Piranha 3DD (2012)
★ / ★★★★
After the massacre that happened in Lake Victoria, leaving its nearby towns ravaged and under quarantine, it seemed that the very same species of flesh-eating piranhas, once thought to be extinct, had made their way to Cross Lake. Directly next to the latter lake was a water park scheduled to have its grand opening in two days. Despite warnings by his marine biologist stepdaughter, Maddy (Danielle Panabaker), recently out of graduate school, Chet (David Koechner) was determined to keep the park open and get rich. “Piranha 3DD,” written by Patrick Melton, Marcus Dunstan, and Joel Soisson, may never be described as smart but it absolutely had scenes that were amusing and entertaining. Since it was obvious that the filmmakers were very aware of how silly the premise of piranhas taking a bite out of people in lakes and swimming pools, no effort was made in getting us to know its characters. And it didn’t need to: it was made abundantly clear that its goals were not high which was perfectly acceptable. As a result, it was able to pay more attention on two things. First, sleazy shots of breasts and buttocks of various sizes were captured and used to full effect. Some toasted under the sun while others bobbled in water. The women who sported skimpy, often translucent, bikinis having just gotten out of the pool were shot in slow motion. There were a handful who appeared completely nude. Who goes skinny dipping in complete daylight… in a public pool? Nobody. But the filmmakers still went for it. Although undeniable that the picture objectified women, it did not feel mean-spirited because there was one or two punches that directly targeted men where it hurt. Secondly, it utilized stereotypes as personality templates for the potential victims. Particularly amusing to watch was Shelby (Katrina Bowden), the virgin, who hoped to finally have sex for the first time with Josh (Jean-Luc Bilodeau), the charmer. There was a running joke about her seeming to have nine lives because she was able to hold onto her “purity,” a nudge to one of the biggest clichés in horror films. Even though I didn’t know much about Maddy and her friends, when the piranha attacks inevitably arrived, I still found myself rooting for them to quickly get out the water if they happened to fall in. The fish bites were hard, fast, and bloody so I couldn’t help but flinch. However, its positive qualities were mostly placed in the first half which required its remaining minutes a lot of effort to sit through. The appearances of David Hasselhoff, playing himself, and Ving Rhames as a survivor from Alexandre Aja’s “Piranha,” were more distractions than cheeky. When they were in front of the camera, the film became more about recycled jokes than the innate fun stupidity of what was unfolding in Cross Lake and the water park. A presence that felt right, however, was Christopher Lloyd playing a scientist who studied the ravenous fish. His character moved the plot forward as opposed to creating a stagnancy that spawned boredom. Lastly, when the aftershock of the piranha attacks have passed and the screenplay continued to wander, it was like watching nothing on screen. “Piranha DD,” directed by John Gulager, was almost saved by its self-awareness but it didn’t offer enough excitement that were consistent enough to continually distract us from its limitations. Like being caught in stop-and-go traffic, we couldn’t be blamed for losing patience with it.
Mission: Impossible III (2006)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), while throwing a party with Julia (Michelle Monaghan), a girl he intended on marrying, received a cryptic phone call, a signal that he was to meet with a superior to discuss a possible mission. Musgrave (Billy Crudup) informed Hunt that one of his former students (Keri Russell) in the agency had been kidnapped. Normally, a captured agent would be disavowed but the agency believed that she knew crucial information about Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an arms dealer they had been tracking for some time, so her extraction was necessary. Hunt accepted the mission and was assigned a team (Ving Rhames, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Maggie Q) to rescue the kidnapped agent. Directed by J.J. Abrams, “Mission: Impossible III” had a wonderful mix of drama and action. Despite the cool gadgetry and intense physical stunts, it felt believable because what was at stake felt real. The theme of Hunt’s struggle to keep his personal and professional lives separate was at the forefront. It seemed like no matter what he did, there was no stopping the two spheres from colliding. That’s why the heart-pounding first scene worked. We got to observe Ethan helpless at the sight of Davian, a figure of his professional life, putting a gun to his future wife’s head, a symbol of his personal life. Even though we had no idea what the Rabbit’s Foot, an item that Davian was desperate to have, was exactly, it didn’t matter. What mattered was the spectrum of emotions Hunt experienced, which moved from confusion to anger then regret, as Davian counted from one to ten, the point when he was to put a bullet into the innocent woman’s head just because he could and he enjoyed watching people suffer. The action sequences, jumping from one continent to another, were as breathtaking and astute as ever. The warehouse scene in Germany provided the template. It was messy, bullets, glass and fire thrown everywhere, but never incomprehensible unlike most poorly edited action movies. Each team member was given something important to do. While Hunt explored the building, someone was underground, another was in the air, while the other was in charge of scanning the perimeter via body temperature. Each time the camera moved from one team member to another, it was consistently interesting. Their teamwork established a healthy synergy of tension that, when threatened, delivered nail-biting suspense. But that isn’t to say that the film was devoid of humor. The scenes with Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), a bumbling tech expert, prevented the project from being suffocatingly serious. Brassel (Laurence Fishburne), Hunt and Musgrave’s superior, had an intimidating aura but his lines had a certain snappy irony that went beyond the archetype of a tough-as-nails boss. “Mission: Impossible III,” written by Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and J.J. Abrams, looked and felt like it was made by people who love to make movies. It’s amazing how much clichés tinged with a microcosm of originality can feel something new.
Mission: Impossible (1996)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Phelps (Jon Voight) and his American spies (Tom Cruise, Emmanuelle Béart, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ingeborga Dapkunaite, Emilio Estevez) were assigned in Prague to intercept a disk from a terrorist before a trade was made. The disk contained the aliases of undercover agents in Europe. If coupled with another disk, bearing the real of names of the IMF agents, important long-term missions would be compromised. But something went wrong in Prague. Phelps and his agents ended up dead with the exception of Ethan Hunt (Cruise). Kittridge (Henry Czerny), an IMF operative, was suspicious and believed that Hunt was a double agent. Like a pest inside a controlled system, he was to be captured and exterminated. Based on a television series by Bruce Geller, “Mission: Impossible,” directed by Brian De Palma, was a tense and atmospheric spy film but it wasn’t afraid to jump into cheekiness when it came to the dialogue and physically demanding stunts. As a result, coupled with a handful of creative twists and turns, it was very entertaining to watch. The best scene involved Hunt breaking into the CIA vault with the help of disavowed agents (Ving Rhames, Jean Reno). The way the trio handled complicated hurdles in order to prevent triggering the pesky alarm was suspenseful because it turned the viewers’ expectations upside down then turning it right back up just when we think we had it all figured out. I was particularly impressed with the small details. Hunt and Krieger had to crawl in the vents before getting into the room of interest. When Hunt slowly descended in the room, his arms were actually covered with dust and grime throughout the entire relentless, breathless, soundless mission. Even though there was something silly about the way it all unfolded, like the CIA analyst (Rolf Saxon) having to go in and out of the restroom while Hunt and his team extracted information from a computer, that level of attention to detail was a small but important reminder that the filmmakers respected the project as well as their audiences. Another scene that stood out, for a different reason, was the train sequence. The way the score was piled on top of one another as danger increased then capping them off with the movie’s main theme as the tension reached a peak was executed elegantly. It’s impossible not to feel roused when that classic theme blasts through the speakers. The film’s main criticism was it got confusing due to a combination of its tech talk, spy vocabulary, and plot twists. If a person takes a bathroom break while the movie runs, he ends up having no idea what’s happening when he returns. But that’s what I loved about it because it opted to challenge instead of allowing us to passively sit and fall asleep. Sitting through it was like examining a detailed chain and to understand the big picture required a bit of autonomy, to think and weigh the possibilities that maybe the person we trusted initially was a dire mistake. Since it was involving not merely on a superficial level, we could still feel the endorphins working even after the big explosions.
★★ / ★★★★
Lake Victoria was the place where college students gathered to spend their Spring Break. But when an earthquake caused a rift on the lake floor, a subterranean lake was revealed which happened to house the original piranhas once thought to be extinct, it was up to Sheriff Julie Forester (Elisabeth Shue), Deputy Fallon (Ving Rhames), and a seismologist (Adam Scott) to warn the party-goers to get out of the water before they became fish food. Alexandre Aja’s “Piranha,” an out and proud B-movie, is difficult not enjoy because it embraced bad horror movie elements with open arms while paying genuine homage to movies like Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” and Joe Dante’s original “Piranha.” I was particularly impressed with the film’s climax involving a school of piranhas attacking hundreds of barely clothed college students. When panic finally set in, I enjoyed that human error (or desperation) was taken into account. Like the piranhas that ate each other for millions of years to ensure the survival of the species, if a person was desperate enough to live, he wouldn’t think twice of putting someone else in harm’s way. It’s instinctual. The film’s self-awareness worked to its advantage; it knew it wanted to attract mostly heterosexual males so it delivered big breasts and long legs. It even had an extended scene of naked women making out underwater. As I watched with incredulity, I couldn’t help but laugh at what I was seeing. It was like watching two seals making love on Discovery Channel. More amusing was the fact that all the guys were far from attractive. Just when I thought it had no more surprises under its sleeve, a male organ was bitten off. Moreover, its over-the-top nature was enjoyable due to its exaggeration of how college kids spend their Spring Break. (When probably only about 5% celebrated this way.) Enter Jake (Steven R. McQueen), the sheriff’s son, who was somewhat of a social outcast because he listened to music like The Ramones and The Pixies. According to the movie’s logic, people who listen to that type of music were just not cool. But Jake wanted to belong. He wanted to party at the lake, drink alcohol, and maybe even win over a girl (Jessica Szohr) he was obviously attracted to. Instead, he was stuck babysitting his younger brother and sister. Perhaps the lesson Jake learned at the end of the day was underage drinking led to death. At least there’s some truth in that. “Piranha” had some suspenseful moments but I wish the writers, Pete Goldfinger and Josh Stolberg, had spent less time making fun of college culture and more time on the science behind the piranhas’ survival mechanisms. And was it too much to ask to have at least one smart and resourceful teenager? Jake had potential but he didn’t primarily think with his brain.