The Trigger Effect (1996, directed by David Koepp)


Annie (Elisabeth Shue) and Matthew (Kyle MacLachlan) are a married couple with an infant daughter and a macho best friend named Joe (Dermot Mulroney).  When a suddenly blackout throws the city into chaos, Matthew and Annie can only watch as the world seems to go mad all around them.  Matthew quickly goes from being mild and straight-laced to stealing medicine from the local pharmacy and purchasing a shotgun with Joe.  When a potential burglar is killed by one of their neighbors, Annie, Matthew, and Joe decides that it’s time to get out of town and head up to Annie’s parents’ house.  Things do not go as planned as one of the three ends up seriously wounded and the members of the group have to decide how far they’ll go to survive.

The Trigger Effect has an interesting premise and raises some relevant questions about how far people will go to protect themselves in a crisis.  Unfortunately, the execution is almost totally botched.  Shue, MacLahclan, and Mulroney are all good actors but none of their characters are that interesting and an attempt to insert some sexual tension between Annie and Joe just feels like a cheap cliche.  Since the movie doesn’t make it clear who these three were before the blackout, it’s hard to be effected by what they do after the lights go out.

Michael Rooker has a cameo at the start of the film’s third act.  It involves him yelling and, because it’s a big dramatic moment, you won’t want to laugh but it’s hard not to because his rant just goes on for so long.  In that one moment, whatever reality has been created by the film goes straight out the window.  It all leads to a predictable ending that feels like it was taken from the Giant Book of Hollywood Cliches.  That’s a good book if you can find a copy.

This was David Koepp’s directorial debut and it has the weaknesses that you would expect to find in a first film.  Koepp’s second film, Stir of Echoes, would be a marked improvement.

Guilty Pleasure No. 37: Death Wish (dir by Eli Roth)


Is it finally safe to honestly review Death Wish?

You may remember that this film, a remake of the 70s vigilante classic, came out last March and critics literally went insane attacking it.  That it got negative reviews wasn’t necessarily a shock because the movie was directed by Eli Roth and he’s never been a favorite of mainstream critics.  Still, it was hard not to be taken aback but just how enraged the majority of the critics appeared to be.  Seriously, from the reviews, you would have thought that Death Wish was not just a bad movie but a crime against nature.

Of course, a lot of that was due to the timing of the film’s release.  The film was released less than a month after the shootings at Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida.  At the time the film first came out, the country was in the midst of a daily diet of anti-second amendment rallies and David Hogg.  Many critics accused Death Wish of being a commercial for the NRA.  Others branded the film as being right-wing propaganda.  In fact, the criticism was so harsh that it was hard not to feel that the critics were essentially taking Death Wish far more seriously than it took itself.

If anything, Death Wish is a big, glossy, and rather silly movie.  Bruce Willis stars as Dr. Paul Kersey.  Paul is a peace-loving man.  We know this because he refuses to get into a fight with a belligerent parent at a soccer game.  He’s also an emergency room doctor, the type who pronounces a policeman dead and then rushes off to try to save the life of whoever shot him.  No one in the movie suspects that Paul would ever become a vigilante but we know that there’s no way he can’t eventually end up walking the streets with a loaded gun because he’s played by Bruce Willis.  When Paul backs down from the fight at the soccer game, Willis delivers his dialogue with so much self-loathing that we just know that, once Paul gets back home, he’s going to lock himself in the basement and start yelling at the walls, Stepfather-style.

Eventually, criminals break into Paul’s house and shoot both his wife (Elisabeth Shue) and his daughter (Camila Morrone).  His wife dies.  His daughter ends up in a coma.  Paul spends a day or two in shock and then he promptly gets a gun and starts shooting criminals.  Eventually, this brings him into conflict with the same criminals who attacked his family!  Meanwhile, two detectives (Dean Norris and Kimberly Elise) look at all the dead bodies piling up around them and just shrug it off.  At one crime scene, Norris is happy to grab a slice of pizza.

And really, that’s it.  It sounds simple because it is simple.  There is absolutely no narrative complexity to be found in Death Wish, which is why, in its own cheerfully crude way, the film totally works.  In real life, of course, vigilante justice is not the solution and the death penalty is often unfairly applied but, from the moment the opening titles splash across the screen, Death Wish makes clear that it has no interest in real-life and, throughout its brisk running time, it literally seems to be ridiculing anyone in the audience who might be worried about the moral ramifications of a citizen gunning down a drug dealer.

Death Wish is a big extravagant comic book.  It takes Paul one scene to go from being a meek doctor to being an expert marksman and, when Paul dispatches one criminal by dropping a car on him, Roth lays on the gore so thick that he almost seems to be daring us to take his film seriously.  By that same token, Paul kills a lot of people but at least they’re all really, really bad.  In fact, the criminals are so evil that you can’t help but suspect that Roth is poking a little bit of fun at the conventions of the vigilante genre.  Even the fact that Willis wanders through the entire film with the same grim expression on his face feels like an inside joke between the director and his audience.

The critics were right when they called Death Wish a fantasy but they were wrong to frame that as somehow being a flaw.  It’s a cartoonishly violent and deeply silly film and yet, at the same time it’s impossible not to cheer a little when Paul reveals that he’s been hiding a machine gun under his coffee table.  It’s an effective film.  Eli Roth delivers exactly what you would expect from a film about Bruce Willis killing criminals in Chicago.  It may not be a great film but it works.

Previous Guilty Pleasures

  1. Half-Baked
  2. Save The Last Dance
  3. Every Rose Has Its Thorns
  4. The Jeremy Kyle Show
  5. Invasion USA
  6. The Golden Child
  7. Final Destination 2
  8. Paparazzi
  9. The Principal
  10. The Substitute
  11. Terror In The Family
  12. Pandorum
  13. Lambada
  14. Fear
  15. Cocktail
  16. Keep Off The Grass
  17. Girls, Girls, Girls
  18. Class
  19. Tart
  20. King Kong vs. Godzilla
  21. Hawk the Slayer
  22. Battle Beyond the Stars
  23. Meridian
  24. Walk of Shame
  25. From Justin To Kelly
  26. Project Greenlight
  27. Sex Decoy: Love Stings
  28. Swimfan
  29. On the Line
  30. Wolfen
  31. Hail Caesar!
  32. It’s So Cold In The D
  33. In the Mix
  34. Healed By Grace
  35. Valley of the Dolls
  36. The Legend of Billie Jean

Back to School Part II #23: Adventures in Babysitting (dir by Chris Columbus)


adventures_in_babysitting

One unfortunate thing about both being the youngest of four and having a teenage reputation for being a little out of control is that I never got a chance to be a babysitter.  Whenever my mom wasn’t around, my older sisters were in charge.  When I was technically old enough to look after other children, nobody was willing to trust me with them.  So, I missed out on babysitting and…

Well, to be honest, that never really bothered me.  I was too busy either having too much fun or no fun at all to worry about any of that.  But maybe I should have because, whenever I watch the 1987 film Adventures in Babysitting, I’m always left convinced that I could have been a kickass babysitter.  Seriously, if Elisabeth Shue could still get babysitting jobs even after taking the kids into downtown Chicago and nearly getting them killed, then anyone could do it!

In Adventures in Babysitting, Chris Parker (Elisabeth Shue) is a responsible 17 year-old who lives in the suburbs of Chicago.  (As anyone who seen The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off can tell you, being a teenager in 1980s meant living in Illinois.)  When we first meet Chris, she’s getting ready for her anniversary date with her boyfriend, Mike Todwell (Bradley Whitford, years before achieving fame by playing assorted pompous jerks in assorted Aaron Sorkin productions) and she’s dancing around her bedroom.  There’s an important lesson to be learned from the opening of Adventures in Babysitting: if you want me to relate to a character, introduce her while she’s dancing in her bedroom.  Seriously, though, the whole film succeeds because of that opening bedroom dance.  Chris is instantly likable and relatable.  You want to see her succeed and achieve what she wants.

So, of course, we’re all disappointed when Mike shows up and breaks his date with Chris.  That said, as upset as Chris may be, she’s still willing to take the time to try to talk her friend Brenda (Penelope Ann Miller) out of trying to poison her stepmother with Drano.  That’s a true friend.

With nothing else to do, Chris ends up taking a babysitting job.  She has been tasked to look after 8 year-old Sara Anderson (Maia Brewton) and Sara’s brother, 15 year-old Brad (Keith Coogan).  Sara is a bit of a brat, though she’s also generally well-meaning and is obsessed with comic books (Thor, in particular).  Brad is likable but dorky.  He has a huge crush on Chris and even turns down a chance to spend the night at a friend’s, just so he can be around her.

Brad’s friend, incidentally, is Daryl (Anthony Rapp, who would later play Tony in Dazed and Confused and who starred in the original Broadway production of Rent).  Daryl is a hyperactive perv who is obsessed with Chris because she resembles the centerfold in one of his dad’s Playboys.  Daryl decides that, if his friend Brad can’t visit him, then maybe he should visit Brad!

However, Chris has more to worry about than just looking after Sara, Brad, and Daryl.  Brenda has attempted to run away from home and now she’s stuck in a downtown bus station!  Her glasses have been stolen and, as a result, Brenda is doing things like picking up a giant rat and calling it a kitten.  Brenda uses her last bit of money to call Chris and beg her to come pick her up.

(Of course, none of this would happen today.  Brenda wouldn’t have to use a pay phone to call Chris and she could just call Uber to get a ride home.)

So, Chris and the kids drive into Chicago and, needless to say, things quickly fall apart.  They get a flat tire on the expressway.  Chris panics when she discovers that not only does she not have a spare tire but she also left her purse back at the house.  They are briefly helped by a one-handed truck driver named Handsome John Pruitt (John Ford Noonan) but then Pruitt discovers that his wife is cheating on him and takes a detour so he can catch her in the act and, of course, this leads to Chris and the kids being kidnapped by a helpful car thief.  Soon, they’re being chased through Chicago by the Mafia and…

Well, it gets rather complicated but that’s kind of the appeal of the film.  The film starts out as a fairly realistic, John Hughes-style teen comedy and then it gets progressively crazier and crazier.  Downtown Chicago turns out to be a rather cartoonish place, one where one disaster follows after another.  (To be honest, if Adventures in Babysitting was released today, it would probably inspire a hundred increasingly tedious Salon think pieces on white privilege.  Bleh!)  But, regardless of how silly some of the adventures may get, Adventures in Babysitting remains grounded because of the good and likable performances and a script that is full of witty and quotable dialogue.

It’s an entertaining movie and it’s one of those films that always seems to be either on Showtime or Encore.  If you’re sad, watch it and be prepared to be massively cheered up!

(Avoid the Disney Channel remake.)

 

Back to School Part II #16: The Karate Kid (dir by John G. Avildsen)


320px-Karate_kid

Finally, I am getting a chance to continue my series of Back to School reviews!

Earlier today, we had a pretty big storm down here in Texas and it knocked out the electricity for three and a half hours!  There I was, sitting in the dark and wondering if I would ever get a chance to review the 16th movie in this 56-film review series.

(Originally, I was planning on being done by this weekend but, as always seems to happen whenever I do a review series, I’m currently running behind so it’ll probably won’t be until the weekend after next that I post my final Back to School review.)

Fortunately, the Oncor truck eventually showed up in the alley.  I, of course, ran out into the back yard and started to shout at them, “I need power!  I have movies to review!”  They must have heard me because, suddenly, the power came back on.  And now, I can finally get around to sharing a few thoughts on the original, 1984 version of The Karate Kid!

Up until last night, believe it or not, I had never seen The Karate Kid before.  Certainly, I knew about it.  Much like Star Wars and Star Trek, The Karate Kid is one of those cultural landmarks that everyone knows about even if they haven’t actually sat down and watched the movie.  Even before I watched the film, I knew about Mr. Miyagi.  I knew about “wax on” and “wax off.”  I knew about the crane.  I even knew about “You’re alright, LaRusso!”

But I hadn’t actually seen the film and I have to admit that I was a little bit hesitant about doing so.  Everything I had heard about The Karate Kid made it sound like a thoroughly predictable and excessively 80s sports film.  I was expecting the film to be all about power ballads and training montages and uplifting dialogue and certainly, The Karate Kid had a lot of that.

But what took me by surprise is what a genuinely sweet movie The Karate Kid is.  Yes, it’s predictable and it’s full of clichés but dammit, it all works.  It still brought tears to my mismatched eyes.

The karate kid of the title is Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio), who moves, with his mother, from New Jersey to California.  Daniel’s a nice kid who has learned a little karate from reading books but he’s still no match for the bullies at his new high school.  Daniel does get a girlfriend, Ali Mills (Elisabeth Shue, giving a performance that feels far more genuine than any of her more recent work), but even that leads to him getting in trouble.  It turns out that Ali’s ex-boyfriend is Johnny (William Zabka), the top student at Cobra Kai.  Oddly enough, Johnny’s teacher is also named John.  John Kreese (Martin Kove) is a Vietnam veteran who decorates his dojo with pictures of himself looking threatening.  Kreese, we soon discover, is a total psychopath.  “NO MERCY!” he shouts at this students.

When Johnny and his fellow Cobra Kai students beat up Daniel on Halloween, Daniel’s life is saved by Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita).  Mr. Miyagi may appear to just be a simple maintenance man but he’s actually a total badass.  He teaches Daniel not only the moves of karate (“Wax on…wax off…”) but the philosophy as well.  He explains to Daniel that there are “No bad students.  Just bad teacher.”  In short, he is the exact opposite of Kreese.

Who is the better teacher?  That’s a question that will be answered when Daniel faces off against the Cobra Kai bullies at the Under-18 All-Valley Karate Tournament.  Can Daniel defeat Johnny, win Ali’s love, and earn the right to live free of harassment?

Well, it would be a pretty depressing movie if he didn’t…

Anyway, The Karate Kid turned out to be a really sweet and likable movie.  I was never surprised by the movie’s plot but I still found myself being drawn into the story and hoping that everything would work out for Daniel and Ali.  The character of Mr. Miyagi has been parodied in so many other films that I was a bit surprised to see just how good Pat Morita was in the role.  Yes, Morita gets to say a lot of funny lines but he also gets a rather harrowing dramatic scene where talks about how his wife and child died while he was away, serving in the army.

It’s interesting to note that, at the end of the film, even Johnny got to show a glimmer of humanity, suggesting that even the worst jerk in the world can be redeemed by a good ass-kicking.  That said, Kreese is pure evil from beginning to end and Johnny’s friend, Dutch (played by Chad McQueen), is about as scary a high school bully as I’ve ever seen.  But at least Johnny is willing to admit the truth.

LaRusso?

He’s alright.

 

Guilty Pleasure No. 15: Cocktail (dir by Roger Donaldson)


cocktail-original-uk-quad-poster-tom-cruise-elisabeth-shue-88-1229-p

For the past two months or so, Cocktail, a 1988 film that stars Tom Cruise as a bartender with big dreams, has been on an almost daily cable rotation.  A few nights ago, my sister Megan and I sat down and watched the film from beginning to end and we laughed ourselves silly.

Seriously, if there’s ever been a film that deserves to be known as a guilty pleasure, it’s Cocktail.

Cocktail tells the story of Brian Flanagan (Tom Cruise), an apparent sociopath who, having just gotten out of the army, is now determined to become a millionaire.  During the day, he takes business classes but at night, he and his mentor Doug (Bryan Brown) are dancing bartenders.  While customers wait for drinks, Brian and Doug do the hippy hippy shake and toss bottles up in the air.  The crowd loves them and Doug educates Brian on how to be a cynical, opportunistic bastard.  (Myself, I didn’t think Brian needed any lessons but the film insists that he did.)

When Brian and Doug get into a fight over Gina Gershon, Brian ends up in Jamaica where he eventually meets both Jordan (Elisabeth Shue) and Bonnie (Lisa Banes) and has to choose between love and money.  (Guess which one he goes for…)  Gee, if only there was a way that Brian could get both love and money…

Why is Cocktail such a guilty pleasure?  Just consider the following:

1. Cocktail is an example of one of my favorite guilty pleasure genres.  It’s a film that attempts to give an almost religious significance to a profession or activity that, in the grand scheme of things, just isn’t that important.  Hence, Tom Cruise and Bryan Brown aren’t just bartenders.  No, instead, they are the linchpin that New York nightlight revolves around.  If not for the talents of Cruise and Brown, we’re told, thousands of people wouldn’t have a good night.  And then who knows what might happen.  They might go to a different bar and they might get served by less rhythmic bartenders.  Chaos and anarchy might be break out.  The living would envy the dead.  Fortunately, the super bartenders are there to save the day.  (Just consider the film’s tagline: “When he pours, he reigns!”  Really?)

2. In the pivotal role of Brian Flanagan, Tom Cruise gives a performance that seems to hint that the character might be a sociopath.  Whenever he speaks to anyone, he flashes the same dazzling but ultimately empty smile.  Whenever he feels that anyone is failing to treat him with the respect that he deserves, he responds with child-like violence.  When he drags Elisabeth Shue out of her apartment, he looks over at Shue’s father and snaps, “It didn’t have to be like this!”  It’s a line that makes next to no sense unless you consider that Brian is a pathological narcissist who is incapable of empathy.  “It didn’t have to be like this,” Brian is saying, “except you dared to question me so now I’m going to kidnap your daughter…”

3. In the role of Doug, Brian’s mentor, Bryan Brown gives perhaps one of the most openly cynical performances in film history.  While everyone else is earnestly reciting the script’s platitudes and trying their best to sound sincere, Brown delivers every line with a hint of resignation and an ironic twinkle in his eye.  It’s as if Brown is letting us know that, of the entire cast, he alone knows how bad this film is and he’s inviting us to share in his embarrassment.  But Bryan Brown need not worry!  The movie may be bad but it’s also a lot of fun.

4.  Brian and Doug become New York nightlife sensations by doing an elaborately choreographed dance as they mix their drinks.  The other people in the bar absolutely love this, despite the fact that it seems like all the dancing would mean that it would take forever for anyone to actually get a  drink.

5.  While bartending, Brian also takes a business class that is taught by one of those insanely elitist professors who always seem to show up in movies like this.  When he returns student papers, he doesn’t just pass them out.  Instead, he literally tosses them at the students while offering up a few pithy words of dismissal.  Seriously, this guy has to be the worst teacher ever.  No wonder Brian would rather be a bartender than a student!

6. After having a fight with Doug, Brian somehow ends up working as a bartender in Jamaica where he suddenly starts speaking with a very fake Irish accent.  The Jamaica scenes serve to remind us that — despite the fact his great-great-great grandfather did come from Dublin — Tom Cruise is one of the least convincing Irishmen in the history of film.

7. In Jamaica, Brian meets and falls in love with Jordan (Elisabeth Shue) but, because he’s a sociopath, Brian cheats on her with Bonnie (Lisa Banes), who is a wealthy TV executive.  Bonnie brings Brian back to New York with her but, unfortunately, it turns out that Bonnie and Brian don’t have much in common beyond Bonnie wanting a young lover, Brian being young, Brian wanting a rich woman to take care of him, and Bonnie being rich.  What’s particularly interesting about these scenes is that the film doesn’t seem to understand that Brian is essentially coming across like the world’s biggest asshole here.  I think we’re meant to feel sorry for him but all we can really think about is how Bonnie could do so much better.

8. Around this time, Bonnie drags Brian to a museum where Brian ends up getting into a physical altercation with a condescending artist.  It’s at this point that the audience is justified in wondering if Brian has ever met anyone who didn’t eventually end up taking a swing at.

9. But guess what!  It turns out that not only does Jordan live in New York but she’s actually rich as well!  And she’s willing to forgive Brian for being a sociopathic jerk.  Unfortunately, Jordan’s father objects to his daughter running off with a sociopathic bartender so Brian — as usual — reacts by beating up a doorman and then literally dragging Jordan out of her apartment.  One scene later and Brian and Jordan are suddenly married and Brian owns a bar of his own.  Where did Brian get the money to open up his own bar?  Who knows!?  At this point, all that’s important is that the movie is nearly over and, in order for there to be a happy ending, Brian must both be married and a bar owner.  That seems to be the film’s message: “Just stay alive for two hours and the film’s script will be obligated to give you a happy ending whether it makes sense or not.”

10.  Brian is not only a bartender, he’s a poet!  And, amazingly enough, bar patrons are willing to put aside their desire to get a drink so they can listen to their bartender recite poems like this:

” I am the last barman poet / I see America drinking the fabulous cocktails I make / Americans getting stinky on something I stir or shake / The sex on the beach / The schnapps made from peach / The velvet hammer / The Alabama slammer. / I make things with juice and froth / The pink squirrel / The three-toed sloth. / I make drinks so sweet and snazzy / The iced tea / The kamakazi / The orgasm / The death spasm / The Singapore sling / The dingaling. / America you’ve just been devoted to every flavor I got / But if you want to got loaded / Why don’t you just order a shot? / Bar is open.”

Seriously, how can you not enjoy a film like Cocktail?  It’s just so totally ludicrous and melodramatic and, best of all, it seems to have absolutely no idea just how over-the-top and silly it really is.  Both Tom Cruise and Elisabeth Shue seem to take their roles so seriously that you seriously have to wonder what film they thought they were making.

Cocktail is the epitome of a guilty pleasure.

Tom Cruise In Cocktail

Previous Guilty Pleasures:

  1. Half-Baked
  2. Save The Last Dance
  3. Every Rose Has Its Thorns
  4. The Jeremy Kyle Show
  5. Invasion USA
  6. The Golden Child
  7. Final Destination 2
  8. Paparazzi
  9. The Principal
  10. The Substitute
  11. Terror In The Family
  12. Pandorum
  13. Lambada
  14. Fear

 

Horror Film Review: House At The End of the Street (dir. by Mark Tonderai)


Hi there!  I’m back!  For the past two weeks, I’ve been “on the road,” traveling from my home in Texas to Baltimore, Maryland and then back to Texas again.  It was a great two weeks and a much-needed vacation and now, I am back at my office here at the Shattered Lens Bunker, and I am refreshed and I am ready to get caught up on what really matters: reviewing movies.

This is October, perhaps the third greatest month of the year.  Traditionally, October is horror month here at the Shattered Lens and, for my first post-vacation film review, I want to take a look at an underappreciated horror film that came out right before I left for Maryland.  It was released to theaters on September 21st, was the number one film in the country for a week, and got next to no love from either mainstream critics or my fellow film bloggers.  It’s still playing at a theater near you and, believe it or not, it’s not that bad.  The name of the film?  The House At The End of the Street.

(Or, as my BFF Evelyn and I called it, “The House at the End of the Cleavage” because seriously…)

In The House At The End of Street, recently divorced Sarah (Elisabeth Shue) and her daughter Elissa (Jennifer Lawrence) move to a small country home.  Sarah has managed to buy a house that she really shouldn’t be able to afford and the new neighbors quickly explain to them that this is because, many years ago, a crazy girl named Carrie-Ann was living at the house at the end of the street and she murdered her parents before then disappearing into the woods.  Apparently, this has caused all of the property values in town to plummet and I really have to wonder why.  I’m not a real estate expert (for instance, I have no idea what a mortgage is and I have no desire to learn) but, personally, I would love to live next to a murder house.  Seriously, imagine the interesting conversations that could be started by saying, “So, my neighbor buried a salesman in his basement…”

But anyway, it turns out that Elissa has a perfect view of the house at the end of the street from her bedroom window and she quickly discovers that the house is not deserted.  It turns out that Carrie-Anne’s brother Ryan (Max Thieriot) is living in the house and, despite being shunned by the entire community, he seems to be a nice, sensitive guy.  Despite her mother’s misgiving, Elissa befriends Ryan and defends him against everyone who claims that he’s crazy.

Of course, what Elissa doesn’t know is that there’s another girl in Ryan’s life and she’s locked up in his basement…

When I look over the negative reviews of House at the End of the Street (especially the ones written by male film bloggers), I frequently come across the phrase “lifetime movie.”  Their argument seems to be that House At The End of the Street, with its emphasis on a single mom raising her daughter, was essentially just a PG-13 rated Lifetime movie.

Well, they’re right.

But so what?

Seriously, Lifetime movies are a lot of fun to watch when you’re in the right mood for them and that’s a perfect way to describe House At The End Of The Street.  It’s a lot of fun, the type of silly horror film that’s fun to watch with a group of friends.  Max Thieriot plays the type of cute but damaged (and potentially dangerous) outsider that every girl has had a crush on and, for the boys in the audience, there’s plenty of cleavage and visible bra straps.

Finally, I think the main reason that House At The End of the Street stayed with me is because both Elisabeth Shue and Jennifer Lawrence really invested themselves in their roles.  They were totally believable as mother and daughter and their loving but occasionally contentious relationship felt totally true-to-life (or, at the very least, it was true to my life).  Lawrence and Shue both give performances that bring some unexpected depth to this underrated film.

Review: Piranha 3-D (directed by Alexandre Aja)


Yesterday, I had two concerns about going to see the new horror film, Piranha 3-D.

First off, I know that 3-D has been hailed as “the future of movies” and that apparently, Webster’s is considering whether to recognize 3Dgasm (which is the response that certain film goers have to 3-D regardless of whether the movie itself is actually good or if it’s just Avatar) for inclusion in the next edition of the dictionary.  However, 3-D often makes me sick to my stomach and I mean that literally.  3-D makes me feel car sick.  Considering that I love movies, if 3-D is the “future” than I’m probably being punished for something.  That’s right.  Avatar was just a result of my bad karma. 

As for the second concern, I can’t swim and I am terrified of being underwater.  Hanging onto the edge while wading in the shallow side of my uncle’s swimming pool is about as submerged as I can get without having a major freak out.  It’s not just drowning that scares me.   When I was 17, my family spent the summer in Hawaii and my sisters (being the meanies that they are) had a lot of fun with the fact that I’d spend hours lying out on the beach but I refused to even step into the ocean.  It made sense to me.  There were jellyfish and sharks and those weird little black coil things just floating around in the ocean.  Thanks to seeing Piranha 3-D, I now know that there are also cute little fish that will eat you.

I dealt with my fear of the water by asking my sister Erin (who can actually swim because she’s cool and I’m not) to see the movie with me and to keep me calm if I started to have a panic attack.  She agreed and she did an admirable job.  She also helped me deal with my fear of 3-D when, during the coming attractions, she said, “Why don’t you take a Dramamine?”  Now, according to Erin, the only reason she said this was because apparently I was “going on and on” about it.  That’s not how I remember it but I just happened to have some Dramamine in my purse and I quickly popped a few.

If you’ve ever taken Dramamine then you know the way that it works is by basically kicking your ass until you pass out for a few hours.  (I occasionally resort to using it whenever I’m getting hit with insomnia.)  Within minutes of taking it, the Dramamine was saying, “Sleep, Lisa…”  “But I want to see the movie,” I replied.  “That wasn’t a request,” the pill responded.  “Dammit, will you two shut up!?” Erin snapped.  (That may have not actually happened.) 

The point of all this is that I stayed awake through the entire movie, despite having taken the most powerful sleeping pill in existence.  True, my mind did go a little bit goofy (Erin says I was “babbling” through the entire film) but it never shut down.  That’s the type of movie Piranha 3-D is.  The story moves so quickly and the mayhem is so over-the-top and excessive that the brain never gets a chance to relax enough to check out.

Piranha 3-D begins with an earthquake in Arizona.  The earthquake opens up a passageway to an underground lake.  As look would have it, the underground lake is full of a bunch of prehistoric piranha.  These piranha quickly move up to an above-ground lake where they promptly eat Richard Dreyfuss.  Having gotten a taste of Dreyfuss, they apparently decide to eat every other human being they come across and who can blame them?

Actually, the bloody and graphic demise of Richard Dreyfuss was the first clue I had that this film was going to work.  Needless to say, Dreyfuss is the last surviving star of the original killer fish movie, Jaws.  In Jaws, Dreyfuss is plays a character named Matt Hooper.  In Piranha, he’s just named Matt.  By introducing him and then promptly killing him off, Piranha lets us know that it understands the legacy of previous horror blockbusters (like Jaws) but that it has no intention of respecting it.  In other words, this scene lets us know early on that the film is on the side of the fish.

Anyway, it turns out that its spring break and as a result, Lake Victoria, Arizona is full of stupid, drunken college students who are determined to hang out in the water no matter how many people get eaten.  Sheriff Julie Forrester (Elisabeth Shue) struggles to maintain order on the streets with the help of her loyal deputy (a very likeable Ving Rhames).  Julie is also a single mother and, the morning after ol’ Richard Dreyfuss gets devoured, her oldest son Jake (Steven R. McQueen, grandson of the star of Enemy of the People) blows off his baby-sitting duties and agrees to help sleazy Derrick Jones (Jerry O’Connell) film the latest installment of Girls Gone Wild on the lake.  Sleazy, speedo-clad Derrick (and the fact that O’Connell looks really good in it doesn’t make that red speedo any less ludicrous) attempts to initiate Kelly (Jessica Szhor), the “good” girl who Jake likes into the world of straight-to-video, jailbait porn.  Kelly, by the way, kinda has a boyfriend, a guy named Todd who will eventually end up killing a lot of people with a motorboat.  Even before this, we know he’s a bad guy because he’s named Todd.  Nobody named Todd or Tad is ever good in a horror movie.

Director Alexandre Aja doesn’t take much time introducing his cast of characters and he takes even less time in letting the fish devour them.  So, no, the characters aren’t exactly all that developed.  But it doesn’t matter really.  With what little they have to work with, the cast works wonders.  They know exactly what type of film that they’re in and they know why they are there and they embrace their roles as piranha fodder with an impressive sense of commitment.  Best of all is O’Connell who turns sleazy, coke-fueled egomania into some sort of art form.

The real star of the film, of course, is director Alexandra Aja who takes a mainstream genre piece and who, much like his fellow French director, Jean Rollin, transforms it into a piece of pure grindhouse exploitation.  Aja may use the clichés of the genre but he never blindly embraces them.  Instead, he uses them to comment on both the genre and the audiences expectations of what those cliches mean.  Aja takes everything we’ve come to expect — the blood and gore, the standard plot device of Shue’s children being stranded out on the lake, and the sudden death of nameless extras — and he then pushes them just a little further than the audience is expecting,  As a result, he not only comments on those expectations but he forces the audience to question them as well.

This is never more apparent than in the film’s climatic piranha attack.  This is when the piranha finally get around to attacking all of the swimmers at once.  This is the scene that we all know is coming and that we’ve all been expecting and Aja does not disappoint.  Things start out as you might expect.  Close-up of bikinis.  Drunk idiots in the water.  A wet t-shirt contest.  Rhamas and Shue come up in a boat and start yelling, “Everybody out of the water!”  Because they’re a bunch of drunk dumbfugs, everyone responds by jumping into the water.  Cut to an ominous piranha point-of-view shot.  Suddenly, one woman — floating out in an inntertube — shouts, “Something bit me!”  And suddenly, all Hell breaks loose.

This is the scene you knew was coming and you’ve seen it a hundred times before.  What makes it memorable here is just how far director Aja takes things.  These fish don’t just bite their victims.  They literally devour them while the camera lingers over every piece of flesh that floats through the ocean.  As everyone struggles to get out of the water, they get their skulls split open by passing boats.  In the background, we see various feet, hands, and other body parts randomly floating in the water.  One older man pulls his friend’s torso onto the beach and cradles it while screaming, “I love you, man!  I love you!”  As Shue tries to pull people out of the water, we see a teenager that’s already on the boat start to shake as his life expires.  As I mentioned before, Todd tries to escape by forcing his motorboat through the crowd of terrified swimmers and graphically dismembers a lot of people in the process.  It’s an incredibly graphic sequence, one that starts out as fun but which just keeps going and going,  Director Aja understands that the audiences is expecting — probably even looking forward to — seeing a little blood.  So, instead he assaults us with a lot of blood and he does so in such a way that the audience is forced to question why a little blood is fun but a lot of blood is disturbing.  It’s as if Aja is saying, “You wanted to see people die, well — here they are, dead.  You feel better now?”

As for the 3-D, Aja proves himself to be one of the few filmmakers to understand that 3-D is not the future of movies.  It’s just another gimmick to be exploited and exploit it he does.  However, he does so brilliantly and he is so shameless about it that watching Piranha 3-D simply serves to reiterate just how silly the whole 3-D craze really is.  Every short is a tracking shot.  The CGI piranha float across the screen, stopping momentarily to stare straight out at the audience and almost wink.  The men in the audience seemed to be especially happy about all the boobs that literally seem to swing out of the screen and across the theater but they were a bit less enthused when a disembodied penis came floating out of the screen.  By not only fully embracing the ludicrous possibilities of 3-D but by also doing so without any shamefaced attempts to justify its use, Piranha 3-D is perhaps the greatest 3-D movie ever made.