Western TV reviews

Sharknado (2013)

So I watched Sharknado by myself on a Friday night while eating cake and drinking wine, and I know I should be very ashamed. But it’s the last day of summer, the country is imploding, and sometimes, Hollywood delivers just the right amount of absurdity to complement our daily lives. Certainly there are better ways I could, should, have spent the evening, but none would have been as satisfying. This horror-action-comedy-thriller wears its campiness on its sleeve and makes the most of what it is, a Syfy channel B-movie. The film’s willingness to embrace the cheesiest aspects of its genre(s) is precisely why it’s so fun to watch. The plot is bonkers, the acting strained, and the effects laughable, but Sharknado is hilarious in its audacity. What kind of genius thinks, I know what the culture really needs – sharks and tornados, together. But here we are.

The first half of the movie is quite the ride. A freak hurricane hurls towards southern California sweeping pods of sharks along with it. The bloodthirsty killers make landfall before the storm and immediately begin feasting on beach bodies. These beasts dig in with abandon, as if they’re dining at the $10 all-you-can-eat buffet. Down goes one swimmer, then another, and yet another! It’s looking like Saving Private Ryan when the hurricane finally hits, unleashing even more mayhem. The gusts send sharks crashing through windows, and mile-high waves dump more water and more sharks into the streets. But why stop with one natural disaster when you can have two? As the hurricane barrels inland, it morphs into a tornado, kind of like the movie then morphs into a Jaws and Twister hybrid.

Some manage to survive the initial massacre, including bar workers Nova (Cassie Scerbo) and Baz (Jaason Simmons – yes, Baz is Australian), and local drunk, George (John Heard). Bar owner and ex-surfer Fin (Ian Ziering) finds himself playing hero several times. After escaping the beachfront, he takes his crew on a detour to rescue his ungrateful ex-wife, April (Tara Reid), and their children, Claudia (Aubrey Peeples) and Matt (Chuck Hittinger). Fin tries to lead the group out of harm’s way because what good is a name like Fin if you can’t even do that, but he discovers it’s not so easy when the gutters are belching out sharks and – OMG why are the monsters flying out of trees and chewing through the car roof?!

It’s not all sharks all the time, however, and the writers add some personal drama because character development, y’all. Fin and April remain in a state of war and would probably feed each other to the sharks if they weren’t arguing over whether or not Nova is a stripper. (She is not.) Fin also has a strained relationship with Claudia and has no clue that Matt has enrolled in flight school. These conflicts don’t get a lot of air, and frankly, it doesn’t matter because no one’s watching Sharknado for family therapy session. We’re really watching it so we can see April’s smug boyfriend get torn to pieces by a shark.

I have to applaud Ziering, Reid, and company for their effort. They act the shit out their roles and are so committed to freaking out over a shark storm. Even the extras are a riot – the screaming and flailing, the willingness to endure extreme bloodletting and death. The crew are true professionals and deserved a People’s Choice Award at the very least. It’s serious acting when you have to convince everyone that the only way to stop a sharknado is to fly a helicopter into the twister and drop some bombs into that bad boy. I can’t get over the proud abandonment of common sense, storm safety, and physics necessary to pull that off.

The sharks are the real stars though, not that there’s any attempt to render them in a lifelike way. This is why we have the Discovery Channel. The movie instead leaves us with fins, flashes of teeth, and lots of shadows. The suggestion of sharks, hundreds of them, lurking just a few feet below the water is enough to get the adrenaline pumping. What will get you howling, however, is seeing these things whip through the air and sucked into funnels. That’s when you realize you’re watching one of the dumbest things ever.

The stupid fear that we might encounter a real sharknado could be what convinces climate change deniers to give a damn since they’re obviously not watching An Inconvenient Truth. The film makes it clear that climate change is behind this phenomenon, and look, if you don’t do something about this (register to vote here), you too may have to chainsaw your way out of a shark’s belly some day.

Released: 2013
Prod: David Michael Latt
Dir: Anthony C. Ferrante
Writer: Thunder Levin
Cast: Ian Ziering, Tara Reid, Cassie Scerbo, Jaason Simmons, John Heard, Aubrey Peeples, Chuck Hittinger
Time: 85 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Syfy
Reviewed: 2018

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Casper’s Scare School (2006)

Casper’s Scare School is an unexpectedly pleasant short feature in more ways than one. Casper’s uncles, the Ghostly Trio of Fatso, Stinkie, and Stretch, have renounced their bullying ways since the last time we saw them in Casper’s Haunted Christmas. They’re still an unpleasant lot, but they’re not cruel, and neither is Kibosh, the ghostly ruler of monster-kind. Instead, they’re old grumps but grumps who have the best interest of their charges at heart. The ghosts’ more amiable nature is in tune with the movie’s message about kindness and friendship, and I can support any film that tries to instill these values in kids.

Casper’s problems start as they always do with his inability to scare people. In fact, he’s the one getting scared by the “fleshies”, and when his latest embarrassing fright makes it to the evening news, Kibosh decides that Casper needs to spend some time at Scare School. It’s not exactly the Hogwarts of the underworld. Instead, it’s a remedial school for creatures who need help upping their scare game. Casper’s classmates include a mummy, Ra, who has unraveling issues and Mantha, a zombie who literally can’t keep herself together. Most of the students are like Casper and don’t have a particular desire to spook humans, all except for vampire Thatch, that one kid who tries to be cool by being an absolute jerk.

The headmasters of the school are Alder and Dash, conjoined slug-things who have a very high opinion of themselves. They resent their babysitting job, which they think is a waste of their talents, and instead hope to be promoted to something more important. What they really want is Kibosh’s gig. They don’t agree with his theory of balance, which holds that creatures must scare fleshies just the right amount. Too much and the humans will rise against the monsters; too little and the humans will rise against the monsters. Alder and Dash want all the scares all the time.

After so many stories where Casper is the lone friendly ghost, it’s nice to see that he’s finally found like-minded friends. The school is a meeting place for all sorts of outcasts, and there’s an assortment of furry creatures, skeletons, and pumpkin heads. Alder and Dash and the other teachers may not appreciate his kindness, but everyone else is quick to compliment him on his polite manners. The most touching scene comes when Casper ventures into the Valley of Shadows, a place to where ghosts like him are banished and never heard from again. There, he finds a safe space, but he also realizes that he doesn’t want to hide and be bullied into exile. Casper gets a dose of courage and decides he’s willing to risk getting hurt to stand up for the happiness of others. What a dear, dear ghost boy.

The production quality is fair but not brilliant. There’s some creativity with the story details – I enjoyed the explanation about “scare juice,” i.e. sweat, and the kids cruise around in a stellar pirate ship. But the end credits boast the best animation, drawing on German expressionism, and I would have loved a more stylized rendition of this familiar cartoon.

Released: 2006
Dir: Mark Gravas, Ben Choo
Writer: Andrew Nicholls, Darrell Vickers
Cast: John DiMaggio, Billy West, Dan Castellaneta, Debi Derryberry, Scott Menville, Devon Werkheiser, Brett DelBuono, Pat Fraley, Kevin Michael Richardson, James Belushi, Bob Saget, Matthew Underwood, Christy Carlson Romano, Kendre Berry
Time: 75 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018

Angels in the Snow (2015)

Angels in the Snow isn’t the worst Christmas movie ever – that would be Saving Christmas – but it tries damn hard to be. Mawkish, clichéd, simplistic, the movie is void of any real sentiment and instead skates by on cheap, unearned emotion. The Montgomery family begin their Christmas holiday by leveling threats of grievous bodily harm against one another but not two days later, they’re jaunting merrily through the snow. In between, there’s a torrent of physical and emotional destruction.

Keeping with that theme, this movie is also a painful viewing experience. The filmmakers are so determined to drive home their message about family that they overly manufacture every aspect of their film. You’re watching a charade, not a movie. The characters may have the same problems as normal people but they never act it, content to stick to one assigned emotion. Kristy Swanson tries her best with what can be called a developed character. As Judith, she struggles to keep the Montgomery clan together, or at least aware of one another. But if she’s not mediating between her bickering children, she’s trying to coax her grumpy, overworked husband, Charles (Chris Potter), away from his mobile, neither with much success.

So it’s a godsend when the Tucker family sweeps in to escape a blinding snow storm. The family of four are the perfect antidote for the miserable Montgomerys, and they immediately bring warmth and laughter into the cold, cavernous log villa. Judith loves and longs for her new guests’ family dynamic. Joe (Colin Lawrence) and Amy (Catherine Lough Haggquist) are a model couple, and their two teenage children are disarmingly affectionate towards each other. The eldest Montgomery kids, sullen Alexander (Nick Pucha) and grammar-obsessed Jennifer (Lizzie Boys), look on with confusion, bemusement, and not a little disgust, and I’ve never related more to a teenager. The Tucker family are flawless. They are too perfect and before long infect the Montgomery family with their perfection.

You couldn’t make things more black and white. Literally you cannot because the Montgomerys are white and the Tuckers are black, and I’m not sure I’ll be awarding extra points here just because, hey, a black family. The Tuckers have the emotional depth of cardboard cutouts. Like you could stick actual cardboard cutouts into the scene without losing nuance. Also, there is some real Magical Negro stuff going on, and come on, UPtv. Charles does open up late in the game, and it finally feels like things are getting somewhere, but it seems like emotional vulnerability isn’t a path that leads to a better story, just a reason to wrap things up.

Released: 2015
Dir: George Erschbamer
Writer: Julie Brazier
Cast: Kristy Swanson, Chris Potter, Colin Lawrence, Catherine Lough Haggquist, Nick Purcha, Lizzie Boys, Jaeda Lily Miller, Kolton Stewart
Time: 90 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: UPtv
Reviewed: 2018

A Dogwalker’s Christmas Tale (2015)

I’m going to put aside the fact that I’m questioning my life choices right now and just accept that I’m watching A Dogwalker’s Christmas Tale at three o’clock on a Monday morning in the middle of July. The film is terrible. So is the title. The script reads like a reject from a fanfiction club. The movie is a love song to dogs and dog parks with only an occasional nod to Christmas, and I like exactly one of those things.

I also tend to dismiss offhand anything that is part of UP network’s Christmas lineup. UP, the channel that specializes in wholesome family programming, makes the Hallmark Channel look like Masterpiece Theatre (yes, even you, Hats Off to Christmas). ADCT has some redeeming qualities, but it is comically, relentlessly optimistic. Before the opening credits begin, Luce (Lexi Giovagnoli), our chief dogwalker, leaps out of bed with eyes wide open. She’s the kind of girl who sleeps with her makeup on so that she can get a jump start on life, at least she does if it’s five days before Christmas. Dean (Jonathan Bennett), a dog lover and a college student practicing his veterinary skills on the sly, also remains suspiciously upbeat even after he finds out that his dog park clinic will be bulldozed to make way for a luxury spa.

Both lead actors remind me of other people. I kept mistaking Giovagnoli for a perky, wide-eyed Melanie Lynskey, which is fine because I love Melanie Lynskey. This endeared me somewhat to her character, despite the fact that the Luce is a poster child for privileged rich white girl. I almost stopped the movie after a few minutes when Luce and her friends skip into a jewelry store though; they’re buying matching necklaces for some Christmas party while she has just maxed out her parents’ credit card to buy a nice watch for her boyfriend of three months. Bennett, on the other hand, is not so lucky in this department. I kept seeing pharma bro Martin Shkreli, apologies to Bennett and fans of Mean Girls.

In fairness, the plot is no worse than anything you’ve seen before on UP. There’s conflict of the existential and the romantic sort. Will the dog park meet its end? Does this mean one of the dog walkers will regain the hundred pounds she lost? Can lonely dog walker woman find true love without her canine matchmaker? Will Dean find out who Luce really works for? It all ends predictably, that is to say happily. You just have to watch a circus of amateurs tumbling around in order to get there.

ADCT lacks nuanced acting and writing, of course. I mean, the reason why dog-hating Luce is walking dogs is because she has no money and her parents are off doing some charity gig in Botswana, leaving her and her little brother alone for Christmas. She seems nonchalant about it, but this arrangement seems like a big deal and Luce probably needs to talk to someone about it. But fine, go walk them dogs.

Having forfeited an hour and a half, however, I will commend the movie for its characterization of Missy, Luce’s boss and husband of dog park killer. I expected her to be a one note ninny, and she is for most part. But she also surprises by being a decent person when called upon and by standing by Luce when the easy thing would have been to pit the two women against each other.

Released: 2015
Dir: Letia Clouston
Writer: Jake Helgren
Cast: Jonathan Bennett, Lexi Giovagnoli, Dina Meyer, Patrick Muldoon, Jennifer Joseph
Time: 86 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: UPtv
Reviewed: 2018

Hailey Dean Mystery: Dating is Murder (2017)

I find dating a drag too, but murder? That’s a bit hyperbolic, unless you’re in Hailey Dean world, in which case dating does prove to be a deadly affair. It’s a game that the former attorney turned therapist gets ensnared in when a family friend is found stabbed and buried under a pile of leaves in the woods. The victim is a well known fitness personality in the area, and suspicion first falls on people in that orbit. The owner of a start-up shoe company is targeted because he suffered losses to his reputation and finances after she negatively reviewed his revolutionary new shoe. But another lead opens up when Hailey connects the case with an unsolved murder and notices that both victims used Penguin App, the sexy dating alternative to Tinder, OK Cupid, and a drunken night out at the bar with your friends.

I think the lesson to be learned here is not that dating is murder but that dating apps are sketchy AF. Anonymous dates are creepy, not mysterious and tantalizing. Hailey’s (Kellie Martin) friend and coworker, Sabrina (Emily Holmes), is an eager Penguin App user and thinks nothing of it when her date plays coy and doesn’t reveal any personal information. Needless to say, it’s no surprise when things don’t go according to plan. Communication is also a super important lesson. Besides getting the fundamental details about your dinner date’s identity, you should also make sure you and your long-term date are on the same page. Hailey and her coroner boyfriend, Jonas (Matthew MacCaull), need non-solving-murder related hobbies since she at least is consumed by this and every other case. He’s tagging along because he likes her and he’s got useful coroner skills. But these two really should talk things out.

There’s not much else to say about this movie. This is one of those clean, no-nonsense scripts that is as trim as it gets. It executes all the elements of a TV mystery in a straightforward way with little fuss. Hailey and her team of police detective and attorney friends are slow to pick up on the dating app connection and how they can use it to catch the killer, but then again, technology and Hallmark don’t make the most natural pairing. The efficiency of the plot is what makes the movie kind of boring. Nancy Grace, who wrote the books this series is based on, has a cameo that shouts at you from the screen, but these are starting to prove as distracting as Stan Lee’s appearances in Marvel films.

I haven’t given up on Hailey Dean and still like what I’ve seen so far. She’s different from the other Hallmark sleuths because she’s a victim of a violent crime herself. The cases are personal, not just a little something on the side to keep her and her friends entertained. Plus, the last film revealed a potential new direction for the series, one that explores Hailey’s own hunt for justice. If future movies push this storyline, the series can only improve. Until then, this film merely gets a passing grade.

Highlight for spoilers: It’s Jessica. It was always Jessica, and we knew it because she couldn’t hide the fact that she still had a thing for Wade. Jealousy’s a bitch, but it shouldn’t make you a killer. However, Wade’s growing profile meant that Jessica’s crush, her long-time work buddy and fellow nerd was seeking companionship outside their bubble. When he started using the app that they developed together, it was a step too far. She created a ghost account to track his dates and then made sure they never went out with Wade, or anyone else, again.

Released: 2017
Dir: Michael Robinson
Writer: Michelle Ricci
Cast: Kellie Martin, Giacomo Baessato, Viv Leacock, Matthew MacCaull, Emily Holmes, Toby Levins, Kieran Sequoia
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2018