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Monday, January 31, 2011

PIRANHA (2010)

Wouldn't you know it? With a glut of 3-D movies coming out last year and so many of them being a complete waste of time, it figures that I would intentionally skip the one that actually deserved my ticket-buying cash while lumping it in among the rest of the crap.

PIRANHA, cribbing its title and basic "chew 'em up" thrust from the 1978 cult item of the same name, has nothing on its mind but giving the audience that likes this kind of thing exactly what it wants: a shit-ton of vicious gore spurred by carnivorous fish, accented with copious amounts of buck nekkid tits and ass. The beauty of this particular serving of such delights is that it was crafted by people who understood just what kind of movie they were making and were in on the gag.

The story relates the dire events following an earthquake that unleashes a massive number of prehistoric piranha upon the unsuspecting drunk and horny attendees of Spring Break in the fictional town of Lake Victoria, with the plot knowingly eschewing deep character development in favor of sheer fun ultra-gory humor. The principals include the sheriff (Elizabeth Shue), her partner (Ving Rhames), her kids (a teenage son and two pre-teen siblings), a couple of porn stars (I'll get to them presently), and their super-sleazy "girls gone wild"-style boss, a pornographer played to the hilt of amusing loathsomeness by Jerry O'Connell.

Jerry O'Connell primes Riley Steele for tequila body shots.

The plot cribs from several notable films in the "carnivorous fish eat the living shit out of everybody in sight" genre (including a terrific cameo role by Richard Dreyfuss as pretty much Matt Hooper from JAWS), but never once feels like a ripoff because it uses its antecedents as fodder for spoof that notches the insanity up to "11." You get the water populated by revelers who won't listen to the warnings of the authorities and people being eaten as they engage in assorted aquatic fun (as seen in pretty much every JAWS movie), folks stranded on a dodgy seafaring craft that's only moments away from allowing the hungry fish access to the strandees (think JAWS 2), and crazy set pieces in which bathers are eagerly devoured in glorious displays of arterial spray and mangled carnage, only with said gore and carnage piled on to a ludicrous degree, resulting in a final twenty minutes in which all hell breaks loose (and then some).

Jet skis, shotguns, ravenous fish...sheer bliss.

In other words, a perfect example of this specific genre, a roller coaster waaaay over the top lunacy that solidly delvers on all counts.

I won't give away the plot particulars because it's all simply a more intelligent and intentionally funny take on stuff we've seen countless times since JAWS hit in 1975 and you could pretty much write most of it yourself, but I will stop to point out one sequence that literally stopped me in my tracks. There's a bit where the pornographer sets off on a yacht to film his two porn star companions performing a nude underwater ballet in swim fins that evokes images of sensuous mermaids performing fluid arabesques unhampered by the constraints of gravity. This moment of stunning gorgeousness is a painstakingly choreographed submerged pas de deux brought to vivid life by British model and actress Kelley Brook and porn actress Riley Steele and it must have been a visual knockout when seen projected in 3-D.

The awe-inspiring "mermaid ballet" sequence: an instant classic moment in world cinema.

While the sequence certainly has its exploitative aspect, it's kind of odd because although it provides loving glimpses of just about every millimeter of the actresses' nubile flesh, the action is tasteful — digital shading eliminated any shots that would have been too gynecological in nature — and the musical accompaniment, the familiar "Lakme-Flower Duet," renders the visual truly compelling. It's a moment of genuine artful beauty in a film otherwise populated with looniness and people being ripped apart by slavering CGI piranha that must have been amazing in its original 3-D version, and I thank French director Alexandre Aja for every frame of it. And yes, I'm being completely sincere.

The simple sensuous beauty of the human female form as seen in action underwater.

And while the blonde of the pair (Steele) is certainly easy on the eyes, it's Kelly Brook whose goddesslike form and face nearly made my peepers fall out of their sockets since there is now little worth seeing after witnessing her at all, much less unabashedly and confidently naked.

The wonder of nature that is Kelly Brook. Jumping Jesus in a basket of honey-glazed chicken...

I'm assuming her Euro upbringing left her without the squeamishness regarding onscreen nudity that most American actresses bear, so she gets extra points for being so game about it all. Then again, if I were a woman and looked like her, I would never wear clothes, simply on general principle. In fact, there should be an internationally-agreed-upon law forbidding Brook from ever being clad, unless it's really cold or something. And adding to this excellence is the fact that she's funny and can act!

Bottom line: PIRANHA is is a ton of fun if you have a taste for this flavor of cinematic excess, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Its content is about as extreme as it gets for a film with an "R" rating, and I would like to know who was asleep at the usually stringent MPAA ratings board the day this one came up for consideration. (According to the director's commentary, the film was passed without cuts, and if that's true, I'm frankly astounded.) Damn, I wish I'd seen this on the big screen and in 3-D!

Saturday, January 29, 2011

THIS IS SPINAL TAP (1984)

What more could there possibly be left to say about Rob Reiner's modern classic THIS IS SPINAL TAP?

When I and my old friend G-Man saw it in 1984 at Westport, CT's now-defunct Fine Arts IV theater, we'd heard it was some kind of spoof documentary that lampooned the ripe-for-satire world of heavy metal and all that goes with it, so we figured we'd give it a look. Going in, we didn't know the film was populated by many familiar faces from assorted TV comedies and films, but we immediately recognized Marty DiBergi, the "documentary's" director, as Rob Reiner, whom we of course knew after having grown up seeing him as Michael "Meathead" Stivic on ALL IN THE FAMILY. And it only got goofier from there, but we very swiftly forgot the actors and accepted them as the characters they so believably brought to life.

In case you somehow missed it during the course of the past nearly three decades (which I can't believe I just wrote!), THIS IS SPINAL TAP chronicles "the world's loudest band" during what turns out to be a tour laden with just about everything that could possibly go wrong for a working rock band. The hard-rockin' trio of rhythm guitarist David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean, aka Lenny from LAVERNE & SHIRLEY), mutton-chopped bassist and Lemmy lookalike Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer, who would later go on to TV immortality as the voice of several characters on THE SIMPSONS) and functionally brain-dead lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest, future director of BEST IN SHOW, in the comedic role of a lifetime) are the only constant members of a band that has existed since the days of the British Invasion of the 1960's. (NOTE: for you young whippersnappers out there, the British Invasion was the pop music movement led by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones that also opened the floodgates for a ton of mostly mediocre subsequent groups.) After undergoing several stylistic changes in order to ride on whatever trends were popular, the guys end up as Spinal Tap, a fairly generic "cock rock" band that churns out some of the most idiotically puerile tunes in metal history, and from there rolls an avalanche of gags that have since entered popular lexicon.

The meat of the film follows a tour in which Spinal Tap — who are now considered more or less has-beens — experiences one setback after another, a state of affairs made worse by the presence of St. Hubbins' incredibly pushy and annoying girlfriend, Jeanine (June Chadwick). Her arrival upsets the apple cart of the relationship between St. Hubbins and Nigel, and the audience soon realizes it's watching a tense love triangle. The deep-but-platonic bromance of St. Hubbins and Nigel cannot be denied and it's frustrating to see the rift between them caused by Jeanine's meddling and would-be creative input (and, to be fair, St. Hubbins blindly allowing her to get away with it). Most comedies of THIS IS SPINAL TAP's era traded in post-ANIMAL HOUSE tastelessness and gross-out humor in lieu of actual character development, but this film very much allows us to get to know and care for these loopy musicians and that is what gives the film its heart and staying power within the popular consciousness.

In closing, I would like to briefly take you back to Fine Arts IV with me and G-Man: As we watched the film, we understandably laughed our asses off, but we seemed to be the about only people in the place who were laughing at all. Our heartfelt guffaws eventually did not sit well with certain members of the tony Westport audience and a middle-aged woman chastised us for our perceived ill manners and lack of compassion for the poor subjects of the "documentary," an act that met with the approval of the surrounding patrons. It took me a minute to figure out why they were upset with us, and then it hit me. I turned around, incredulous, and said to her, "Lady, do you think this is an actual documentary?!!?" She answered in the affirmative, so I snapped at her, "This is a comedy, you idiot! Those are actors playing characters, not real people! They're all actors from other stuff! See the director? That's Meathead from ALL IN THE FAMILY! The blond guitarist is Lenny from LAVERNE & SHIRLEY! Jesus Christ!!!" There was a moment of silence from the audience after they processed being yelled at by some crazed nigger, but then came a slow wave of "Ooooh" as they realized they'd been duped by the film, such was its verisimilitude. From that point on the audience got properly into it and laughed along with me and G-Man. Idiots.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD (2007)

One of the worst sequels since EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC (1977), this movie sucks ass on so many levels it would be nearly impossible to address its utter awfulness in this forum. All you need to know is that it was released theatrically with a PG-13 rating in an attempt to lure in the all-important teen market, to which I call "Bullshit!" and point out that at no point in history has an R-rating kept any truly determined underage attendee out of unwholesome flick they wanted to see. And all the unrated DVD version has to offer by way of stronger-than-PG-13 material is slight usage of the F word.

I've occasionally described certain action flicks as being what a nine-year-old boy would have come up with if he filmed his own backyard play with his G.I. Joe Adventure Team toys (that was a seventies thing, with the big Joes and not those glorified butt plugs from the eighties), but in this case I would mean it as the harshest pejorative, so I won't use it since even the old G.I. Joe toy commercials were better than this turd.

Seventies-style G.I. Joe, simply standing around, sporting a fierce medallion and a white man 'Fro; nonetheless more entertaining than anything found onscreen in LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD.

LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD is louder, dumber, and just plain "more"-er, with naught upon which to hang its many by-the-numbers action set pieces, and since the plot is a gigantic "who gives a fuck?" — the terrorist mastermind is a disgruntled former-CIA computer whiz...YAWN — there's simply nothing here to recommend. Did Bruce Willis really need cash for a can of noggin wax that badly? I love the Bruce and after enduring this piece of shit even I want to force him to dress in a Little Lord Fauntleroy getup, complete with enormous lollipop, and stand him on a corner in Bedford-Stuyvesant while forcing him at gunpoint to shout, "Rap music is for homos!!!"

The new look for Bruce Willis. Hey, man, payback's a bitch.

The resulting dismemberment would definitely be a lot more fun to watch than this complete and utter waste of time and money. Don't even watch this one when it hits cable. TRUST YER BUNCHE!!!

C.S.A.-THE CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA (2004)

If ever there were a film that's guaranteed to make the average American squirm uncomfortably, this is it. Kevin Wilmott's brilliant fake documentary takes us through an alternate history in which the south won the Civil War, a state of affairs that leads to the ways of the antebellum period continuing into a radically different present. To say much more would give away a lot of the bite of this paiful and unflinching satire, but I would like to point out a few excellent bits:

"I Married An Abolitionist"-a clip from a 1950's horror flick that hilariously cribs from I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE (1958).

"Runaway"-a vicious and accurate look at the alternate history's version of the TV series "Cops." (The ultra-redneck bluegrass parody of the "Cops" theme tune is priceless and creepy when you consider that such a society would never have allowed hip-hop or reggae to happen, the music revolution of the mid-1900's instead taking place in a slaveless Canada.)

There are some great clips from classic films from the alternate history including a silent credited to D.W. Griffith entitled "The Capture of Dishonest Abe," about a blackface-disguised Lincoln's attempt to escape the country to Canada via the Underground Railroad,

and an incredibly overacted perf by a British actor in blackface portraying the slave who gave Jefferson Davis the idea to allow northerners to own slaves.

This is really good stuff, simultaneously chilling and darkly funny, to say nothing of thought-provoking. I'm guessing it didn't get a major theatrical release due to the incendiary nature of the material but if you're reading this blog you're obviously not a pussy and can handle it, so take a chance and TRUST YER BUNCHE!!!

Well, at least it's better than MTV.

SHINOBI NO MONO (1962)

If you came of age around the same time I did, you no doubt remember the spate of lousy American-made ninja flicks like ENTER THE NINJA (1981), REVENGE OF THE NINJA (1983), NINJA III: THE DOMINATION (1984) and the nearly indescribably boring and Swedish-made THE NINJA MISSION (1984). I have no idea why the boom happened, but Ninja were every goddamned place for about five years, infesting television, comic books, bestselling adventure novels, and other media, (though their absence from pop music is conspicuous, but I guess that area of entertainment was already awful enough) and their general craptasticness and ubiquity earned them a place in my heart right next to uncontrollable projectile vomiting or being on the receiving end of a perfectly executed kick to the nuts.

Even by the admittedly over-the-top standard of skills seen in any garden variety martial arts flick, the cinematic/pop culture exploits of the ninja were exceptionally cartoonish and juvenile, rendering the fabled masters of assassination and espionage into caricature and stripping them of much mystery and respectful fascination. Even the excellent LONE WOLF & CUB movies suffered from such crazy theatrics, but those films got away with it by having the sense to be completely motherfucking bloody and insanely ultra-violent, unlike any of the American entries that starred boring rent-a-ninja Sho Kosugi.

Sho Kosugi, the bargain basement ninja cult hero of the 1980's.

With all of that in mind I approached the recent US release of SHINOBI NO MONO with some trepidation, but as it starred one of my favorite chambara actors, Raizo Ichikawa — best known as the red-headed ronin Kyoshiro Nemuri — and was described as being the first film to take the ninja seriously and treat him in a realistic manner, I was willing to give it a chance.

The film is the first in a series about real life ninja/thief Goemon Ichikawa, described in some circles as a Japanese analog to Robin Hood, although to the best of my recollection Robin Hood didn't meet his end by being boiled alive in a vat of oil. Anyway, after a somewhat tedious first third of the film in which we must endure far too much exposition regarding the film's various intrigues, we get down to Goemon's adventures as a top notch soldier and ninja who is charged with killing an asshole warlord (Tomisaburo Wakayama, real-life brother to Shintaro Katsu of ZATOICHI fame, and ten years away from screen immortality as Lone Wolf) while having an affair with his commander's sexually-neglected wife. The affair turns out to be more than it seems, as does Goemon's master, and when the shit hits the fan Goemon goes on the lam and hides out in a whorehouse, there finding love with a sweet prostitute. He gives her the money to buy her freedom so they can retreat to a secluded home in the woods and start anew, but Goemon's past catches up with him and he's forced into accepting an assassination mission or else the lives of his loving wife and unborn child will be forfeit.

Once you get past the turgid first act the flick's a lot of fun in an old school way, and the ninja skills/martial arts are surprisingly realistic, featuring none of the superhuman bullshit I would have expected. The fights and ninja stuff were choreographed by Masaki Hatsumi, a doctor of natural healing techniques as well as being the 34th Grandmaster of Budo Taijutsu and founder of the Bujinkan Dojo, an all-around thoughtful badass who knows his shit, so there's an intimate intensity to the combat that allows the viewer to worry about Goemon as a human being whose skin is the only thing separating his guts from the cold and dusty ground.

The cinematography is reminiscent of a lower-budgeted and perhaps rushed Kurosawa wannabe, but the film looks great and is definitely a fun way to spend 116 minutes. I enjoyed it enough to want to see the next installment, so TRUST YER BUNCHE and rent it.

Poster from the original 1962 Japanese release.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

MANIAC (1934)

Ed Wood's PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE (1959) is often cited as "the worst film ever made," but I take issue with that assessment because, unlike innumerable very bad movies, it is very, very entertaining from start to finish and it is also (mostly) coherent in its storytelling. A more legitimate contender in this department (though also entertaining to an incredible degree) is 1934's MANIAC, a fifty-minute supposedly serious examination of assorted mental disorders, all embodied within the person of one very, very fucked-up guy and explained in periodic "educational" placards that bring the plot (such as it is) to a grinding halt.

A feeble attempt at granting this film some modicum of socially-relevant respectability.

Or rather that's how the filmmakers got away with its considerable excesses back in the days; it's actually a primitive exploitation film of the highest/lowest order and should be seen by all students of the genre, as well as by those fueled by cheap booze and low-grade ditch weed.

Our protagonist: Don Maxwell (William Woods).

The narrative opens in the lab of Dr. Meirschultz (Horace B. Carpenter), a bushy-haired, German-accented and quite obviously mad scientist whose twisted experiments focus on various aspects of re-animating the dead. Aided by former Vaudeville actor/impressionist and inexplicably-wanted felon (?) Don Maxwell (William Woods), the doctor sneaks into a morgue and successfully re-animates the corpse of a recently dead woman with a serum he discovered, so with that success the doctor declares he needs a corpse with a shattered heart with which to continue his work, this time transplanting a re-animated and undamaged beating heart into said corpse.

What a way to get a Saturday night date: re-animating recently-dead hot chicks.

But Maxwell's corpse-pilfering errand is derailed when he's interrupted and frightened by two cats having a fight (why the cats are hanging around in a dungeonlike basement morgue is anyone's guess), so he returns to the lab empty-handed and crazed-looking, right after being once more frightened off, this time by a fight between a dog and a cat in the street. (??? Are there neighborhoods where animal fights just spontaneously break out all the time?) The mad scientist blows a gasket and hands Maxwell a pistol, with which he is told to shoot himself in the heart so the doctor can still have a corpse to work with. Instead, Maxwell does the only sensible thing and kills the doctor, at which point he goes full-tilt, balls-out-hallucinating insane, without preamble and for no apparent reason.

With no warning, Maxwell goes completely mad and hallucinates footage cribbed from HAXAN (1920) and Fritz Lang's SIEGFRIED (1923).

Ah, sweet hallucinations...Wheeeeee!!!

With the mad scientist now tits-up dead on the laboratory floor, Maxwell puts his impersonation skills to good use and literally becomes the crazy old Kraut, even taking over the quack's practice. (I guess it stands to reason that the scientist might have had a practice outside of his interest in re-animation. I guess...)

Maxwell becomes Dr. Meirschultz. Would you trust this guy as your personal physician?

From there the film veers wildly into sheer incoherence and lunacy that rivals that of its protagonist, all of which is driven by ludicrous dialogue, directing choices that amount to visual non sequiturs, and, above all, some of the most entertaining terrible acting in cinema history. Case in point: this classic sequence in which a patient goes insane after Maxwell/Meirschultz accidentally injects him with the re-animation serum.


Wow. Just...WOW.

The crazed dude then abducts the re-animated woman and steals her away into the countryside, at which point her gown opens for no reason other than to expose her '30's tits.

GASP! Tits...of the '30's!!!

Sure, it's obviously an early exploitation film, but the nudity element clearly marks this as a pre-Hays Code grindhouse product, and more power to it for going that extra sleazy mile.

More tits of yore. Think about it for a moment: this could be your grandma.

The sex-crazed injectee then goes on to strangle his topless victim, after which that's the last we hear of him. In other words, the sequence existed for no reason other than to provide an eyeful of nekkid titties. A noble artistic intention, to be sure, but I would have liked to have some resolution to this particular plot thread.

Then there's a totally from out of nowhere bit where Maxwell, who by this point has fully become Meirschultz, wrestles one of his neighbor's cats and pops out one of its eyeballs.

Delighted with the results of his efforts, Maxwell scoops the feline peeper from the floor

and promptly eats. it.

Exactly why is anyone's guess, because it is in no way made clear by the script. There's more — a lot more — but I think you get the point that this film is off-the-rails crazy and totally worth seeing. Plus, at a mere fifty minutes in length, it's mercifully short.

Helmed by Dwain Esper — director of such socially important works as MARIHUANA, THE WEED WITH ROOTS IN HELL! (1936), SEX MADNESS (1938) and THE STRANGE LOVE LIFE OF ADOLPH HITLER (1948) — MANIAC (originally SEX MANIAC, but presumably changed to its present title so as not to mislead its sleaze-hungry audience into thinking the film was about the mauler of topless chicks) is a fascinating and hilarious time capsule that conclusively proves exploitation and lurid sleaze are nothing new in the movies, and even by today's standards it's still quite shocking. I can't imagine how I would have reacted to it if I'd had the opportunity to see it during my early youth and the years in which I absorbed tons of old movies of a far more wholesome pedigree, but I bet I would have loved it.

Poster from the film's original release as SEX MANIAC.