Monday, December 24, 2007

The Adventures of Ford Fairlaine (1990)

The Adventures of Ford Fairlane (1990)
Dir.: Renny Harlin
TC4P Rating: 4/9
Appearance: via dialogue and a brief cameo (deceased and barbecued).


What smells worse than the scent of overly charred shark meat, roasted to disgusting effect on a spit? Possibly only the script to this flop attempt to launch Andrew Dice Clay as a major motion picture leading man. Truthfully, I kind of like Clay on film, even if I have never been even the slightest fan of his stand-up act. I thought he was the funniest thing in the Lea Thompson-Victoria Jackson misfire Casual Sex?, which isn't the boldest statement given its general shoddiness, but it's the truth. Looking back on the supposed shock of his Saturday Night Live appearance the year this film came out, it's hard to see what all the hubbub was about, Bub.

Given a legitimately R-rated platform to sell his largely misogynistic and sophomoric material, Clay ends up slapping out a truer approximation of his cartoonish, buffoonish character (which, being a guy, does have its built-in charms, admittedly), but ultimately soft-pedals that image in the interest of making himself acceptable to a wider audience. It's almost Pee Wee"s Playhouse for the beer-swilling crowd; full of fratboy-type humor, but basically defanged and harmless. Clay is even given a koala bear as a sidekick.

If the film actually had the balls its leading figure is assumed to possess via his self-proclaimed macho attitude (yes, I know it is tongue in cheek, but still...), it might have proven to be at least a far more interesting enterprise, if not also verging over into NC-17 territory, which wouldn't serve producer Joel Silver's money-making purposes at all. In the end, numerous quickly flung, filthy jokes pay off here and there, the stunt casting is fun for awhile, and there is also Kari Wuhrer, who always makes things easy on the eyes for me. However, the leaden direction of Renny Harlin absolutely sinks this thing almost before it begins. It's a Michael Bay comedy years before the word knew who Michael Bay was, and at least most of the humor here is intentional, something Michael Bay is completely unable to pull off.

And then there's that surprise shark scene at a party for the film's ultra-slick villain (Oops! Did I give anything away? Shucks...), played quite well actually by Wayne "Danke Shoen" Newton. As he tries to mislead Ford (yes, Clay's P.I. character is named after his signature vehicle) with a tidbit of erroneous information, Newton's record mogul picks up on an announcement from the party's chef: "Shark is served!" We are given a close-up of the toothy grimace of a shark, roasted on a spit to such a greasy black pallor as to be unappetizing to even the most ravenous carnivore, the sharp pole jutting out through the creature's nose to hold it in place above the fire. The chef cuts into the flesh near the dorsal fin as Newton uses the call to dinner as an excuse to get away from the false small talk, finally declaring "I'm such a fan of shark meat!" Cigar in mouth, Newton holds out a plate as the chef pulls out a generous slice of flesh and slides it off his skewer. "Your shark steak, sir!"

Ugh... I think I am off food altogether now. No, it's not the shark. It's the sappiness of the film's ending. At least the shark, in death, still has his teeth. Clay clearly lost his before this film even got made.

RTJ

Friday, November 16, 2007

L'avventura (1960)

L'avventura (1960)
Dir.: Michelangelo Antonioni
TC4P Rating: 9/9
Appearance: dialogue only; unseen species of Mediterranean frequency.


In the traditional and monstrous fashion of most fictional sharks, the appearance of this "pescecane" (as it is referred to in the Italian of what is considered by many critics to be one of the greatest films of all time, L'avventura) comes out of nowhere to rupture the plot violently and infuse images of its "horrid" self into the thoughts of the film's idle rich. An idyllic summer voyage to the islands in the Aeolian Sea off Sicily, in which a boat full of the emotionally empty languish in their own ennui and the lies they tell themselves and others, all under the pretense of having a good time, turns tragic when the most conflicted of the lot, Anna, completely disappears, both from the island they are visiting, and from the movie altogether.

Before she disappears, however (and just before they decide to dock at the island) she tells a small lie. A lie about a shark swimming beneath her feet after her selfish and pouting dive off the craft and into the water. She screams and yells at the beast, but no one (including the audience) ever gets a glimpse of it; later, back on the ship, she reveals her attention-getting ruse to her best friend Claudia. For the rest of the film following her disappearance, this small detail of her lie about the shark forces both the audience and Claudia to always wonder about her. Is Anna only hiding out playfully? We (and Claudia) also have the inside track on her tortured emotional state over her stagnant relationship with her boyfriend Sandro, and Antonio's teasing placement of boats in the near distance without a clearly defined passenger leave us pondering whether she has run off. The film, and its director, are not the least bit worried about where she is, nor about how her loss affects her friends. Rather, the concern is with their eventual lack of concern. Claudia and Sandro will have a fling almost immediately upon Anna's dispatch, and while they play at searching for her off and on, they almost blithely forget she ever existed for large portions of the film's remainder.

I have had this film on my "must see" lists for years now. The Criterion Collection disc of L'avventura does make pains to point out its inclusion as the #2 greatest film of all time just two years after its release on a Sight and Sound poll. To this day, I have only ever read one issue of Sight and Sound (and that, just a few years ago), but I had encountered their polls for years in various bookish sources since I was a teenager. My memory of this film's title stems directly from encountering that list from 1962 (I think it was included in The Book of Lists), and partly from my teenaged incredulity at the inclusion of any film that hadn't already entered my admittedly narrow world view at that time. A handful of years away from allowing Kurosawa's swords and arrows to open my eyes to "world cinema," I was immersed only in American pop culture. Even the Hitchcock films I had seen and fallen in love with were the product of Hollywood. I would actually get visibly angry at the inclusion of films like this one or Bicycle Thieves appearing on such lists, believing falsely that only Americans or the British knew how to make great films. After all, those were the only films that I had seen. If these foreign films were so great, I then mused, how come they were not shown on television, instead of Bob Hope's The Cat and the Canary or all of those Jerry Lewis films I saw every Saturday afternoon?

I would learn eventually how wrong I was on this count, but when I saw that 1962 list, only two films were Hollywood productions -- Citizen Kane at #1, and Greed at #4. While I had seen Kane and already loved it, Greed was unknown to me, and the fact that its director, Erich von Stroheim, was not American held little sway in its favor either way. Since I hadn't seen it, whatever its origin, it was just as foreign as the rest. My xenophobia at the age of 15 would not be deterred; by 17, that xenophobia was already doomed for the grave. That was when I went back to those Sight and Sound lists and took the stance of using them as guidelines towards building my film education. And yet, a quarter of a century later, there were still films on those lists that I hadn't seen. Criterion is making it easier all the time, though, to do so, and it was with a reminder of those polls that I eventually queued up L'avventura on Netflix.

What I was not expecting (as these things often go) was the appearance of a "pescecane". I was merely catching up with a film I had long wished to see, and already a little bored with the film, when the shark scene perked me up. Perhaps this is Antonioni's intent; perhaps not. Whatever the reason for its inclusion, I was suddenly caught up in the storyline for the remaining two hours of the film. Not because I thought it was suddenly going to turn into Jaws -- I'm quite sure that I would have heard more about this film in my usual circles if it was that sort of movie -- but because it was the first moment in the film that truly whipped up my interest. My eye had already been caught by some of the film's amazingly structured shots, but the purposefully bland dialogue had dulled my interest until the shark lie brought me back into caring about the plot.

And this is what confuses me about the film, because I have read numerous short plot summaries of the film over the years, but I have to admit I can scarcely recall one that mentions anything about Anna's false encounter with her "pescecane". Seeing the film twice this week (a second viewing with commentary followed a couple nights later) forces me to consider the importance of the scene, and whether it is being discounted by those who are viewing the film. Just because the shark is a fabrication, doesn't mean it isn't there within the film. At first, because no one knows it is a lie, it becomes a figure, albeit brief, of terror to the other tourists; later, it becomes almost a mocking though still worrisome memory for certain members of the party. Soon, like Anna, the shark will be forgotten by them; Anna will disappear and become myth, whether by her own making or not. Unfortunately, the shark seems to be forgotten by many who see this film too, though I am glad its appearance (or lack of one) caught me aware.

That's why The Shark Film Office exists: to capture even the most elusive of the species.

RTJ

[Editor's note: Ironically enough, the most recent Sight and Sound poll in 2002 is more American/British than ever, with six Hollywood productions on the poll -- seven, really, since the first two Godfather installments are counted as one. Weird how this turned around me; I now dispute their results because it is too westernized.]

[Editor's note 2/6/16: The latest Sight and Sound poll in 2012 was split evenly between American/British productions and foreign films, five to five. And I have now seen L'avventura five times, and consider it to be brilliant and not boring at all. I have drunk deep of this particular Kool-Aid.]

Sunday, July 29, 2007

My Super Ex-Girlfriend (2006)

My Super Ex-Girlfriend (2006)
Director: Ivan Reitman 
Cinema 4 Rating: 5 
Shark: great white shark 
Appearance: CGI, dialogue 

Sleeping with Anna Faris should be heavenly, and -- despite my deep and abiding appreciation for toothy marine creatures -- uninterrupted by the sight of a great white shark flying towards one’s head as one sits up in bed after awakening from what was probably the most emotionally and physically fulfilling night of one’s life. Setting my own personal fixation on Ms. Faris aside, this is exactly what happens to Luke Wilson just over an hour deep into the middling special effects comedy, My Super Ex-Girlfriend. 

Wilson sleeps with Faris, his longtime crush, after breaking up with the voluptuous but clearly “off her rocker” super-heroine G-Girl, played almost like a mannequin for the most part by Uma Thurman, who really should remain in the employ of a director like Tarantino who clearly worships her and understands her strengths as well as her weaknesses as an actress. (While she is physically perfect for the role, straight comedy is not her forte.) G-Girl, who lives her day-to-day existence in the guise of Jenny Johnson (a name on which, for personal reasons, I shall refrain from further comment), takes this emotional rejection in the manner one expects in a romantic comedy: badly, and with thoughts of revenge on her now “evil” ex-suitor. Only here, since G-Girl is essentially gifted with the powers of Superman (or Supergirl, for that matter), the revenge on a normal human being can get, ahem, potentially deadly for the party receiving the vengeful abuse. Hence, the dream-shattering shark-tossing. 

Waking up at last with his true love, Wilson hears the taunting words, “Oooh, honey!” outside of the bedroom window. Such a confrontation would be difficult in a normal romantic comedy, since the apartment is several stories up, but when he looks out the window, there is G-Girl, floating casually in mid-air, holding a thrashing, teeth-gnashing great white by the tail. With a modicum of effort, she tosses the shark through the bedroom window, where it lands full force onto Wilson’s side of the bed, snapping its deadly jaws at Wilson as he tucks in his feet. Luke bolts through the apartment, with the shark making several leaps in his direction, including one that ends with the shark closing its jaws mere inches from Wilson’s crotch, finding the couch cushion with its teeth instead. Wilson runs to the other bedroom window, and the shark makes one last leap at the terrified everyman, crashing through the glass and falling to the street below. We hear the screech of tires, a woman’s astonished scream, and several crashing noises, but that is the last we will see of the shark in the film. I assume the lovable predator meets its sad demise at the end of that fall, but Ivan Reitman, who had already directed the pinnacle of special-effects comedy, Ghostbusters, over 20 years ago, thankfully never lets us consider the bloody mess remaining, unless one is speaking of this film as a whole. 

Faris closes the scene by asking, “Why would G-Girl throw a shark at us?” Wilson answers, “I don’t know,” but the real answer regarding the film is, “Why didn’t Ivan Reitman decide to throw more sharks at them?” In the middle of a big city, several stories up in an apartment building, the last thing anyone expects to see is a giant shark flying through their window. Despite the small show of G-Girl’s incredible powers up to this point, which establishes to a lessened degree that we are living within the fantasy of this film’s world, the shark scene is still such a strong visual non-sequitur, and so absurdly incongruous to the more mundane occurrences to which we have borne witness in the film, that the concept actually seems to work. It is quick, and it is sudden, and it is over before one can really consider its ramifications. 

It may seem unfair to throw a director’s past classic work in his face, but we simply cannot ignore such an obvious regressive trend in Reitman’s work, and thus we must make comparisons to Ghostbusters here. In that film, the similar point where the audience has to make a wacky leap of visual faith is in the acceptance of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man as a monstrous Godzilla-like screaming terror that will crush the entire city into rubble beneath his Michelin Man-like puffy feet. Reitman tried to play the same gag again in Ghostbusters II, but the Statue of Liberty was far too, eh, ordinary (and expected) -- to play out as wonderfully silly/scary as the Marshmallow Man scenario. Stay-Puft was a perfect choice, both in bringing horror – even the merely comedic variety – out of cuteness, and also for the fact that it, to this day, still plays as a great “What the fuck?” moment. But where the Reitman, Aykroyd and Ramis had it right in that film was in writing the scene so that it wasn’t purely this odd thing that came out of nowhere, but was actually the next bizarre link in a chain of increasing goofiness throughout the film. The Ghostbusters had, up to that moment, seen numerous things that one did not see everyday, each one larger and more threatening than the next, but when Stay-Puft arrives, Bill Murray still has enough bemused shock left in his character to say, indeed, “There’s something you don’t see everyday.” 

The problem in Girlfriend is that the characters, even the normal citizenry, regularly have incredible things happening around them, all because they exist in a world where G-Girl is in constant battle with Professor Bedlam (downplayed well by Eddie Izzard, even if it is a waste of his talents), her spurned teen sweetheart who has grown up into a “don’t call me a super-villain” super-villain. True, there is a difference in the reality of the news reports and what really occurs (example: Wilson’s casual, media-fed reaction to Izzard’s infamy), but this is an angle that is barely explored by Reitman, concentrating instead on the romantic angle. Everyone expects G-Girl to save the day, but when she does display her talents, even the filmmakers seem almost bored with the results. There is no real sense of wonder to her world-saving or to the display of her powers, either in the faces of the characters, or in the way they are displayed onscreen. It’s almost as if the super-heroics were tacked onto a standard sitting romantic comedy script at the last minute, and little consideration was given to how this would play off the rest of the script. In the end, G-Girl is merely just a celebrity, and Wilson's character might as well be banging Paris Hilton to get basically the same reaction from his friends. 

Before the shark scene occurs, there is nothing that can approach it in its inspired wackiness. And after? Nothing but the rote machinations of that “standard sitting romantic comedy script.” When I saw the trailer in the theatre, the only item that even made me halfway wish to see the film was the tossing of the shark, and now, seeing it on DVD, I find that I saved myself some decent coin by not following that slight impulse.

Late in the film, Wilson is asked why he has teamed up with the Professor to strip away G-Girl's powers, and the laid-back Wilson thinks for half a second, and replies, "She threw a shark at me!" Though the line is slightly amusing, it mainly serves to point up the flaw in the character's, and thus the writer's, logic. The reason for his revenge should be because the shark-tossing broke up his reverie in bed with the delightful Ms. Faris. Now that's a form of coitus interruptus that could make me kick Superman's ass. I wouldn't even need the Kryptonite...

RTJ

Thursday, June 28, 2007

9 Steps Towards Understanding Why There Is a Film Called Shark Hunter that Just Happens to Star Antonio Sabato, Jr.

Shark Hunter (2001)
Dir: Matt Codd
TC4P Rating: 4/9
Species: the extinct Megalodon [C. megalodon]

1. First, WATCH Shark Attack, Shark Attack 2, Blue Demon, Deep Blue Sea, Shark Attack 3: Megalodon, Jaws 2, Jaws 3-D, Jaws 4: The Revenge, Blood Surf, Megalodon, and Spring Break Shark Attack. In fact, watch just about any film released since Jaws, outside of Jaws, that has even the faintest trace, like blood in the water, of shark footage in it. Pay especial attention to Shark Attack 3: Megalodon. Then get around to watching Jaws once again, not just to remind yourself of what a great shark movie is (as if you needed reminded that really there is only one), but also because it is still just that damn cool.

2. Then, SEE Shark Hunter. Fight your way initially through the horribly produced "flashback" footage of the lead character's "happy" childhood (this footage occurs over the far too ponderous credit sequence; I'm not sure which one makes the other seem even longer than it would originally), and get to the opening attack. No, there's nothing special to it, but you do get the fleeting sight of a dorsal fin the size of William "Refrigerator" Perry and the top quarter of the starring Megalodon's body as it crashes through the water at the lead character's family yacht, that we just naturally assume was smashed into splinters as the kid's parents disappeared into the Meg's tummy. We assume this because we don't really see any of this happen. The next sight we see is in the aftermath, with the kid, who will grow up to be played by Antonio "Calvin Klein Underwear Model" Sabato, Jr., bobbing helplessly in the ocean inside a floatation tube, which giant sharks apparently don't go for, even though it just took down an entire yacht. Baby Sabato (played by a non-Baby Sabato) is left whimpering and shivering, and presumably with far more despicable filling his underwear than just his junk. This never goes over very well when you are out on the catwalk.

3. DEAL immediately with the fact that Sabato's character becomes a super-brained submersible expert and college professor. If you can't, then you must stop watching NOW! Sabato's emotional range in this flick runs the gamut from grimacing while grappling with internal angst to outwardly pissed-off at everyone in his path, but if you just simply accept he has thoughts outside of whatever pose he strikes next, and "Boy, those girls on Melrose Place were way hotter than the blonde I'm stuck with in this one," then you will go far in watching this film. Well, not far exactly, but you will get considerably more enjoyment out of the experience.

UK DVD cover.
4. SETTLE into Shark Hunter as it transforms into The Abyss with a seventy-foot prehistoric shark instead of benevolent Day-Glo aliens. Watch Sabato as he enters the bathysphere that he designed, only to be met predictably by the usually wary and too impatient crew members, every one of them with the same exact chip on their shoulders, as if they popped a can of Pringles Personality Cliché Chips and passed them around the ship. (They stick best to your clothes if you get the ones with ridges.) As these things go, they have wedged themselves into the ship, considering it their home, and not so eager to hand it over to the guy who built it. Watch Sabato prove over and over again that he knows more about the ship than they ever will combined, and watch as they battle him over this every time. Hello? He's the friggin' designer! Cut him some slack and pass along a heapin' helpin' of hospitality and reverence, if you don't mind. After all, he managed to design and build the thing while still having the burden of being portrayed by Antonio Sabato, Jr.... RESPECT, people, please!

5. ADMIT to yourself that for relatively low-budget CGI effects, the ones used in this film are, in their modest way, actually far better and more effective than the ones used in bigger productions like Deep Blue Sea. Sure, everything is all murky-looking, but then look at 300. You could say, "Well, 300's murkiness was by design," but why can't that be true here as well? Certainly the brown-and-gray color palette of the overall film is intended on some level to match the output of the animators. It's a different approach to intentional design than 300 (where they attempted to replicate the look and feel of the graphic novel source material, to great success), but it works in the context of the film. And for one of those rare moments in modern movies, a CGI creature actually seems, for the most part, to have some sense of weight to its body and earthbound speed limitations, as opposed to being far too fast to be even remotely believable. Yeah, it still doesn't feel fully like the shark inhabits the same universe as the actors, but that would be a hard sell anyway, because...

6. ...One has to ACCEPT the fact that hardly any actors actually get wet in this shark vs. submersible fight to the death. This is because of the dry-for-wet underwater sequences used in much of the film, shot to make it seem as if the deep sea participants are actually submerged in thousands of feet of water when they are actually studio-bound and drier than your Grandma's panties in an Easy-Bake Oven. (Ask your older brother why they are there...) It is a noble attempt, and works to some degree here and there, but most people who have signed up to watch a shark flick are going to be disappointed, wanting to see shark teeth sinking into human flesh over and over. To do this, the shark and the people generally have to get in the same element. To actually get a shark attack in this film without dropping some bodies in the soup, our Meg does a one-up on the biogenetically jury-rigged psycho-sharks from Deep Blue Sea and comes up through the submersible's moon-pool, scarfing down one of the crew members, who may as well have been wearing a red shirt from the moment the film started. If anyone was going to get it, besides the Eurotrash bossman of this expedition, it would be this guy. Unfortunately, the humongous shark can (or needs to) only fit the front half of his head through the tiny moon-pool opening, so that we get a badly jarring image of a fake shark attempting to jam his head through the hole, which matches horribly with everything else in the shot.

German DVD version.
7. However, take the rest of the film to CHERISH the good things that Shark Hunter brings us. While brimming with some character clichés (though what movie doesn't? It is a very rare thing...), this film does have enough gumption to try and not follow the well dog-paddled shark movie path for much of its length. It is not a kill-by-kill flick, which turns the majority of the sharks in these films into nothing more than a slasher with a lateral line. I sympathize with those who might get this disc because that shark-slasher vibe is precisely the thing for which they are looking, but shouldn't filmmakers learn to use this creature from far more than just one angle? Yes, the mighty Jaws also had that serial killer approach, but it really started that trend as far as shark movies go (and sadly, didn't end it). So, give the producers of Shark Hunter credit for trying something a little different, even if they had to coerce another underwater sub-genre over to morph together with the shark attack one to do it.

8. GIVE THANKS to whatever deity or nothingness you purport to believe in that there isn't a mad scientist trying to mutate the shark into a government weapon or some such nonsense, a residual effect of shark movies ever since Deep Blue Sea. (I suppose this gene-splicing bent also owes itself to real-word timeliness as well.) This movie is very direct. It's basically, "Hey, there's a Megalodon!" "No, there isn't -- oh shit! There is!" "We have to kill it!" "No, we have to study it -- oh shit! We have to kill it!," several times over. Pretty straightforward, and played mostly straight -- except the film doesn't want to finish it straight. As much as I hate to give away that there is a twist ending, there is... and the people that will like it are the type that swing that way, and the people that won't... well, they live in a constant fairy tale world anyway. There's no fixing these people. If they were fit to wear Antonio Sabato's shorts (and who is, really? Probably not even Antonio now...), they would know what has to be done, and that this movie has to go the way that it does. It's what actually makes the film watchable in retrospect, giving it a little more Oomph! than it would have if it played completely by the sub-"B" movie rules.

9. Lightly, but only lightly, since the film is not that good, BLESS the DVD gods that this film is available on disc. This way, if you must put yourself through seeing it, don't do it on the Sci-Fi Channel. Not because there is really anything except for a word or two that gets cut out of the TV version, but because the channel puts in so many commercials, the two hours you spend to watch 94 minutes (which are actually edited to far less) feels like three hours and twenty. And no one has figured out how to get around that plot device, except by renting or buying it. I insist that you do the former, but be warned that this is no classic in hiding -- not even close. But the film overall is far above the usual output in these things, at least from a dramatic standpoint and somewhat from a technical one. You could do worse, and there is far, far, far worse out there. 

It's sad when someone can look at a film of the level of Shark Hunter and proclaim that it is arguably in the top ten fictional shark-based films around, maybe even top five. I am not going to make that argument -- I know better -- but it is not out of bounds that someone out there could. Or has already. But that's what happens when a sub-genre has so little going for it outside of its most famous progenitor. 

Except for having sharks in the films, of course. Even the worst shark movie has that going for it.

RTJ

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Black Water Gold (1970)

The subpar version I watched was
in this four-pack DVD set.
Black Water Gold (1970)
Director: Alan Landsburg
TC4P Rating: 4/9
Species: blacktip reef sharks, Caribbean reef sharks

Let's get this over with quickly, shall we? A full 55 minutes into this not wholly dull ,made-for-television, deep sea treasure adventure, we finally get a glimpse of sharks in the water. After several diving sequences and some other watery action, a plan is hatched by one of the heroes to get the native population of the island to lightly chum the water with fish remnants from their fishing boats, thus attracting a handful of sharks to keep the villains out of the water where the hero knows the treasure is hidden. What seems (I'll explain in a moment) to be a blacktip reef shark or two, and then a reef shark of the Caribbean variety, show up to grab a quick snack and drive the baddies off for the nonce. The film doesn't make the sharks look menacing at all; in fact, they are only filmed from above the water, and are literally onscreen for less than 45 seconds, and after a couple of throwaway lines regarding the creatures -- such as "Nobody dives when those babies are in the water!" -- the movie resumes its focus on treasure diving.


What a strange combo of
films for a DVD.
When I say "seems to be", I mean exactly that -- the film is titled Black Water Gold, and while in the context of the film this refers to the type of water under which the treasure ship is sunk, it really should refer to the quality of the print which I had to endure to wait 55 minutes to see just 45 seconds of crappy shark footage that could have been shot in equal quality by an epileptic third-grader with a Fisher-Price PixelVision. As it turns out, it was shot by Andrew Laszlo, who did turn out a handful of decent films through the 1980s, and was even nominated for an Emmy for his work in Shogun a decade after this film. And I really can't fully criticize the cinematography anyway, because it seems the main problem with watching the film lies in the quality of the print that was transfered to DVD. And that was likely transfered from VHS. And who knows? Maybe they just recorded it off of TV in the first place.

A handful of people on IMDb talk about what a great movie this is and how they remember it fondly from their youth, and I won't trample on their memory. I will say, however, that because the film is rather short (about 73 minutes), Black Water Gold feels like it is missing at least one act -- namely, the second half of Act II and the first half of Act III. There is some murky underwater action, that thankfully (or not) is narrated by the hero so we can understand what the hell is happening, and just when there should be a final confrontation with the flamboyantly evil Bradford Dillman, the movie just ends. The villains are in the custody of the cops, and the heroes await their eventual payday. There are any number of made-for-TV movies (most of them ABC product, too) from my youth that I recall fondly, and many of them are fine to watch again, except that they do seem a tad truncated when viewed anew. Having to fit most often within a ninety-minute (though sometimes two-hour) time slot in the schedule probably had something to do with this.


DVD image found on Amazon.
But the guy on IMDb who mentions something about how there are "plenty of hungry sharks" on hand? He is clearly a front for the fellows who put out this DVD, which comes backed with a copy of Mako: Jaws of Death (which I will be watching next -- I have already seen it numerous times, so I know it will fulfill the shark action quotient I desire, but hopefully the print will be better, too). It's actually from a cheap-ass four-movie set called Into the Deep, and naturally they try to lure the shark-loving viewer in with a picture of a shark (a great white) that doesn't even actually appear in any of the movies in the DVD set! Boy, are we suckers! (I didn't even mean to rent this film; I was after Mako, but since they are on the same disc... what the hell...)

At least the movie is competent enough and has a few good lines from Dillman, even if supporting star Ricardo Montalban does not have very much to do. You can't really fault it for a lack of sharks, since that is not what the movie is about, and the connection only comes from a video company 37 years after the fact. And the one thing, besides the sharks, that the film is deeply, deeply lacking are more glimpses of Lana Wood. Maybe her older sister Natalie didn't swim so well in the end, but Lana could have swum laps around everything else in this film as far as I am concerned.

RTJ

Sunday, February 25, 2007

TSFO Manta Wing: Below (2002)


Below (2002)
Director: David Twohy 
TC4P Rating: 6/9
Species: giant oceanic manta ray (Manta birostris) 

It is only a sequence of around thirty seconds or so, but it is incredibly memorable. Four Navy divers on a stricken U.S. submarine on patrol in the North Atlantic in World War II take to the depths to effect some repairs that can only be accessed by swimming around the sub. Climbing out of the submersible in scuba gear that had barely been invented (and that the Navy apparently did not even use yet), the quartet stand on the deck with only their flashlights illuminating the darkness surrounding them. One diver plays with the mass of plankton floating around them, passing his hand in front of his light and marveling at the tiny creatures. Suddenly, a huge ghostly shadow, with a very recognizable underbelly, rises up behind them, and then one of the divers looks to his side and sees the gaping maw of what must seem to the character to be an alien creature swooping towards him. A flare is lighted, and the divers find themselves standing amongst a mass of plankton-crazed manta rays, six or seven at least. The rays glide gracefully around the divers for a few moments, and then are gone.

I am not aware of the proclivity of manta rays to inhabit the Northern Atlantic, as I have always heard they were tropical denizens, but let's set aside inconsistencies (along with the scuba thing) and concentrate on this fact: this is a marvelous scene. Somewhat gratuitous in its shock value, but the characters in Below are dealing with a ghost-haunted submarine, so something initially frightening but ultimately harmless (though haunting in its own right) was needed to punch up their dive effort. After watching this film for the first time yesterday, I went back and replayed this scene about a dozen times, partially so that I could get the details right, but also because, after almost two hours of well-posed but rather rote ghostly interference, death and mayhem, this scene was still the one lodged in my skull.

Since David Twohy, the creator of The Arrival and Pitch Black, was involved, I suppose we should count ourselves lucky that he didn't have the mantas wearing goggles to see in the darkness or had made mutated mantas with backwards-bending knees that attacked the sailors. I have read a rumor that co-writer Darren Aronofsky was originally going to direct this film, and undoubtedly it would have been made more interesting had he done so, but let's accept things as they are. The film is well-made and beautiful to look at, and I am glad the makers saw fit to include this Abyss-like moment with the graceful squadron of devil-fish in a ocean-set film entirely devoid of any other sea life.

More filmmakers should take the opportunity to show real creatures, even CGI-created ones, acting in a manner appropriate to their true nature, rather than making every animal a horrid threat to mankind. We don't need every shark appearance in a film to be a deadly one, and here, with an animal with a long-standing mythic reputation of seeming evil (being called "devil rays" based mainly on its devilish horns and huge size) publicly overwhelming the actual passive behavior of the species, there is the impulsive implication of a threat that is then staunched by immediate understanding on the part of the humans in the scene. Of course, peace between humans and sharks (and rays... or spiders... or snakes... or bears, etc.) means ZERO dollars at the box office, so I understand why it isn't done more. I just wish it were so.

RTJ

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Blue Demon (2004)

Blue Demon (2004)
Director: Daniel Grodnik 
Cinema 4 Rating: 3/9
Species: genetically modified great white sharks

"Four years and millions of dollars on this project, and all I've got to show for it is a couple of big sharks with pretty eyes?" - Lawrence Van Allen (Danny Woodburn)

Let's imagine that Daniel Grodnik, the director-slash-co-writer-slash-producer, (i.e. The One On Whom To Place All Blame) of the genetically engineered great white shark, straight-to-video purgatory flick, Blue Demon, falls into that much fabled Peter Jackson fan-boy territory. Jackson, much like Ray Harryhausen and Ray Bradbury before him, credits the 1933 King Kong as the chief inspiration for his life and career in the realm of fantasy storytelling. (Kong, as regular readers of my original blog, The Cinema 4 Pylon, know full well is my favorite film as well, though I have yet to get either a life or a career, in any realm...) Jackson works his way from making small, independent B-movies to becoming an multiple Academy Award winner, and then he set out (though he had tried before Oscar came calling) to remake King Kong, the movie of his cinematic awakening. The success of this endeavor is generally considered to have attained a high level (I loved his version... mostly), so let's consider this the textbook example of the student at least matching the works of his teacher, if not surpassing him.

Now, let's make-believe that Mr. Grodnik's favorite film in the world is Steven Spielberg's Jaws (1975). Information apart from a filmography on IMDB is hard to find (they don't even list his date of birth on there... and they've got tidbits on some of the most minuscule careers on that site), so I don't even know how old he was when Spielberg's film came out. We will pretend, for the sake of this hypothetical situation, that he was in his early twenties then, and was so inspired by the film that he decided that once he made his way up the Hollywood ladder, he would make his own killer shark movie. His first credit on IMDB is as an "assistant to the producer" on a Peter Yates' 1974 comedy, For Pete's Sake with Barbara Streisand, and then from there he executive produced Starhops in 1978, and then came his first joint screenplay-producing credit, 1980's Without Warning, sort of a pre-Predator Predator flick (with killer alien flying discs, Martin Landau and Jack Palance -- for some reason, I really want to see this film again). Grodnik was on his way, but after churning out a handful of other screenplays up until '86, he stuck to producing mostly for the next twenty years.

Until Blue Demon. What was it that compelled him, after nearly twenty years of making films, to not just produce, and not just write, but make his directorial debut with a film about killer sharks? I can find nothing else in his filmography, apart from his executive production credit on Jim Wynorski's The Thing Below, released the same year as this film, that gets him even near the genre of giant killers from the deep. So, was it Jaws? Because, I can tell you, people have been remaking Jaws now for over thirty years, and apart from the camp-laden success of Deep Blue Sea (itself a likely godfather of this film), they have yet to get it even close to halfway right.

And that halfway mark is about thirty clicks off the port bow in this film, too. But let's get one thing straight right off the bat -- Dedee Pfeiffer, the cutie-pie younger sister of famous actress Michelle, is not to blame in her role of a marine biologist who has trained a sextet of pointy toothed killers to swim in formation and potentially defend our country from terrorists. (Yes, you heard that right...) For those that wonder if she can pull off playing a scientist, I just watched Tara Reid mumble her way through her archaeological dialogue in Uwe Boll's execrable Alone in the Dark, so Dedee seems like the gin-yoooo-wine article after that debacle. Even if she pronounces the scientific name of the great white shark, Carcharadon carcharias, with a soft "ch" sound instead of a hard "k", Pfeiffer is not to blame.

And neither is Danny Woodburn (Mickey from Seinfeld), who plays Pfeiffer's diminutive boss, and who has to endure a couple of jokes at the expense of his height (including reacting toward a portrait of Napoleon in his office, having a badly done forced perspective shot try to trick us he is much larger than his four-foot height, and not giving him a stepladder at a podium (at his own conference) so that he talks to the crowd and they can only see the top of his head). Here he uses the same commanding growl as the big boss that he employs to good comic effect as the foreman in the BK Stacker commercials. For the most part, the quintet of actual actors that were collecting paychecks for this stinkburger seemed to have shown up, said their lines with a modicum of conviction (even Jeff Fahey's epic scene-chewing role as J. Jonah Jameson-like General Remora -- yes, General Remora), and put the thing in their past before they even left the set.

No, I blame Daniel Grodnik, and Grodnik alone, both for the profound dopiness oozing out of the screenplay and for the inane things that his characters do and say throughout the film. But it is chiefly the conviction on the part of Grodnik that I call into question regarding the outcome of this film. Instead of one killer shark, we get six (five of them named after the Marx Brothers - sorry, the "Sharx" Brothers (don't blame me; it's in the script) and one called, for unclear reasons, Red Dog). But, for much of the film, they really aren't killer sharks. It should not come as a spoiler by this point that these sharks only kill five people in the course of the film. For those keeping track, that is less than one whole person apiece for these six fish, and only four of those people are chomped to death. Even though the film starts out slightly promising with an arm being ripped off a horse-faced actress who at least looks far too old to be in a sorority any longer, that is just about it on the gore front. Though it seems to be a natural contender, don't come looking to Blue Demon for your fix of cinematic gruesomeness. The sordid truth is that the type of person who loves to rent killer shark movies is going to most likely despise this film for being nothing but a guppy when it comes to killer attitude.

We, the shark-movie public, might all be watching this film for the wrong reasons anyway, since it seems that Grodnik wants nothing more than to make a killer shark romantic comedy. In keeping with his confusion behind the camera, the music leaps from a lame eerie-sounding synthesizer theme to a dopey-sounding, sitcom-level "wacky" theme and then back again without any regard for momentum or rhythm within the story. Most of the main characters play it cute and hammy, but the more serious moments are left to what are clearly actors unready for such emotional outpouring in a film (there is the possibility that most of the tinier roles are friends of the director), and thus there is a very unsteady mix of styles at play in the film.

The office of the marine biologists (which has a freezer full of meat inside it even though the pen where the sharks are tested seems to be an entire industrial warehouse and full buggy ride away) is filled from wall to fish-tank-painted wall with all manner of marine toys, video games, shark hats and stuffed animals, and it is hard to imagine that any scientists actually get any work done there. In fact, the first time we see Pfeiffer in the film, she is throwing a ring over a tall, cylindrical phony fish tank (one of those games that bubbles while the plastic fish dance about) to try and beat her soon-to-be ex-husband's office record -- did I forget to mention that she and actor Randall Batinkoff play divorcing marine biologists? (I wonder how that is bound to turn out...) I will leave it to the hardy viewer to discover how she uses this remarkable skill to defeat the villain in this movie, but I guarantee you that it will leave your neck stiff from the amount your head will shake in astonished disbelief.

Grodnik even stoops to having one of his cheaply animated CGI sharks (who are shown, over and over again, swimming past or towards us in formation... all of them in each shot... over and over and over again... ugh...) bring up the rear with a sign held out "comically" in his teeth, which reads "Do Not Back Up - Severe Tire Damage". It is at this point that one starts to wonder if Grodnik really means for the whole thing to be a comedy, and that the three deaths up to this point are merely token ones to bring about the "appearance" of danger in the rest of the film. Further confusion is added with the au courant talk of terrorists and suitcase bombs, but the next pair of attack scenes make me believe that perhaps Grodnik, despite his background of violent sci-fi and action films, really is seeking to make the first "killer shark romantic comedy family film".

A young girl (who I believe is the daughter of the director, though I am not sure) gets a warm and fuzzy moment with her screen dad after he falls in the lake while they are fishing. (Oh, at this point, I should mention: these are great whites bred to breathe freshwater as well as saltwater... yeah, I know...) Lucky for the girl, these sharks -- which otherwise seem to zip past us in CGI shots at about 30 knots -- whenever they are closing in on their victims on the top of the water, seem to move like VW micro-buses on a racetrack full of molasses. While Dad thrashes about in the water, dorsal and tail fins are moved about without regard to the placement and speed of the other fins, and by this point in the film, there is never any fear that his daughter won't be able to hug her father again and give him a heart-tugging "I love you, Dad". (Which, of course, she does.)

Another warm fuzzy occurs in the next attack sequence when two shy teenagers flirt with the idea of going skinny dipping, but the only thing dippy here is the dialogue. Actually, the awkward actress is wearing her suit already -- surprise!! -- but once they get and water and start making out, this is when the film enters dangerous territory:

Boy: "Y'know, that was my first kiss." (The girl giggles and starts to back away from him farther out in the water...) 
Boy: "Where are you going?" 
Girl: "To the moon! That was my first kiss, too!"
Boy: "Well, ready or not, here I come!"

This is truly an unfair tactic on Grodnik's part, because after lines like that, the viewer wants nothing more than for these two, and the writer, to get eaten. And not just by six biogenetically engineered great white sharks that can breathe in freshwater as well as saltwater and have above-average intelligence and can be controlled via laptop or even cellphone -- did I mention the above-average intelligence and the fact that they can be controlled via laptop or even cellphone? -- but by about eight dozen of them in a blood-and-guts cotillion beyond all human comprehension. But it won't happen, because the attack scenes in the latter half of this film seem to have been directed by the guy who does the commercials for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Chunky teen girl and her anemic boyfriend will likely go on to produce offspring who will spend their lives saying lines that Grandmas stopped saying in the 1930s.

Thankfully, the sharks do away with a chick surfer once the sharks manage to somehow breach the lake and hit the ocean. This thankfulness is short-lived, however, since this leads to perhaps one of the worst dream sequences to ever have Dedee Pfeiffer as a genuine wing-bearing angel with both a lot of makeup and cleavage. (I'm clarifying this in case she has ever been, or will ever be, in any other Grodnik pictures.) And really, there is still about half an hour left to the film at this juncture, and there is still the whole villainous plot to deal with, character issues to be resolved, and about three or four huge chuckles involving nuclear explosions and sharks in your future. And I haven't even gotten around to talking about the whole "eye separating from the pupil" nonsense at the beginning of the film. Literally, the film opens with Pfeiffer's serious-sounding narration, which itself leads you to believe that this will not be a film loaded with badly done intentional comedy, where she spews this monologue:

"It started out as an experiment. The first change we noticed was in the eyes. The iris separated from the pupil, and it followed movement. Like a motion detector. I'd watch them for hours on end, and when they'd see me, they'd stare back, unblinking, unemotional. Sometimes I swear they were laughing at me."

Well, I don't know where Grodnik is going with that "iris/pupil" crap, but due to the fact that sharks don't blink to begin with, this might explain why these predominantly unemotional creatures seemed to be, uh, "unemotional". And, Dedee, if they were laughing at your character, they'd probably do what sharks often do in attack situations: roll their eyes back. I know I rolled mine back several times in this film, not least of all when I started to think about what would cause Daniel Grodnik to want to attack the world with his falsely toxic fable of killer sharks not really going all that amok. If it was indeed a long-gestating desire to do his own take on Jaws, then he has certainly brought shame upon the tradition of filmmakers building upon the past. And if it was truly an attempt to construct the first "killer shark romantic comedy family film", well, then, sir, you have succeeded. It is indeed the first of its kind. But then, consider the final lines of Pfeiffer's narration: "But, we made a horrible mistake. We meant to take the next step in evolution, but we created a monster."

Yes, you have, Mr. Grodnik. And sometimes, I swear they were laughing at you. If only they were sure whether or not they were supposed to laugh.

RTJ

Thursday, January 11, 2007

...Because Fish #@%& In It!

It's hard to concentrate on movies or blogging when all you have are thoughts of copulating sharks in your head. Such is the problem when Discovery Channel's annual Shark Week rolls around. It's not my fault that they devoted an entire documentary to The Science of Shark Sex! But then the filmmakers spent 45 minutes of the show not talking about shark sex at all, but instead showed the drooling scientists roaming about the water around three islands posting all sorts of monitoring devices in their attempt to capture the mating habits of some grey reef sharks. But once the magic moment arrives -- BUCK-A-WHANG! It was so freaking graphic, with all of this descriptive talk about penetration and thrusting, that I wasn't sure that I hadn't fallen asleep earlier and missed the whole plotline involving the great white pizza delivery boy and the randy nurse shark cheerleader.

The scientists made a big deal about how they had been waiting their whole careers to capture such a moment on film, and I thought "Well, that's great...!" I'm happy for them that their hard work and pervy diligence has paid off, but then, not two hours later on a different documentary, the same sort of "wham-bam-pass-your-clam" shark orgy was shown amongst a group of whitetips! And the filmmakers were totally casual about it, like it had been on film a zillion times before! But the Shark Sex show was supposed to be a brand new doc, so either the scientists were misguided in their belief that they were the first to film such an act, or they were actually shark fetishists and could only get off on the carnal pursuits of reef sharks that were grey. My, my, my... how very specific. What's next? Shark-milking videos with nurse sharks? Dogfishy-style assplay?

Frankly, the act seemed the same, whether between greys or whitetips: wet, nasty and dirty. The scientists were quick to point out that the males had two such appendages, but only "one was used for penetration". Seems like the sharks are missing an angle here. And despite the appearance of the act, the narrator also noted about the male shark's pair of claspers that "these aren't like the erectile penises" that mammalians possess. Hey, claspers or a whatchamacallit... whatever you want to call your junk due to your own species preference... a dork is a dork. Hell, humans can't even decide on the proper look of their own penises, cutting off this bit or that according to religious ceremony, or adding a Prince Albert or a tattoo or what have you, or even sometimes splitting portions of it for some ungodly reason. Why should we castigate the sharks for their equipment, especially when it seems to dwarf even that of John Holmes? If the appendages aren't erectile, they certainly give the impression that they are, and they fulfill the same purpose as a penis. Something is inserted into something else, and ultimately, semen is delivered to fertilize eggs. Besides, the act was remarkably similar, and the closeup action could have come from any hardcore human video, minus, perhaps, the presence of some fat idiot's hairy ball sac bouncing up and down (I'm talking about you, Mr. Jeremy). Strange what you can run into on basic cable in the middle of a Saturday morning.

A co-worker was telling me the other day about their need to sit their son down for "the talk"... you know, regarding the so-called facts of life. Seems to me you can just switch the stations to the Discovery Channel after they've finished watching The Backyardigans, and then make them wonder why the animals on the first show are wasting their time stupidly singing and dancing when they could be doing what the animals on the other show are doing: roughly biting and banging away at each other. (Think about that the next time you watch that little penguin and moose on The Backyardigans... or is it now The Backdoorigans?) 

Either make the the kids watch the Shark Sex episode, or watch it yourself and then describe it to your kids: "Well, first Mommy and Daddy zip about in boats between three islands and plant their buoys into the floor of the ocean so that we can triangulate a monitoring signal..." Perhaps the kids should just watch the last fifteen minutes of the show for some hot grey reef shark-on-grey reef shark-on-yet-another-grey reef shark action. Oh... I didn't mention it was basically a shark gangbang?

Ah! Those naughty, naughty sharks... If they weren't already in the water, they'd need a shower.

Of course, W.C. Fields would never agree with that. He never drank water, you know, for a very particular reason...

[This article was originally posted on my main blog, The Cinema 4 Pylon, on 08-06-06. But it seemed appropriate to also post it over here.]