What a Croc
Lake Placid, about a 30-foot crocodile terrorizing a lake in Maine, is the kind of movie that starts with a diver being bitten in half, and ends the scene by having the sheriff who hauled the dead diver’s bisected torso out of the water just sit there gawking at the corpse in the boat and the surrounding water instead of fleeing. It’s the kind of movie where the heroes track the croc through the forest and come across a really big footprint and one of the characters pauses meaningfully and intones, “That’s a really big footprint,” and the audience is supposed to titter at the film’s postmodern wit or pump a fist in the air and yell, “Woooooo!” It’s the kind of movie where, every 15 minutes, some character hears a noise in the bushes or just behind
him on the lake and instead of getting the hell out of there pronto, heads directly toward the noise to investigate it, whereupon the source of the noise is revealed to be 1) a beaver or some other harmless animal, which leaps out of the darkness, scaring the bejesus out of the curious person and the audience, 2) a thoughtless colleague who claps a hand on the curious person’s shoulder from behind, scaring the bejesus out of the curious person and the audience, or 3) a gigantic fucking crocodile.
In other words, like Anaconda, Lake Placid is no Jaws, even though it desperately wishes it were Jaws, steals Jaws blind and diverts attention from its shameless Jaws robbery with self-deprecating dialogue and sight gags that all but announce to the audience, “Hey, relax, people—we know you’re onto us.” And like Anaconda, Lake Placid will probably do surprisingly well at the box office, for the simple reason that untold millions have seen Jaws and would love to recapture a fraction of the tingly pleasure they experienced the first time they saw it. (One of my wife’s more intriguing theories is that people keep disregarding critical warnings and attending pale imitations of Jaws and Star Wars each summer because they remember how much fun it was to see those films for the very first time, and are hoping against hope that the latest homage will be a tenth as entertaining.) Unlike Anaconda, Lake Placid isn’t engagingly trashy. It contains no scenes so screwy that you have to admire the filmmakers’ brass—like the one where dead meat sound man Owen Wilson gets wrapped up and wrung out by the giant water snake while screaming like Goofy plunging off a cliff, or the scene where Jon Voight’s lunatic Paraguayan snake hunter tells the terrified American explorers that the anaconda “…holds you tighter den your true love, and you have de pleasure of hearing your bones break…and your veins eeeesplode!”
Nope, the latest aquatic monster movie is written by acclaimed tv series creator David E. Kelley (The Practice, Chicago Hope, Ally McBeal), a critical darling, and like most of David E. Kelley’s writing, it somehow manages to be clever and obvious, snappy and puerile and self-satisfied rather than satisfying. It’s off-kilter in a way you can’t quite place, but not off-kilter enough to disguise the fact that you’re watching a Jaws ripoff starring a crocodile. (Alligator, the 1980 Jaws ripoff written by John Sayles, suffered the same handicap, but it was cheaper and less calculating, which meant the flaws were easier to
Technically, of course, Lake Placid does have human stars, and they’re fun to watch. Bridget Fonda plays the Ally McBeal character—a bright, perky, neurotic paleontologist (skinny and blonde, natch) who is dispatched from the natural history museum to identify a mysterious reptilian tooth removed from the body of the aforementioned diver. Upon deducing that the tooth belongs to a GFC, she joins forces with a group of intrepid croc-trackers, partly because she wants to see if the GFC exists and partly because she just broke up with her philandering boss and doesn’t want to return to New York to face him. The reptile posse includes a small-town sheriff (Brendan Gleeson) who witnessed the initial attack, a relaxed, handsome Fish & Wildlife officer (Bill Pullman) and a rich, eccentric mythology professor (Oliver Platt) who has studied the role of the crocodile in cultures all over the world and fancies himself blessed because he’s never been bitten. (Platt’s character, a rotund, bearded, hyperverbal put-on artist with a sarcastic sense of humor and zero fear of death, is like a combination of Richard Dreyfuss’ characters in Jaws and The Goodbye Girl. He’s so kooky—kooky in that patented Kelley way, like The Biscuit on Ally McBeal—that he might as well be wearing a t-shirt that reads, “Breakout supporting character who will score really well at test screenings.” The always-reliable Platt deserves some kind of award for making the guy charming rather than repulsive.)
The major characters play off each other nicely, and they deliver Kelley’s stranger lines with the right spin. (Upon first encountering Gleeson’s beefy sheriff, Platt’s character remarks, “Oh, the Earth is round, and so should you be!”) At times, these people are so odd and entertaining that you might find yourself wishing you were watching a romantic comedy instead of a Jaws ripoff about a 30-foot lizard that bites down on shrieking law enforcement officers and whips them about like a starving dog chowing down on a bratwurst. (Or perhaps not.) Betty White has a cameo as a crazy old coot who lives in the woods and responds to a perceived insult by saying, “This is where if I had a dick, I’d tell you to suck it.”
Director Steve Miner is a veteran of genre films that are more entertaining than you expected but never completely satisfying—films like House, Forever Young and Halloween: H20. He’s directed episodes of Chicago Hope and The Practice and is attuned to Kelley’s sensibility, so it’s no wonder he’d find a directorial equivalent for Kelley’s crass/cute/shallow approach. He and his support crew—including cinematographer Daryn Okada, composer John Ottman and special effects wizard Stan Winston, who designed the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park and the gorillas in Instinct—pull off some marvelous shocks and create a consistently menacing mood. But the result still feels like it’s missing something; the film is clever and proficient enough to distract you from the fact that it’s repackaging pilfered bits from Spielberg’s classic summer shocker, but not clever enough to distract you indefinitely. I quit adding items to the “Jaws thefts” page of my reporter’s notebook after the first hour because I was getting a hand cramp. The insect-infested severed body part discovered on the beach, the lunatic who leads the other characters on a foolhardy quest to best the creature, the scene where the creature bites into a boat anchor and pulls the boat along like a kite on a string—the klepto appropriations inspire little jolts of recognition and resentment, and they’re all wrapped up with a bratty little Kelley-style bow, but put them all together and they’re not too memorable. Jaws is—and I hear it’s on video.
Shark bites: Speaking of vicious aquatic monsters, the best trailer on screens right now is the one for the upcoming Renny Harlin movie Deep Blue Sea. For some reason, though Harlin can be a crude and obvious action filmmaker, his stuff makes for outstanding trailers; remember the ones for Cliffhanger and The Long Kiss Goodnight? This one is the best yet. Like all good trailers, it gives us the premise of the film—arrogant scientists implant sharks with human intelligence to study a cure for Alzheimer’s, and all hell breaks loose—without giving away the specifics of the plot or showing us so much of the action set pieces that we won’t be surprised when we actually pony up for the finished movie. (One lone exception is the shot of a shark pushing a man lashed to a steel gurney at high speed in order to shatter a glassed-in observation deck and drown the scientists inside. I have a feeling this is one of the action high points of the picture, and whoever cut the trailer was wrong to spoil it.) Sure, it’s probably going to be just another Jaws clone, but this compressed theatrical ad is more exciting on its own terms than any of the action pictures and thrillers I’ve sat through in the last year.
Nothin’ but the blues: Genghis Blues, a documentary premiering Wednesday at Cinema Village, is an engaging look at a blues musician’s quest to master a completely foreign and unfamiliar form of music. It’s also the story of a man who does not view being black and blind as any sort of handicap, despite the fact that other people make assumptions about him and throw obstacles in his path because of those characteristics.
While scanning shortwave radio back in 1977, the man in question, blues legend Paul Pena, discovers the ancient practice of Tuvan folk singing—a style that pulls trilling vocal noises from a constricted place very deep in the throat—and becomes obsessed with mastering it, to the point where he can participate alongside lifelong practitioners of the art form. He is pleased but not surprised to discover that he is taken more seriously as a musician and a person in Tuva than he was back home in the racist and musically ignorant United States. Regular readers of this space know that I tend to give bonus points to any movie that shows us the repetitious hard work that goes into learning a new art—a part of the artistic life most films avoid because they are terrified viewers might get bored. That predisposition aside, this is one special movie. Anybody who appreciates music and commitment will find it fascinating..