Kicking the Tweets

Aliens (1986)

Terms of Cocoonment

I've seen Aliens so many times over the years that sitting down to watch it fresh--for review purposes--was a strange challenge. For starters, I chose James Cameron's "Special Edition" (aka the director's cut) from 1992, instead of the theatrical version. While I'd checked out all the excised scenes on DVD, I never experienced the sprawling, two-and-a-half-hour epic as whole movie--which meant my vivid memory of the story's flow were constantly interrupted by stuff that didn't belong.

The second obstacle was that vivid memory. It's hard to write objectively about something that comprised large strands of my formative, pop-culture DNA. Even though I hadn't seen Aliens in years, my mind raced through the entire movie as I pulled the blu-ray out from its (gorgeous) packaging. I saw the picture so young and so often that I never got to experience it as a first-time filmgoer. The nuances of Cameron's screenplay and the furious awesomeness of James Horner's score, for example, were lost on a kid who just wanted to freeze-frame his VHS tape whenever one of the cool monsters popped up on screen. Watching now with other goals in mind, it's hard to see the forest for the chestbursting, egg-sac-exploding trees.

If you're unfamiliar with this series, Aliens is a continuation of Ridley Scott's groundbreaking, sci-fi/horror masterpiece. In it, a group of deep-space miners follows what they believe to be a distress beacon to an uncharted moon. There, one of their crew picks up a parasite, which evolves into a nasty creature that terrorizes their ship. The last survivor, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), escapes in an interstellar lifeboat--as does the alien. Following a climactic battle, Ripley falls asleep in a cryo-chamber as she makes her way back to Earth.

The sequel picks up fifty-seven years later. Ripley is found up by a salvage crew and made to stand before an inquiry board. The Weyland/Yutani Corporation is pissed that one of its officers blew up a multi-billion-dollar ship to get rid of a creature that they've found no evidence of. Ripley is suspended--until the company loses contact with a colony it has established on the very moon she and her crew had abandoned decades before. She agrees to return with a group of marines and a company executive named Burke (Paul Reiser) in order to locate the colonists and eliminate whatever threats they come across.

This being an Alien film, nothing goes as planned. On arrival, the marines patrol an abandoned terraforming complex littered with evidence of panic and battle. They find one person alive, a girl nicknamed "Newt" (Carrie Henn), who we last saw in a formerly excised scene involving her parents finding the derelict ship--her father was attacked by a facehugger, which ostensibly led to the colony being overrun by monsters. Ripley takes an instant liking to Newt, who she recognizes as both a resilient loner and a reminder of the daughter she'd left on Earth nearly sixty years ago--now dead of old age.

Soon, the marines find the other colonists--all dead or dying of alien-embryo implants--in an elaborate nest near the station's main nuclear reactor. The creatures lay dormant, nested invisibly in the walls, until one of the soldiers lights a chestburser on fire. After that, pandemonium kicks the film into high gear. Bodies pile up left and right as Ripley, Burke, Newt, and the very green commanding officer, Gorman (William Hope) watch the mission via video feed in a nearby armored transport. Ripley commandeers the vehicle and storms the nest to save what remains of the former badasses.

The rest of Aliens is a smart, gripping survival story that sees a small group of outmanned warriors fighting to return to their orbiting spaceship. This proves increasingly difficult due to a nastier, more resilient, and more populous breed of creature than we've seen before, as well as the fact that one of the good guys' number is actively working behind the scenes to sabotage what's left of the mission. Weyland/Yutani is very interested in adding the alien to its bio-weapons division, and Burke is eager to help out.

What sets this film above many other sci-fi action shoot-'em-ups is Cameron's gift for writing logical flows of action. He earns intensely violent outbursts by smartly placing obstacles in front of the characters, whose desperation often causes spectacular mayhem. An alien ambush leads to a close-quarters stand-off, which leads to a claustrophobic chase down an air-shaft maze, which leads to Newt slipping through part of a processor and getting kidnapped by an alien drone. This compels Ripley to arm herself to the teeth and go searching for her surrogate daughter--even as a remote-controlled rescue ship descends on the complex, which, by the way, has fifteen minutes standing between it and a multi-megaton explosion.

I've just described part of the climax, but there's so much more great material here. Aliens is the rare action/adventure classic that's packed with iconic moments based in genuinely interesting storytelling. It's more visceral than Scott's eerie and cerebral vision, but Cameron maintains the original's penchant for mystery. Towards the middle of the movie, Bishop (Lance Henriksen) posits that there's something more to the creatures, a version of them "we haven't seen yet" that must be laying the eggs. It's a passing comment that sets up the climax, but Cameron doesn't let us linger on that for too long, launching right back into the crew's survival struggle.

After all these years, the things that surprise me most about Aliens is the beauty and simplicity of Ripley and Newt's connection. Cameron specializes in macho dialogue, but I'd forgotten the dialed-back sincerity of his conversations between these two severely damaged characters. In any other film, Ripley's climactic return to the nest might have seemed contrived. But Weaver and Henn sell their characters' bonds so well that we can feel the intensity with which Ripley slaps magazines into her pulse rifle.

This comes full circle, of course, when she meets the alien queen, an oversized, crown-headed bug-beast perched atop an oozing egg-laying apparatus. Both mothers are very protective of their young, and despite a weird, implied-psychic-ability wrinkle involving a spontaneously opening egg, the extended fight between Ripley and the queen plays out like a bizarre but realistic nature special.

Despite these lofty accolades, Aliens isn't immune to criticism--especially in the concluding moments of the third act. Why, for instance, does Ripley waste several rocket-propelled grenades on blowing up the queen's egg sac, but not one on, say, a head shot?

And I still can't get behind the set-up for the film's second climax--yes, there are technically two:

Ripley, Newt, Bishop, and lone-surviving marine, Hicks (Michael Biehn) escape the planet with seconds to spare, leaving--they believe--the queen to burn up on the disintegrating platform. A little while later, they congratulate each other aboard the main ship, only to be attacked by the alien queen.

Now, I watched this movie on blu-ray--displayed on a high-definition computer monitor--and I still saw the queen come out from a doorway of some kind. For years, I'd blocked this out of my memory, hoping against hope that it had clung to the side of the ship or something (not that this would have made more sense). But no, it definitely came out of the ship--which makes absolutely zero fucking sense, no matter how you read the events leading up to the scene.

That said, the ensuing battle involving Ripley going head-to-head with the queen while driving a walking forklift is still amazing nearly three decades on.

Though Cameron's vision of the alien species and mankind's encounters with it is decidedly different from Scott's, Aliens proves to be an exceptionally worthy sequel. It goes above and beyond the duty of follow-up movies by not only building on the original's ideas, but also giving the audience more delicious ideas to mull on the trip.

Alas, we've come to the really unfair part of this review. I began writing about Aliens a few hours before watching Prometheus, Scott's prequel to the Alien franchise. I find myself trying to conclude this review, despite the bitter taste of pungent mediocrity still in my mouth. I've muscled through the last seven-hundred-plus words on willpower alone, so drained is my enthusiasm for this bled-dry universe.

I should have found some time to finish my love letter to Cameron's film. Instead, I'm stuck thinking about a movie that offers none of the juicy character work, suspense, score, scale, imagination, or technical artistry that Aliens has. Sure, Scott has state-of-the-art computer graphics to play with, but they're not as interesting as the brilliant model work on display here. There's a discipline and a craft to making puppets and model ships look like they belong in the same scenes as human characters, and that's lost on a generation who thinks staging an exciting monster fight is all about having actors dance around in reaction to things that have yet to be inserted.

I can remember the faces of each of Aliens' colonial marines, and even remember most of their names. Aside from Prometheus's main cast, I barely recall what happened to most of the crew. That's not a function of having seen one movie over the other; it's about a script and one set of actors making an instant impression on me, and another group...not.

I can also rattle off the themes that Cameron explores here in about three minutes, with evidence from the movie to back up my claims (motherhood, the military/industrial complex, masculine identity crises, etc.). Prometheus can only be explained, correctly, by watching interviews with Ridley Scott and Damon Lindelof, then watching their movie, and then scanning thousands of Internet comment posts to find the three or four non-conflicting theories that kind of align with the previous two steps. Cameron knows--and Scott used to know--that a filmmaker can say a lot of really smart, deep things without uttering a Goddamned word.

When I'm ninety, I'll likely remember the distinct sound of the marines' pulse rifles firing and Horner's stirring music. But I'll certainly have forgotten Prometheus, beyond the gross manner in which it hastened the death of a once-promising film series. In the world of film, there are classics and then there's everything else.


Prometheus (2012)

Do Androids Dream of Appearing in Better Movies?

Yesterday, two friends and I stumbled out of the theatre in a state of collective shock. We couldn't wrap our brains around the boneheaded awfulness of Prometheus, director Ridley Scott's prequel to his groundbreaking sci-fi/horror masterpiece, Alien.

Before we go on, you have to understand that Prometheus is, in fact, a prequel. The Marketing department at Fox has been in overdrive for months, promoting the movie as being a unique vision that "shares DNA" with the Alien universe. Scott has said as much himself--I'd guess on orders from studio executives eager to get enough asses in seats on opening weekend to justify backing this overwrought pile of garbage.* There are so many visual, thematic, and narrative call-backs to the franchise that to deny a direct connection with the original film is akin to insisting that a movie with lightsabers, stormtroopers, and Jedi mind tricks has nothing to do with Star Wars. Really, how stupid do these suits think we are?

Plenty stupid, apparently, if this is what they're selling us as entertainment.

Writing a proper Prometheus review is impossible for me right now. It would be five-thousand words long and consist largely of variations on the word "fuck". Instead, I'm going to revisit a therapeutic technique I used when discussing Quantum of Solace--a movie I loathed just as much, but which made me angry instead of despondent.

Seriously, kids, I haven't been this depressed since 9/11.

Without further ado, I present my Nineteen Spoilerific Problems with Alien Seven:

1. Future Tech/Past Tech. When the first Prometheus images hit the 'net, fan reaction was mixed. One of the biggest questions was why a movie set several decades before Alien looked like it was made a couple hundred years afterwards. I understand that the original's deep-space tanker was a mining ship and this movie's titular Prometheus is a trillion-dollar science vessel. But aside from the look of the sliding doors and the Weyland company logo, the design team seem to have gone out of their way to give fans lots to bitch about--rather than think through what future technology conceived in the 1970s might look like if retrograded in the new millennium.

2. Old Man Muppet. Let's talk about Guy Pearce. He plays ninety-year-old multi-gazillionaire Peter Weyland, whose main job appears to be funding science missions while distracting the audience at every turn. In close-up, parts of the old-age makeup look exaggerated in really cool ways. But they're pressed up against other cool and exaggerated features--making for a three-dimensional airbrush painting posing as a man. In wide shots, the result is laughable.

3. Old Man Cameo. If you don't know who Guy Pearce is, and if you're not paying attention to the scene where the ship's Android, David (Michael Fassbender), appears to be talking to himself while caressing a hypersleep chamber, you may be surprised to learn that Peter Weyland's early appearance as a hologram will not be the last time his character pops up--even though someone mentions that he's been dead for several years. If you've made the mistake of not switching off your cell phone and your brain as the lights go down, however, you'll realize what a colossal mistake it was to cast a well-known actor in a part that should have gone to an actual old person that no one in the audience would recognize.

4. What does God Need with a Starship? Let me get this straight: in the future, the only thing it takes for two hippie archaeologists to get a global leader of industry to fund their cross-galaxy trip is a holographic PowerPoint presentation about cave drawings? That's what Prometheus would have you believe, as there's absolutely no back-story regarding Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway's (Logan Marshall-Green) pitch to Weyland. We see the two lovers discover the ninth or tenth cave featuring identical markings, and the next thing you know, they're part of a seventeen-person crew, headed to God knows where on a lark.

Which reminds me of an idea I once tried to sell Bill Gates. After hundreds of un-returned phone calls, I resigned myself to the world never knowing the positively sinful delights of Dutch Raisin McWafflecake Souflée.

5. In Space, No One Can Seem to Remember Their Professional Training.  When the crew lands on a distant planet, they discover what look to be temples filled with giant head sculptures and a familiar grid of vase-shaped canisters laid out before them. They also find the bodies of several so-called Engineers, which you'll instantly recognize from the first Alien. The search team splits up and, following a horrific dust storm, find themselves either trapped in the temple or back one the ship.

After a few hours of wandering, the crew's biologist and botanist wind up back at the Giant Head Room, where they encounter a kind of faceless albino cobra. The biologist, completely unaware of basic animal behavior, approaches, teases, and then tries to befriend the beast. Apparently, the temple's atmosphere is thick with a consciousness-altering agent that makes everyone who enters act like they're in a horror movie (Cabin in the Woods, anyone?). The moment the snake shows up, Prometheus becomes a series of bad-decision skits starring morons that make the teens from any Friday the 13th movie look like MENSA candidates.

In case you're wondering, the snake doesn't make nice.

6. 17 Little Indians, aka "Body-count Math". When it's announced that Prometheus' crew numbers seventeen, I thought, "Geez, that's a lot of characters to keep track of!" Fortunately/unfortunately, most of them aren't characters; despite the Weyland-issued blue jumpsuits, ninety percent of the people on-board are red-shirts. The non-marquee actors are distinguishable only by skin color, accent, and frequency of leaving the ship. I swear, during the big Possession Brawl, eight more randoms I'd never seen before showed up, just to get killed off "creatively".

7. Possession Brawl. The botanist, who we last saw suffocating on the melted face-plate of his helmet and lying next to his co-worker, the idiot biologist, shows up later as a mutated supervillain. The black goo apparently got to him, too, taking over his mind and imbuing him not only with super-strength, but also the ability to run up walls and fold himself in half. He gets inside the ship (more on that in #9) and proceeds to smash most of the rest of the crew into mushy heaps before being put down. This scene rates a two on the Entertainment Scale, but at least the action music woke me up.

8. Where We're Going, We Don't Need...Rewind Buttons. In the future, Rewind buttons on video-display technology will be obsolete. I know this because Prometheus knows this. The biologist and the botanist have cameras mounted to their helmets and jumpsuits, allowing captain Janek (Idris Elba) to monitor them from the ship. The two fall victim to the black goo monsters about five minutes after Janek slips away for a quickie with company big-wig Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron).

Even though no one is around to see the poor suckers get mutilated, you'd think that someone would review the transmission from their cameras the next morning, after they fail to report in. This would have certainly saved a few lives on the search team that's dispatched to go find them. If only they'd had the ability to review that footage!

9.  Security Cameras Are Only Useful if You Use Them. Preceding the Possession Brawl, Janek notices that the botanist's camera has come back on-line and is filming a pile of rocks. His personal locator thingy shows up as being right outside the ship. Sadly, the Prometheus is only equipped with a single rear-view camera with a fixed, inconvenient angle.

None of this explains why Redshirt Number Eight opens the loading dock door when he hears that the botanist is outside. It's doubly puzzling, considering that Number Eight was, I believe, present a few hours earlier, when the second search team returned and had to kill Holloway--who'd also been possessed by the black goo. It seems the Weyland Corporation can afford to throw around so much cash because they save a bundle on bargain-basement personnel.

10. Baby, Baby, Baby, Ohhhh! Moments after David slips a dollop of black goo into Holloway's glass of champagne (don't ask), Holloway visits Shaw's quarters for some celebratory, We've-Just-Found-God's-Laboratory sex. You won't be surprised to learn that Shaw becomes insta-pregnant.

Following Holloway's death, David tells her that the thing growing inside her is the size of a three-month-old, and she dashes to the ship's emergency surgery pod for an alien abortion. What comes out of her looks like Squidward with naughty bits, minus the interesting design possibilities that implies.

Honestly, I can't tell you everything that happened in this scene because I kept wondering how much cheaper and more realistic it would have been for Scott to hire a practical effects artist, rather than settling for cartoonish CGI meat. If the guys who executed Alien's chestbursting scene are still kicking around, would it have killed you to give them a call?

11. "Father". It Figures. Following the "big reveal" that Peter Weyland is on-board Prometheus is the equally puzzling news that Vickers is his daughter. Sure, maybe Viagra is super-potent in the future. Or perhaps Vickers was adopted. Whatever the case, there's neither text or subtext to warrant such Empire Strikes Back-lite hooey. I'd hoped that during Vickers' death scene we'd at least see her arm pop off to reveal some of that milk-and-eggs android wiring inside.

But then I remembered that hope is dead.

12. Science is Stupid (Just Look at Those Who Study It!). David discovers that one of the Engineers is still alive, and that his mission was to attack Earth with his payload of mutagen canisters. After waking up, the giant alien man beheads the android, and kills everyone in sight--except for Shaw. She runs away, and devises a plan by film's end to find the Engineers' homeworld in order, ask them why they're so mean.

Seriously, this bald alien monster just wiped out a room full of curious Earthlings, and the best you can come up with is to play twenty questions with a whole mess of them? If an ant woke you up out of a nice, long nap and started asking about the meaning of life--in your native tongue--would you calmly hear it out? Or would you be more likely to stomp the shit out of it and get your house tested for gas leaks?

13. What's the Point of Alien Parts One Through Four? For years, we've understood the Weyland/Yutani Corporation to be an evil entity hell-bent on getting the alien life form back to Earth for use in its bio-weapons division. Did no one at the company review the Prometheus's transmissions? Or did they just think that the vastly superior species who developed these biological weapons of mass destruction just couldn't handle them the way human beings could?

Also, why did it take a hundred years, or whatever it was, for the company to find another craft like the one Prometheus encounters? The crew from Alien ostensibly found it by accident, and were ordered to investigate. But if Weyland/Yutani was so interested in the goo or the Engineers, couldn't they have just sent a contingent of scientists and colonial marines to Prometheus' last known location?

14. What's the Point of the Opening Scene? Prometheus begins with an Engineer being left on Earth with a small box. He opens it and is attacked by the black goo, which disintegrates his body. His remains fall into the sea, forming a mutagenic jambalaya which, I guess, became the basis for us, or something. The filmmakers aren't clear, and the scene has zero resonance beyond its gorgeous nature imagery.

15. Ram, Bam, No Thanks, Man! Janek learns of the Engineer's plan to wipe the Earth clean of humans and decides to dive-bomb its ship with Prometheus. In a matter of seconds, he's got two willing accomplices (we'll call them Redshirt Fifteen and Redshirt Sixteen) who decide that the captain will need lots of help pressing the "Accelerate" button.

It's a nice gesture, but a silly one, and I felt robbed of two more bloody CGI attack deaths.

No, really. Robbed, I tell ya.

16. George Lucas's Legacy of Puke. Ever since the Star Wars prequels were shat into cinemas everywhere, studios and filmmakers have been desperate to dust off their name-brand franchises and explain absolutely everything about them. Wait, you wanted some mystery behind Michael Myers? Lame! Move over, purists, here comes the Back-story Brigade!

Imagination is for suckers, apparently--especially when pop culture icons' secret origins are in the hands of clueless hacks that never fail to mistake repetition for mythology. Writers Damon Lindelof and Jon Spaihts are especially guilty of this, as they steal the story structure of Alien and claim to break new ground. Prometheus is recycled to a "T", with everything from a sinister robot to the entire landing-on-an-alien-planet-and-bringing-back-a-parasite-from-an-empty-structure bit--not to mention an escape-ship showdown with a creature the heroine had thought dead. Hell, these jokers even steal from Alien Versus Predator, shoehorning in a head-scratcher of a chestbursting scene at the very end.

I understand providing signposts to help the fan base feel at home, but this shit is ridiculous. Anyone who claims this movie can stand on its own in a world where the other Alien films exist should be put out of my misery immediately. Prometheus is nothing but a rip-off, hastily disguised by half-a-dozen coats of J.J. Abrams's Star Trek remake aesthetic and a parasitic-black-goo storyline from The X-Files--complete with creepy eye-worms.

17. If One is to Ask the Big Questions, One Must First Form Complete Sentences. Prometheus is packed with pseudo-science, pseudo-faith, and the Big Questions surrounding the origin of man--none of which add up to anything by film's end. I'm not being cute here. We're no closer to understanding the motivations of the Engineers, the scientists, or the corporatists now than before the film was greenlit.

Scott and company posit a lot of high-falutin', half-baked ideas that are, I believe, meant to distract us from the numbing familiarity of the movie's action. Only Janek has the good sense to not care about where we come from; given the people he'd likely have to spend the rest of his days with, his idea about ramming the Engineer craft seems less altruistic and blatantly selfish. Not that I blame him.

18. Baby, Baby, Baby, Nooooope! The only things Lindelof and Spaihts didn't take from the franchise's other entries were notes on continuity. Prometheus ends with the Engineer giving chest-birth to a more-or-less-fully-formed prototype of the alien queen--thanks to a run-in with a prototype facehugger. In every other Alien movie (except for Part Three, which was technically aborted, anyway), the baby aliens come out as nasty little worms that develp limbs and height later on.

I get that the creators are mucking about with origins here, and that we may have to wait for the prequel's sequel to find out what this new monster is (or how the aliens we know and love came into be in the first place, given the fact that they were ostensibly made from a DNA mash-up of Engineers, humans, black goo, and dirt worms from the temple--a temple housing a spaceship that is decidedly not the one discovered in Alien). The closing shot was meant to make fanboys cream their jeans, but it just made me mad.

I'm all for the alien making an appearance in the prequel, as long as it makes sense. This monster is just ridiculous, and its birth is an abomination in more ways than one.

19. In Space, No One Has Any Original Ideas. I wasn't kidding when I compared  reactions to Prometheus and 9/11. On both of those days, my hope and illusions were shattered and I wandered around for hours not knowing quite what to feel or say.

The problem with legendary directors like Scott and Lucas going to pot is that there's little indication of our generation having its own moviemaking heroes. Many of the classic big names are caught in this game of visual oneupmanship and philosophical drought. The images get prettier, more expensive, and extra-dimensional by the day, but the words and ideas they service aren't worth the paper the admission tickets are printed on.

It's impossible for a movie to live up to the stature and awe of Alien. Disappointment on some level is inevitable. But it didn't have to be this bad. In nearly every regard, Prometheus fails spectacularly, dumbly. It's science fiction for Tweeters, tweakers, and people who think that books are things you read on screens. If the Engineers are out there, I'll be the first one to welcome them and their precious, lethal cargo.

*When Prometheus' opening-weekend box office comes out on Monday, subtract between a quarter and a third of that amount to see how the movie really did. Tens of millions of those dollars will represent 3D glasses concessions and IMAX up-charging--not enthusiastic fans lining up around the block.


Piranha 3DD (2012)

I'll Have the Chicken

Call me crass, but it's impossible to talk about Piranha 3DD without exploring women's breasts--specifically, their effectiveness as male-targeted entertainment's go-to attention-grabbers in the Internet Age. Now that hour-long clips of men and women of every conceivable shape, size, race, and orientation doing absolutely everything you can imagine* are available on-line (for free), the notion of marketing a movie solely on the "spectacle" of fake-breasted bimbos baring it all while getting eaten by flying CGI fish just seems...quaint.

But here comes John Gulager, following up Alexandre Aja's surprise hit with a knock-off (knockers-off?) as unnecessary as the audition tape of the woman pictured above. This is exactly the kind of movie that the phrase "critic-proof" was invented to describe: people will pay to see it for any number of reasons--none of which have to do with hopes for a quality entertainment experience.

That's a sad reality, but the sadder truth is that Gulager and screenwriters Patrick Melton, Marcus Dunstan, and Joel Soisson have used these low expectations as a shield instead of a weapon. Aja had a ton of fun with a remake that everyone was positive would suck--the results were fun, sometimes, shocking, and consistently entertaining. Gulager and company give us the remake audiences expected the first time out, a by-the-book horror movie with excessive boobs and blood and nothing else going for it.

We open with a news report describing the horrible piranha attacks at Lake Something-or-other a year ago (in movie time). At the end of the last film, the ancient killer fish appeared to have been defeated--until a cranky marine biologist played by Christopher Lloyd announced that they'd mutated and gotten bigger. Part one ended with a bloody cliffhanger that the sequel conveniently ignores: the piranha just went away for awhile, we're led to believe, laying eggs in other lakes and waiting for the box office receipts to tell them if and when they could come out and play again.

They reemerge, hungrier, nastier, and more computer-generated than ever, this time targeting a water park managed by sleazy entrepreneur Chet (David Koechner). In an effort to revitalize his business, he's announced a grand-re-opening, featuring nude decks and beaver cams. He's even paid off a local cop to keep his illegal siphoning of lake water off the authorities' radar. The lake, of course, is now home to thousands of razor-toothed predators, and Piranha 3DD ends in bloody heaps of silicone and sinew.

The filmmakers try their best to jazz up the colors they use to paint over all those numbers by injecting a "hilarious", "meta" David Hasselhoff cameo. But transforming a Z-grade horror film into Airplane! at the three-quarter mark reeks of desperation. It's especially upsetting because the movie's middle portion is relatively coherent, borderline entertaining. Danielle Panabaker plays the daughter-in-law of the sleazy water park owner as a sleuthing marine biology student out to stop the fish. She's joined by a nerdy friend (Matt Bush) and her ex-boyfriend (Chris Zylka), who also happens to be the shady cop. None of this rises above most slasher movie second acts, mind you, but you'll look fondly upon these scenes when suffering through the bit where a couple is mauled during sex because a piranha made its way into the girl's vagina--and sat there, unnoticed, until the moment of climax days later.

The big problem here is that Gulager and company want you to believe that they've made a fun, outrageous movie without actually providing anything to believe in. The severed penis gag was covered in Part One, as was the gratuitous nudity. And the sequel's gore is downright pathetic. I know that following KNB Effects' amazing, old-school, grand-scale meat factory is a difficult feat, but the people behind Piranha 3DD don't even try. They settle for mildly viscous red water filled with generic severed limbs that look like picked over Halloween Store clearance items.

Im not crazy for thinking the movie could have been much, much better. Dunstan and Melton wrote one of the more interesting Saw sequels (that would be Part Six), and I was shocked to see their names attached to this low-frequency garbage. I don't know if someone told them to turn off their brains, or if they tuned out after the check cleared. Whatever the case, the script fails at delivering solid "smart-dumb" gags; in a movie like this, that's about all an audience can hope for.

Piranha 3DD is more nut-buster than gut-buster, a hasty, blood-soaked excuse for naked girls to parade their cartoonish wares about the screen. Maybe I'm getting old, but none of them did a thing for me, outside of providing a subconscious reminder to check my tire pressure. It's depressing to think that a second sequel is probably in the works, and that it may do well enough to warrant a third or a fourth. At the end of this film, we learn that the killer fish can walk. So can I, and so should you--into any number of theatres showing better movies.

*And some things you can't and probably shouldn't.


Snow White and The Huntsman (2012)

She Doesn't Look a Thing Like Jesus

In film criticism, context is everything. The "accuracy" of a reviewer's opinion has nothing to do with objective reality and everything to do with each reader's reaction. The planet teems with idiots who think Citizen Kane is a bad movie; these people have reserved seating in Hell, right next to anyone who's ever preached the Gospel According to Bridesmaids.

See? You may be a fan of Citizen Kane and hate Bridesmaids. Your thinking could also be the other way around, or fall exactly in line with what I wrote. That's the beauty of subjectivity; in a perfect world, people would be weighed down with giant bags of salt--one grain free with every opinion thrust upon them.

I bring this up as armor to help defend against another opinion I'm about to offer, an opinion that serves as both a preamble to and explanation for my assertion that Snow White and The Huntsman is one of the best movies of the year.

Here goes:

Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy is not very good. The movies look great, feature wonderful technical achievements, and are packed with solid performances--none of which amount to an engaging story; certainly not one that takes over eleven hours to tell.* It took me and my wife nearly a full day of stopping and starting Fellowship to make it through without getting distracted or falling asleep. When The Two Towers came out, I convinced her and our roommate at the time that it would be worth catching in the theatre--based solely on Internet claims that the twelve people who couldn't stand Part One were sure to be bowled over by the sequel. To this day, I have scorch marks on either side of my head from the death glares my viewing companions shot at me during that tedious, disappointing two-and-a-half hours.

I don't like fantasy films in general, but I go to every one that I can in the hopes of catching a bit of the spark that makes the genre so popular. When I saw the trailer for Snow White, I was taken with the visuals and the idea of Charlize Theron as a quasi-British Evil Queen. But all my hopes were dashed when Kristen Stewart showed up, followed by Chris Hemsworth. Stewart's respiratory-disease style of acting has irked me since I survived the first Twilight movie, and Hemsworth has yet to match his emotional intensity in the first ten minutes of the Star Trek remake; it's a bad sign when Thor is consistently upstaged by his hammer.

So there I was, screwed, skulking into Snow White as I do with all movies I could care less about seeing: tired, but hopeful for the future.

This may be one of the most impressive directorial debuts of all time. Rupert Sanders upends fantasy cinema in ways I hadn't thought possible, blending the hokey realms of swords-and-sorcery with the epic scale, heart, and humor of the original Star Wars trilogy. Snow White is framed as the same kind of self-serious period epic as LOTR and, to an extent, the Harry Potter franchise, but it also contains within it a wise, irreverent spirit that says everything those films took a decade to say--and more--in just over two hours.

Key to the film's success is the mission of the screenwriters. John Lee Hancock, Evan Daugherty, and Hossein Amini don't settle for slapping a fresh effects skin on the Disney version of a classic fairy tale (as Tim Burton and company did in the puzzling and atrocious Alice in Wonderland). Instead, they treat the story as an original concept, one with which they're free to play and tweak so that the audience is never sure which expectation will be blown at any given moment. Yes, there are poisoned apples, dwarves, and a Black Forest. But Prince Charming (Sam Claflin) turns out to be important in a very different way to this story, and we learn a bit more about the Evil Queen. And if you're inclined to read contemporary metaphors into throw-away cinema, as I am, you'll also find ample evidence of a disdain for the so-called one-percent and a wildly inspiring blueprint for mass uprising.**

I wouldn't dare spoil the film. Snow White and the Huntsman needs to be seen fresh, on the big screen, by everyone who loves movies. In addition to the story's new take on familiar material, there's so much to recommend, visually. From the eerily beautiful skeleton details that costumer Colleen Atwood includes on Theron's wedding dress to, hell, everything that production designer Dominic Watkins brings to the screen, every inch of every frame boasts a unique and personal vision of otherworldly excess. By now you've seen the iconic "milk bath" from the trailers, but Sanders fetishizes the image; as his camera holds on Theron's body emerging in slow motion from a pool of eternal youth, the meaning of what we see changes. The purity of the white liquid becomes viscous and tainted as it pours down the body of something very old and very wicked.

And I can't tell you the last time I looked at a blockbuster's creature design without yawning. Snow White presents us with a few new species that are genuinely interesting to take in--especially the bridge troll, which is a literal manifestation of an age-old idea. The TV ads give glimpses of the Black Forest's perverse wonders, but you have to see them in context to appreciate the acid-trip nightmare of a hellmouth this setting presents to Snow White's characters.

Speaking of nightmares, this is definitely not a movie for children. Between the surreal imagery straight out of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to a teenage Snow White (Stewart) getting felt up by a grotesque old man (Sam Spruell), and all the bird-heart-eating, soul-devouring mayhem in between, Sanders puts the "grim" back in Grimm in ways that recall The Dark Crystal--minus the uplifting parts.

The ideas and visual execution are only half of what makes the story work. The other half belongs to great casting. Theron is a delicious villain who sells the dilemma of a sorceress trapped by vanity and determined to survive. She's all calculation and calm until her plans begin to fall through--at which point she becomes a shrieking devil-woman. These are the roughest parts to watch, frankly, as she partakes a bit too much in the ol' Black Forest ham. But mostly, she's a fine, tragic figure who I was sad to see go (SPOILER!).

And where has Kristen Stewart been hiding all this talent? If you said "Adventureland" just now, prepare for a bloody lip next time we meet. Not only does the actress transcend her standard "Sullen and Hungry" mode, she pulls off a far more convincing English accent than Theron. I rooted for her character from the beginning to the end, meaning I was actually invested in the inevitable Good Versus Evil showdown. Snow White's grand charge into battle is stirring and triumphant.

In fairness, this is partially due to Stewart's selling of the character's arc, and partially thanks to the filmmakers' decision to use actual--what's the word...oh, yeah, PEOPLE--in the climactic army battle. Unlike LOTR, Alice in Wonderland, and every other movie to capitalize on the advent of semi-realistic computer animation, Snow White and the Huntsman presents a penultimate fight in which it appears as though the actors are claustrophobic from having to press up against shields and dodge swords.

I'm also a big fan of Chris Hemsworth now. Building on the promise of his funny turn in The Cabin in the Woods, he plays the Huntsman as a sarcastic but troubled rogue, the kind of dashing cad who'd probably get in a fistfight with Han Solo--and buy him a beer afterwards. His introduction marks a turning point in the movie, giving the audience a different perspective on a world cast into darkness by magic. The self-seriousness I mentioned before is present in Snow White's opening, but is quickly turned on its ear by a guy who knows the story's terrain--and thus finds it utterly ridiculous.

Lastly, I've gotta give a shout-out to the dwarves. It was jarring, frankly, to see that instead of enlisting actual little people in the roles of Snow White's woodland companions, the filmmakers chose to digitally superimpose "regular" actors' heads (sorry, I don't know how else to say it) onto smaller bodies. At least they went for the gold with their choices: I could've watched an entire movie about a surly, mythical Ray Winstone, Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane, and Toby Jones bitching about the Queen and tripping on mushrooms. These aren't your Disney dwarves; bitter to a man and decked out in Middle-Earth-meets-Road Warrior-chic, they add to the film's evolving tone. As we drive farther away from Snow White's castle, past the Black Forest, and into the realms beyond, the landscape gets trickier and weirder.

Despite my absolute love for this movie, there's one really disturbing chunk that should have been excised in the name of clarity and taste. As with many modern mythos, Snow White features a sloppy Christ allegory; this time, it's a girl. You see, Snow White isn't just the daughter of a fallen king who's destined to bring balance to the Force. Sorry, I meant "Narnia". Wait, no, to the land. She's also the essence of life itself, a healer who can bring things back from the brink of death. We learn this in a clunky scene that comes complete with Midichlorian-style exposition, where Snow White communes with a magnificent spirit elk or something. Moments later, though, she finds herself unable to save a friend who's been run through with an arrow.

Yep, I was rolling my eyes at that nonsense, too. The worst part is that nothing else in the film calls back to it. Had the writers left this scene in draft two, Snow White would have been three steps closer to flawless. On the bright side, we never again visit this wing of the Cuckoo Castle, and are free to resume the story with the simple "disgraced, left-for-dead princess regains her will and the fighting heart of her people" storyline, already in progress.

Minor quibbles aside, I was blown away by this movie. I went in expecting something I'd seen a hundred times before and came away breathing with new lungs, seeing with new eyes. Aside from weddings, funerals, or Christenings, there's no better use of your time this weekend than seeing Snow White and the Huntsman.

Then again, I'm the idiot who hates The Lord of the Rings.

*Need proof? Check out Randall's hilarious, deadly accurate breakdown of the movies in Clerks 2.

**But I guess that's the kind of nutty magic you get when teaming a novice screenwriter with the guy who wrote The Blind Side and the guy who wrote Drive. Yeah, think about that shit.


The New Guy (2002)

Must've Been the Crazy Eyes

Need proof that film criticism is an unreliable science? Look no further than The New Guy, a movie I loved ten years ago. I watched it again recently, and questioned every opinion I've ever offered.

Could it be that I was such a sucker for poorly edited, PG-13 dick jokes in 2002? Or did Eliza Dushku's sultry changing-room montage cast some kind of spell over me?* Sure, the movie has promise, plot-wise, but many of the teen hijinks come off as edgy Saved By the Bell material at best. Not surprisingly, screenwriter David Kendall's background is in sitcoms like Growing Pains and the Joey Lawrence vehicle, Melissa & Joey--which may explain The New Guy's bizarre climax.

But I'm getting way ahead of myself.

DJ Qualls stars as Dizzy, a scrawny, funk-loving high school student who's always dreamt of being popular. Thanks to an unfortunate public encounter with a librarian, he becomes a laughingstock and gets hauled off to jail. His cell mate, Luther (Eddie Griffin), is a diminutive smart-ass who's avoided trouble in the joint by reinventing himself as a lunatic; when threatened, he unleashes the "crazy eyes" stare--a savage, bug-eyed snap of the neck that has its own whipping sound effect.

Luther gives Dizzy a crash-course in baddassdom, and then sets him on a mission to get kicked out of school. He does, in short order, and transfers to a district where no one has heard of him. Dizzy slinks about his new digs in leather pants, bleached hair, and a moody pout that gets the girls' attention.

You can probably guess the rest from here: Dizzy becomes popular at the expense of nearly losing the small group of misfit buddies from his other life (most notably a pre-QuirkTM Zooey Deschanel**). A couple of tough guys don't care for having their top-dog status usurped by a phony dweeb, and conspire to bring him down. And, of course, a hot cheerleader (Dushku) falls for the fake Dizzy and must later decide whether or not she can forgive his deception.

None of this is interesting, or especially well-executed. As I hinted before, The New Guy's last act is a rushed, confused mess that feels like the editor was asked to create a dummy reel with all the pacing and smooth transitions cut out. Parts of the story feel more contrived than usual, as if the run-time dictated which story points would be neatly resolved and which would be hastily stapled together.

Strangest of all is the movie's grandiosity. It feels as though director Ed Decter and company set out to make a comedy classic, and not just another high school comedy. It can't be cheap to re-enact Braveheart's iconic horseback war speech or to hire Gene Simmons, Lyle Lovett, Henry Rollins, and Jermaine Dupri (among what seems like a hundred other random, ridiculous guest stars) for a silly identity-shift comedy. But The New Guy has all the spectacle of a successful franchise. I have a feeling that, somewhere, a powerful studio executive is still smarting over blackmail pictures or tons of stolen coke money.

This outsized ambition gives the movie a charm that almost makes up for its poor quality. The plot may be generic, but the spirit is very specific. Decter and Kendall are, I assume, obsessed with funk--or at least one of them is. The New Guy could easily double as a PSA for music appreciation: James Brown is a staple here; Creed is notably absent, despite several now-hilarious references to the band. I also question the logic of including an homage to Patton in a movie aimed at teenagers. It could be that Dizzy's re-enactment of George C. Scott's famous address in front of a giant-sized American flag was meant as a generic pop culture reference, but I have the sneaking suspicion that the filmmakers were going for a recognition gag that was twenty years old before the script got greenlit. Mission not accomplished.

The main reason to watch The New Guy (outside of Dushku's pants-tightening dance--sorry, it's true) is for Qualls' and Griffin's chemistry. I would have preferred to see a prison comedy starring these guys, 'cause the film goes (comparatively) dead every time we leave the concrete confines. That said, if you're looking for a fascinating way to kill eighty-eight minutes, you could do much worse than this film. As a comedic exercise, it's a noble failure; as a filmmaking tutorial, it's a fantastic cautionary tale; as critical fodder, it's something to write about, I guess--kinda.

Hey! Not much has changed in the last decade, after all. Ten years on, I can still heartily recommend The New Guy.

*In my defense, the scene holds up quite well.

**In an early scene, she pops up wearing a pink cowgirl outfit at the mall, but that could be just as much the fault of the director or a drunk wardrobe assistant.