Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 1987

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Micro-Manager Munchausen: THE STRAIN, SHARKNADO 2, and a little bit THE LEGO MOVIE

Heroes used to dread their appointed hour. They'd dart around town begging help from civilians instead of saddling the heroic measure. They'd turn away from the call, citing 'reasons' like poor marksmanship or their Quaker faith, or Ingrid Bergman sticking them for the cost of a train ticket back in Paris, or all the droids or cows needing repair back on Uncle Ned's farm. But now, in today's crowded sci fi/horror climate, well, just try and stop him from rescuing you, no matter how safe you are, or how much you'd prefer to wait for a qualified professional. Cops, parents, ex-wives, children, all regard our new brand of hero as a Munchausen Chicken Little, especially since he's nearly always a deadbeat dad with a history of micro-management heroism that's already cost him his wife, house and perhaps even joint-custody because, even if he just passes a crying kid or distraught mom on the street on the way to divorce court (proximal morality), he has to force his help upon them instead. These new crazy 'heroes' run around like William Shatner with gremlins on the plane, grabbing lapels of bewildered pedestrians, blocking ambulances, yelling "Don't you get it?!" at overstretched EMTs. They've only ever been the villain in two movies: STRAW DOGS and THE LEGO MOVIE. And in one most people presume he's the hero since he's played by Dustin Hoffman, and in the other he eventually lightens up. But in two major TV events this summer--THE STRAIN (the new FX show from the mind of acclaimed sci fi horror maestro Guillermo del Toro) and SHARKNADO 2: THE SECOND ONE (the Syfy original sequel that's far inferior compared to the original [see here])--these micro-managing ex-husbands are just obnoxious. Even as the world ends or CGI sharks fly through the air, they run around with humorless unshaven urgency, saving everyone in sight, whether they like it or not.

THE STRAIN begins with the story of NYC health officer Dr. Ephraim Goodweather (the usually bald Corey Stoll) refusing to listen to his superiors when a plague-infested plane lands at JFK. Most passengers are dead. Four survivors are anxious to get home and start spreading the 'news' and he wants to contain them in a makeshift hazmat lab. Meanwhile a savvy old Jewish pawnbroker tries to advise him on what's going on, but Goodweather has the man arrested for having a sword in an airport terminal. Almost immediately, our urge to see the world wiped out just to spite this twit is insurmountable.

It doesn't help that the bad guys (led by Thomas Eichorst, left) are far cooler: they honor their deals, pay in cash, do their research, spend time and care make-up and black market organs, and their urge to see the world end is indicative less of greed more of simply of being turned on by imagining the chaos. Hell, I say let these long-tongued vamp zombies have a crack at planet custodianship --they couldn't possibly leave it worse off than they found it.

Goodweather disagrees, or rather hasn't thought that far ahead, being obligated by his little taste of power as a CDC agent to grab those passing lapels. He's so self-righteous and negligent that he even ignores the edicts of his superiors and winds up under arrest, yet still invites himself to tromp all over the rights of others as he attempts to be on time just once to his hearing over joint custody for his 'yawn' little son. There's a word for this type of guy, Munchausen by-proxy, or rather, as I call them, 'dad of great adventure'. They can't admit their insecurity and ambivalence about their roles as second class citizen in the modern family unit, and so refuse to either leave the family unit or stay with their wife, or to be with or abandon their kid, and are more determined with each passing missed court date to convince mom and child that he wants to be with them more than anything but you know, um.... he has to force himself on a world that doesn't want saving, or at least it doesn't want to be saved by him, and who can blame it? So wait right here, judge.

Naked white/grey monsters are always played by limber, sinuous dancers, don't ask why
Anyway, we know from the start that Goodweather's showing good sense in trying to quarantine these survivors but at the same time, we would hate to be unable to get home after a lengthy cross-Atlantic flight, forced to wait in a sterilized plastic cube for weeks while he tinkers with our blood samples and stammers excuses to the court stenographer. Plus, why would we root for Goodweather to stop the spread of a plague when that's going to be the whole show? l I love a lot of del Toro's art design and I admire his willingness to kill children, but I've always winced when he goes too far with his saintly Catholic family mi madre es mi vida bullshit and the whole business with the giant worm tongue leaping out of the monster's faces is so familiar, thanks to his already using it in MIMIC and BLADE II that even Paul W.S. Anderson it used it in RESIDENT EVIL. We've seen it, bra.

Meanwhile there's this idiot woman who's husband is infected and he's barking at her to run, their dog's blood dripping from his mouth and she just stands there like a moron, frozen in 'terror' well within striking range of his forked tongue. He's telling her to run and we're screaming at the screen for her to run and she just stands there, until we wonder how she ever lived past the second episode. But then the next scene she's burying the dog and after the neighbor complains because he still hears growling she pushes him into the shed to feed her now-chained husband so we're back into thinking she's awesome. It's that kind of show, and typical of del Toro, for every corny Mexican soap moment there's two kickass touches, or vice versa.

Last year, The Asylum (the offshoot of Concord which was the 80s version of New World which was the 70s version of AIP) gave us the surprise meme hit SHARKNADO (see: Wronger than the Storm). Now we got the the sequel, bound for much tweeting and therefore of great interest to fading actors in need of being seen by the young 'constant-texter' generation lest they fade away entirely. Aye, matey, to trod bravely before the green screen curtain and be eaten in style, knowing for sure your every flubbed line will earn a hundred winky tweets...

But there's the rub, for in intentionally courting camp what crap may come.

Chicken Little of the Sea

We start off right in the thick of it as Fin (Ian Zering) and his re-united family (ex-wife Tara Reid and his son and daughter) get stalked by a sharks on a plane. Fin ever the hero, gets the plane down safely, but no one bothered to tell him that NYC is blessed with a stalwart network of first responders, and anyone who mentions needing to build a bomb should be turned into Homeland Security, not helped in his mission. Unlike most sensible people, Fin doesn't find shelter, or take an Ambien and go to sleep 'til it's all over, he runs around trying to find the other members of his traveling party and components for his homemade bomb --which he plans to throw into the wind to save us all. Dude, this ain't California, you can't just drive anywhere, subways and ferries aren't good during tornados. As Dennis Weaver put it in Touch of Evil: it's a mess. It's a stinkin' mess.

I know our cops have problems with quick response in certain neighborhoods but not, my friends, in midtown, so their lack of presence when he amoks Broadway is suspicious. No one is attacked unless seen first by Fin as he races past, clocking them for B-list celeb status (included in his posse, slightly used versions of: Vivica Fox, Kelly Osbourne, Judd Hirsch, Judah Friedlander, Biz Markie, Downtown Julie Brown, Billy Rae Cyrus, Rachel True, Andy Dick, Mark McGrath), at which time they're either devoured by a passing shark, or rescued by his quick thinking and thus obligated to join his panicky parade. Matt Lauer, Kelly Ripa, and Al Roker look on from the TV screen, rolling with the sharknado concept as a fact barely worth an eyebrow raise (just avoid making seal-like movements and you're safe, no big deal).

Fin's hero complex was perfect for LA in the original because he had to protect the valuable clientele of his beachfront bar, and it's at a beachfront bar, we can imagine, that the notion of a sharknado first developed in some sloshed screenwriter's mind. Who amongst us hasn't drunk deep from a sandy beer after a long day body surfing and imagined how badass it would be if sharks came through the window and started chasing people around the pool table, or swam in the air, or that the rec room floor was water so you had to jump from couch to couch?

That Fin was an ex-lifeguard gave him an excuse for his chronic rescuing there, and as a deadbeat dad his desire to rescue his family was offset with a Hawksian sense of real time forward momentum, stretching the action across L.A. From the beach to the hills, over the course of one well-modulated tidal wave of inland momentum, the vibe in the getaway car was like one of those great drunken parties wherein everyone at the bar becomes an instant tribe and marches off to some second location, singing at the top of their lungs and ready for anything: the drunken regular (John Heard) was comic relief, bashing sharks with his barstool; barmaid Nova (Cassandra Scerbo - above left) was the stealth warrrior, brandishing a shark scar (with its own Quint backstory) and a shotgun; wingman Jaason Simmons helped with the heavy lifting. Together they raced with the inward tide of a gigantic wave rolling in first through the bar windows, and then up the hill, filling the streets and stalled highway traffic with sharks and flotsam, leading to exit ramp winch rescues, and various members of his party being eaten, such as his daughter's douche bag boyfriend as the shark water fills living rooms but leaves driveways merely damp as if from a distant rain machine. And as Fin's UV-damaged ex-wife, Tara Reid was perfect. Embittered, hungover but still with some vague torch for old Fin, she veered the Hawksian dynamic towards a weird comedy of remarriage, with Nova as the Marilyn Monroe and Reid as the Ginger Rogers (in Hawks' MONKEY BUSINESS).

In short, SHARKNADO had a lot of things going for it, as a Corman-affiliated film it conjured up the good old days of movies like ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS, IT CONQUERED THE WORLD and CREATURE FROM THE HAUNTED SEA. In short, it turned its budgetary limits into an asset, which SHARKNADO 2's NYC location simply will not permit. Gone is Nova, the badass barmaid with the sexy scar, so there's no interesting sexual dynamic (that Fin's too noble to sleep with her provided the previous film's emotional core), and there's no bar, no tide rushing in-- the way the tidal surge in the original seemed to provide a great happy hour momentum. The first film had a flood first, then the tornado, so it made more sense. And New York is too real, too concrete, there's no time for grandstanding or defying gravity. Without the setting of surreal LA enhancing the CGI phoniness, this sequel is less like a surprise so-bad-it's-great entry amid a deluge of crappy CGI monster-bad weather hybrids and more a 'too aware everyone is tweeting about me' shitshow, as prefab and empty as a string of commercials for Shark Week during a Jay and Silent Bob film edited for content and watched on TNT by a mid-life crisis-having unemployed divorcee pothead after coming home alone from lunch at the Wal-Mart parking lot Hooters. Harvey, are we kids or what?

Oh well, we still have the original and the great untold shark story present in Tara Reid's weary face as the wife who steps back into the eye of the Munchausen storm, booting the far more interesting Nova out of the sequel, leaving no extraneous air to breathe. So while Fin runs around building bombs and leaving suspicious packages on subway platforms, it's Reid who provides the real scary story here. You can read it in her skin, an epidermal horror story in slow mummifying motion: how a hundred young and glowing B-list actors went into the LA sun twenty years ago and came out looking like bad taxidermy. Botox and collagen took the rest.

Anyway, they delivered the bomb.


  1. I liked the first couple of episodes of "The Strain" despite its imperfections. Maybe even because of their imperfections.

    I now consider myself unsold but hopeful.

    I think the change occurred somewhere around when it went from del Toro directing it to... Peter Weller.

  2. jervaise brooke hamster17 August, 2014

    I thought "The Lego Movie" was virtually unwatchable, it really was absolutely appalling.

  3. I gave The Strain more than its fair day in court, but I lost any connection when Ephraim Goodweather, hair hat and all, drank a cafeteria carton of milk before getting on a "dead plane" full of infected corpses. That grossed me out beyond any words; entering an infected tube full of bodies with a mouth and throat lined with lactic fat, ugh, and expecting his little hobbit underling to carry around cartons of milk for him, like it was some Popeye level quirk of endearment, mainline him with ebola and cancel this show midstream. PS: Would love to hear your take on The Leftovers, with all the Driving While Blind blackout revelations that have been coming up.