police officers Tom Burke (Monte Blue) and Sandy Malone (Charles Delaney) pulling over a horrifying Italian stereotype and letting him go thanks primarily to his wacky accent, then teasing Sandy's son and his friend before very unsafely riding them to school on their motorcycles.

Things turn serious, however, when Sandy takes off in pursuit of a speeder who ends up deliberately running him off the road into a ditch. The accident doesn't look serious when it happens onscreen, but it apparently ends up being fatal, and the grief-stricken Tom takes it upon himself to avenge his partner and take care of the man's elderly mother and cute son (played by a young Mickey Rooney). This involves a lot of hectoring "crime does not pay" nonsense, culminating in a raid on a gambling joint where the killer has been holed up. The movie takes on corruption (the killer gets off because his boss, who owns the illegal casino, bribes top officials), perjury (the killer's girlfriend initially lies for him at his trial) and the twin scourges of illegal gambling and driving over the speed limit, with all of the bad guys getting their comeuppance and the heroes remaining morally pure.

Tom is so stolidly heroic that he not only achieves justice for his dead partner but also takes care of the dead man's entire family, stands up to his bosses at the police department, and almost single-handedly reforms the killer's girlfriend, Doris Dane (Lila Lee), turning her from a gangster's moll into an upstanding citizen who makes her judge father proud and an eventual surrogate mother for Sandy's mop-topped kid when she decides to marry Tom. He's such a great guy that he even manages to turn his unlucky badge number (13, of course) into a sign of good luck. The movie is similarly bland and upright, with wooden performances, stiff dialogue and turgid pacing. It's designed simply to teach the audience a lesson, but the lesson mainly is that movies like this are a terminal bore. (Watch the whole thing yourself at the Internet Archive.)

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Shark Week 3: 'Jaws 3' (1983)

If Jaws 2 was making an effort to recapture the style and tone of Steven Spielberg's groundbreaking 1975 original, along with taking advantage of the box-office appeal of shark attacks, Jaws 3 has no such concerns, going right for the sensationalistic violence with only the most tenuous connections to the characters and story of the first two movies. Although the main character is Mike Brody (Dennis Quaid), son of original protagonist Martin Brody (Roy Scheider, who supposedly booked another movie specifically so he wouldn't be available for this one), only a few throwaway lines of dialogue connect him to the character played by other actors in the previous movies, and it would make virtually no difference to get rid of the connection entirely.

The grown-up Mike is now working at SeaWorld in Florida, which has just opened a massive new attraction that mingles with the open sea (the real-life SeaWorld in Florida is landlocked, but parts of the movie were shot on the Florida coast). The underwater complex is realized via a mix of miniatures and rather shoddy-looking special effects, which are made even less convincing by the fact that the movie was shot in 3D but of course is only available to watch in 2D on home video. Like most 3D movies of the '80s, Jaws 3 is filled with random objects thrusting toward the camera, although some of them are rendered in such fake-looking special effects that they look more like objects just sort of floating in front of the screen. The unconvincing effects often undermine the suspense, which is pretty minimal to begin with anyway.

There's no effort here to connect the sharks that accidentally find their way into SeaWorld with the sharks of the previous two movies; it's just serious bad luck that Mike and his younger brother Sean (John Putch) are subject to deadly shark attacks for the third time. There's some rote, underwhelming drama about Mike's relationship with his girlfriend (Bess Armstrong), and Sean hooks up with another park employee (Lea Thompson) before being quickly jettisoned from the story altogether. The climax focuses more on eccentric park owner Calvin Bouchard, played by Louis Gossett Jr., hamming it up as a stereotypical greedy businessman.

It's sort of surprising that SeaWorld authorized the use of its brand (and its actual park) in this movie, which portrays the company as greedy, neglectful and irresponsible. Of course, SeaWorld isn't actually run by a colorful, careless millionaire, but still, I can't imagine this movie was positive PR for them. Maybe if it had been a better movie with a more interesting story, it could have showed how SeaWorld's commitment to preserving marine life could help prevent shark attacks, or something. Instead it's just a mediocre thriller that does no good for the brands of either SeaWorld or Jaws.

Friday, August 09, 2013

Shark Week 3: 'Dark Tide' (2012)

At one time, I thought John Stockwell was one of the most underrated directors in Hollywood. He boasted a fresh, glossy visual style and a simple, direct approach to characters, and he turned potentially trashy, cliched movies like Crazy/Beautiful and Blue Crush into engaging, vibrant experiences. But Stockwell followed those two movies by taking on increasingly questionable projects, from the vapid if pretty Into the Blue and the dismal horror movie Turistas down to a number of barely released obscurities and the much-maligned Nat Geo TV movie Seal Team Six: The Raid on Osama bin Laden.

Dark Tide is one of Stockwell's projects that barely made it to theaters, although given its lead performance from Halle Berry, that's somewhat surprising. Berry's star power is the only thing this movie has going for it, though, and even she doesn't exactly bring anything exciting to her role as supposed "shark whisperer" Kate Mathieson. Following a tragedy that takes the life of one of her team members, Kate gives up frolicking with sharks for good, until her slimy ex (Olivier Martinez) recruits a rich asshole who will pay big money to have Kate teach him to swim with sharks.

This sounds like the setup for your typical shark-attack thriller, but Dark Tide doesn't get to what would be the beginning of that kind of movie until its final 20 minutes, when the boat containing Kate and her crew capsizes in shark-infested waters during a storm. By that point, the movie has already spent more than 100 minutes on Kate's boring angst, her dysfunctional relationship with her ex, the rich dude's issues with his son, and other mundane, uninteresting personal drama. Stockwell, who conveyed beautiful ocean imagery in Blue Crush and Into the Blue, fails completely on the visual front here, and the underwater scenes are so murky and confusingly edited as to be almost entirely incomprehensible. For a couple who met during filming and are now married, Berry and Martinez have no chemistry, and none of the other actors can bring any life to their characters, either. In most shark-attack movies, there would at least be the satisfaction of seeing these cardboard characters entertainingly eviscerated, but Dark Tide denies its audience even that basic pleasure.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Shark Week 3: 'Bait' (2012)

It represents some sort of failure on the part of the filmmakers that Bait is not titled Supermarket Sharks. Stupid, catchy titles have been the recipe for success when it comes to recent low-budget shark-attack movies (think Sharknado, Sharktopus, Sharks in Venice), but Bait seems to have higher ambitions. Despite the premise of the movie literally involving sharks in a supermarket, the title is instead a more generic (albeit briefly relevant), theoretically classier name for a thriller that tries to inject real drama into its silly setup. That setup involves a tsunami striking the coast of Australia, flooding a supermarket and trapping a handful of people inside. The tsunami has brought some wildlife along with it, and Bait features one shark menacing a small group inside the supermarket, while another shark menaces survivors in the underground parking garage.

A shark prowling the aisles of a grocery store is an inherently silly concept, but director Kimble Rendall and the six (!) credited screenwriters don't play it for laughs. Instead, they focus on the relationship drama among various characters in the supermarket.There's the tortured hero who once watched his best friend/the brother of his fiancee get killed by a shark, and now has lots of shark-related angst. Wouldn't you know it, his now-ex-fiancee shows up in the supermarket with her new boyfriend just before the tsunami hits. Will the new boyfriend die, clearing the way for the former lovers to reunite? Yes, of course he will.

The acting in Bait isn't that bad by B-movie standards (Nip/Tuck star Julian McMahon even has a supporting role), but the drama is pretty unconvincing. The shark attacks are marginally more effective, and while the special effects are dodgy, they are light years ahead of a lot of bargain-basement shark movies. Possibly the weirdest and most distracting thing about this movie is the way that many of the actors sort of halfway affect American accents, despite the movie clearly taking place in Australia and other characters speaking with obvious Australian accents. And it's not even like one or two characters are meant to be American -- the accents waver from scene to scene and line to line for no apparent reason. Bait actually ended up being a pretty large international hit (although not in the U.S.), so maybe the flattening of the accents paid off somehow, but it's just one more element contributing to the generic, lifeless tone of what could have been a much more fun movie.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Shark Week 3: '2-Headed Shark Attack' (2012)

For various reasons, I have seen several of the ultra-low-budget productions from "mockbuster" factory The Asylum, and 2-Headed Shark Attack is pretty typical of the company's work. With Carmen Electra, Charlie O'Connell and Brooke Hogan in the cast, it actually has more star power than a lot of Asylum releases, but otherwise it's the same terrible acting, incoherent writing, inept direction and shoddy special effects, with lots of padding to get to the 87-minute running time. The only real appeal of any Asylum movie is the so-bad-it's-good quality, but even that is in fairly short supply here. Most of 2-Headed Shark Attack is just tedious and boring, without anything even entertainingly awful about it.

There's plenty of non-entertaining awfulness, though. It starts with the basic premise, that a small boat full of scantily clad hotties is actually a "semester at sea" vessel for college students, manned by one ineffective professor (O'Connell), his wife (Electra) -- who is maybe a doctor? -- and a captain who seems to possess very little nautical knowledge (also, the professor is occasionally referred to as the captain, for some reason). This alleged educational expedition comes in contact with the titular creature, ending up stranded in the middle of the ocean next to a small atoll, to which everyone evacuates for reasons that aren't entirely clear.

Also not entirely clear: Why does the shark have two heads? There's some vague handwaving about mutants or something, but the movie doesn't even bother to come up with some ludicrous explanation. The shark has two heads because it does (and, as one character astutely notes, two heads means twice the teeth). The movie consists of the college students running around randomly, the females in bikinis (and sometimes gratuitously topless), the males in board shorts and tank tops, broken up by occasional perfunctory shark attacks (this movie has some of the least convincing screaming I've ever heard onscreen). The editing is so terrible that there's often a complete lack of continuity between shots of the animatronic shark heads and the CGI shark, within the same attack scene.

Director Christopher Douglas-Olen Ray is the son of legendary schlockmeister Fred Olen Ray, so in a way he's just carrying on the family tradition (his other movies include Reptisaurus, Mega Shark vs. Crocosaurus and Asylum mockbuster Almighty Thor). He certainly isn't aspiring any higher than his father's example, and 2-Headed Shark Attack is indifferently directed at best. Even for a movie with such a tiny budget, it's sloppy and half-assed; witness the pathetic swaying of the actors when their boat is supposedly being battered or the atoll is supposedly trembling and collapsing. Or the many background goofs, including a visible dinghy in the supposed middle of the ocean, and an actor clearly cracking up at one point after Hogan slaps another character in the face. When the people who made the movie barely seem to care about it, it's hard to muster up even ironic enthusiasm for the viewing experience.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Shark Week 3: 'Shark Night' (2011)

Stunt coordinator turned director David R. Ellis had just started garnering a following as a creator of entertaining, unpretentious B-movies when he passed away unexpectedly earlier this year, and it's unfortunate that Shark Night stands as his final film. Not that he was some secretly brilliant filmmaker -- his other movies include Snakes on a Plane, Cellular and the second and fourth installments of the Final Destination series -- but his name was a semi-reliable indicator of something a little more clever than the average brain-dead horror or action movie.

Shark Night doesn't quite live up to the standards of some of Ellis' previous work, although it was more enjoyable to watch than I had expected based on the terrible reviews. It basically takes the slasher-movie template and applies it to a shark movie, with a group of attractive college students taking a trip to a secluded lake house, where they get picked off one by one. Yes, the lake is full of sharks, but the movie's real villains are human beings, the kind of devious backwoods psychopaths familiar from any number of formulaic horror movies. The sharks are essentially the killers' weapons; they're the equivalent of Jason Voorhees' machete or Freddy Krueger's claw glove.

Shark Night is held back by its PG-13 rating, preventing it from including slasher-movie staples like gratuitous nudity or copious gore, but Ellis still manages to stage some creative death scenes (and he somewhat refreshingly reserves his only nudity for the backside of one of the male characters early in the movie). Donal Logue and Joshua Leonard make for amusingly sinister hicks, and the main cast of young, pretty people is at least competent. I realize that's all faint praise, and the biggest problem with Shark Night is that it completely lacks scares or suspense. The villains spend a lot of time describing the specific species of sharks that they've put in the lake, but then the CGI animals are completely unrealistic giant monsters. The movie fares better with humor (it even includes an explicit reference to shark week), but it's not quite funny enough for full-on camp. As with most of Ellis' work, it's better than it probably needed to be, but that doesn't exactly mean that it's good. If he'd been able to stick around longer, though, I bet Ellis would have gotten there eventually.

Monday, August 05, 2013

Shark Week 3: 'The Reef' (2010)

Not to be confused with the 2006 animated movie of the same name (which also features sharks), The Reef is an Australian thriller based very loosely on a true story, about five friends whose yacht capsizes after hitting the titular object, stranding them in waters infested with great white sharks. Four of the friends decide to attempt to swim to a small island several miles away, while the fifth crew member stays behind on the overturned boat. The swimmers are constantly on edge as they look out for sharks, and although it takes until more than halfway through the movie, eventually the sharks deliver.

The Reef is a lot more serious than your average low-budget shark-attack movie, and was actually pretty well-reviewed upon its release. Writer-director Andrew Traucki does a decent job of building suspense before the shark attacks start, but once the first shark chomps into one of the characters, the movie loses momentum, since we're just sitting around waiting for the inevitable next attack. Comparisons have been drawn to Open Water, but while that movie waited until the very end to show any real violence, The Reef has several pretty gory shark-attack scenes. They may be impressively staged, but they also turn the movie from a low-key suspense story into a full-on horror movie.

The characters are thinly sketched to begin with, but the dialogue really deteriorates once the shark attacks are in full effect, and the actors (especially Zoe Naylor) really overdo it on the hysteria. The Reef is certainly a cut above the majority of shark-attack B-movies, and it compares favorably with Open Water, but those aren't the highest bars to clear.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Shark Week 3: 'Snow Shark: Ancient Snow Beast' (2012)

There have been so many low-budget shark attack movies that it's become increasingly hard for filmmakers to find a new angle to set their story apart. That leads to things like Sharktopus and Sam Qualiana's Snow Shark: Ancient Snow Beast, which I saw at last year's PollyGrind film festival. It's your basic micro-budget horror movie, with plenty of camp, questionable acting, dicey special effects and more enthusiasm than craft. But it's occasionally entertaining thanks primarily to the amusingly moronic premise, that some sort of prehistoric shark is lurking in the snow around a small town after having been released from an underground lake.

Never mind that the snow is unlikely to be deep enough to conceal an entire shark, or that the shark lurks undetected for years despite, presumably, snow melting every spring. It's just an excuse to see a shark fin darting through the snow and to have a gruesome, bloody death every few minutes. Qualiana throws in the standard gratuitous nudity and occasional snark, but it's kind of half-hearted, and the movie has a tough time settling on a main character (since everyone keeps getting devoured by the snow shark). The extremely low budget obviously limits what Qualiana can do with the snow shark, and he wisely keeps the glimpses to the minimum required to get the premise across.

The biggest resource a movie this small-scale has is its own cleverness, but Qualiana's script isn't nearly as funny or sharp as the movie's early Jaws-parody poster. There are funny lines here and there, but the delivery is often so stilted that they fall completely flat. And Qualiana doesn't always know how to maximize his limited resources; scenes like a town-hall meeting with obvious piped-in "crowd noise" are distracting in their ineptitude. Still, fans of dumb low-budget monster movies may get a bit of entertainment out of Snow Shark, although they can probably get the same amount out of just looking at that poster.

Shark Week 3: This Time It's Personal

According to The Hollywood Reporter, shark movies are big business right now. In the five years since I first put together a week's worth of posts about shark movies in honor of Discovery Channel's mega-popular Shark Week, the market for low-budget shark-attack thrillers has greatly expanded. At the time I first came up with this idea, I figured that there wouldn't be enough interesting shark-related movies to sustain more than one week. Then two years ago, I did another week. And now there are so many shark movies being churned out that I probably could have expanded this project to an entire Shark Month.

The success of Sharknado has certainly fueled interest in cheesy shark movies, and I am here to cater to that interest. Unlike past Shark Weeks, this year's edition will feature almost exclusively recent movies, although it will of course culminate with the third Jaws movie, in keeping with my established tradition. Starting later today and for the next seven days, I'll be writing about movies that feature sharks attacking in a supermarket, a water park, the snow, a lake and the boring old ocean (I will not, however, be writing about Sharknado, because the last thing that movie needs right now is more coverage). Until then, here are the posts from the last two Shark Weeks:

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)