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.)

Friday, July 13, 2018

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Friday the 13th: The Orphan' (1979)

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

For a while, every time the 13th fell on a Friday, I would make sure to cover one of the movies in the long-running Friday the 13th horror franchise in this space. Eventually, I ran out of options, having to leave off a few movies at the end of the series since they don't have 13 in their titles. But now, in the tradition of 1933's Friday the Thirteenth, here's another movie that shares a title with the adventures of Jason Voorhees but has absolutely nothing to do with the hockey-masked killer. In fact, if IMDb is to be believed, the producers of the more famous Friday the 13th actually had to cut a deal with the producers of Friday the 13th: The Orphan in order to get the rights to the title, since The Orphan was released first (although subsequent releases often omit the first part of the title).

Online reports also indicate that despite its 1979 release date, the bulk of The Orphan was actually shot in 1968, with writer/director/co-editor John Ballard spending the next decade cobbling together the resources for post-production. That protracted editing process might explain why the resulting movie is so incoherent and disjointed, a series of scenes that feel like they were strung together almost randomly, with key elements missing (other online reports claim that the 85-minute version currently available is 30 minutes shorter than Ballard's original cut). Whatever the reason, The Orphan is a complete mess, both tedious and bizarre, with jarring tonal shifts, inappropriate music cues, characters who come and go at random, and a story that's dull and slow until it goes completely bonkers.

That story is loosely based on the famous short story Sredni Vashtar by Saki, although many of the details are changed and expanded. The main character is young David (Mark Owens), who's apparently witnessed his parents die in a (possibly accidental) murder-suicide, and has now been placed in the care of his stern Aunt Martha (Peggy Feury). Martha keeps David confined to the family's sprawling estate and denies him the pleasures of eating toast (one of the movie's more absurd plot points), and for long stretches The Orphan is mostly just about mundane family squabbles, interspersed with disconcertingly cheery montages set to jaunty music. David's father spent much of his time traveling in Africa, and eventually David builds a sort of shrine to a stuffed monkey his father brought back from one of his trips, and that's when things finally get weird.

The Orphan isn't quite a horror movie, although it features some surreal and grotesque imagery in its final act, and it eventually builds up a modest body count. It's more of a psychological thriller about David's unraveling mental state, although Owens isn't quite a good enough actor to make that descent into madness convincing (to be fair, it's a lot to place on a child actor), and the narrative is too jumbled to convey the progression of David's madness. Instead it just stumbles from one odd image to another, often repeating and doubling back on itself, until the chilling final moment when David finally gets to eat some toast.