Sunday, March 1, 2009

'Sharks in Venice'

One of the curses or delights of modern filmmaking, depending on your perspective, is the pervasiveness of "high concept." Put simply, it refers to an easily relatable movie plot, sometimes even one sentence. Alien becomes "Jaws in space." The Towering Inferno is just The Poseidon Adventure upright and in a building. Snakes on a Plane is awesome.

People who are totally hostile to high concept are mostly full of shit. Sometimes great ideas don't need more than a sentence. We accept that brevity is the soul of wit and love one-liners, so deploring brevity elsewhere seems a little convenient to snobbery and inconvenient to consistency, especially when so many great movies can be written off with the one-liner treatment. High concept movies aren't bad because high concept movies are a priori bad. (Alien is arguably the first high concept movie, and by any rubric, it rules.) Most are bad because they're mentally geared at the 12-year-old level, intended to be enjoyed by kids and adults with the same degree of pleasure, produced by trashmeisters like Jerry Bruckheimer, filmed by people who hate epileptics and written by screenwriters who Bruckheimer views as, like, really great with words and stuff — like a word doctor, or something.

Personally, I love three types of high concept movies. The good ones, like Alien. The bad ones, where they're so inadvertently bad in such a precise way that they skewer themselves (Armageddon). And the ones that set out to be bad and say, "Screw it." I loved the idea of Snakes on a Plane for this last reason. I watched it and enjoyed every schlocky moment, and I regretted not seeing it in the theater. More importantly, I think the producers should take Snakes on a Plane further. I want to see a sequel where one plane is under attack by snakes on board while also under attack by a kind of snakeplane or another plane captained by hyper-intelligent snakes. Also, there are even more boobs.

Enjoying this seems so perfectly natural to me that I wonder at how one would not enjoy it. Which, I suppose, goes a long way to explaining why I came across Sharks in Venice and started laughing and added it immediately to the Netflix queue while leaning over and saying to The Wife, "Wait, see... I don't know if you can wrap your head around this: there are sharks... in VENICE."

Now, before I go any further, I should assure you that Sharks in Venice is not a good movie. By no stretch of the imagination could it even be misconstrued as a good movie. There's not an eight-year-old out there who accidentally thinks this is a good movie (which occasionally happens with those Roger Moore-era Bonds where Bond has a hover-submarine or a balloon that can fight monkeys). But what's important to remember here is that, in spite of having an absolutely perfect high-concept title, it's not a high concept movie. "Sharks in Venice" is high concept. Sharks in Venice is a faint Indiana Jones/Da Vinci Code ripoff about mafia guys and time-traveling kings and crusader treasure — the last of which just happens to be patrolled by sharks.

They're not good sharks, nor are they so-bad-they're-good sharks. They just mostly suck. Here, I uploaded this to Youtube to show you:

Okay, so that first shark attack on the gondolier comes snaking out of the water sort of like, well, a snake. And then there's the crummy stock footage where you're not even sure if you're looking at stock footage of the right kinds of sharks. But instead of offering the schlocky scare like Deep Blue Sea or the ludcrous buzz-saw attack noises and shrunk-perspective boat swallowings of Shark Attack 3: Megalodon, this movie succeeds at mediocrity in the most mediocre way. I can't jump at that, and I can't really laugh at it. Sure, it sucks, but it doesn't suck hard enough.

Stephen Baldwin sucks hard enough, though. Stephen Baldwin boldly and thoroughly sucks. He sucks in his gut during this movie and sucks all the scenery like someone bet him he couldn't suck that hard. His body and talents have aged like vinegar, and he compensates for being in such a bad movie by being the baddest thing in it, as if through some misguided middle-American understanding that, "The black people say 'bad' but mean it like, 'good,' right? I'll be getting lots of 'cred' for this?"

This shouldn't surprise you if you've been following Baldwin's career for the past few years. Despite a distinguished resume that included being the lesser lead in Bio-Dome or being the worst actor in The Usual Suspects*, he's been reduced to writing terrible Christian autobiography, endorsing Sarah Palin and showing up on FOX News after apparently being told his appearances there are a real-world performance art where his older brother Alec plays all the good characteristics of the Compson family in The Sound and the Fury, while he plays the Republican retarded man-child Benji.

* — Think about this: everyone else in that movie is either an Oscar winner (Kevin Spacey, Benicio del Toro), Oscar nominated (Chazz Palmintieri), a guy you can't believe hasn't been nominated for one yet (Gabriel Byrne), a distinguished English character actor (Pete Postlethwaite), a career quality "that guy" (Giancarlo Esposito, Dan Hedaya) or virtually a nobody who is still better than Stephen Baldwin (the guy who plays Redfoot who you also know better for being Zed, the dude who sodomized Marcellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction). The only person none of those applies to is Kevin Pollack, a stand-up comedian who still totally outclasses Baldwin in the movie and made a decent blue-collar dad in She's All That. I'm not really sure where I was going with this other than to wonder out loud how the fuck Stephen Baldwin ever got top billing over any of these guys — or anyone, ever.

Hell, Stephen Baldwin isn't the best washed-up Baldwin struggling to find work. Daniel Baldwin did great stuff on Homicide: Life on the Street and could probably still dance emotional and verbal circles around Steve-o while high on cocaine, which apparently he often is when he's not text-propositioning reality show contestants.

Again, though, Baldwin's comprehensive capacity to suck shouldn't surprise you. What's surprising is the way he almost got out of shape for sucking, like an anti-De Niro. It's not just a talent thing. He obviously has real manboobs problems.

When he runs, they bounce. When he stops short because he seemingly can't walk and emote at the same time, they appear to travel forward momentarily before being snapped back. They wouldn't be as noticeable if he didn't stand and walk in this flexed-arm strained-gut pugilist stance all the time, but he has to do this because:
a. He probably thinks it's badass.
b. This is the only way he can keep his gut in check.
His physical inaptitude reaches a kind of perfect storm in the movie's most prolonged fight scene. Having blown the effects budget on the random-shark stock footage and the one snake-like CGI attack, the movie can't have elaborate fight scenes, so they have to rely on stunts. But they can't rely on stunts, because he's just a glutinous mass Shatnering his way through a herniating and girdle-free existence. They could have chase scenes, but he'd obviously be totally gassed after about fifteen feet. As it is, the man can barely speak audibly, lest any muscular diversion toward the diaphragm result in the abdominal walls' Jericho-esque catastrophe. So what you wind up with is the absolute worst combination of all three: a bad chase with bad effects and absolutely godawful stunts.

Which I also took the trouble of uploading to Youtube:

Decent writing could probably get around most if not all of Baldwin's obstacles to quality, but you can tell from that clip what kind of craftsmen are behind this whole thing. How do you elude pursuers when you can't run or fight them off?
1. Hide behind a pillar.
2. Push bottles on the bad guys.
3. Push random plastic statuary on them.
4. Push boxes forward and away from you and them, cleverly baiting one into jumping face-first at the boxes to disable himself, while another jumps onto a random citizen.
5. Hide behind a pillar again—they won't notice.
6. Hide in a basement.
7. Behind something—duh! That gives you something you can push.
8. Push something out again, this time forcing a gun to jam.
9. Fend off a chainsaw attack with more pushing! (This time: with wood — truly a chainsaw's only kryptonite.)
10. Push foot at bad guy to disable him.
Of course, the thinking behind a scene like that really almost seems natural once you've sat through the movie's premise, which is easily the worst non-Baldwin thing about it.

Because, again, sharks are cool. Venice is cool. Sharks IN Venice writes itself, right? For instance, you put sharks in canals and have them kill a bunch of gondoliers. You have bums push yuppies into the canals; maybe some wisecracking punk teens start pushing tourists in there. Then you get some crafty deep-canal fisherman to bond with the punk kids while following a professor's plan to kill all the sharks via a hysterically funny bad-science solution that uses a lot of ten-cent words and then wraps it up with a pat analogy. How do you do that, you ask? Okay:
PROFESSOR GIANNINI: We know for a fact that shark's brains resemble reptilian brains in that their functions are almost totally autonomic and that their cognitive cortexes are severely underdeveloped because, evolutionarily speaking, they've never needed to adapt beyond processing of sensory olfactory and electrical data through instinctive processes.
ALDO, A PUNK: And the acid, professor?
PROFESSOR: The LSD over-stimulates their cognitive cortexes by forcing them to process an abundance of neural activity they've never handled before, which may result in spastic mental occupation that ultimately renders their bodies inert and inoperable—
ALDO: So we'd be, like, shooting fish in a barrel?
PROFESSOR: Yes, like that. Or it may simply cause their entire neural networks to shut down.
ALDO: Like overloading a circuit!
(Quiet Riot's "Bang Your Head (Metal Health)" begins playing.)
I wrote that on the fly in two minutes. And, see, that's all this movie had to do. Kill the shit out of annoying people, throw in some boobs, have some staple characters, then give me a totally implausible montage of killing dozens of sharks... IN VENICE. But the creators didn't do that.

Instead, a third of the way through the movie, they abandon their rip off of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and stop having Baldwin care about rescuing his father — who may or may not be dead, but, seriously, whatever — and instead worry about rescuing his fiancĂ©e. Because she's been kidnapped by the mafia. Who want to get this ancient treasure that the Medicis stole in the 1500s. From crusaders. Who were sent out on a crusade by Louis XIV (who I guess time traveled back from his lifespan of 1638-1715???). Why? Why why why?


Sharks in Venice had all the ingredients for being a great bad movie or at least a cultishly bad movie. High concept premise? Check. Never-was actor tumbling end over end on a terminal career trajectory? Check. Shot on location? Check. Monsters/killing/disaster? Check. Doing those last two on a very low budget? Check. People who are obviously Dutch playing Italians? Check. Yet somehow they screwed it all up and just made a regular shitty movie — one so terrible that IMDB and Wikipedia don't even pluralize "Sharks" in its title. To be honest, it doesn't even deserve the extra S.

Also, there wasn't a single boob or painfully unerotic exchange of sexual dialogue. I blame Baldwin for that too.