Horror Film Review: Jacob’s Ladder (dir by Adrian Lyne)


The 1990 film Jacob’s Ladder asks the question, “Who is Jacob Singer?”

Is Jacob (played by Tim Robbins), a soldier serving in Vietnam who has just been severely wounded in an enemy attack and who is now barely clinging to life in a helicopter?

Is Jacob a withdrawn postal worker who lives in 1970s New York with his girlfriend, Jezzie (Elizabeth Pena), and who is haunted by horrifying visions of faceless, vibrating figures and viscous demons?  This Jacob is haunted by ill-defined past incidents.  Whenever he gets depressed, Jezzie is quick to demand that he snap out of it and that he stop thinking about anything other than the present day.  This Jacob can only watch as all of his old friends either sink into paranoia or die.  He hears rumors that they all may have been part of some sort of experiment involving LSD.  He’s sure that he served in the army but when he attempts to hire an attorney, he’s informed that the army has no record of him ever having served in combat and that they say he was discharged for psychological reasons.

Or is Jacob the husband of Sarah (Patricia Kalember) and the father of Gabe (Macaulay Culkin — yes, that Culkin)?  This is the Jacob who occasionally wakes up in bed with his wife and tells her that he’s been having the weirdest dream, one where he was living with “that crazy woman” from the post office, Jezebel?

Which one of these three realities is the truth for Jacob?  At times, Jacob himself doesn’t even seem to be sure.  Perhaps the one thing that you can be sure about in this movie is that whenever Jacob closes his eyes, he’s going to reopen them and discover that he’s in a different time and place.  Jacob spends almost the entire film trying to work out what’s happening in the present, what’s happening in the past, and what’s just happening in his head.

And, to be honest, it all gets a bit pretentious at times.  The film’s script has a lot on its mind.  In fact, it might have a little bit too much going on.  No sooner have you soaked in what the film has to say about denial and acceptance than you’re suddenly getting a crash course in MK-ULTRA and other mind-control conspiracy theories.  Whenever Jacob isn’t seeing demons and faceless apparitions, he’s being kidnapped by government agents.  There’s so much going on that this film can get a bit exhausting.

Fortunately, the film itself is such a triumph of style that it doesn’t matter that the script is a bit of a mess.  Director Adrian Lyne does a great job bringing Jacob’s nightmarish world to life.  Jacob seems to live in a world where the skies are permanently overcast and the streets are always wet after a recent storm.  When Jacob makes the mistake of walking down a subway tunnel, Lyne frames it as if Jacob is literally following a tunnel into Hell.  When a subway train rushes by Jacob, we catch disturbing glimpses of featureless faces facing the windows.  When Jacob sees a demon at a party, Lynne films the moment so that, just like Jacob, it takes us a few minutes to realize what we’re seeing.  And when Jacob is kidnapped and taken to a Hellish hospital, the scene is nightmarish in its intensity.

Tim Robbins gives a great performance as the emotionally withdrawn and haunted Jacob.  (In fact, he’s so good that it makes it all the more sad that he really hasn’t had a decent role since he won an Oscar for 2003’s Mystic River.)  He’s matched by Elizabeth Pena, who constantly keeps you wondering if Jezzie truly cares about Jacob or if she’s just another part of the conspiracy that seems to have taken over his life.

Jacob’s Ladder is an intensely effective, if somewhat messy, horror film.  Apparently, like almost every other horror film released in the 20th century, it’s currently being remade, with the remake due to released on February 9th.  Just in time for Valentine’s Day!

Film Review: Patty Hearst (dir by Paul Schrader)


The 1988 film, Patty Hearst, is based on a fascinating true story.

In 1974, newspaper heiress Patty Hearst was a 19 year-old student at Berkeley who was kidnapped from her apartment by a group of self-styled leftist revolutionaries known as the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA).  The SLA was led by a charismatic escaped prisoner who called himself Field Marshal Cinque and who announced — via messages that Hearst read into a tape recorder — that Hearst was being held hostage in the name of social justice.  The police and FBI spent several months unsuccessfully searching for Hearst until one day, the SLA released an audio tape in which Hearst announced that she had now joined the SLA and would now be known as Tania.  Hearst was soon robbing banks and went from being a hostage to a wanted criminal.  When she was arrested in 1975, Hearst claimed to have been brainwashed by the SLA and people still debate whether she was a sincere revolutionary, a calculating criminal, or a victim.

(From what I’ve read about the Hearst kidnapping, I guess the modern day equivalent would be if Kendall Jenner disappeared and then resurfaced in Portland, setting cars on fire with Antifa.)

What can said for sure is that, after being arrested and convicted of bank robbery, Patty Hearst was sentenced to 7 years in prison.  Hearst served less than three years before her sentence was commuted by President Jimmy Carter.  Twenty years later, another President — Bill Clinton — gave her a full pardon.  Needless to say, the rest of the SLA did not receive a pardon or, for that matter, even a commutation.  The majority of them, including Field Marshal Cinque, died in a fiery explosion that came at the climax of a gun battle with police.  The rest were arrested, convicted, and ended up serving their full sentences.  Of course, while the majority of the SLA came from middle and upper middle class backgrounds, only one of them was the heir to a fortune.  When she was arrested, Patty may have given her career as being an “urban guerilla,” but ultimately, she was the granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst.

(Regardless of whether you believe Patty Hearst was brainwashed or not, it’s an undeniable fact that it’s easier to be a revolutionary when you know you won’t face any serious consequences if the revolution eventually fails.  If the members of the SLA were around today, they could just spend their time on twitter, retweeting John Fugelsang’s thoughts on Jesus.  But, in 1974, there was no twitter…)

Based on Every Secret Thing, Hearst’s own account of her kidnapping and subsequent life as a fugitive, Patty Hearst opens with the heiress (played by Natasha Richardson) being kidnapped and held prisoner by the SLA.  For the first fourth of the film, we see everything exclusively through Patty’s eyes.  She spends her days locked in a dark closet that’s so tiny that she can barely stand.  Whenever the door is opened, shafts a bright light flood both the closet and the screen, blinding not only Patty but the audience as well.  At first, Patty cannot even see the faces of the people who have kidnapped her.  All she knows are their voices.  Whenever that door opens, neither Patty nor the viewer knows whether she’s going to fed, berated, comforted, or raped.  All four of them happen to her, several times over the course of her time in that closet.  It’s harrowing to watch, all the more so because Natasha Richardson gives such an empathetic and bravely vulnerable performance as Patty.  When Patty is finally allowed to leave that closet, the audience is almost thankful as she is.  And, when Patty gets out of the closet, the look of the film changes as well.  It goes from being darkly lit to almost garishly colorful.  Patty’s entire world has changed.

The first part of the film is so powerful that it’s not surprising that the rest of Patty Hearst suffers by comparison.  Once Patty gets out of the closet and declares her allegiance to the revolution, she becomes a bit of a dead-eyed zombie and the focus naturally shifts to the rest of the SLA.  Ving Rhames gives a powerful performance as Cinque, the head of the SLA.  Cinque may be a passionate revolutionary but he also has a dangerous messianic streak.  Even worse, the film suggests, is Cinque’s lieutenant, Teko (William Forsythe).  Teko claims to be a revolutionary but ultimately reveals himself to be as much of a misogynist as those who he claims to oppose.  (Today, Teko would probably be one of those guys arguing that it’s okay for him to use the C word because he’s an “ally.”)  Whereas Cinque has no doubt about his revolutionary commitment, Teko always seem to be trying to prove something to everyone, especially himself.

Ultimately, Patty becomes almost a bystander to her own story.  For a time, she is the most famous bystander in the country.  Though the film is sympathetic to Patty, Natasha Richardson plays her with just a hint of ambiguity.  Ultimately, Patty comes across as someone desperately searching for an identity.  Since she is not sure who she ultimately is, it’s easy for Patty to become an “urban guerilla” and it’s just as easy for to her go back to being an heiress.  By the end of the film, it’s obvious that Patty is just as confused by her life as everyone else.

Patty Hearst was directed by Paul Schrader, who is best known for writing the scripts for such films as Taxi Driver and Rolling Thunder.  (Among Schrader’s other directorial credits: Blue Collar, Hardcore, American Gigolo, Cat People, and The Canyons.  Needless to say, he’s had an interesting career.)  In many ways, Patty Hearst is probably more relevant today than it was first released.  Considering that our culture is currently dominated by people pretending to be revolutionaries and celebrities famous solely for being famous, Patty Hearst feels rather prophetic.

Watching this film and experiencing Patty’s transformation from vapid heiress to brainwashed political activist to briefly notorious celebrity, I realized that we now live in a world of Patty Hearsts.

Film Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (dir by James Gunn)


(MINOR SPOILERS!  SPECIFICALLY, THE IDENTITY OF THIS FILM’S MAIN VILLAIN WILL BE REVEALED)

The Guardians of the Galaxy are back!

And this time, they’ve brought some new friends with them, friends with names like Kurt Russell, Sylvester Stallone, and … David Hasselhoff?

That’s right.  David Hasselhoff is now a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and somehow, it feels totally appropriate.  For all the words that have been written comparing Guardians of the Galaxy to the Star Wars franchise, it’s true ancestor is the 1978 Italian film, Starcrash.  (Perhaps not coincidentally, Starcrash was Hasselhoff’s film debut.)  Watch the trailer below and just try to tell me that you can’t imagine Chris Pratt and Zoe Saldana in the lead roles.

But enough about my obsession with Italian exploitation films.  I know the question that you want answered.  Is Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 as good as the first one?

Well, it depends on how you look at it.  Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 is an absolute blast, a wonderfully entertaining film that mixes subversive comedy with sci-fi action.  Everyone from the first film — Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Karen Gillan, Michael Rooker, and the voices of Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel — is back and they’ve still got the same winning chemistry that made the first film so much fun.  Everyone is still committed to their roles, delivering even the strangest of dialogue with undeniable flair.  Nobody’s gotten bored with saving the universe yet.  The new additions to the cast are all well selected.  Kurt Russell totally disproves the assumption that MCU villains are never as interesting as their heroic opponents but, then again, it helps that he’s playing a character who has a memorable and odd backstory.  Once again, director James Gunn combines crowd-pleasing moments with his own sharp sense of humor.  If the pompous tone of Man of Steel and Batman v Superman made you sick, Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 is the perfect antidote.

Unfortunately, Volume 2 doesn’t provide the same thrill of discovery as the first film.  It’s easy to forget that, before the first film came out, a lot of people were predicting that Guardians of the Galaxy would be the first MCU film to flop at the box office.  The conventional wisdom was that, as opposed to a character like Captain America, no one, outside of a few comic book readers, knew who the Guardians of the Galaxy were.  Chris Pratt was just the goofy guy from Parks and Recreation.  A talking raccoon?  A walking tree?  It was all way too weird, the naysayers proclaimed, to appeal to a mainstream audience.

However, James Gunn proved them wrong.  Guardians of the Galaxy was not only the most successful MCU film to that date but it was also my pick for the best film of 2014.  I can still remember watching it for the first time and immediately falling in love with both the film’s skewered sensibility and Chris Pratt’s funny but soulful performance.  As opposed to a lot of films that were nominated for and won Oscars that year, Guardians of the Galaxy actually holds up after repeat viewings.

(Seriously, has anyone tried to rewatch Birdman lately?)

Going into the sequel, everyone now knows who the Guardians are and Chris Pratt is now a beloved film star.  Volume 2 has a lot to live up to and, for the most part, it succeeds.  It’s a tremendous amount of fun and, at the same time, it has a heart.  (The heart at the center of the Guardian of the Galaxy films is perhaps the biggest heart in the MCU.)

What is the film about?  Much like the first film, it’s about family.  After years of telling everyone that his father was David Hasselhoff, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) finally meets his real father (Kurt Russell), a God-like figure named Ego.  Charismatic, cheerful, and just a little bit odd, Ego seems like the perfect father figure but he has some secrets of his own.  Russell gives a wonderful performance, making Ego one of the few MCU villains to be as interesting as the heroes.

While Peter is bonding with his dad, he is also being pursued by his adoptive father, the blue-skinned space pirate named Yondu (Michael Rooker).  Yondu has been rejected by both his adopted son and the rest of his adopted family.  The other space pirates are no longer loyal to him.  His former boss (Sylvester Stallone) wants nothing to do with him.  As silly as it all may sound, it’s also unexpectedly poignant, thanks to Michael Rooker’s performance.  Rooker has appeared in several of Gunn’s films.  He’s almost the Cary Grant to Gunn’s Alfred Hitchcock.  Rooker gives one of the best performances of his careeer in the role of Yondu.  It’s tempting to be dismissive of Yondu, with his blue-skin and his Alabama accent, but Rooker makes him one of the most compelling characters to ever be found in an MCU film.

Meanwhile, Rocket Raccoon (voiced again by Bradley Cooper) has become a surrogate father figure to Groot (voice by Vin Diesel), who is still just a baby tree.  (Groot, a living tree, was reduced to just a twig at the end of the first film.  Fortunately, Rocket planted the twig and, in another few movies, we’ll hopefully have a fully grown Groot.)  Yes, Baby Groot does get to dance, again.  At one point, one of the film’s villains forbids any of his henchmen from attacking Baby Groot because he’s just too adorable to destroy.  And he’s right!  After this movie, everyone will want a Baby Groot of their own.

Gamora (Zoe Saldana) has been reunited with her sister, Nebula (Karen Gilliam) and, once again, they spend most of the movie trying to kill each other.  I have three older sisters so I related to their relationship.

And finally, Drax (Dave Bautista) is still mourning his family.  Fortunately, he gets to spend some quality time with Ego’s odd assistant, an empath named Mantis (Pom Klementieff).  Drax and Mantis both have no idea how social interaction is supposed to work and their scenes together are definitely a highlight of the film.  Bautista and Klementieff share a really likable chemistry.  Bautista is one of those actors who can make you laugh just be giving the camera a quizzical look.  Drax may not be as a complicated as the other Guardians but that simplicity often makes him as interesting as his more complex compatriots.

The film’s not only about family.  It’s also a strike against elitism and a celebration for freedom.  Over the course of two films, the Guardians have battled against both an actual god and a fanatic who claimed to speak for God.  At a time when so many movie heroes are tools of authoritarianism, the Guardians of the Galaxy stand for freedom.  In many ways, Peter Quill is as much of a symbol for liberty as Captain America.  Captain America makes his point with a shield while Peter Quill makes his case by dancing.

As might be expected from an MCU film, Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 is full of thrilling visuals, exciting battles, and quotable one liners.  Even if it never reaches the heights of the first one, it’s a blast of a film and, as Arleigh told me it would, the finale brought tears to my mismatched eyes.  See it and have a good time.

Also, be sure to stick around through the entire end credits.  Along with a lot of clues about what might happen in the future of the MCU, there’s also one final Groot joke that made me laugh out loud.

Enjoy!

 

Film Review: Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation (dir by Christopher McQuarrie)


Rebecca FergusonEarlier tonight, Jeff and I saw Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation and now I’m pretty sure that I’m developing huge girl crush on actress Rebecca Ferguson.

She plays Ilsa Faust, a former operative for M.I.6. who is now somehow involved with a shadowy terrorist organization known as The Syndicate.  And while Ilsa may only be a supporting character (because, after all, this is a Mission Impossible film and therefore, Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt is unquestionably the star), she dominates every scene that she’s in.  Whether she’s escape the scene of an attempted assassination while wearing a dress that is simply to die for or rescuing Ethan Hunt from certain death, Ilsa Faust is a woman who kicks ass, takes no prisoners, and looks great while she’s doing it.  As much as I love Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff, Ilsa Faust is my new espionage role model.

The movie attempts to suggest that there’s some sexual chemistry between Ilsa and Ethan.  Oddly enough, there’s not.  Tom Cruise looks good and he gives a confident and likable performance but, as a character, Ethan comes across as being almost asexual.  He seems to be attracted to only intrigue and danger.  And yet, that lack of authentic romantic chemistry actually works to the film’s advantage.  Ilsa is never reduced to merely being a love interest.  Instead, she’s an equal to Ethan throughout the entire film.

Of course, Ilsa has secrets of her own.  Everyone in Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation has a secret.  The film opens with the IMF being disbanded and its operatives being absorbed into the CIA.  When the CIA director (Alec Baldwin, in full jerk mode) orders Ethan to stop investigating the Syndicate, Ethan goes underground and continues his activities in secret.  His allies (Jeremy Renner, Ving Rhames, and the great Simon Pegg) can only help him in secret.  The origins of the Syndicate turn out to be the biggest secret of all.  There are so many secrets in Rogue Nation that it’s sometimes hard to keep track of them all but, again, that works to the film’s advantage.  It keeps the audience off-balance.  You never know when someone’s going to suddenly pull out a gun and start shooting or rip off a mask and reveal themselves to be someone else.

Rogue Nation is an entertaining action film.  The stunts are spectacular and the set pieces are exciting and enjoyably over the top.  (There’s a scene where Ethan Hunt has to change out a security card while holding his breath underwater and I literally watched it through my fingers.)  I wouldn’t suggest trying to read too much into the film and yet, at the same time, Rogue Nation does capture the paranoid times in which we live. The film manages to both condemn the excesses of government while celebrating the toys that make those excesses possible.  The average film goer may not be able to do all of the things that Ilsa and Ethan can do but we all know what it’s like not to trust authority.

That’s what makes Solomon Lane, the main villain played by Sean Harris, such an interesting character.  I know that some reviewers have complained that Lane’s role was underwritten but I have to disagree.  Lane may not be as verbose as the typical spy movie villain but I appreciated the fact that he remained somewhat enigmatic up to the conclusion of the film.  He never made the mistake of over explaining his evil plan and accidentally giving the IMF team extra time in which to defeat him.  (Solomon Lane obviously learned his lesson from watching countless would-be world conquerors accidentally allow James Bond to get the better of them.)  Lane may be ruthless and evil but he’s also a revolutionary who is outraged by some of the same things that the rest of us are outraged by.  This brings a welcome hint of ambiguity to the film.

Though it never quite reaches the lunatic highs of either Kingsman or Furious Seven, Rogue Nation is still an enjoyable and effective action movie.  Undoubtedly, Ethan and the IMF team will return in another installment.  Here’s hoping that Ilsa Faust gets a spin-off of her very own.

 

 

Shattered Politics #54: Dave (dir by Ivan Reitman)


Dave Poster

Way back in 1919, the terrible U.S. President and tyrannical dictator Woodrow Wilson* suffered a stroke that left him semi-paralyzed and unable to perform his duties.  By all standards, Wilson should have been removed from office, if just temporarily.  However, in those pre-Internet days, it was a lot easier to hide the truth about Wilson’s physical and mental condition.  While Wilson spent his days locked away in his bedroom, his wife Edith would forge his signature on bills.  Whenever anyone asked for the President’s opinion, Edith would give her opinion and then assure everyone that it was actually the President’s.

(And really, as long as you were promoting eugenics and white supremacy, it probably was not difficult to imitate Wilson’s opinions.)

Of course, back then, people were used to the idea of never seeing their President in public.  Hence, it was very easy for Wilson to remain sequestered in the White House.  If a similar situation happened today, it’s doubtful that anyone could successfully keep the public from finding out.  When we don’t see the President every day, we wonder why.  How, in this day and age, could a Presidential incapacitation be covered up?

The 1993 film Dave offers up one possible solution.

Dave is the story of two men who happen to look exactly like Kevin Kline.  One of them is named Bill Mitchell and he’s the arrogant and corrupt President of the United States.  The other is named Dave Kovic.  He’s a nice guy who runs a temp agency and who has a nice side job going as a professional Bill Mitchell imitator.

So, when Bill has a stroke while having sex with a white house staffer (Laura Linney), it only makes sense to recruit Dave Kovic to pretend to the President.  White House Chief of Staff Bob Alexander (played by Frank Langella, so you know he’s evil) tells Dave that Vice President Nance (Ben Kingsley) is insane and corrupt.  Dave agrees to imitate the President.  Of course, Alexander’s main plan is to convince Nance to resign and then get Dave to appoint him as Vice President.  Once Alexander is Vice President, it will be announced that Mitchell has had another stroke and then Alexander will move into the Oval Office.

However, what Alexander did not take into account was just how much Dave would enjoy being President.  From the moment that he joyfully shouts, “God Bless, America!,” Dave’s enthusiasm starts to win the public over.  Suddenly, people are realizing that President Mitchell isn’t such a bad President after all.  Even more importantly, Dave wins over the first lady (Sigourney Weaver) who, previously, had little use for her philandering husband.  When Alexander claims that there’s no money in the budget to continue funding a program for the homeless, Dave calls in his best friend, an accountant named Murray (Charles Grodin), and has him rewrite the budget…

And you know what?

Dave is one of those films that tempts me to be all cynical and snarky but, ultimately, the film itself is so likable and earnest that I can even accept the idea that one accountant could balance the budget through common sense alone.  I’ll even accept the idea that Dave could come up with a program that would guarantee everyone employment without, at the same time, bankrupting the country.  Kevin Kline is so enthusiastic in the lead role and the film itself is so good-natured that it almost feels wrong to criticize it for being totally implausible.

Sometimes, you just have to appreciate a film for being likable.

Dave—–

* For those of you keeping count, that’s the third time in two weeks that I’ve referred to Woodrow Wilson as being  a dictator.  Before anyone points out that some historians rank Wilson as being in the top ten of President, allow me to say that I don’t care.  I DO WHAT I WANT!

Trailer: Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (Official)


I’ll be honest and admit that I wasn’t overly impressed by J.J. Abrams’ Mission: Impossible 3 and when it was announced that a fourth film in the franchise was going into production my initial reaction was an emphatic “meh”. It didn’t help when Pixar veteran Brad Bird was chosen to helm this fourth film. This was a filmmaker who did a great job with Pixar animated films, but still an unknown quantity when it came to live-action projects.

As the months passed and news filtered out from the film’s production the news was positive with many who have seen some rough footage becoming convinced that Brad Bird might know what he’s doing outside the Pixar stable. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol was soon being talked as being one of the most-awaited films of 2011. This newly-released first official trailer goes a long way into adding more positive buzz to a film already hyped up on it.

Also, it has Paula Patton in it, nuff said.

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is set for a December 16, 2011 release.

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.