Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Sharknado 4: The 4th Awakens (2016)

Sharknado 4: The 4th Awakens (2016)
Dir.: Anthony C. Ferrante
TC4P Rating: 4/9
Species: great white shark, hammerheads, goblin shark, leopard sharks, many unidentified species, and a surprise species that I refuse to give away until a much later date.

While The Shark Film Office was started way back in 2006, I really let it lay fallow for many years while I first concentrated on other sites, and then got sucked into a personal vortex of depression and dark thoughts of suicide (which are far more insidious than light, happy thoughts of suicide). Since I didn't finally get The Shark Film Office going full force until earlier this year, it was purely coincidence that I skipped over a particular phenomenon that is largely responsible for the absurd amount of low-budget, goofball shark films that are thrown at us today: the Sharknado series.

Premiering in 2013, and with a sequel released in each of the past three years, the first Sharknado film made directly for the Syfy Channel not only received surprisingly good ratings but erupted into a self-sustaining social media sharknado of its own. With each succeeding film in the series, the ratings and exposure of the brand in the public's eye have only gotten bigger and bigger, to the point that Syfy has seen fit over the past two years to devote an entire week of programming around stupid shark films. Dubbed Sharknado Week, this form of flick-watching maelstrom is only for those who either have no further IQ points to drop on their way through roughly thirty poorly made monster movies of mostly recent vintage or for the hardcore shark film fanatic who doesn't mind if a film is missing any combination of things like quality, style, or consistency in story or acting or pacing or logic or special effects or tone or common sense or cinematography or... or... or... You could name nearly any form of cinematic category for which awards of excellence are given, but Sharknado Week is not the place for it.

But since I am the sort who laments the loss of movie matinee or late night monster movie-style shows built around a particular theme, I am always eager to jump on opportunities like this. (Unless it is something dopey like Hallmark Channel and their "Christmas in July" bullshit. Sure, you and your grandma might love it; it's not my ball o' yarn waiting to be knitted by a cozy fire and a cup o' tea...) Monster movies are not even a guilty pleasure with me. I don't believe in guilty pleasures. I wear, listen to, watch, read, write, eat, and say what I love proudly. Sure, I wish there were smarter shark movies out there. There are only a couple of them, and even they are not immune. Even the most vaunted of movies can be crushed by pure logic if one puts even the slightest effort to it. But let's get to the point at hand: I love sharks. I love shark movies. And in the void of having few smart shark movies to love, I have no real choice but to learn to love big, stupid shark movies like the big, stupid shark movies shown during Sharknado Week. Hey, women have had to deal with brutish, Neanderthal-like, testosterone-poisoned men for ages; I could learn to love big, stupid shark movies. And I did.

I had thought briefly, when I watched the second and third installments in the Sharknado series over the past couple of years, that maybe the time was right to jump back into reviewing shark movies. This is regardless of how I felt about the films (and believe me, I don't think they are masterpieces of any stripe but one, though it is a significant one). I was recognizing slowly, with so many shark films being released in recent years, that perhaps there was merit in the idea that the website I had started in jest in 2006 could actually be sustained now with enough updates and reviews over a prolonged period. But again – and then once again the following summer – I let the mood slip, and I descended back inside my cruel self and that crushing depression.

Let's cut to now... The Shark Film Office is fully charged and an ongoing presence in my daily life. I have plans to make the site even more robust as a destination for both shark and film enthusiasts, but that is still down the road a piece. For now, we have the reason why you have may decided to stop to check out this review, the final premiere film of Sharknado Week 2016... Sharknado 4: The 4th Awakens!

Sure, this film has what is arguably the most opportunistically brilliant title in made-for-television film history. I don't know at which point in co-creators Anthony C. Ferrante and Thunder Levin's journey they decided upon adding a lifeline to the most recent Star Wars title, but since the Sharknado series was already rife with references to that other astronomically bigger film series, going with The 4th Awakens was a truly appropriate (and silly) choice. It does sometimes seem that this series is almost as much Star Wars parody as it is Jaws (especially the further it goes along), so why not? It should be pointed out though, that the Sharknado films actually come closer in their continuing characterizations of Fin, April, and Nova to carrying on with the Star Wars-slash-Joseph Campbell "Hero's Journey" myth-making ethos than in any true connection to the original Jaws, apart from spouting character names and hanging around Universal Studios in Florida in the third Sharknado entry (among a raft of superficial bits that touch on Jaws in that film).

Star Wars, though, seems to be the solid focus this time, and sure enough, The 4th Awakens opens with a text crawl over a field of stars that to today's audiences can only be recognized in conjunction with Death Stars, lightsabers, and Greedos that may or may not have shot first. (He did...) This Sharknado episode starts out five years in the future (though it has only been a single year since the last film came out), and thus, it has also been five years since the last sharknado ravaged the earth. This is thanks to the Sharknado-verse's version of Elon Musk, Aston Reynolds (Tommy Davidson), whose company Astro-X has made the Sharknado-verse's squishy science concepts work in such a way that he was able to create cheap and clean reactors that allowed him to stabilize the atmosphere and prevent the formation of all tornadoes in the world. This ushered in a new golden age of peace, at least according to Astro-X's weird, promotional advertising, which includes footage of hero Fin Shepard's astronaut father, Col. Gilbert Shepard (David Hasselhoff) defeating sharks (which look rather rubbery) on the moon (where he was stranded mysteriously to most likely die at the end of the third film, you may recall). 

Aston Reynolds announces a new theme hotel, Shark World, in Las Vegas, where Fin Shepard has been, naturally, invited to the grand opening. Fin has retired from the rush of public fame to a small farm in Kansas, named April's Acres after his late wife (Tara Reid), seemingly crushed by falling debris from a space shuttle after both she and Fin not only survived falls from orbit inside the bodies of separate great white sharks, but after she also gave birth to their son Gil. (Note: she cut her way out of the shark's body with the chainsaw apparatus in her mechanical left hand after giving birth inside the shark.) Leaving his mother (Cheryl Tiegs) and little Gil behind, Fin heada to Vegas with his younger cousin Gemini, who is intent on making sure Fin has a good time for the first time since April died. (Damn it, I am winded after just two paragraphs of exposition.)

Fin and Gemini arrive in Vegas and find out almost immediately that their Uber driver is none other than Carrot Top, playing himself in exactly as annoying a fashion as you would expect. It is the first of about four thousand celebrity cameos in the film, though it becomes awfully tough at times to tell the cameo roles from the actual supporting ones. It seems that everyone likes to appear in these films (hey, if I was a celebrity, why not?), and it also seems that a lot of people do it just to get killed by a shark onscreen. There are also a certain proportion of the celebs that seem to get a kick out of defeating the sharks, and if there is anything of an idealogical break within the shark film universe, I guess it would be this "kill or be killed" divergence. (Apart from real world ecological and biological concerns, that is...)

The cameos are so fast and so furious that you almost expect cast members from The Fast and the Furious franchise to show up in the film. But no... we get Wayne Newton instead, singing the Sharknado theme song in a lounge act. We see Motley Crue's Vince Neil hitting on girls and playing craps. I did a double take to make sure if that was really Susan Anton still gettin' it done while playing the slot machines, and I was given a solid reminder while Adrian Zmed's acting career went to shit so fast when he mugs it up horribly. Dr. Drew Pinsky calls a wedding ceremony for Fin's son in an airplane, while MMA fighter Frank Mir, Rascal Flatts bassist Jay DeMarcus, and Slipknot singer Corey Taylor work various jobs at the casino. Oh, yeah... and there are Chippendale's dancers as well. This is just one scene, mind you, before the title for the film has even shown up. There are many, many others, and I don't even know who half the people are, and had to spend a lot of time looking up a lot of the more current people.

Then the sharknado hits, and already we get signs that Sharknado 4: The 4th Awakens is going to be, at least on paper, decidedly different than the three films that came before it. How do you keep the series fresh from film to film, once the simple novelty of a tornado wears off? The series started off relatively small: in the first film, which seems quaint in its simplicity now, a tornado starts in the Pacific Ocean, grabs a bunch of sharks (and seemingly no other ocean life whatsoever... just sharks, who, you know, all hang out right at the surface), and then drops them first at a Southern California beach and then slowly sprinkles them on a deadly path throughout the Los Angeles area. The film is rather generic up until the finale, when Fin cuts his way out of a great white and emerges a full-blown, chainsaw-wielding hero. Sharknado 2 switched coasts easily enough, bringing the shark-hating game to New York and The Today Show, and opening up the series to the instant cameo game. With Fin already released and April on her way to getting a bionic hand, the action began to get a little wilder, the comedy much broader than before, and the freedom of the overarching concept a bit more imaginative. 

Sharknado 3: Oh, Hell No! started out with an insane scenario in Washington, D.C., where it was proposed that icky living skeleton Ann Coulter had become Vice President. Enough said. Shut down the government. America was done. Seriously though, it was another massive leap away from reality that upped the ante closer to true Tex Avery-style cartoon physics beyond what had been approached in the series to that point, and set the stage for the rest of the film, where twin sharknadoes ravaged New York (again, and seen mostly in television footage) and in Florida, which is mostly so that NASA and space shuttles could be worked into the mix, so that sharks could eventually end up in outer space and somehow not be affected by the forces that would kill almost any living thing within a minute or so. And have you believe in every minute of it whether your working, logical mind resisted the notion or not. When Frankie Muniz lost all four limbs in Sharknado 3, by one flying shark attacking him after another, while trying to climb to the top of an RV to push a self-destruct button (a feat he finally had to achieve with his chin since he had been left with naught but a head and a torso), I thought the Syfy Channel had reached the true limits of its cartoonishness. For anyone, including myself, who had denigrated the output of the channel's hired studios for never trying hard or aiming high enough, here at least was some proof that someone at the Asylum had some Pythonesque awareness for just how silly everything was in their endeavors, and it smacked of measurable pride in that silliness. And then the rest of the film: raining sharks on the shuttle launchpad, the space fight against sharks, getting purposefully swallowed by a great white thinking one's wife is inside the shark already, punching one's way out of a reentry-burning shark to ripcord a parachute through the punched-out hole, and then the giving birth of a baby inside a shark... man, did Dali come back from the grave?

And now with sharknadoes supposedly vanquished from the earth, where can Sharknado 4: The 4th Awakens go with the concept? Well, when in Vegas, use the local resources. In this case, sand. A sandstorm whips up, and it would be just an ordinary one, I guess, but as providence would have it, some dumbass entrepreneur decided to build a theme casino based around sharks in the area. AND THE GRAND OPENING IS THAT VERY NIGHT. And it just happens to have a massive tank containing millions of gallons of water and a butt-ton of sharks built right into the front of the hotel. In no time at all, the sandstorm hits the hotel, and the sharks are sucked up into the storm. The world is suddenly, and for mysterious reasons that will never really get sorted out in this film, beset by the first sharknado in five years. (No one really considers how the sharks survive in the sandnado, or why the sandnado doesn't turn into a "mudnado" when any of the water from the tank that gets sucked up with the sharks hits it. Frankly, you think it would be the end of it. Mud Puddle doesn't sound like the greatest concept for a monster film.) 

The sharknado will attack the casino and make short work of most of the celebrities, though some, like one of the Chippendale's dancers, is able to repel a shark with his boner. The film does make use of certain Vegas landmarks, like the fake Empire State Building, and a truly goofy sequence where Fin and Gemini commandeer the pirate ship outside of Treasure Island when the sharknado creates a flood from the water from the giant shark tank. There is great joy when not only Zmed gets it (goblin shark to the chest) but also Todd Chrisley (eaten by a large shark after accusing his wife of stuffing herself at the buffet). I also enjoyed the fact that when David Faustino shows up, Fin calls him "Bud" automatically, even though he is just playing some guy, and not necessarily Bud Bundy.

After the opening Vegas sequence, we finally get to the the title twenty minutes into the film, and shortly after we find out April is still alive, saved by her mad scientist father (Gary Busey) and turned into a full cyborg, capable of not just superhuman speed and strength, but also flight. Her mechanical weapons from the third film have been replaced with laser ones, like a chainsaw and a lightsaber. The story ambles on, now that a sandstorm full of sharks has been established as possible, into a ceaseless progression through a fleet of storms, each one with an added elemental change to it, as it makes its way across the country. We next get a "bouldernado," because the sandstorm hits some mountains and the rocks make the structure of the storm change. Later, when it hits an oilfield in Texas, it turns into an "oilnado"; when the oil catches flame, it becomes a "firenado". When the storm hits electrical wires, it becomes an "electronado". Other storms will hit other cities like San Francisco and Seattle, and get names like a "hailnado" and a "lightningnado," though each time, the tornadoes come complete with their own sharks, because, well, why not? In the midwest, the main sharknado eventually hits Tornado Alley and a cattle farm, and turns into a "cownado," which is reported on by a chopper reporter played by Gilbert Gottfried. I am disappointed that the cownado doesn't happen immediately after the firenado, so that we could actually get a "BBQnado." That would have been something to see, and something they could have teamed up with a big name fast food sponsor for some wily advertising.

There are more storm changes and more pinpoints on the map ahead, but I am going to stop here, because I really just wanted to set the film up and didn't want to give a full plot synopsis. Rest assured, this is just the tip of the sharknado, and I the biggest, most wacky stuff is still to come. While I normally don't care about giving away that stupid "S" word (you know, sp-- sp-- Voldem-- spoilers...), there are a couple of insane scenes late in the film that I would rather you see for yourself, unencumbered by my comments. I want you to have the experience of dealing with this film on your own. 

I might even suggest making this your first Sharknado film, even, and especially, if you haven't watched any of the other films in the series. More so than in the other films, there are a zillion little goofy touches to this film. Most of them, if you think about them for even two seconds, makes your head want to explode but also kind of makes you smile at the same time. It's a far different sensation from most other Syfy product, where maybe you will tune in because the concept sounds kind of cool but it might be lame in how they ultimately do it. Or you hope it might be kind of good but the monster looks stupid when you get there. But the one thing you don't do with most Syfy films is think about them at all when they are over. You can't do that with the Sharknado films. Especially these last two films. They have embraced the gonzo. They might still be aiming for the lowest common denominator, and the bulk of their fans might be voting for Trump on purpose, but the Asylum has handled their audience brilliantly from a marketing angle, and yet has continued to actually make the films more entertaining as they go along. This is something you do not normally see in movie series, which tend to get progressively worse or at least grow stagnant as time passes. (I can't speak the Fast and the Furious franchise, for I have only ever seen Fast Five.)

As performances go, you don't really come to these things for the acting. I will say that signing up for this series is going to turn out to be the smartest move that both Ian Ziering and Tara Reid have ever made career-wise, especially Reid. And I love that they stole the old Gigantor theme and had her do her cyborg workout to an updated Sharknado theme based on it. With acting out of the way, I can return to those cameos, because there are a zillion of them. My personal favorite is Caroline Williams showing up as Stretch from Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. Sure, she brings the vile Dog the Bounty Hunter with her (playing her brother, Chop Top, another Saw 2 reference), but no matter. When she yells, "It wouldn't be Texas without a Chainsaw Massacre!" I had to agree. I also liked that they had another brother sitting in a chair who went by the name Gunnar (and if you don't get that reference, you need to look it up).

There is a brief appearance by Fin's pal Colton (Steve "The Gute" Gutenberg from the Lavalantula series, in which Fin has also guested), who brings in my other favorite cameo of the film, that of Christine. That's right... the murderous car from the John Carpenter film based on the Stephen King novel. I don't know why Fin doesn't just drive Christine straight into the sharknado in whatever form it was in at that point (I think it was still cownado), because if anything can handle a storm like that, it's Christine. Regardless, it's a weird little, out of left field cameo – more than a little gratuitous – but I still liked it.

My least favorite cameo, besides Zmed, is by the atrocious Stacey Dash, who overacts so wildly that you can't imagine she was given any direction at all in her performance. True, she is playing someone who is, for no real given reason whatsoever since her character has not existed before this point, completely mistrusting of Fin and is on a personal crusade to stop him (she plays the mayor of Chicago). Her character, from her first appearance forward is so obviously supposed to be based on the Wicked Witch of the East from The Wizard of Oz that you know instantly where her story arc is taking her, and if you don't know where that is at first, all you have to do is then notice the striped leggings she wears throughout the film and have any sense of pop culture history at all to be in the know. I actually quite love her story arc within the film, and it is quite apropos that her character behave this way (it may even be based somewhat on her recent public persona on the right wing news media, but I can't confirm that), it's just that her performance in the role is bad. Period.

I mentioned the opening up of cartoon physics within the world of Sharknado earlier on, and I wanted to expand on that briefly. With the development of the Fin character from mere luckless guy who just wants to save his family in the first film to burgeoning folk hero in the second film to savior of the world by the end of the third film, Fin has (barring the body changing cybernetics that April has undergone) blossomed into an immensely powerful athlete for a guy with a fairly slight, wiry frame. True, his character is a former professional surfer, and as such, we have to trust that he is, especially as a guy who is slightly older than me in real life (at 52), still in pretty decent shape physically, the evidence in the films suggest that in the heat of battle, he is the match of superheroes in many other film series.

In this film alone, in the train sequence in the desert as they are leaving Las Vegas after the sandstorm transforms into a bouldernado, he and his son Matt are attempting to save the passengers by herding them to the front of the old train while pulling the pins out of all the cars at the back of the train. (Why they don't just pull one pin and detach the bulk of the train all at once, I don't know; not sure what the reasoning behind any of this was.) Regardless, Fin climbs to the top of the train at one point and has what is easily at least a 2,500 to 3,000 pound great white shark fall towards him from the sky. This much weight, plus the shark has somehow survived numerous small boulders getting embedded in its tough hide, so it probably weighs even more. Fin catches the shark with no problem, and then wrestles with it for close to thirty seconds, avoiding the snap of its jaws, until the shark's head is easily sliced off by a lowering crossing bar. 

In a scene later in a Kansas park, a lady being menaced on a bench is aided when Fin grabs a twelve-foot shark, which probably weighs at least eight hundred pounds or so, and swings it easily against a light pole, rendering it to dust in seconds. A little bit later, in Cawker City, Kansas, Fin uses the resources at hand – the biggest ball of twine in the world (or one of them, anyway) – to handily wrap up about a dozen sharks completely in no time at all, a feat which would take a good long while for even many people to do. It seems that as the series progresses, Fin is taking on Herculean strength and stamina when the moment calls for it, and I have to wonder if we will get an entry in the series where we do find out that he really is the son of an ancient god like Zeus or, given his surfing background, Poseidon/Neptune.

And then there is a big spoiler scene near the end of the film. One that I can't talk about. One with a thing and a thing and a thing that does a thing and then there is this thing that does this thing. See? Can't talk about it, but that's not really the point. The point is, in watching the scene, I was reminded of those cartoon physics I mentioned and how I was marveling that it took so long for this series to truly embrace them. Here in the fourth film, in this particular sequence near the end of the film, if you drew the entire scene on sequentially arranged paper and filmed them one after the other frame by frame, and then showed me that film, it would be likely that I would have thought the scene came from a late '40s Tex Avery cartoon, a la King-Size Canary or The Cat That Hated People. It's a wonderful gag that has a funny set-up, gets funnier, takes it to its logical endpoint, and then comes up with a whamm-o, unexpected punchline that I did not see coming at all. By the big finale of Sharknado: The 4th Awakens, I can no longer tell the difference between a sharknado and an animated cartoon, and in many respects, I have to tip my hat to Anthony C. Ferrante and his team for getting me to that point. In at least that one sequence in this film, they have achieved a bravura modern cartoon moment.

I just wish it were all that great. For everything that I appreciate in these films (and I appreciate more each time, the sillier they get), they are still aiming for low-hanging fruit most of the time. Yes, these films seem to be too blatantly ridiculous to take seriously for even a second, but that doesn't mean there isn't a subtext that can crawl out of the absurdity and leave a sour taste in one's mouth when all the laughter has died down. For everything loony in these films, there are a couple of messages that come through clear from the Sharknado films. One is: sharks suck. It is said by Fin's son late in this film, and Fin himself says in earlier films how much he hates sharks, because after all, he keeps ended up in scenarios where he has to personally kills scores of them on mostly dry land, and some of them kill or try to kill his friends and family members. I understand that from the point of view of a character's motivation, but let's look at it from an audience's, especially the mostly younger audience that is seeing these films and likely has little other context for how to approach sharks in their lives.

Yes, this is a website about shark films, and yes, the vast majority, in fact, about the high-ninety-something percent of these films feature sharks as villainous figures, so it may be unfair to look at a film series as outright goofy as the Sharknado series and blame it for demonizing sharks when the sharks are so cartoonish in most cases that they can't even be identified by species in most scenes. But there is another factor at play here: the 'nado part of the title. A big chunk of these films is based around the notion that the increase in the sharknadoes in the world is due to global warming, and I am fine with the concept of global warming as a villain. Because it is. But we are, ultimately, the primary creator of that villain. The problem in the series is sharks are, to this point at least (though it looks like it might be building to someone behind the scenes), the big villains in this series, and despite all of their mayhem and killing, they take a beating. Actually, because of all their mayhem and killing, they take an even worse beating, because if they weren't invading our cities and eating people, then we wouldn't notice them so much. So their public image, even in an extremely exaggerated, totally unrealistic setting, gets even worse. In the real world where we have to fight for the very notion in many places that sharks even deserve to live or even swim alongside us, it's an image that even the most cartoonish hijinks makes hard to erase.

And then there are the idiots out there, the ones who don't – or can't – connect the dots properly between things. It's bad enough that there is already wacky pseudoscience floating around these films, but it's even worse when we have a world filled of actual science deniers who don't see the link between man's activities and the destruction of natural environments on this planet, be they ocean, forest, jungle, or beach. Or ice caps and glaciers. I am not saying that the Sharknado films blame global warming on sharks, but I can see the jump in logic someone can make watching the films, that would leave them to believe that "sharks are behind this global warmin' conspiracy."

Man, I don't think Ferrante and Levin mean anything by their films. I think they had a silly idea that they thought could make some green, they pitched it to the network, and then ran with it. It is clear from the first film that they had no idea it was going to blow up the way it did, and that first film plays so straight as to be almost unrecognizable from the rest of the films in the series. In fact, it looks like the type of film the other sequels in the series are spoofing. It is also clear from the way that they have crammed their films full of Jaws references, and even in the way that Ferrante and former Brady Bunch actor Robbie Rist have named their band Quint (who play most of the songs of the soundtrack including the theme song), that the creators are big shark fans themselves. So, I know that the lip service given to shark hatred in the films is really only coming from the characters, but I really wish they would balance it out at some point.

Which is why it is time for the Sharknado series to embrace a Jaws reference that they have sorely neglected through four films. It is a standard stock character in almost any shark film worth its saltwater, and it is amazing to me that they haven't had one yet in the series. A perfect character to come in, be a spokesperson for the sharks, tell everybody why they are wrong – SO WRONG – about them, show everyone the best way to deal with them, make everybody think that "hey, this guy/girl might be on to something"... and then he/she gets killed late in the second act. A marine biologist.

Anthony C. Ferrante and Thunder Levin, the ball is in your court...


Sunday, August 07, 2016

Ozark Sharks (2016)

Ozark Sharks (2016)
Dir.: Misty Talley
TC4P Rating: 3/9
Species: Bull sharks.

Backwoods terror is a mainstay category within the horror genre, and so I find it unsurprising that attacks of the rural variety should start occurring in the shark film subgenre as well. There have already been any number of more sea monster-oriented films taking place out in the country, and snakehead films have been popular in recent years as well. And, of course, gator and croc films have always been in abundance, and those, naturally, come with the requisite amount of stock hillbilly characters ready to whoop it up and have their shotgun-bearing arms bitten off or to suddenly get eaten after they have decided to dynamite the swamp to "git whatever 'tis out there that ate ol' Cooter las' night!"

So, when I heard there was a film being premiered during this year's Sharknado Week on the Syfy Channel a couple of weeks ago called Ozark Sharks, I thought that I knew what I was getting. I figured immediately it was going to be exactly like one of those gator films, only with sharks. I thought it would just be rednecks getting all fired up about killing a bunch of sharks, only to end up on the smorgasbord one after the other because each one does something more inane than the last one. Surprisingly, it wasn't that at all. Once more, because it was an original Syfy film, it wasn't the least bit original in any respect, but it also wasn't the south-bashing exercise I thought it might be.

Not that it actually was filmed in the Ozarks though... the family unit that will make up the core of main characters in the film – middle-age parents Rick and Diane (Michael Papajohn and Laura Cayouette), daughter Molly (Allisyn Ashley Arm) and son Harrison (Dave Davis) –may decide to head to the Ozarks (against the kids' wishes, mind you) for a family vacation, but everything that takes place was filmed in Louisiana, quite far from the area Ozark Mountain region mostly found in upper Arkansas and lower Missouri. No matter... I guess southern is what the filmmakers want, and Louisiana is still southern to them. Besides, except for a single character, this film could take place practically anywhere that a bull shark could access via a river system, in the north, south, east, or west. The region really doesn't matter at all, but that title might bring people to watch it.

Even though her character's name is Dawn,
I steadfastly refuse to make a joke about
being "up at the crack of" her...
And those bull sharks I just mentioned... Ozark Sharks is another film in the currently popular bull shark trend in shark films. I reviewed Shark Lake not too long ago, and Dam Sharks was the second film premiered during this year's Sharknado Week. It seems the little buggers are swimming all around America's river system, and this time, they have sneaked their way upriver to a small resort in the Ozark Mountains, where they are really pissed off about something that will go pretty much unresolved during the course of the film. Regardless, the bulls start killing people at a pretty reckless pace, starting with a quartet of young adults out for a flirtatious good time in the shallow water of the river. One girl, who actually gets a name – Dawn – because she will figure into the plot later, sees a shark fin in the water to her surprise, but it disappears so quickly, she can't believe what she saw. She steps forward and then turns to talk to the other girl, but her friend is gone. She turns back to the guy she is with, and he is thrashing in the water and then disappears. The fourth member of their party, the other guy, had gone back to shore for something, but runs back when he realizes there is trouble. He, too, is taken under, and Dawn swims across the river, and clambers up onto an overhanding tree that has fallen over the river.

Not that I ever approve of the use of either, what these
ladies need here is a combined "selfie shark stick"...
Later, two other girls are sunbathing on floating chairs. The hotter of the two girls (played by Becky Andrews, who had much more screen time as Bridgette in Zombie Shark, by the same director a year earlier) takes a selfie of the pair. As they check out the resulting photo, they are both so vain that they fail to notice the very clear shark fin that has photobombed them in the background. (It's actually the first solid joke in the film, and there a few of them; Ozark Sharks has a decent sense of humor about itself.) Soon enough, the second girl has been eaten, leaving just a bloody, shredded rubber chair floating on the water. The first girl has enough sense to start paddling away but it is already too late for her.

When the family arrives at the resort, they have also brought the family pet: the kids' grandma, a sweet but sly old lady. Each member of the family has to deal with meeting the seemingly stubborn bait and rental shop owner named Jones (Thomas Francis Murphy), but there is far more to this character than meets the eye. When the shark attacks start, we learn that Jones not only has, completely coincidentally, a harpoon gun hard-mounted to the back of his pickup truck, but is a full-on survivalist who has a workshop which is not only stocked with nearly every known weapon on the market – black or otherwise – but is fond of creating his own variations on those weapons, such as a crossbow rifle that shoots weaponized deer antlers.

You thought the grandma in Dante's Peak had it bad...
Shortly after Molly's no-account doofus of a boyfriend, Curtis (Ross Britz), arrives, Grandma meets her fate in a humorous attack where a bull shark leaps out of the water and latches onto the front half of her body with its mouth, while Molly, who up to this point has been reading Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway endlessly, watches helplessly from the shore. When she runs and gets Harrison, he doesn't believe her and wades across the river to retrieve his Grandma's hat. The shark attacks, and Harrison is only saved at the last minute by a shot from Jones' rifle. Jones, like many such surprising heroes in these films, comes ready with quips for all occasions: "Not a good day to go skinny-dipping." Realizing that something strange is going on in the water around the resort, the romantically unlucky Harrison remembers that his parents went out canoeing as soon as they arrived and he heads downriver to find them. Eventually, Harrison will run into and clumsily rescue the still stranded and starving Dawn from her perch on the fallen tree, and bring her back to the resort and into the family's new vacation plan: fighting bull sharks.

"Alright, I'm gonna count to two and three-quarters..."
The remaining hour of Ozark Sharks is a gradually escalating battle against sharks that seem to get smarter, bolder, and even more athletic as the film progresses. Mom and dad will be found, and despite a certain physical setback or two (that I can count on three fingers; just don't look to the right of this paragraph), they will join and prove surprisingly resourceful in the fight against the finny fiends. Curtis will be frustrated endlessly at Jones' constant refusal at giving him anything more in the weapons department to use against the sharks than a hand grenade, even though the arsenal in the workshop at Jones' house is formidable across the board, to say the least. 

For what is supposed to be a popular working resort, we get very little sense that anybody is visiting the area, apart from the six people attacked at the beginning of the film. There is a big fireworks festival in the final third of the film, but a lot of the people there are supposed to be townies, and even that party seems to have about twenty people at it. So where are the other tourists at the resort? Once again, minuscule budgets can destroy the integrity of a film's atmosphere in many ways, but the careful staging of well-timed extras can help avoid the feeling of a too-empty scene or three. Buy a few lunches, people. It's not that expensive.

What Ozark Sharks has going for it, though, is humor and a game cast. Healthy doses of both. The nice interplay between the cast playing the family is established early on with some scenes at their home before the trip, and it was nice that we didn't get the usual "bickering while on the road trip" stuff we often get in the horror films when people who don't actually like each other at all are forced to spend time together. While many of the actors have seen time in multiple variations within the shark and monster film genre in recent years, I found it interesting to note that at least of the actors appeared in separate episodes within the original season of True Detective (itself filmed mostly in Louisiana). One actress (Cayouette) has also worked twice with Tarantino, and most have a wide variety of credits on their resumes, in addition to getting regular work in Syfy films. Gotta make some spending dough, people; it's called being a working actor. You do what you gotta do.

I particularly enjoyed a scene in the workshop when they are coming up with weapons to use and Curtis notices a bear trap, but realizes that they can't use it because it says "bear" on it. Jones grabs a piece of duct tape, spreads it on the trap, and then uses a Sharpie to write "shark" on it. The film also gets in on the Shark Film Drinking Game by coming up with a variation on a famous line from Jaws. When Jones kills one bull shark in the river, and then they suddenly count six more sharks swimming past them, he mutters, "We're gonna need a BIGGER EVERYTHING!" Which is probably about as big as that line is going to ever get ultimately. There is also the most inventive use of a wood chipper since Fargo hit theatres, which has a payoff that I was not expecting in the least. 

But Jaws is not the only famous shark film referenced. I have noticed recently that a new trend has started to occur in shark films: variations on the Samuel L. Jackson death from Deep Blue Sea. You know the one: the scene in the shark lab where he talks and talks and talks, doing his patented, inspirational "not gonna take it," "had it up to here" patter, where he says directly "Enough!! We're not gonna fight anymore! We're gonna pull together and seal off this pooooooolll---!!!" and then a giant, mutated shark jumps up, grabs him, and chomps him down its gullet. It's a super famous scene, easily one of the most famous scenes ever in a shark movie, and arguably the biggest reason Deep Blue Sea is remembered today. Ozark Sharks has a smaller, more quiet variant on it involving one of its characters, which plays in a very similar way for the viewer. Which character? I won't say. But I did need to make mention of it, because I have already seen it happen in another film recently (not necessarily a shark film) and I am fairly certain the trend is going to become a more common occurrence in years to come. The scene here doesn't work on the same level because none of the actors in Ozark Sharks are famous on any measurable level except perhaps a local one. The success of the Jackson scene is only because it happens to the universally beloved Sam Jackson and also because it happens so unexpectedly early in that film, in the same way that Hitchcock made a terrible thing happen to Miss Janet Leigh so quickly in Psycho.

Yeah, Ozark Sharks is completely ridiculous. All of these films are ridiculous. You know what shark film isn't ridiculous? A shark film where a shark swims around, eats some fish, perhaps a sea lion or seal, maybe somebody overreacts because a shark fin is in the water, and then everyone goes home because, hey, sharks live in the water, and that's the way life is. But that's a pretty fucking, boring movie. Or at least, it's a very basic, no frills documentary. 

And you can't show that movie on the Syfy Channel. You need to have a film with crazy ass bull sharks that have swum upriver to the Ozark Mountains that start chomping on a family just because SHARKS. And then you need an enraged teenager to start picking up oversized weaponry and going hog wild on the sharks because that's what teenagers do when their grandmothers are eaten headfirst and other sad stuff happens that I can't give away without spoiling the film for you even though I often spoil stuff about films in other reviews but I am being nice this time.

See? You can sell that movie. And somebody did. It's called Ozark Sharks. It's not good, but it's a little funny, some of it intentionally. And it has sharks. And Thomas Francis Murphy. He's good in it.


Thursday, August 04, 2016

Planet of the Sharks (2016)

Planet of the Sharks (2016)
Dir.: Mark Atkins
TC4P Rating: 4/9
Species: mutated great white with amplified telepathic abilities as Alpha leader of all sharks in the film; various non-mutated species of sharks, specifically hammerheads and bulls can be spotted.

The poster immediately to the right of this text speaks heavily of two influences. The first obvious influence, from even the swiftest sideways glance, is Jaws, which copies (though in a far more gruesome manner) the original film's image of the gaping maw of a monstrous shark rising up from the deep to swallow humanity whole. From the second influence – the title of the film itself, Planet of the Sharks – one can only surmise that someone has finally taken the logical leap in upping the renewed interest in the popular Planet of the Apes franchise, flooded the entire planet, and simply replaced the original concept's primates with sharks. I figured that such a thing might happen at some point along the way on our journey to total shark film awareness, and the fact that Planet of the Sharks hadn't already occurred in some form – at least, a good deal before we got to the idea of tornadoes chockfull of sharks – has been surprising to me in some small measure.

The first signifier that this film has
"Planet of the" in the title...
Sure enough, early on in Planet of the Sharks – the fourth premiere film of the 2016 Sharknado event on the Syfy Channel last week – a roving camera sweeps through the ocean depths to show us that water levels have risen to record levels to destroy most of what mankind has spent millennia building. On its trek through the murky waters of what will turn out to be the Atlantic coast of North America, we will get a clear reference to the old Apes franchise. Outside of talking gorillas wearing armor on horseback, it is easily the most identifiable signifier of that franchise: the Statue of Liberty, which, in the case of the first Apes film in 1968, we saw with only its torch-bearing hand and head protruding from the sand in which it found itself buried since apes took over the earth and the human world fell into disrepair. In Planet of the Sharks, when we first see the famous statue, we see the whole of it surrounded by water, and there is no loincloth-clad Charlton Heston to scream his head off about those "damn, dirty apes!" The camera merely drifts past the French-bestowed American icon of freedom, carrying on emotionlessly forward so we may view the remainder of the too slow credits while we see the rest of our world submerged beneath the waves.

And what we find in the shark-heavy future of this film is less Planet of the Apes than it is Waterworld, a film itself obviously heavily influenced by George Miller's Mad Max then-trilogy (with a little bit of Namor/Aquaman thrown into the mix). But there is no super-powered fish-man in the lead role here, though they do try to give us a variant on good ol' Max in the body of one Dillon Barrick, the captain of the Osprey. However, while he does have a noticeable accent, Barrick is not an Aussie like Max, but is embodied by the South African actor Brandon Auret, who is known in a cinematic sense mainly from small roles in all three of Neil Blomkamp's feature films (District 9, Elysium, and Chappie, in order of both chronological release and descending excellence). Barrick is appropriately scruffy and gruff, and barks orders somewhat unintelligibly when necessary. The problem with his character in Planet of the Sharks is that Barrick is neither mad like Max, nor is he overly heroic, merely content with being the right guy at the wrong place, but lets others handle a lot of the action most of the time. Or when he tries to be heroic, others – especially pesky, know-it-all scientist types – insist on doing it their way.

Planet of the Sharks has a focus problem. In fact, it has several focus problems. It wants to give us a hero, but splits its heroics up between too wide a cast of people. It wants us to think other characters are really important to its story, but they really are just extra baggage and/or fodder for the film's villains. It wants to tell to tell that hundreds of people live in particular places but never come close to convincing us that more than a handful do. It wants to take on an epic adventure the size of an entire planet, but only has the budget to center on a small area in the middle of an ocean. But, its most major problem is in its very premise. It wants to be Planet of the Apes, only with sharks. It wants to be Waterworld, only with sharks. It wants to be Max Max 2: The Road Warrior, only with sharks. But Planet of the Sharks fails itself because it really doesn't deliver on the one area that its title promises: sharks.

Good ol' Sparklenose!
Oh, Planet of the Sharks has a shark, all right. Boy, does it ever have a shark. And it's a whopper. An abnormally large alpha shark of the great white species that I shall refer to as "Sparklenose" for the duration of this review. You see, it's not enough that in Planet of the Sharks that the icecaps have fully melted, the world continues to heat up more and more, and that 95% of the earth is now covered in ocean water. It's not enough that mankind (in a scenario that I rather applaud) has been reduced to living on makeshift raft homes in the middle of the sea, huddled together for safety against nature. (Really, it's what we deserve as a species...) No, somehow, one particular shark, the aforementioned Sparklenose, has mutated so that her ampullae of Lorenzini – the electroreceptors found on the nose areas of sharks which themselves are already a form of shark "superpower" – have been heightened so that they glow openly and allow Sparklenose the ability to basically control the thoughts and actions of scores of other sharks. And with plankton no longer developing in the oceans, thereby depleting the life forms dependent on it as a food source, the sharks have turned to dry land, or replications of said area, to find a replacement. And so Sparklenose has turned to hunting humans with an army of fellow sharks at her beck and call.

Bea... what is she good for?
Absolutely nothin'...
Early on, we are given other Mad Max calling cards. We are given a replacement for the Feral Kid from The Road Warrior, a water-town orphan named Bea, in a mostly mute, big-eyed performance. There is a feeling for much of the film, as there is with a couple of other characters – including Barrick – that maybe there is something important for Bea to do coming up in the battle against the sharks. Maybe she plays a big role in a prophecy or has a certain perception others don't that lead them to victory ultimately. But Bea, like other raft people in the film, is just another raft person, it turns out, and is nothing special to the film. Bea's role is meaningless, apart from showing how kind Barrick is in the opening scenes, and how similarly thoughtful another character is later on in the film. We also get a chopper pilot who is dressed similarly to the gyro pilots played by Bruce Spence in the second and third films in the Mad Max films (the characters Spence plays in both films are actually not meant to be the same pilot, just similar characters).

"I weeellll keeellll him!!!"
Another character that could have walked out of a Max film that turns out to be a red herring very early on is Joanne D'Amato, the Creole-sputtering (I guess?) leader of a water-town named Salvation, which supposedly has 400 citizens though it looks like it was built to hold 37. Arguably the most annoying character to ever appear in a Syfy original premiere shark film, D'Amato is played by Angie Teodora Dick, whose real-life last name belies her character's attitude in this film. As an actress, Dick is truly chewing scenery far above her pay grade. Twenty seconds into her performance, I was ready for Dick to be eaten by a shark, and the fact that I actually had to wait a few minutes for this to happen means that the producers owe me some of their royalties. There is a sense early in her performance that Dick's role will actually turn out to be much bigger in the end, due to a couple of closeups that are held too long. Whether these were meant to mislead intentionally on the part of the director is hard to say, because it is hard to detect much of a deft hand at anything in the anywhere else in the narrative. But it does seem briefly like she is going to go on to be a big Dennis Hopper villain à la Waterworld, and I thought that I was going to have to put up with her babbling mouth full of nonsensical gibberish for the entire running time. 

Count yourself lucky, shark! She could
have acted you to death...
Lucky for me, this is a shark film. D'Amato and her tribal goons take a defensive stand against the sharks in which they beat the docks with their weapons to draw the sharks to them and then attack the finned invaders with everything they have, stabbing and shooting anything that moves in the water. It almost looks like a real word 1970s snapshot of humanity on the ocean's waters post-Jaws, desperate to destroy anything that looked like a shark in even the slightest way. Dick, playing the head of this slice-and-dice-fest as all outer rage monster with no inner sense onscreen at all, does what she did in her previous scenes: goes hog wild. As D'Amato, she continues to grunt and growl and sneer her way through her dialogue, and when her character savagely spears a good-sized bull shark, thanks to awkward computer graphics, she is able to lift it out of the water easily and up into the air. Soon enough, after the film's good guy scientists witness the rampant carnage disapprovingly, D'Amato will get a little too full of herself – as is to be expected of her type –  and decide to take on even bigger prey, which will prove her undoing... thankfully. I could not take much more of her. Please don't work again.

Oh, snap!
Shortly after D'Amato is dispatched, Barrick gets his last true heroic moment in the film when he has to take on one of the goons from the town who is attempting to steal the Osprey by driving off with it during the melee with the sharks. Barrick and the goon get into one of those traditional big guy vs. big guy brawls that often end up in land-based films with one guy holding the other guy over some sort of precipice or a tank full of boiling whatever. In the case of Planet of the Sharks, we have the ever-present threat of leaping, monster fish with giant, pointy teeth, so perhaps the ante is upped even further during this knock-down, drag-out fight. The goon gets the upper hand and has Barrick's oily haired head hanging over the port side of the craft, but in a magnificent display of expert timing, Barrick manages to flip places with the goon at the last second so that the bad guy's head is neatly snipped off by the approaching jaws of a breaching great white as it jolts through the air next to the boat. This, of course, means that Barrick had to anticipate that a shark was definitely going to be jumping out of the water to eat someone's head, even though he had not actually witnessed such a thing exactly thus far in the movie. Watching the clip in slow motion (see the collage to the right of this paragraph), there is hardly any definition to the shark or its actions; just a shot of the actor's heads at the beginning, the barest sense of shape and motion in between to give the impression of a flying shark removing something, and some quick arterial spray at the end to sell the illusion.

Dr. Caroline Munro (Christia Visser), scientist/welder.
As I mentioned briefly, the actual good guys in this story – and its true focus – are a small group of scientists at an ocean-bound facility called Vestron, who are, among other projects, trying to shoot a rocket into the atmosphere to reverse the warming trend to eventually allow the earth to become oxygen-rich again and make the ocean levels lower to create land. Perhaps because it requires less animation and special effects, far more of the movie is focused on the lab-bound activities of the scientists than on the sharks, which is fine if you aren't intent on doing a decent job with effects in the first place. The two main doctors here are Dr. Shayne Nichols (played by Stephanie Beran, but who seems to play second fiddle to her tanktop at times) and Dr. Roy Shaw (Lindsay Sullivan). We met the Joanne D'Amato character earlier; here too is evidence that director/co-director Mark Atkins seems to be having some fun with character names in dropping references to either directors (Italian sleaze-master Joe D'Amato) or combined actor names from Jaws itself (Roy Scheider and Robert Shaw). Item #3 in the evidence drawer is the introduction of another actor-named scientist in the film, Dr. Caroline Munro, played by the most adorable actress to wear a welding mask since Jewel Staite on Firefly, Christia Visser. Unfortunately, Munro's love interest is proof that the future of Planet of the Sharks may be this close to being called Planet of the Hipsters: a bowtie-clad, manpurse-wearing, spiral earring-bedecked, bearded weirdo (John B. Swart), who happens to have a Japanese name (though he is clearly not Japanese) and carries a samurai sword. (Yes, he will use it later.) [For the record, director Atkins made the first John Carter film to make it onto video – Princess of Mars – the one with Trump boytoy Antonio Sabato, Jr. as John Carter and Traci Lords as Dejah Thoris. And, yes, this film exists, and it is painful to behold...]

"Hey! Are we all great whites in this shot?"
Though I got down severely on Angie Teodora Dick's aggressively awful acting earlier, I should add that the remainder of the performances in this film are pretty squarely solid for the most part, especially when the scientist characters are given mostly technobabble to spit back out to the cameras and have to sound like crazy plan after crazy plan might actually work to save the earth instantly. Or when they have to say lines like "I don't know what your problem is with me, but I suggest that you deep-six it" or "She's controlling an army of sharks!" None of the actors are award-worthy, mind you, but they are solid enough to get their jobs done efficiently and believably, which is what you want in a film involving killer sharks taking over the entire world and treating people like livestock.

Just hammers in this shot...
Where the film is really disappointing is in its handing out of its sharky treats. Apart from good ol' Sparklenose, who gets the largest proportion of screen time fish-wise, there is a dearth of definition in the shark scenes. We can clearly make out the outlines of hammerheads in a couple of underwater scenes; I am guessing that hammers were chosen because their profiles are so distinctive as to not be mistaken. Hammerheads too figure into the attack scene in Salvation, as does a bull shark that is clearly speared by D'Amato. But in a world which is run by sharks, where are the tigers, makos, whitetips, blues, and other large sharks? Why are we seeing so few shark species in this film? "Ah, we got three types... we're good!" seems to be the mantra here. In fairness, there are probably others that are intended somewhere in the film; it is likely the graphics just aren't good enough to be able to tell them apart from the other sharks. But mostly the film is content just being Sparklenose's show, which isn't Planet of the Sharks at all. It's really Planet of A Shark... and a Few Extra Sharks on the Side.

Probably not something you want
to see on your Pokemon Go! app...
But Planet of A Shark... and a Few Extra Sharks on the Side really suffers from its low budget in other areas (which really can't be avoided in such productions, so it feels mean to even mention it sometimes). I said earlier that one town was said to have four hundred citizens but seemed like it couldn't hold that many by its design, and so it goes that no scene ever felt like more than fifteen to twenty people actually populate any given area of this world. If the filmmakers were actively trying to sell the paucity of humans on the planet, they did a good job just by natural lack of budget alone. And yet, the sets aren't too bad, even the ones that are solely designed by computer, and the film has a consistent look and feel. It's really only when the shark world attempts to match up with the real world that the film runs into trouble in a design sense.

Man, sharks are getting so good at this breaching
thing. Just like people in the Olympics...
Now, even stupid science fiction, well-filmed, can be fun science fiction. (And likewise, smart science-fiction can be deadly dull on the big or small screen if improperly handled.) A scenario may be ridiculous to the extreme, and depend on a lot of leaps of faith, but in the hands of a master craftsman, or even just an agile humbug of a showman, the results could turn out to be a legitimately good time. Lacking either one, Planet of A Shark... and a Few Extra Sharks on the Side is left to its own devices and comes up fairly short. Still, the film is not without its pleasures. In order to enjoy this film, you will have to believe that a normal great white shark (albeit one with heightened electro-sensory organs) can leap far higher into the air than usual to take out a helicopter, that a shark can telepathically will another shark to take an arrow to the heart for her, that the best way to get out of a fight is to have a shark bite a guy's head off at the last second, and that parasailing in and out of anything is the most efficient way to escape a bomb blast radius. You also get to watch a truly horrid actress meet her fate. And a cute rocket scientist in a shirt tied to her midriff welds for fourteen seconds. If you are ready to believe in any of this, you can enjoy Planet of A Shark... and a Few Extra Sharks on the Side.

Besides, there were far dumber films shown during Sharknado Week, including ones with Sharknado right in the title. So, Planet of A Shark... and a Few Extra Sharks on the Side, has that going for it as well...

A little Christia Visser for the trip home...