Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Piranha 3D (2010)

In my eager little gorehound heart, this summer belonged to one movie: Piranha 3D. I’d been squirming in my chair for nearly six months, just waiting for this gory mayhem to splatter across the screen. My Bloody Valentine 3D was one of the funnest movie experiences of my life, with a packed late-night audience yelping and shrieking as if on cue. Does Piranha 3D (henceforth P3D, because I’m a lazy shmuck) reach that pinnacle of blood-drenched eye-candy?

Yes. Yes it does.

Ah, spring break. The mid-semester oasis from the college rat race. A time to unwind, rest up before finals, and catch up on the hip new STDs you’ve been missing out on. It’s an essential part of the college experience, like Natty Ice, date rape, and Scarface posters; the perfect storm of raging hormones, cheap liquor, and bullshit ‘Carpe Diem” philosophy.

Where’s the ultimate spring break party spot? Tijuana? Ibiza? Anchorage? For several thousand vodka-fueled party animals, the answer is Lake Victoria, Arizona. Normally a sleepy little town, Lake Victoria is annually transformed into a writhing, booty-shaking primordial ooze of sex juice and vomit (from which I presume Ke$ha and Katy Perry first sprouted legs and crawled onto dry land).

But this year, things are going to be a little more interesting. As the drunken menace descends on Lake Victoria, a finned, razor-toothed one arises from her depths, hungry for tender, beer-marinaded human meat. Shaken from a watery tomb by an earthquake, schools of pre-historic super piranha make a beeline for the bikini buffet.

If you haven’t walked out yet, you’re gonna like what happens next!

Movies like P3D can succeed even with terrible actors (My Bloody Valentine 3D, for instance), so when the acting is good, it’s a special treat. P3D is loaded with special treats, including some we’ve seen before.

Elizabeth Shue plays the Lake Victoria’s sheriff, the sort of smart, confident, woman-in-a-man’s-world heroine. Despite the character familiarity, she’s very likeable in the role. Shue is one of those actresses that apparently everyone but me knows and loves. Of the films on her extensive filmography, I’ve only seen one (Karate Kid). But if she’s as cool and funny in all her films as she is here, I’ll definitely check out her other stuff.

Ving Rhames gets to flex his bad-ass-itude as Shue’s deputy. He’s…well…he’s Ving Rhames, hulking, growling, supremely intimidating. (If this guy had played the Michael Clarke Duncan role in The Green Mile, he’d probably cure Tom Hanks’ urinary problem by ripping his penis off.) Few actors look as cool brandishing a firearm. Not that that’s Rhames’ piranha repellent of choice—not when he can wield an out-board motor to get medieval on their fishy asses.

I have no idea who Jerry O’connell is, but he’s great as Derrick, the ultra-sleazy filmmaker shooting on-location for his porn site, Wild Wild Girls. His glass-bottomed yacht, originally a playground for his frolicking nudie cuties, becomes the OK Corral for the final showdown between man and fish. Charming, manipulative, self-centered, and endlessly misogynistic, O’connell plays this coke-snorting, Speedo-sporting horndog to perfection. He’s a lovable, despicable scumbag, and his demise is appropriately memorable.

If you salivate and twitch at the idea of a 3D killer piranha movie, you probably don’t care about the TV kids who play our young heroes (the sheriff’s son and his ex). You’re more interested in the cameos, specifically Christopher Plummer as a fish expert (and amateur paleo-ichthyologist!), and Richard Dreyfus reprising (for all of 2 minutes) his role of Hooper from Jaws. Of less note, Eli Roth hosts a wet-tshirt contest (I still prefer him cracking Nazi skulls with a baseball bat). And you smut-hounds will probably recognize a genuine porn actress or two among the mangled victims. (I thought that topless parasailor looked familiar!)

Speaking of which, it’s nudity time! P3D boasts more nudity than I’ve seen in an R-rated movie. (Let’s be honest, though. Ratings are a scam.) There’re boobs everywhere: big boobs, small boobs, perky naturals, and spherical fakes. There’s also a small selection of shaved lady-parts, if you’re into that. (If you don’t dig the pre-pubescent look, tough luck.) Every beach scene (before the feeding frenzy begins) is an undulating jungle of taut bellies, bouncing butts, and jiggling breasts—it’s like a longer, raunchier music video, awful music and all. For you classy cineastes, there’s even a nude underwater ballet interlude (I was whistling “Flower Duet” for days—and so will you!).

(With all this rump-shaking going one, I probably shouldn’t be kvetching about what said rumps are shaking to. But good lord, what is this GARBAGE! I’m sick of this electro-pop crap. It sounds like 1000 armor-clad bees having disco-themed orgy in an oil drum—with a little rapping thrown in. It’s 2010, people. Please stop copying “Satisfaction” by Benny Benassi. And that goes for you too, Benny Benassi.)

Oh, lord, the gore! The delirious, wonderful gore! This is gore done right, with the icky stuff rendered almost entirely in makeup and prosthetics, old-school practical style. Legendary makeup artist Greg Nicotero (Day of the Dead, Predator, Dances With Wolves, Hostel, etc. etc. etc.) wrangles the red stuff in P3D and the resulting carnage is downright gorgeous. On top of the expected water-borne flesh mangling (which looks exactly like you’d expect a real piranha attack would look like), we get scores of increasingly creative deaths. Obviously, lots of imagination and love went into this parade of evisceration. I won’t spoil any kills, but if you like to watch young people die in gruesome fashions, this is your movie.

Of course these herds of disposable bimbos and douchebags are clichés, but they’re clichés that college kids like me see every day. Ever see some vapid, orange-skinned ­­tramp, or a muscle-head jerk spewing ebonics and calling everyone “bro,” and just wonder how they’d look with their intestines hanging out? I know I have. Sometimes I want to see the bright young minds of tomorrow floating on the lake surface in a thin pink-red scum. If watching (fictional) college students die violently is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

The piranha themselves, as you’d expect, are CGI. How else could you produce thousands of lightning quick, flesh-ripping baddies? These are big spiny bastards, savage leftovers from the dinosaur days. Do they look realistic? No. Are they cool? Hell yeah.

I would have liked more real underwater cinematography, but hey, this is a 3D gorefest, not a David Attenborough film. What do you expect?

I had a blast at P3D. My only regret is that I didn’t see it with a packed movie-house crowd, screaming, cringing, and cheering. Movies like this are meant to be a group activity.
Here’s a caveat, though. Piranha 3D is a 3d movie, which makes it a little difficult to recommend. On the one hand, the 3D effects are the best I’ve seen since My Bloody Valentine 3D, despite being done in post. The textures and details aren’t always at the correct depth, but who cares when there’s flying fish guts and human viscera spraying all over you? Good as the effect are, though, I can’t say they’re worth the 3D surcharge. At my local multiplex, 3D is $4 extra, on top of an already criminal $7.50 (and that’s for matinees!).

James Cameron has accused Piranha 3D cheapening the 3D medium. (The nerve of this guy! As if Avatar wasn’t one of the most brainless, derivative, preachy movies of 2009.) But it obviously didn’t cheapen 3D. If it had, I wouldn’t need to shell out 4 bucks for some goofy Roy Orbison glasses. Shmucks like Cameron need to realize this: As long as there’s a 3D surcharge, 3D will still be just a gimmick.

P3D, to its benefit, uses 3D exactly as it should be used: as a gimmick, a toy, a way to poke audiences with stiff nipples and severed limbs. If you’ve got the dough, you should treat yourself to this. If you don’t, it’ll still be plenty fun to watch in 2D, at home.

See it before that last trip to the beach!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Class of 1984 (1982)

I went to religious schools for most of my childhood. I always had a naïve and glamorous vision of that hotbed of sin and despair, the public school. I envisioned gang rumbles in the corridors, under-age coitus in any available closet, school-yard drug dealers, steroidal date-rapist jocks, sinister black boys with saggy pants and indecipherable accents, dead-eyed nymphomaniac cheerleaders, Satan-worshiping metal-heads, and science teachers who humiliate creationist students for fun. Public school—and particularly the inner city public school—was like Sodom and Gomorrah in my young mind.

So I grew up in terror and fascination of public school and so, unsurprisingly, developed a taste for school-yard sleaze flicks. School-sploitation includes films as diverse as Reform School Girls, School of the Holy Beast, and Switchblade Sisters, but the purest expression of my childhood public-school fantasy/nightmare is today’s specimen: Class of 1984.

It starts off like a standard high school movie. Mister Norris (Perry King) is the new music teacher at Lincoln High, a run-down, under-staffed inner city public school. Despite sub-par conditions, he finds many eager young minds. But if Mr. Norris is to inspire his students, he’ll have to stand up to Peter Stegman, the ringleader of the school’s toughest gang. Stegman controls the drug and prostitution rackets at school, and doesn’t like Norris pushing him around. However, underneath his dangerous exterior hides a troubled soul, and a musical genius.

From there, things get ugly.

Lincoln High isn’t just a school, it’s a war zone. The teachers carry handguns in their briefcases, students are herded through metal detectors at the school entrances, and they are monitored with security cameras (a nod to Orwellian dystopia hinted at in the title). The principal is a cringing coward and school security is pitifully inadequate.

Stegman keeps pushing Mr. Norris, trying to intimidate him into quitting his job. Mr. Norris refuses to budge. Before long, the tension explodes into bloody conflict. When his wife is endangered, Norris must do what the school officials can’t and the police won’t: teach Stegman’s gang a lesson.

Perry King plays Mr. Norris as a charming, slightly goofy intellectual, the kind of guy that listens to jazz and drink microbrews with funny names. He’s peaceful, idealistic, and naïve, but once he’s pushed too far, his rage and fear are thoroughly believable. His passionate delivery and occasional flashes of sarcasm make him a compelling hero.

Equally compelling, though hardly believable, Timothy Van Patten turns in a baffling performance as Stegman, the vicious leader of a punk gang. A misguided and confused sociopath, Stegman teeters between mopey introspection and gleeful sadism. The result is a confusing muddle of anti-hero and over-the-top villainy. We see hints at Stegman’s inner pain in the first act, but once the film nosedives into exploitation territory, he becomes a heartless sociopath, the type of un-complicated adversary we’d see in director Mark Lester’s later film Commando. I’m perfectly okay with that (Commando is awesome), but Van Patten keeps over-selling the tortured, misunderstood act. He’s fun to watch, but eventually you wish he’d cut the stilted philosophic whining (“Life…is pain. Pain…is everything. You…will learn.”) and get back to the arson and rape.

Still, there’s something charismatic about this strutting, preening, self-absorbed jackass. He’s silly, and sometimes down-right annoying, but he’s also intimidating (no mean feat for a skinny, poofy-haired pretty boy in a double-breasted tank-top). Even though Class of 1984 boasts one of the coolest villain gangs this side of The Crow and Robocop, Stegman is still the film’s most memorable villain.

Roddy McDowell classes up the joint as a gun-toting biology teacher, delivering a performance that’s at once poignant and (when channeled through his twitchy screen presence) extremely funny.

As it races towards it’s bloody climax, Class of 1984 (like its semi-inspiration, 1955‘s Blackboard Jungle) becomes increasingly preachy. Much is made about Stegman’s gang being protected as juveniles. While the themes of powerless police and soft-on-crime laws are identical to Right-wing gun porn like Dirty Harry and Death Wish, there’s an even more sinister message: that some teenagers are just rotten, and must be exterminated for the good of decent society. If the cops won’t do it, the citizens must. Heavy stuff, man.

Morally suspect though it is, Class of 1984 is still entertaining as hell. We get gang-rumbles, explosions, car-crashes, and a rock concert in a graffiti-scrawled rat-nest of a warehouse (featuring Canadian punk-rockers Teenage Head). The climax is nightmarish and exhilarating. The darkened corridors of Lincoln High take on a haunted-house atmosphere, offering infinite hiding places and echoing the taunts of the vile youngsters. All this atmosphere builds to a giddily violent payoff. The movie’s theme-song, performed by Alice Cooper, is a cherry on top of a glorious exploitation sundae.

What else can I say? Class of 1984 is just awesome. Highly recommended. See it with the wayward teenager in your life. (Keep a table-saw nearby, just in case.)

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Women In Love (1969)

A week ago, while visiting my aunt in NYC, I was torn between two (potentially) once-in-a-lifetime experiences. The first was scheduled for Friday night: a revival screening of possibly the coolest movie ever, Ken Russel’s The Devils. (Part of Lincoln Center’s now-over “Russelmania” festival.) Not only was this a chance to view this delirious slice of retro-debauchery (a nightmare collision of high-art pretense and sleazy nunsploitation) on the big screen but the film would be followed by a Q-and-A with the director himself, infamous “bad boy of British cinema” Ken Russel. (By the way, why the hell was Altered States not on the festival roster?) Finally, this living legend would answer the important questions:

“In which scenes was Oliver Reed drunk off his noggin?”

“Did you get lucky with any of the nuns?”

“Just what was the gunk in the clysters?”

(Not sure what a clyster is? Dust off your dictionary and get hip.)

But I had prior engagements. I had tickets to the My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult/Lords of Acid show in Philly, which was the next day. (A really fun show, incidentally.) If I were a more awesome dude, I could have caught the movie that night, then bussed back to PA the next day to pick up my friends and hit the concert. But I’m only human, and a pretty lame one at that, and lame humans need sleep.

However, I did have time to catch that afternoon’s Russelmania matinee, the 1969 screen adaptation of Women In Love, starring a quartet of well-respected English actors (three of whom I’d never heard of). I didn’t know this at the time, but Women In Love was a novel by D. H. Lawrence, who was infamous in his day for his sexual subject matter. Not that being offensive was difficult in the 1920s, when female orgasm was still viewed as a symptom of demonic possession, and semen was called “the devil’s jelly.” (I’m joking, of course. The ‘20s were actually quite debauched, what with the flappers, the bathtub hooch, and cars with properly big back seats.) So, Women In Love was inspired by a Roaring ‘20s smut-rag and directed by film-land’s trippiest art-house pervert.  It has to be awesome, right?

Eh, kinda-sorta.

Ever eavesdrop on a couple yammering about their relationship? How long can you tolerate their inane cutesy-wutesy twaddle before you lose interest? Your answer will probably determine your tolerance for Women In Love. Admittedly, there are some variables that may cause you (that is, me) to listen in a little longer. If they’re arguing about their troubled sex lives, that’s an extra 30 seconds. If they are well-heeled, quasi-bisexual Edwardian toffs, 60 seconds. If they’re naked? Hell, you’ve got an extra five-minutes. Impress me.

Women In Love follows the amorous exploits of sisters Gudrun (Glenda Jackson) and Ursula (Jennie Linden), and their wealthy boy-toys, Gerald (Oliver Reed) and Rupert (Alan Bates). Well, “exploits” may be too strong a word, since the plot is comprised, mostly of social gatherings, picnics, weddings, and vacations. This meandering non-story makes “Pride And Prejudice” looks as focused and concise as Die Hard.

In most movies, plot (a heist, or murder, or space-voyage) drives the film while theme and message ride shotgun. In more pretentious, snob-friendly fare, the plot takes the back seat, leaving characters to slog through existential quagmires and petty crises without the burden of doing anything. Women In Love bashes the plot with a tire-iron, hogties it, and locks it in the trunk. Instead, we get an endless barrage of deep thoughts and philosophical riddles, dissecting the nature of love and desire. It’s cute at first, but at 131 minutes, it becomes an endurance test. Despite the book’s erotic reputation, the characters spend far more time picking each-other’s brains then bumping their Shakespearian-trained uglies.

So is Women In Love a joyless husk, empty of warmth and entertainment? Not quite. There are some oases in this dry, dry desert of a movie. For one, thing the cinematography is GORGEOUS. Also, Russel throws in just a dash of his trademark surreality, such as a scene where Gudrun (in some demented, trance-like search for “one pure experience”—a common pursuit in this movie) ballet dances through a herd of increasingly nervous cattle. Through the magic of score and camera-work, this silly act becomes painfully tense. I half-expected her to be gored by a ballet-hating, Philistine steer, and have the other characters explain it in Freudian terms of phallic symbolism.

Speaking of sexual symbols, Alan Bates delivers a scrumptiously inappropriate monologue on how to properly eat a fig. “The fissure, the Yoni, the wonderful, moist conductivity towards the center.” And, of course, there’s the infamous scene of Bates and Reed wrestling, naked, in a lavish sitting room, before a roaring fire. (For you penis-enthusiasts out there, Women In Love features a ground-breaking display of thespian willies.)

All the performances are good (Glenda Jackson got an Oscar for hers), but Women In Love (like all films) belongs to Oliver Reed. If you crossbred Marlon Brando, Claude Rains, and a trained bear, you’d get Oliver Reed. Built like a barrel, covered with a bristling pelt, sweating charisma from every pore. Of course his performance is hammy, but what else can you expect from this glowering, seething, pot-belly stove of desire and fury.

If you like erotic costume dramas, but find Dangerous Liaisons a bit too action-packed, then Women in Love might be your cup of tea (best served in fine china and drunk with your pinky-finger sticking out). Actually, scratch the tea analogy; films like this are best paired with some wine-flavored swill, drunk straight from the bottle, very late at night, alone, until your exasperation melts into sympathy and your twinging heart-strings resonate to the lilting legato symphony of images swimming before your eyes, until the film’s beauty overwhelms you and you start blubbering into your tub of ice-cream.

Actually, on second thought, isn’t that the best way to watch any movie?

Entertainment Value: 2 ½ vagina-figs.

Snob Appeal: 4 antique chairs.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

COONSKIN: Bustin' Out of Obscurity

There’s a long tradition in Blaxploitation of subverting racial symbols. From Black Caesar beating a cop to death with a shoe-shine box (after shoe-polishing his face black and forcing him to sing Al Jolson, no less) to the eponymous bale in Cotton Comes To Harlem.

All these examples pale in comparison to Ralph Bakshi’s 1975 masterpiece, Coonskin. The film is a cornucopia of racial symbolism. The dice, the watermelon, the banjo-gun, even Aunt Jemima chasing a frightened pancake with a gun. The film is so jam-packed with black rage that it’s astonishing that it was written and directed by a white man.

Which is, of course, the origin of the film’s controversy.
Coonskin may be THE most controversial cartoon ever. Seriously, it makes Song of the South look like The Princess and The Frog. In addition to the horrendous violence and over-the-top sexuality, Coonskin has enough stereotypes to offend many groups, be they black (crafty, violent, poverty-stricken), white (dirty cops and ignorant, whore-hungry crackers), Italians (fat, greedy gangsters). The Godfather is portrayed as a gross, corpulent slug (Marlon Brando meets Jabba the Hutt), on spindly legs, while two of his sons are flaming queens.

If Coonskin had come down squarely on Black peoples’ side, it could have been dismissed as simple exploitation. After all, several of the great Blaxploitation films were made by whites: such as Coffy, Foxy Brown, Cleopatra Jones, and Black Caesar. But Coonskin is not blindly pro-Black and anti-“The Man.” In some parts of them film, the apparent racism passes beyond simple parody, to hard-core satire.

Take for instance the character of Simple Savior. He is a fat and wealthy preacher who uses a militant black-power message to cheat folks out of their money. Rather then financing the promised “revolution,” Simple Savior just pockets his congregation’s offerings and donations. He puts on a magnificent show, performing stark naked, getting mock-crucified, and blasting photos of John Wayne, Elvis, and Richard Nixon. Had Al Sharpton actually seen Coonskin before mounting his belligerent, smoke-bomb-lobbing protest campaign, he’d have found Simple Savior a very unflattering caricature.

The title is no help at all. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fantastic title. It’s snappy and attention-grabbing, yet still symbolically loaded. It has 3 meanings:
1) The obvious reference to “Coon,” a nasty name for blacks.
2) A veiled reference to Davy Crocket, here symbolic of gung-ho, red-blooded, gun-slinging, John Wayne-worshipping, flag-fetishizing, hippie-hating, everything-buying white American culture.
3) You know…coon. As in raccoon. You know, because the characters are animals.

Some people like being offended. For them, Coonskin is a smorgasbord of potential outrage. Bakshi described his film as being “anti-idiot” rather than “anti-black,” and I share that sentiment. Perhaps, “anti-square” would be a better term. The hipsters dig Coonskin. Tarantino digs it. Wu Tang Klan digs it. The film has been critically re-assessed and recognized for its cinematic value. The fact that it’s STILL offensive is a testament to its strength as a cultural statement. Besides, modern audiences are far more familiar with adult animation. From the douchebag satire of  “South Park” to the devastating racial jabs of “The Boondocks,” there’s plenty of animated controversy to go around.  We’re ready.

This movie DEMANDS a DVD/Blu-Ray release. Time to get the man’s boot out of Coonskin.