Thursday, August 14, 2014

Deep Blue Sea (1999)

One of the more blistering criticisms of Deep Blue Sea is it’s a lame Jaws knock off.  But critics leveling this complaint are off the mark.  This film has more in common with Alien (Ridley Scott’s version of It! The Terror from Beyond Space and Planet of the Vampires) than Spielberg’s classic tale.

Okay, before you come to the defense of Alien, I suggest you watch the two films I mentioned.  Scott’s film is great, with astounding visuals from H. R. Giger, a great cast and some solid scary moments.  But the plot and several shots are heavily “borrowed” from these earlier films, particularly Bava’s Planet of the Vampires.  Not just the giant skeleton, but early shots of some of the space ships as well.  It’s a great movie, but not the original masterwork some claim it to be. 

I bring up this point not to call Renny Harlin’s monster shark film a rip off of Alien, but point out it's similar heritage.  Replace outer space inner space, insert a crew of working class stiffs battling the monsters released upon them by an authority figure over which they have no control and you've got another great variation on the haunted house tale.  Only this tale takes place in the deep blue sea, not the black vacuum of space.

So, with that settled (I hope), let’s get on to the review.

The film opens as a giant shark attacks a group of kids boating on the open sea.  Lucky for them, this fish is a test subject at the Aquatica research lab, an ocean scientific facility housing giant Mako sharks, one of which escaped from its pen.  Fortunate for the kids, shark wrangler Carter Blake (Thomas Jane) keeps them from becoming a late night snack.

Of course, the corporation backing Aquatica is concerned about the bad press from the shark’s escape, so they call in team leader Dr. Susan McAlester (Saffron Burrows) ashore to announce they are cutting funding for the project.  But Dr. McAlester’s claim that her research will cure Alzheimer’s disease sends corporate executive Russell Franklin (Samuel L. Jackson) to Aquatica to witness this medical breakthrough.

As one might expect, in order to harvest enough protein, the test sharks’ brain mass has been increased through nefarious means.  And, thanks to a series of unforeseen events, the sharks are in a position to sink Aquatica and return to the deep, blue sea.

And, as expect, some actress strips to her bra and panties along the way.
But at least this moment makes a bit of sense, more than can be said
for films like Star Trek Into Darkness.

That’s enough plot, as the movie doesn’t have much of one.  Let’s get to the meat of the matter, as to whether this film is worth your time or not.  Again, get Jaws out of your mind.  This movie is a mash-up of Alien, Frankenstein and a submerged haunted house fun ride, not a surface bound action film.

Along with the Jaws analogy, another criticism leveled at this film is why the holding pen for these sharks are on the open ocean, rather than in the middle of the desert.  Well, a landlocked tank drains the movie of any suspense.  The film would be over pretty quick if all the group had to do was exit into some isolate site in Arizona.  

But, if you’ve ever tried to maintain a saltwater aquarium, imagine trying to keep one large enough for three giant sharks to roam.  The site would have to be located somewhere near the ocean, in order to keep the fish alive.  And, as most large sharks (such as the great white, which is a relative to the mako) are harder to keep alive in an aquarium, maybe an open water pen might be a better location.  Sure, that’s not spelled out in the film, but it doesn’t need to be, as the film would not make for a great thrill ride any other way. 

Okay, the next paragraph contains mild spoilers.  You are warned.

The film also runs into the stumbling block of increase intellectual capacity means increased intelligence.  Somehow, as the shark’s brain mass increases, so does their ability to understand doors and hydrodynamics.  Even Carter admits, during the final act, the sharks have herded them in order to flood Aquatica and lower the fences in their pens, allowing them to escape into the ocean. 

Whether the shark is smart of stupid, I think she's still in trouble.

If you have a problem with this plot point, I hope you are not a fan of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, as that film makes the same mistake.  Sure, Caesar learned a lot from his exposure to the Alzheimer drug, but that was over time.  Just throwing canisters of monkey-smartening gas into the ape pens does not grant the rest of the apes his knowledge and learned experience. 

But this misstep works better in Deep Blue Sea, as the script introduces the idea early in the film.  Several scenes before the sharks are able to swim amok have characters commenting that the fish are not behaving normally.  That, as well as the likeable characters and rapid pace of the movie, keeps the audience in a state of disbelief, than acceptance once Carter figures it out.  Unlike Rise, where the ending relies on the other apes becoming super smart within a few scenes, Deep Blue Sea lets the idea simmer before bringing it to a boil.

The performances are solid, as the script gives the cast (including LL Cool J, Stellan Skarsgard, Jacqueline McKenzie and Michael Rapaport) enough to infuse their stereotypical characters with more life than most horror films.  As expect, Harlin delivers on the action sequences and the sets are amazing, especially when flooded.  And it appears some of the actors did their own stunt work at times, or their stunt doubles looked really good.  Either way, it makes the scenes much more believable.  

As for the sharks, the film mixes CGI and anamatronic creations with great success.  The shark attacks are vicious, bloody and quite believable.  And the film’s reliance on practical effects as much as possible keeps the film more grounded in reality than most CGI dependent blockbusters in the cinema today.

I told you, no smoking in the lab!

It’s not a perfect film, to be sure, but Deep Blue Sea is a fun little monster flick that deserves more credit than it has received by fans and critics.  Sure, it’s no Jaws, but it’s not trying to be.  It’s a submerged haunted house movie, where the ghosts have fins and sharp, pointy teeth.  And if you’re willing to view it that way, it’s a lot of fun.

Oh crap.  It's behind me, isn't it?

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Shark Attack 3: Megalodon (2002)

One can only imagine how Steve Alten felt when Shark Attack 3: Megalodon hit video shelves.  In 1996, Disney purchased the film rights for his first novel, Meg, before it was published, sparking a bidding war for the book.  His novel about a Carcharodon megalodon (a prehistoric predecessor of the great white shark that could reach up to 60 feet in length) brought up from a deep-water trench, went on to became a best seller, as did the sequel.

Oh yeah, don't tell me you won't pay to see that on the big screen in 3D.

Yet the film version languished in development hell for years.  Even after the film rights were picked up by New Line Cinema in 2005, with director Jan de Bon (Speed) attached to the project, the film never made it past the planning stages, as the expected budget would have been over $150 million in order to do the novel justice.

To be fair, Alten’s novel isn’t great.  It’s predicable, full of stock characters and not particularly engaging during the non-shark bits.  But the book does have some great cinematic moments, which would have outshined this dull, lifeless rip off had even a few scence made the transition from Alten’s book to the screen.

Shark Attack 3 deals with a submerged telecommunication line attracting a baby megalodon up from the Challenger Deep Trench, threatening the tourists at a Mexican resort.  Resort lifeguard Ben Carpenter (John Barrowman from Doctor Who, Torchwood and Arrow) tries to identify the fish from a tooth he dug out of the telecommunication line.  But, as most Internet sites deal with the identification of living sharks, he can only post a picture online and hope for a reply. 

Ben's photo draws the attention of Cataline “Cat” Stone (Jenny McShane from Grimm), a paleontologist who poses as a marine biologist to gain Ben’s help and capture footage of the big fish.  As expected, shark mayhem ensues until Ben, Cat and her crew kill the small megalodon.  Unfortunately, a full size one has made the trip up from the trench and threatens to turn the coast into its personal feeding ground.

Yep, the first thing it does is swallow a freaking boat!

Throw into the mix a sleazy resort owner, a CEO covering up the fact that his cable is drawing the megalodons to the surface, and an ex-Navy sailor with access to a two-man submersible (and a torpedo!) looking for revenge, and you have the ingredients for a fun slice of cheesy goodness.  But the filmmakers dropped the ball and delivered one of the most boring giant shark movies ever made.

Writers Scott Devine and William Hooke took the basics from Alten’s novel (megalodon rises from the trench and has a final confrontation with a minisub), cribbed scenes from other, better shark movies (everything from Jaws to Deep Blue Sea gets a nod), then populated their script with sleazy people in power, stupid victims and stereotypical “bro” behavior from most of the male cast.  Even worse, people pull out weapons, ranging from a shotgun to grenades (and that freaking torpedo), out off duffle bags and garages just to move the plot along. 

I can’t believe no one thought the last two weapons might seem a bit out of place, but lousy writing is only part of the problem.  Director David Worth seems more concern with getting the film in the can, rather than simple things like continuity.  Ben takes a photo of the small megalodon’s tooth, yet his fingers are absent when the picture is uploaded on his computer.  As Ben and Cat climb a rope ladder to escape the full sized shark, they trade positions with surprising ease.  And let’s not get into the ever-changing size of the adult megalodon, which fluctuates with every morsel it swallows.

Not to mention this incredible moment of green screen insanity.

Even worse, the film is devoid of any suspense or tension.  Sure, we know who’s going to live, and which characters will end up as shark snacks, only because it’s rather obvious in a B-movie.  Yet, when the smaller shark attacks Ben and Cat, even though the audience knows they won’t die, the scene lacks any sense of danger.  It plays out too long, making the shark seem ineffectual, clumsy and ripe for extinction. 

Of course, one can’t discuss Shark Attack 3 without mentioning the most awkward pickup line ever uttered on film.  Yeah, that moment when Ben suggests to Cat that, rather than getting some sleep before taking on the 40 foot shark, they go to her place and he...

Look, I’m not going to write it out, but his suggestion involves a crude offer to provide oral sex.  And though the line works in the movie, it would more likely get you a swift knee to the crotch (and a night in jail) rather than sexy time in the shower in real life.  It's so misplaced, you wonder what the screenwriters were thinking.  

Seriously, don't try this line at home.
Or outside a bar.
Look, just never utter it to a woman.

But you can’t blame them for this clunker.  According to interviews on Friday Night with Jonathan Ross (2006) and Al Murray’s Happy Hour (2007), Barrowman admits to adlibbed the line to make McShane laugh (to no one’s surprise, it didn’t work).  But director Worth thought the line was funny and left it in the final cut.  I only bring this up because nothing else better summarizes how this train wreck of a film came about than the story of a raunchy adlib that was added to the film, rather than a blooper reel (or better yet, dropped in the cutting room trash can).

About the only good thing in the film is the use of real shark footage for the attacks.  It doesn’t always work, as the shark is obviously carrying off a bleeding seal carcass after attacking a human, but it’s better than the CGI shark effects used during the final act.  And when the full sized megalodon appears on screen for the first time, it’s a bit jarring.  Sure, as mentioned above, the shark’s size varies according to the shot, but watching a real shark gulp down a sleazy character is quite satisfying.

 Yeah, keep complaining about how the real shark footage never maintains a
constant scale while you feast your eyes on this CGI abomination.  

But you’ll find most of those moments on YouTube, as well as the previously mentioned pickup line.  And that might be the best way to watch Shark Attack 3, as a disjointed series of shark attacks bypassing the cardboard characters, horrid dialog and silly plot conveniences. 

But, should you decide to brave this one in its entirety, first read Meg.  You’ll find the novel a simple, pulpy read with several of same problems I mentioned in this movie. But just thinking about the first pages of the novel, as a megalondon takes out a T-Rex during a prehistoric prologue, will make you feel the same frustration Alten must feel in knowing this abomination was filmed before his giant shark tale.  


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Super Shark (2011)

Another entry in the giant shark movie genre, Fred Olen Ray’s Super Shark is a pleasant enough time waster.  The film moves at a pretty brisk pace, with attacks by the giant shark coming every ten minutes or so, and the film manages to acknowledge how silly the concept is while not overwhelming the script with too much camp.  It's a deft balancing act that the film pulls off, being really stupid while admitting it without insulting the audience's intelligence, and Ray manages to pull it off.

As expected, the plot isn’t important.  You’ve got an offshore oil rig using toxic chemicals to break through a layer of rock, which releases a giant, prehistoric shark that can walk on land (yep, you read that right) and is impervious to bullets.  After the shark sinks the platform, a scientist for the Oceanic Investigation Bureau (Sarah Lieving) hires a boat captain (Tim Abell) to take her near the site.  Finding the toxic sludge in the water, she starts question the company’s CEO (John Schneider of The Dukes of Hazzard). 

Oh yeah, that's how ALL marine biologists look.

Of course, the company has to hide its involvement in the rig’s collapse, the shark keeps gobbling down beach goers, a bunch of ladies credited as “Bikini Girl” stroll through the film, and Jimmie J.J. Walker gets to ham things up as local radio DJ, Dynamite Stevens.

Fortunately, the humor in the script tends to be a bit better than Walker’s character name (you remember Good Times, right?  No?  Oh, I’m so old.).  The script pulls out the standard “we can’t close the beach” troupe by having a city official so up out of nowhere before the final confrontation to mention the troops have to take the Super Shark down before the big event next week.  And he’s gone after that. 

The film also pokes fun at one character’s survival during the final minutes, and the script avoids any political message until the final scene.  And that should have been eliminated, as the scene, and political reference used, just doesn’t work.  I suspect the filmmakers wanted to use every scene with Schneider and weren’t about to leave anything on the cutting room floor.  But, as the last scene of the film, it might sour your opinion of the film.  Ray should have ended on a high note, the unexpected survival moment.  It’s a funny moment, and a much better way to end the film.

It’s no use commenting on the special effects, as they are pretty bad.  The shark animation is horrible, while the walking tank looks like a second-rate AT-AT that manages to move despite a design that laughs in the face of practicality and physics. 

Please, someone explain to me how either of these CGI creations
can actually interact on a beach.  I dare you.  

But the movie has a few things going for it, aside from previously mentioned humorous moments.  For starts, it begins as the shark attacks the walking tank, cutting to the earlier events that unleash the fish.  It’s a smart move, as by showing the big moment early, Ray is hoping to catch the audience’s attention and make them wait for the payoff.

The acting is solid, for a movie of this type.  Lieving and Abell working well together as the leads and Schneider resists twirling his moustache (figuratively speaking) as he transitions from smooth talker to sleazy villain.

As for Walker, his main scene is to introduce the bikini contest, which pads out some running time with a bit of eye candy, as well as set up another shark attack.  And if you’re surprised that Ray included a gratuitous bikini contest into his film, well, his filmography contains 17 movies since the year 2000 that contain the word bikini. 

Wow, that photographer is so dedicated, he didn't hear
the giant freaking shark sneaking up on him.

Ray co-wrote, co-produced and directed this feature and, like much of his earlier work (I’m thinking Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers and Evil Toons here), it’s a fun watch for those days when the shadow over Portland turns to rain clouds.  His films won’t be winning any major awards anytime soon, but Ray delivers a fun little slice of cheese with enough action, humor and eye candy to distract you from a rough day at work.  And sometimes, that’s all you need from a movie.

Yep, sometimes bad CGI shark verses flamethrower makes one forget
how bad the rest of the day was.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Bait (2012)

Bait (filmed in 3D) is not a great shark film.  The story is predictable and full of stock characters, some of the acting is a bit rough and the CGI effects are marginal at best.  But it doesn’t mean the film isn’t a massive dose of B-movie goodness, the perfect film for a Saturday night viewing with friends and a steady supply of your favorite beverage.

The film opens as lifeguard Josh (Xavier Samuel) wakes up hungover in his car after his engagement party.  His best friend, and future brother-in-law, has a bit of fun with his condition, then offers to set a buoy to give Josh time to hang out with his fiancée, Tina (Sharni Vinson) on the beach.

Of course, things don’t go well, as a very hungry shark is in the water, and Tina’s brother is on the menu.  Despite Josh’s best efforts, the shark will have its meal.  And we all know what that means….

One cheesy 3D shark attack coming up!

Cut to a year later.  Josh working in a grocery store and of course, while stocking shelves with co-worker Naomi (Alice Parkinson), he sees Tina with her new boyfriend.  Josh’s manager, Jessup (Adrian Pang), notices Josh’s disheveled condition and sends him to the storeroom to clean up, adding to his humiliation. 

Jessup has bigger fish to fry, following the trail of shoplifter Jamie (Phoebe Tonkin), which leads to her boyfriend Ryan (Alex Russell), another store employee.  Ryan is fired, while Jamie is arrested by police officer Todd (Martin Sacks), AKA Dad.

Things get even more complicated when Doyle (Julian McMahon) attempts to rob the store.  Though Doyle is doing a fine job, his partner is a bit impatient and kills an employee in an attempt to speed things along.

Oh, and in the parking lot, Ryan comes across an obnoxious couple, complete with an annoying little dog, making out in their car.  So, with all the pieces in place, it’s time for this Australian coastal town to be hit by a tsunami.  Now trapped within the underground, now submerged, grocery store, the survivors must find a way out, while contending with rising water, dangling electrical lines, oh, and two great white sharks roaming the flooded aisles.

What follows is a fun, action filled film that manages to keep your attention, despite the ludicrous situation, stock characters and predictable deaths.  And much of your ability to suspend disbelief comes from the screenplay, by Russell Mulcahy and John Kim.  Once the tsunami hits, the action doesn’t let up, and the survivor’s solutions to the problems they face are quite unique.  Having to traverse the shark-patrolled aisles for the first time, they rig up a mobile shark cage out of shopping carts for one character to wear.  Impractical, perhaps, but it’s brilliant in the context of this movie.

Damn it, what aisle has can openers?

And the script keeps the expository scenes to a minimum.  Sure, Jamie gets to explain the riff between her and her dad, and Josh and Tina have their moment to explain what lead to their breakup.  But the script gives us a bit of a surprise, which is a nice touch and gives the final moments of the film some perspective. 

But, to the writing team's credit, the script doesn’t go too far with the personal revelations.  The best example of this is Doyle, whose motivations for the robbery are explained early on, in the most general terms, and never mentioned again.  The script has a moment when he’s talking to Naomi, and you expect to get the full story, but the scriptwriters are smart enough not to go in that direction.  We already know who he is, and his motivations, and the script wisely leaves things at that.

Another important factor in any shark movie are the attacks, and Bait contains some great clean up in aisle 8 moments.  Yeah, if you’ve watched any B-movies, you know who is going to die, but the script manages to delivers a few surprises along the way.

Except for this guy.  Even if the trailer hadn't spoiled it,
you knew it was coming.

The sets are amazing.  Production designer Nicholas McCallum and set decorator Suzy Whitefield did terrific work, delivering a believable environment for the film.  The submerged grocery store set looks amazing and quite realistic.  And one must credit director Kimble Rendall for populating the flooded store with more marine life than just a couple of sharks.  Though most of those fish are used for 3D effects (I saw the 2D version and it’s obvious when those moments occur), it adds to the believability of the environment. 

As for the acting, well, the leads just aren’t that engaging.  Samuel and Tonkin are fine, but I just didn’t care enough for their characters.  This might be the fault of the script, as I wanted more time between Doyle and Naomi, and Jaime, as he tries to apologize for the death of her coworker.  It was a nice, understated moment that made the pair more interesting than the disgraced lifeguard and his estranged fiancée.  Maybe the filmmakers could have spent a bit more time on character development, but that would take away from moments of shark mayhem, which is the real reason to watch this film.

But the filmmaker’s desire to pack in mounds of shark-induced carnage is a problem.  I can forgive the Syfy level CGI effects, but the filmmakers treat the sharks as little more than giant killing machines, suddenly craving only living human flesh after a couple of bites, and capable of ingesting multiple victims in a brief time.  I’m no marine biologist, but a twelve-foot shark should be getting a bit full after his second or third human meal.

But if you’re able to overlook the script’s willful ignorance to recent scientific knowledge about sharks, and more public awareness of their habits, you’ll have fun watching these “perfect killing machines” keep the film’s characters fighting for survival.

Oh, so many sharky...
Um, snarky remarks come to mind.

Bait might not be the best shark movie ever made, but it’s engaging, surprising at times, and worth spending a Saturday night watching.  All I can say is I’m happy to have this in my collection, as I’ll be revisiting it again at some point.   Which is more than you can say for the other recent editions to the shark swim amok genre.