Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Shark Lake (2015)

Shark Lake (2015)
Dir.: Jerry Dugan
Cinema 4 Rating: 3/9
Shark species: Bull shark (Carcharhinus leucas)
Hero species: Dolph Lundgren (Wearius longindatoothinas)

I suppose that if one were to assign a particular shark species to the actor Dolph Lundgren, a bull shark might be a fairly decent choice. Known for their tenacity and aggressive behavior, the bull shark with its tough guy physique and unstoppable bite force seems to be a perfect parallel to action star Lundgren, now pushing sixty and hanging by his fingertips onto whatever he has left of a Hollywood career. This struggle seems to include appearing in films of the caliber of Shark Lake, where Dolph crosses paths -- in Lake Tahoe, of all places -- with that very same bull shark.

That's right... Lake Tahoe. One might at first do an extremely comedic double-take upon hearing that this alpine-style lake on the California-Nevada border is being mentioned in connection with a film about bull shark attacks. But one has to remember that while shark films are loaded generally with massive leaps in logic, of the relatively few sharks that could, given the proper scenario, conceivably live and thrive in such a lake, the bull shark is the species that would likely pull it off the best. 

Bull sharks are common visitors up freshwater rivers worldwide, including our own Mississippi, and even appear rather frequently in bodies of water such as Lake Nicaragua, Lake Pontchartrain, and Lake Michigan. Whether these bull sharks get into these lakes via tributaries, rivers, or flooding, once there, their ability to handle different water salinities (known as being euryhaline, allowing them access to both fresh and saltwater systems with little effect on their bodies) gives the bull shark the ability to thrive anywhere, one of the very few cartilaginous fishes that can do so.

Sara Malakul Lane with
Lily Brooks O'Briant.
So, the only leap that the filmmakers really have to make in having a bull shark run rampant in a place like Lake Tahoe is actually getting that shark into the lake. While Tahoe has many tributaries connected to it, none of them lead directly to or from the Pacific Ocean. How will Lake Tahoe become Bull Shark Central? This is where Dolph Lundgren comes into the picture. Lundgren gets top billing in Shark Lake as Clint Gray, a troubled man who makes money on the side as a wild animal smuggler. While we won't learn of these details until a little bit further into the film, Clint is planning to deliver a bull shark to a sleazy mobster named Don Barnes, but at the start of the picture, the Lake County Sheriff's office is fast on his trail, including a deputy officer named Meredith Hernandez (played only fleetingly convincingly by former model Sara Malakul Lane). 

The film opens with scenic shots of Lake Tahoe, and you should probably enjoy them while you can, because most of this film was shot in Mississippi. Hernandez and the sheriff (Lance E. Nichols) are creeping through the woods to try to arrest Clint Gray. Seeing his door ajar, they enter and find in the dark a bloody handprint (never explained), a bloody knife on the ground, several animal cages and tanks inside his house, some of them smashed and bent, and living animals such as a constrictor and a large catfish. Suddenly, a white Ford van takes off outside, and the police give chase. We finally see Gray inside the van, and as he drives frantically through the night, he makes a call to arrange a delivery time with someone. But suddenly, he crashes his van through a railing and the vehicle dives deep into the waters of Lake Tahoe.

Our big opening clue as to the villain of the film...
besides the title, that is...
We never see the van enter the water (we just hear a budget-saving splash sound effect) and the next time we see Gray/Dolph, he is swimming at the bottom of the lake, the headlights from his van illuminating the water around him from behind. As he swims to make his getaway, we see the shadowy outline of a fairly good-sized shark swimming behind him. The shark, which later will act completely ravenous, doesn't even make a bite-sized attempt to try to go after Dolph. Dolph swims one way; the shark swims the other.

The film will be built around this moment: when the shark supposedly goes in the water. But the director gives us no help in this matter. While we could ascertain that Gray is an animal smuggler from the evidence of the cages in his home, he could also just be an animal enthusiast with a series of pets beyond the norm. For all we know going into the story, Gray is just a guy on the wrong side of the law, his alleged crimes wholly unmentioned by the police. We don't know anything about the shark, not even a clue. The first time we know there might be a shark in the film is in the title; the second is when we see the shadowed outline of the shark in the water behind Gray.

No joke... his missing arm will turn up on the bottom
of the lake to be discovered by a diver. The shark
doesn't even eat it. Sharks hate old people.
As I said, the film doesn't help at all or even give us decent clues. There is no fleeting shot of a tank in the back of his van as he makes his escape, and since we never see the actual van in the water except for a pair of obvious CGI headlights, we don't get a shot of an open door or busted window to give us the shorthand to tell the story. It's almost like they went back and said, "You know, I'm not sure the audience will understand that a shark has escaped into the lake. Maybe we would should put in a CGI effect of a shark swimming behind Dolph so they will get it." (Or they could have just taken the necessary measures to storyboard an action sequence properly...)

"Here, let me just gum ya for a bit!"
Also, unless I am misinterpreting the effect, the shark seems to be of pretty good size when it hits the lake. I know the main character is played by Dolph Lundgren, so you can make allowances for him pulling some strongman antics when needed, but a tank that can hold a decent-sized bull shark for transport is going to need to be pretty sturdy and with good water capacity. Did Gray just happen to manage to sneakily slide the tank into the van before the police arrived? There was no empty tank shown in the house, so it's unlikely he just grabbed the shark with his hands and threw it into the back of the van without any water. He is, after all, attempting to deliver the shark to a big time mobster, so there is a lot of money involved, and I doubt he would take a chance like that when it is, as he tells the man on the phone, going to get there "in twenty minutes." And if he did just throw the shark into the back of the van, don't you think he would be more than worried that he is sliding all over the road with what is often considered to be one of the most aggressive and dangerous sharks in the world just slipping around in the back of his van? And even if the shark was secured inside a tank in the back of his van, wouldn't there be a lot of complications when he does get into that fast-paced, wildly careening car chase all over the backroads of Lake County in the middle of the night? You see, this is the stuff that drives me crazy...

"This would be even more delicious if I were
actually in the same shot as this guy!"
I focus so much on the beginning of this film because the rest of Shark Lake entirely hinges on us believing that Lundgren's character allowed a bull shark to escape into Lake Tahoe. But there is another major sub-plot of the film that must be mentioned. Following Gray's arrest on the shores of the lake, Officer Hernandez is seen in the sheriff's office bonding with Gray's tiny, tow-headed daughter, Carly, herself already motherless (she is found all alone in Gray's house during the home invasion, I mean, necessary intrusion by the police. Hey, I didn't see a warrant...) The film then cuts to five years later. Hernandez has adopted Carly, and is now nervous about Clint Gray's recent release from prison. Much of the drama of the film, outside of the shark attack action, is built around the deputy's desire to retain custody of Carly while attempting to thwart Gray's reemergence into his daughter's life.

But we do have to deal with that shark attack action, and this is where Shark Lake is not just at its weakest, but actually serves as a fairly poor example of the genre. From this point forward, in the most steadfast of shark (and monster) attack films, Shark Lake will give us a series of scenes involving locals and tourists coming into deadly contact with the shark, with the usual gradual increase in our viewing of the creature as the attacks progress. It's an accepted storytelling cliche, but things are so much better when the shark scenes that follow are not just sloppy at best but knee-slapping ridiculous at their worst.

Say it...
...don't spray it!
The biggest offender occurs during a beach scene where two girls are paragliding just above the surface of the lake, as Hernandez arrives at the beach to yell at everyone to get out of the water (for she has finally put two and two together and come up with "bull shark in Lake Tahoe"). The head of the bull shark -- far too large for its species, I might add, especially given the size we see in later scenes -- shoots above the water to chomp off the too skinny leg of one of the beach babes dangling above. The shark in no way fits into the movement of the water in the rest of the scene, doesn't appear to be in the same plane of reality with the bodies of the girls in midair, nor is the blood spray that emanates from the girl's flailing stump of a leg even a notch above amateurish. And I love some decent arterial spray in a movie when it is done gratuitously enough, but this, in the manner of many modern, non-practical effects where everyone with two weeks of Photoshop experience thinks they are Tom Savini, is below YouTube shenanigans level. It reminds me of the first time I recognized that the show Psych had decided to save money by having a quickie CGI explosion in place of a good old-fashioned, splinter-scattering kaboom, and it just looked so wrong to me, it kind of pissed me off towards the show for a short period. I understand the need to save money, but... standards, people.

The most effective means of fending off a bull
shark is NOT your crotch... unless you have HPV.
First time feature director Jerry Dugan doesn't seem entirely clueless as to how to build suspense in a scene (just to a large degree), but he is clearly hampered by his budget and the talent of his CGI effects team and the editing. The bulk of the shark effects are indeed CGI work, but I will say that after seeing so many Syfy-style shark films over the past decade, that this is of the same low-grade level. No, I am going to place the bulk of the blame for Shark Lake's ineffectiveness on the script by Gabe Burnstein and David Anderson. There is a sense in their storyline that they are trying to not be so apparent with the motivations of their characters, thinking that keeping it a mystery about how exactly the shark got into the lake and why it is around at all is their first big suspenseful reveal. But because the Lundgren character is jammed into the surrounding story so choppily, the details of this reveal just make the film seem confused and annoying by the time we get to it.

"Hey, Ma! Do I have to smile like this
the entire time in the film?"
However, if I can give Shark Lake any credit at all, it's due to the fact that while the film may be absolutely lazy in delivering decent shark thrills, Burnstein and Anderson certainly try to cram in far more plot than a film of this level normally does. They also try to do a bit more with their characters, including the insertion of a young scientist "with a PhD" (played pleasantly enough by Michael Aaron Milligan) and a sleazy British guy who hosts a fishing adventure show that is probably meant to invoke River Monsters (though without Jeremy Wade's dedicated appeal). This doesn't excuse the fact that Lundgren's role remains far too underwritten, not that the film would have been any better with more of him. In fact, it would actually be far more interesting to me to see this film redone where the Lundgren character -- that of the recidivist criminal father of a young girl adopted by a far too possessive police officer -- is a figment of the deputy's mind the entire time, and that all of her actions in the film are driven by her obsession with him returning at some point, when in fact he never does.

The tortilla chip swirled in salsa by Randall in Clerks
was a more believable shark fin than this
magical CGI creation. 
Everyone, however, is simply more prospective fodder for the sharks -- yes, sharks -- because the other big reveal is that the shark that went into the lake at the beginning was a pregnant female. So now the police and the citizenry have to contend with a mother shark and her two monstrous pups at loose in the waters. There will be numerous scenes where CGI bull sharks, with ridiculous mouth movements, will be cut into shots of people flailing their limbs about in the water. We will get absolutely ineffective POV shots of what we presume is a shark swimming between two rocks more than once. If Joe Bob Briggs were still doing these things, he might make mention of the "crotch fu" used in one shark attack scene (see the picture above). Finally, we will get a few abysmal "dorsal fin moving through the water" shots in Shark Lake, but one (in the image to the right) I have to put on the short list of the worst of all time. There might be worse ones out there in the annals of shark film history, but it is the one that is freshest in my mind. It makes me long for the days when the effect was done with a floating dorsal fin being pulled through the water. At least that was honest work...

Sara Malakul Lane in her old day job.
As I mentioned earlier, the comely and freckle-faced, Thai-English actress Lane (also seen by my own set of eyes in SharktopusPernicious [my review here] and Cowboys vs. Dinosaurs) is not entirely effective in her role as Deputy Hernandez, but this is not to say I did not enjoy her presence in the film. If anything good comes out of the schlock in which she acts one film after the other, is that we seem to have a modern scream queen on our hands. (Quality of acting or even talent was never a necessary aspect of scream queens anyway.) And there is a side to her role where, acting-wise, she is most effective; Sara Lane is at her best in her shared scenes with Lily Brooks O'Briant, a young actress who displays some much needed charisma in the midst of all this dullness and cheap effects. As for Dolph, Lundgren looks so tired throughout the film; whether he is just tired in general or from making cheap ass film after cheap ass film to keep current is hard to discern. However, ol' Dolph also has his best moments in Shark Lake when he has O'Briant at his side, so I just guess the little girl must be responsible for the best acting of multiple principals in the film. Can we put her behind the camera as well?

There is a point where Lane's character says, while reflecting on the death of an incidental character, "It's my fault. I shouldn't have let him come out here. We shouldn't be out here." Well, yeah... the single best way to not get attacked by sharks in a particular body of water is to not go in that water in the first place. So, you really only have yourself to blame, sister. On the other hand, you can't have a killer shark movie with someone getting killed by a shark. And unless your film is a total fantasia about sharks skipping about on dry land to munch on the populace, well, someone has to go in the water eventually. Might as well be you.

Just stay out of Lake Tahoe. The place is crawling with bull sharks. And Dolph Lundgrens.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Beyond Simply Treading Water...

It would be nice if we had a world where people would simply be happy in going to the movies to see beautiful sharks gliding smoothly and expertly through the water, content in seeing these glorious creatures interacting in their natural environment while spending their lives as a vital cog in the ecological cycle of our planet.

It would be nice, but it's not realistic. Sure, you can put out a documentary now and again, such as Disney's Oceans, and have some marvelous footage of sharks included in the mix, and you will get a certain audience. Or you can put out, on a much more limited level, a doc like Sharkwater to bring in more specialized crowds that, like me, believe in saving sharks for the good of the oceans, the world, and mankind in turn. But you will probably get even smaller audience for something like that, or you will have to tour with such a film to build those crowds. Or you can stick to television docs like Sir David Attenborough and give us BBC series after BBC series of pure scientific wonderment, with a more than generous sprinkling of sharky goodness in the mix. The audience is definitely out there for such productions, but the ease of access for such shows ensures that they will likely never end up on the big screen (except in rare instances like a premiere, or an IMAX film in a museum screening room). So, sharks, in their natural state, are rarely seen in real movie theatres.

The movie industry -- as in, the entertainment world at large -- is still pretty much resigned to having sharks fulfill one prime role in their works. And just as it has been since the advent of storytelling, it's the same role that much of the real world assigns to these creatures automatically as well: that of a toothy menace... a mindless eating machine... a killer. Worse, a killer intent with villainously plotting to devour as many people as possible. And no matter how much shark conversation groups, or their fellow enlightened citizens, try to turn the tide (so to speak), the fact is that shark movies -- ahem, shark movies where sharks are only evil and vicious and menacing -- get media attention. 

However, most shark movies don't even make it to the theatres nowadays nor are they even made with theatrical distribution as a primary goal. When you think about it for a second, beyond the Jaws series and a couple of smaller examples, sharks have never really taken off at the modern box office the way vampires, dinosaurs, zombies, monsters, and aliens have. But cinematic sharks thrive lurking, dangerous, and entirely lucrative elsewhere. Cable, online streaming, and retail home video (still swimming about out there) are now the primary target areas for makers of shark flicks, and they apparently pull in boffo ratings and sales. Ask Syfy Channel about their endless, ultra-cheap variations on shark films (their massively popular Sharknado series is the biggest, most outrageous, and well-marketed example, with a fourth installment, subtitled The 4th Awakens, on its way in July), or their other flicks where sharks are combined physically with other supposedly vicious creatures (Sharktopus), placed into mortal combat with other absurdly large, fanciful creatures (Mega Shark vs. Crocosaurus) or a melding of each of these categories (Sharktopus vs. Whalewolf). 

The thankful part is that the further these films get from the actual, original shark form, the more grounded in pure fantasy nonsense the films get. It is harder to connect these film sharks to reality the more we are laughing at the resulting product. The other thankful part is that because the quality -- in nearly every other area but marketing -- is so cheap and shoddy, it is almost impossible to take a single example of Syfy shark promotion seriously. The downside is that the impetus for these films -- and it is a primal fear that the target audience seems never to shake -- is still the same: the shark is a murderous beast.

I have been at a crossroads with all shark films for a good while now. While I am a huge shark conservation nut, I cannot help but recognize that Jaws is one of the best adventure thrillers and horror films ever made in film history, as well as being a personal favorite, well lodged in my Top Ten films of all time. Ever since I first saw it as a teenager (I did not quite see it in theatres on its original run, but did see a rerelease a few years later, though I had seen it on HBO by that point), it has been hugely influential on both my film watching habits and my psyche. When Jaws broke big in the mid-'70s -- both Peter Benchley's original novel and Steven Spielberg's film adaptation -- its wild popularity did a massive amount of damage to the reputation of the shark -- especially the great white shark. Jaws is well documented as having significantly increased the wholesale slaughter on the part of sharks worldwide starting in the mid-1970s, as well as furthering the already existent role of the shark in the public consciousness as a villainous monster. But you could counter with an argument that Jaws also made a lot of people, myself included, become fascinated as kids and teenagers with sharks to the point of distraction, even to the point of committing to their welfare for the rest of our lives. If Jaws had not been so hugely regarded, would we have popular annual events like, for better or for worse (because there are drawbacks here as well) Shark Week, where sharks as a group at least get a general better trial before the public than normal?

Artistically, the plus side of Jaws being such a popular film is that it has proven objectively impossible to create a shark film that equals it. You can look at a science fiction film like 2001: A Space Odyssey, and say, "Oh, yeah... but there's also Star Wars." And Alien, and Aliens, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Blade Runner, and E.T., and many more science fiction films of rather equal merit, and so it goes in other genres and sub-genres. But where do you refer people who want a high quality, action-adventure shark movie after JawsDeep Blue Sea? Don't get me wrong... I love that film but not for reasons of quality. No, you usually have to switch the focus from sharks themselves over to animal attack films of relatively equal quality such as The Birds or jump straight to the pure horror genre to find another film. And even there, the quality is far overridden by the hack work (as it is in all genres, really). Jaws, while it did practically invent the summer blockbuster season, is still a rather singular film. Its popularity certainly ensured that it would have many, many imitators all trying to equal its success; its universally held measure of high quality also ensured that those imitators would never hit the same high water mark, either artistically or financially.

It now feels that filmmakers have just given up trying to make even a good shark-based film for the theatres (the recent news about Steve Alten's Meg finally getting made or the upcoming thriller, The Shallows, notwithstanding), and given my shredded psyche which builds fortresses on either side of this argument, this is both great and sad. Today, we hang out on video or tune into channels like Syfy and mostly get Sharktopus and his low-budget, poorly animated lot. (Again, another shark film that I think is entertaining on a purely juvenile level, and I think the drive behind creating such a film is hilarious). And suckers like me, because I am torn in my love to see sharks on film finally treated like the brilliant and diverse creatures that they are but also am addicted to monsters and horror films, tune in to these films time and again. I cannot stop. I am a lost cause, even when the addiction itself is, in the case of the bulk of films from Syfy and The Asylum, completely unworthy of my attention were I to approach them from a critical angle. I would prefer that someone put some genuine craft and attention into a shark film, but c'mon... stupid, crappy shark films are sheer fun. And everyone knows it.

But let's get to my reason for writing all of this today. About a decade ago, having already started The Cinema 4 Pylon (which would be my central site) and Cinema 4: Cel Bloc (where I could concentrate solely on animation), I was torn between which other film specialties I wanted to focus. The topic was certainly going to come out of the horror and science fiction genres, and for a while, I thought that in the fight between dinosaurs, robots, and sharks for my attention, that dinosaurs were certainly going to come out on top, there being far more films (and far more interesting films as well) available especially. But I veered toward the ocean instead and I started a blog called The Shark Film Office.

My first post on The Shark Film Office went up in February 2007 -- a review of a really bad Dedee Pfeiffer film called Blue Demon, featuring genetically enhanced great white sharks, that I nonetheless found fascinating for just how much it actually tried, in many scenes, to avoid the gore and violence one would normally associate with such a film. But I found out quickly, having no real guide as to how many shark films there were or what I should even consider to be a shark film, that it was hard to really pin down what I wanted from the subject. Was it more important to me to just review crappy shark films, one after the other, or to show just how deeply the image of the shark is embedded in the mind and history of man? Should I use the site to simply tee off on easy marks -- yes, fish in a barrel -- or should I take a broader approach to the subject, citing examples of films where sharks are used extensively in dialogue rather than in image, furthering the discussion by not just showing how mankind approaches members of their various species, but also how the creatures have colored our thoughts and our language throughout film history?

And so I went with the latter aspect. I could review Blue Demon and its low-rent ilk and thrill my teenage self to tears, but also write a piece about Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura, an acknowledged cinematic masterpiece which quite surprisingly has a significant but unseen shark prescence at its core. Early on in the process through, I discovered that I didn't want to ignore the other creatures of the deep who play upon our idiotic fears as a species, and so I added a subtitle to The Shark Film Office that reads "Sharks, yes... but rays, squid, octopi and orcas, too..." This broke open enough extra ground for me that I was certain to never run out of films to tackle. But then something happened... I stopped trying to tackle those films altogether.

By the summer of 2008, I had only put up a handful of posts on The Shark Film Office. With my attention diverted in a major way by my actual job, my family, a general ennui, and a slowly boiling but steadily growing depressive spot in my soul and mind that would lead eventually to suicidal ideation, declaring myself 5150, and going through two years of meds and therapy, I stopped writing. I stopped writing on the Pylon, on the Cel Bloc, and especially on The Shark Film Office. Stopped cold in July of 2008. I never promoted The Shark Film Office,  and I never really figured out my focus (the style changed constantly in those early posts; I couldn't even commit to how the information would be presented). In the back of my mind, I thought constantly that I really wanted to restart the site again and give it the full attention that this self-pronounced, shark-loving maniac could apply to it, but I never did. While I continued to post sporadically on the Pylon through 2011, it was very half-hearted. By the time the depression kicked in full force in 2012, I had stopped writing completely, except at my real writing and editing job. 

Then last September happened. After a couple of years of my therapist telling me that I needed to start my personal writing again to get even close to being happy (he being a pretty sharp guy), I had made several attempts but they all fell far short of the goal for me. Finally, out of desperation (and already out of therapy), I decided to spend the day before my birthday writing for about nine hours straight. It was beyond therapeutic; it was redefining. I spent a similar amount of time on my birthday doing the same, this time hashing about ideas that I had always wanted to try when I was blogging full-time. I posted my first true regular post in ages on the Pylon on September 10th, and it became my new standard (same as the old standard) from there. Not only was the immediate reaction very pleasing -- it did help that my first post was a rant about a lack of decent gluten-free bread, a subject close to my heart... and stomach -- but its acceptance allowed me just enough push to keep going. 

The Cinema 4 Pylon continued to rev back up throughout the month, and by October, it was back wholly to its original intent. Then came the biggest hurdle, restarting Cinema 4: Cel Bloc, with its more cohesive focus on a single subject and generally much longer articles. That one I hit really hard in November and got cruising along at a very pleasing pace for a few months. (Getting seriously ill in February and March did cause a setback on both sites, but now that I am better, we are starting to cruise again.) Somewhere in that flourish of writing and posting, I knocked out a couple of reviews for The Shark Film Office, one in November and one in mid-February, just as I was getting ill. All along, The Shark Film Office had been nagging at me: "Why don't you start me again? You love sharks; why aren't you writing about us?"

To be fair, I still didn't know how much I wanted to really commit to the project, but I had been doing something on the sidelines that was going to help me immeasurably. A while back, I had started keeping a database of films featuring, not just sharks, but every type of large aquatic sea creature (even some smaller ones) that are often called upon by the movie studios to do villainous work in film. This even included sea monsters of every fanciful variety, not just what we consider to be "natural" monsters. Putting this database together started the gears turning again, and helped me begin to figure out exactly what I wanted from The Shark Film Office (and even other angles for new features on The Cinema 4 Pylon, one of which -- The Monster's on the Loose!!! -- has already seen its first edition).

So I have decided to recommit to The Shark Film Office. I plan to feature regular reviews of films featuring sharks (and some of those other sea creatures I mentioned) over the rest of the year. I will be tackling narrative features for the most part, but I plan on including reviews of documentaries and television specials as much as possible too. I hope in time that the site will become a decent resource for anyone interested in the history of shark film (and television). For the time being, all new articles for The Shark Film Office will premiere here on The Cinema 4 Pylon initially, and will be archived at The Shark Film Office site as well, until I can start promoting that site on its own.

For the record, I am still torn on just how I can appease my two differing sides: the one that wants to show sharks for themselves, and the one that loves really stupid shark horror movies. Is there a happy medium? Can I cater to both sides of my sharky soul and not come out as split apart as a giant two-headed great white from a Syfy Channel movie? I figure that is part of the journey. If you are writing and don't seek to discover something new about yourself, then you are not really writing. I am hoping that you will dive into that deep end of the pool with me.