Monday, February 28, 2011

Movie Monday: Grand Theft Auto

This week's film was another suggestion from my Facebook page: Ron Howard's directorial debut, 1977's Grand Theft Auto!

GTA opens as a car (naturally) pulls up to a swanky mansion:
Inside are Sam and Paula (Ron Howard and Nancy Morgan) who are trying to convince Paula's parents that they should be allowed to get married.

Paula's parents are totally against it--not only is Sam from the wrong side of the tracks, but she already has a perfectly good boyfriend, the upper crust Collins Hedgeworth. On top of that, Paula's Dad plans to run for governor!
Sam storms out, and Paula, in tears, goes to her room. But Paula has more spunk than you'd think--she sneaks out of her window, stealing her parents' Rolls-Royce (but not before sabotaging her Dad's other car) and picking up Sam just down the road.

Sam gets in, and they decide to make a bee-line for Las Vegas to get married:
Actress Nancy Morgan really plants some serious kisses on Ron Howard here; none of this mashing the upper-lip stuff!

When Nancy's parents learn of this, they call Collins' mother, played by a familiar face:
...its Mrs. Cunningham herself, Marion Ross!

Mrs. Hedgeworth calls Collins, who looks and acts like the proverbial spoiled rich kid. Still in his equestrian riding outfit (well, la di da), he drops everything and jumps in his car in an attempt to catch Sam and Paula.

But he's not the only one interested in our young lovers: after he calls a local DJ, offering a $25,000 reward, suddenly everyone wants to find Sam and Paula!
Its at this point the film becomes narrated throughout; adding more and more characters who want to claim the reward (very reminiscent of the classic It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World)--a group of detectives (led by Rance Howard, Ron's Dad), some local cops, and even two grease monkeys who jump into their souped-up roadster, with dollar signs in their eyes.

As a director, Howard throws in some nice visual touches that showed he knew how this movie would play: in a couple of scenes, he plants his camera in the backseat of a car and we get a series of exciting POV shots:
A lot of the effect is lost watching this at home, but I bet seeing this on the big screen made it work like gangbusters.

Ron and Paula take some small country roads to evade their pursuers. Sam wants to go somewhere else to get married, but Paula wants to get married in Vegas. Its at this point that Sam starts to doubt why Paula really wants to marry him:
Paula professes her love, and says she doesn't care that Sam doesn't have much money. Sam is dubious about this, and tries to warn Paula that she's not prepared for a life without money since she's always had it.

Despite most of the silly goings-on in this movie, this is a pretty good scene. There's some genuine real-life stuff here, a nice break from the cartoony car chases that make up most of the film. Eventually, Paula assures Sam she loves him, and this whole thing is not just to spite her overbearing father. Reconciling, they head for Vegas.

The chase gets more and more chaotic as the couple gets closer to Vegas, and the stunts get wilder, like this cop car shot into the air while on fire:
At this point, there's extensive media coverage of the event, on TV and radio, and when Sam and Paula find themselves at a demolition derby (of course), the whole thing becomes a spectator sport:
The crowd, on Sam and Paula's side, help them escape Collins, the police, and the detectives, in a nice moment of populist indignation. As the crowd gangs up on our villains, Sam and Paula make it to the chapel:
This is another nice scene that contrasts well against all the other craziness. Director Howard quiets things down, and using a series of quick fades (as opposed to cuts), he brings a certain amount of emotional heft to the wedding scene.

As they leave the chapel, a crowd has formed offering them all sorts of wedding gifts, including a free limo! They climb in, practically aglow they managed to pull this off. Sam pledges eternal love, and the limo speeds off. The end. revealed in the audio commentary track by Howard and producer Roger Corman (who allowed Howard to direct this film in exchange for appearing in another one of his low-budget productions), Corman felt the film needed one more big scene, so he contrived a final scene where the DJ, now determined to claim the reward himself, chases after the limo.

They manage, via some hairpin turns, to evade him, and the DJ's car ends up plowing into a nearby home, driving straight through it:
You can see why Corman, who was always eyeing the bottom line, thought it would be better to add one more smash-em-up moment to this film (it is titled Grand Theft Auto, after all, not Sam and Paula Get Married), but nevertheless it is a little regretful that Howard manages to create some sort of emotional payoff, only for Corman to throw in some more silliness at the end. That said, it is a good stunt--the car goes through the house, ending up in the backyard pool, flattening it.

Overall, Grand Theft Auto is definitely a cut above your average Roger Corman picture--you can tell someone with some skill was behind the camera and was striving to make a cohesive, genuine movie. But that also makes it a little less fun to watch, sort of, because it never sinks to the so-howlingly-bad-its-hilarious level that some of Corman's worse films achieved (is that the right word in this context?). Its a solid B-movie, worth watching now mostly with the hindsight that this was the beginning of a major Hollywood directing career.

I imagine seeing Grand Theft Auto on a Saturday night at a drive-in, with your girl and some beer, was probably a pretty damn good time.

This week's film suggested by Nikki IlVento!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Movie Monday: The Amazing Captain Nemo

I had some other movies I wanted to talk about this week, but when I popped this baby into the DVD player I knew pretty quickly this was the one...

Via the super-cool Warner Archives site, I picked up The Amazing Captain Nemo, a 1978 movie I had never heard of, but the combo of that character and producer Irwin Allen was enough for me to risk the twenty bucks.

Apparently Nemo was a proposed TV series (or mini-series; reports differ) but the ratings were so poor that the series was scuttled, the episodes repackaged into one long feature, and then released to theaters: which is kind of weird, when you think about it--trying to get people to pay for something they didn't watch for free.

Okay, anyway, The Amazing Captain Nemo opens aboard a super high-tech submarine, and right from the first shot we see what level of special effects, costuming, and set design we're in for:
sg, I'm going to admit up front that I love stuff like this: there's a clunky, spit-and-bailing-wire to charm to these ambitious 1970s sci-fi productions, with their sparkly gold lame costumes and Batman-esque sets that warm my heart. But when you consider this aired in 1978, a year after Star Wars broke all sort of new ground in this genre, you can see why people probably laughed this off the screen.

Anyway, the sub we're aboard is commanded by Prof. Waldo Cunningham (Burgess Meredith), who is your prototypical supervillain: he has a missile that he is threatening to use to blow-up Washington DC (and that's bad how?) unless he gets...a billion dollars!!

This leads into the opening credits:
The credits are really cool, with their nautical feel and bright, splashy colors. Jose Ferrer is first as Nemo, then Meredith, concluding with what I can safely say is Thye Greatest Credit in Movie History:
At the same time as Prof. Cunningham is threatening Washington, a Navy ship discovers the hull of a wrecked ship at the bottom of the ocean. Two officers named Tom and Jim (Tom Hellick and the wonderfully named Burr DeBenning, star of The Incredible Melting Man) swim to investigate, and they can't believe their eyes: this ship is a beautifully ornate, sophisticated vessel, and one that doesn't look all that damaged, considering.

They get inside, and unlock a gas-filled chamber. Out of this chamber walks...Captain Nemo!
Yes, not only is Jules Verne's most famous creation real, but he is alive, kept in stasis by suspended animation somehow!

After some awkward explanations to Nemo as to where and when he is, he is brought aboard the Navy ship. He quickly gets caught up in the mission to stop Cunningham--adjusting amazingly well to waking up over 100 years in the future.

As I mentioned before, I really love the look of these 60s and 70s sci-fi productions; they have a colorful clunkiness that I find dazzling to look at. Case in point, shots like this:
Since producer Irwin Allen's budget was pretty small for such an ambitious production, the, movie--wastes a lot of time on other stuff that is more traditional TV of the time, like sub-plots featuring other characters, like a budding romance between Miller (Warren Stevens) and Kate (Lynda Day George, who was kind of a go-to pretty woman for 1970s TV):
Watching these two romance reminds he how much television has changed: this the main romantic sub-plot of this show, but these two were on, say, a CW show today, seen as they are here they'd be relegated to grandparent parts, and Nemo would be played by some 19-year old. But I digress.

Nemo doesn't feature all that many F/X-heavy shots, but there are some nice ones, like this sequence where the Nautilus has to navigate through a series of sea mines:
Even though his plans were thwarted at the end of the first act, Meredith's mad would-be conqueror is involved in the second, and we get to see more of him surrounded by the weird robot-y looking henchmen he's built. I love this little guy who operates the sub's laser cannon:
...nice to see what the guy who was inside Twiki did the days Buck Rogers wasn't shooting.

Somehow the Navy talks Nemo into becoming a sort of special agent for them, even though he's busy resuming his quest to find Atlantis--something he does, almost in his spare time. Its here we get to see Horst Bucholz come aboard as King Tibor, Ruler of Atlantis:
While Nemo tries to reassure the citizens of the fabled Lost City that he is not there to conquer, Prof. Cunningham also gets involved much to everyone's displeasure.

Meredith hams it up here unmercifully, making his work as The Penguin look subtle. Maybe that's because, visually, Meredith by himself isn't all that imposing, and the costume department does him no favors:
In his rumpled grey suit, loose tie, and sensible blue loafers, Prof. Cunningham is about as imposing as my Great Uncle Fred. Makes we wonder if Cunningham's sub didn't cover everything in those sticky googly eyes, too.

Anyway, Nemo and Tibor make friends, and team up against Cunningham and his army of robots. Ferrer, for being a fairly old guy at this point, gets to do a decent amount of action stuff, like a sword fight and this laser fight:
Eventually Cunningham's plan is thwarted, leaving him to become the Joker to Nemo's Batman. The two Navy men who discovered Nemo take a leave of absence from the service (yeah, because that's so easy to do) and join Nemo as his crew, preparing for more underwater adventures!

Even though I'm goofing on The Amazing Captain Nemo quite heartily, I actually enjoyed it very much--yes, there's enough ham and cheese here to stock a deli, but its so un-self-conscious in its over-the-top-ness, and maybe if the show had been a hit Allen would have been given more money to spend, we might have been treated to some truly amazing underwater sights.

Despite being three episodes sort of stitched together--which sometimes can be fatal, pacing-wise--it moves a brisk clip, and you generally don't get bored watching it, especially if you're a Verne/Nemo fan as I am.

e4` nb

(Note: directly above was typed by our cat, Frankie, before I moved off of this page. I'm not sure how she felt about the movie, but I assume "e4` nb" means she liked it)

Monday, February 14, 2011

Movie Monday: Dead & Buried

I had the chance to re-watch one of my favorite horror films, the underrated 1981 film Dead & Buried, for a small (very small) piece I'm writing about it for a magazine. I ended up watching the whole thing all over again, from beginning to end, so I figured why not talk about it here...

Dead & Buried has a screenplay by Ronald Shusett and Dan O'Bannon, their first film after writing Alien. It was directed by Gary Sherman, and suffered from a nightmarish series of productions problems: the production/distribution company that had planned to make it got out of the movie business, selling the movie to a second company. Then that company went out of business, selling it to a third company.

That company wasn't too keen on Sherman's black comedy tone, and insisted on adding more gore and more horror since that was the style at the time. They went so far as to add and rearrange scenes with the participation of director Sherman; and yet, despite this, the film still manages to retain a very creepy, claustrophobic tone.

It opens with a stranger driving into the sleepy coastal town of Potter's Bluff. He snaps pics of the scenery, when he is met by a beautiful woman who instantly flirts with him.

After posing for some pictures, she amps up the flirting just a bit
After posing topless, she asks the guy if he wants to have sex. This is still essentially the late 1970s, so of course this seems a totally normal turn of events.

But before he can plant a kiss, a gang of townsfolk show up, clubbing the guy on the head. He wakes up to find himself tied to a post, where the group pours gasoline on him...and sets him on fire, taking pictures of it as he screams in agony. Welcome to Potter's Bluff!

That night, an overturned car is found, and Sheriff Gillis (James Farentino) shows up to investigate. The car apparently crashed and then burned, for they find the driver a charred mess behind the wheel. The creepy town mortician--a man named Dobbs (Jack Albertson)--also arrives, looking a bit like a Batman villain:
Dobbs jokes and plays his big band music over his car radio, seeming almost gleeful for the new business. Problem is: the driver's not quite dead--he opens his one good eye and let's loose a piercing scream!

The next day Sheriff Gillis talks to some of the locals in the nearby coffee shop, and we see that many of them--including the kindly waitress--were involved in the killing.

More murders occur, and the photographer gets finished off--while Gillis and a doctor have their back turned--by the same woman who met him at the beach, this time sticking him in his eye with a needle:
Gillis seems overwhelmed by what's going on in this sleepy, quiet town. Even more unsettling is that his wife Janet (Melody Anderson, fresh off of Flash Gordon) seems to be acting somewhat strangely. She off-handedly mentions some of her students are shooting home movies as part of her class, but when Gillis mentions this to the school principal, he knows nothing about it.

Their relationship starts to get more brittle as she starts going out at night more, unconvincingly explaining where she's going. When she hands him another roll of film to get developed at the drug store, he can barely hide his nervousness:
A few nights later, a family lost during a vacation drive stop by the diner, and they are told they can get gas at the nearest station and then be shown the way out of town. In fact, the station attendant is right there, in the diner:
...problem is, this is the photographer who was burned and then stabbed to death. What's going on here?

The couple and their young son stop at a nearby house when their car stalls, and that's when they are stalked by the crowd from the diner. One of the creepiest things about this sequence is now cheerily and unemotionally the townsfolk committ their crimes:
One of the family members gets away, but is hit by Gillis' car as he races down the road. The victim's severed arm is stuck in Gillis' car grill, still twitching. As if that wasn't bad enough, Gillis is informed the town doctor that the flesh sample from the arm belongs to someone at least four weeks dead.

Gillis goes to visit his wife at her school, and Janet is teaching some weird stuff to the wee tykes in her classroom:
Gillis does some looking into the background of Dobbs, and learns that he was fired from his job as a Rhode Island pathologist for conducting experiments on the corpses. He picks up the film from the drug store, but we see just how many people are involved:
The doctor is murdered (in the one scene featuring sub-par effects: it was this scene added by the distributors to get more gore in), leaving virtually no one left in the town who seems to be on Gillis' side.

Gillis goes home to watch the footage, supposedly home movies shot by a bunch of 9-10 year olds, but what he sees is terribly disturbing:
Its at this point I will say no more about what happens in Dead & Buried--what follows is a series of nightmarish, terrifyingly creepy scenes that explain just what's going on, who's involved, and how.

As reality crumbles in around Sheriff Gillis, we really get a palpable feel of what he's experiencing--the fear, the betrayal, the inability of a rational mind to face something that seems unbelievable.
I had never seen Dead & Buried--or even heard of it--until my friends at Exhumed Films showed it as part of a double feature many years ago. Even having seen a bajillion horror movies, I was hooked by this film from the beginning, its foggy, dimly-lit streets and forced "small town" good cheer the perfect mask for horrific goings-on.

On the commentary track, director Sherman talks about how this film started out as a black comedy, which is bewildering to me: I find this movie so terrifying and serious that I can't see where there's room tonally for any sort of comedy. And the last-minute meddling by the distributor is evident: the aforementioned extra scene featuring some weak effects, plus there's a goof where a character is shown as part of the murderous townsfolk before she's introduced into the film.

Those things aside, Dead & Buried still works like gangbusters--a testament to the work of director Sherman and the screenwriters and actors. It deserves to be more widely seen by fans of good, old-fashioned creepy horror.

Friday, February 11, 2011

King Kobra! - 2009

This was the second piece I did for Back Issue!, for an all-villains-themed issue. It was the first full length piece I did, and even though I made a couple of factual errors (corrected here), it gave me the confidence to keep submitting articles for the magazine.


When you see that name, who do you think of?

Well, you probably think of that group of vaguely competent bad guys led by Destro, but that's not who we're talking about--in this case, we're talking about Kobra (also known--mostly to himself--as King Kobra) the DC Comics madman bent on world domination who debuted in his very own title, Kobra, the first issue of which hit the newsstands in November 1975.

Kobra was in many ways your prototypical super-villain: he wants to take over the world, talks about himself in the third person, and murders his own henchmen over their slightest mistake. That last trait sounds a lot like a certain Clown Prince of Crime, doesn't it?

The similarities don't end there--one of the reasons Kobra has always stuck with me as a character is because he was a villain who had his own comic book--something you see fairly regularly nowadays, but was completely unheard of in the 1970s. And while the Joker did earn his own book earlier in 1975, he was then (and arguably still is) the most famous comic book bad guy of all time. Kobra, on the other hand, was a completely unknown entity, yet DC head-honcho Carmine Infantino let Kobra slither past First Issue Special tryout stars like Dr. Fate, Lady Cop, and The Dingbats of Danger Street directly into a solo title.

Maybe that's because Kobra was the co-creation of Steve Sherman and the legendary Jack "King" Kirby, who penciled the first issue's story, "Fangs of the Kobra!" The first story was done (according to the man who would assume the writing of the book, Marty Pasko--more about him in a moment) as a prototype issue, more a proposal for the series rather than an actual first issue. It concerned two men--King Kobra and Jason Burr, twin brothers separated at birth but who retained a psychic connection to one another.

The proposed series (originally to be titled King Kobra) sat in DC's inventory for over a year. In the meantime, Kirby had left DC to return to Marvel. Eventually DC editor Gerry Conway handed the material over to Pasko, who was told "Do something with this." Pasko read the book, and was not impressed, thinking it was little more than a "toss-off" by Kirby, who had one foot out the door at DC (Kirby told Pasko as much a few years later).

Pasko had new stats made of the art, with all the dialog whited out, so he could rewrite the story as much as possible. Necessary art changes were then made by Pablo Marcos. Pasko retained the Corsican Brothers angle, developing a new backstory and details about the cobra cult from his own research on India. Pasko's thinking was that, if Infantino gave him and editor Conway the marching orders to do a regular book, "We wanted to be able to live with it."

Kobra #1 sets up the book's central premise--Kobra and regular guy Jason Burr are brothers, but only Kobra knows this. Burr is approached by a Lt. Perez (who says he is with the NYPD), and is told he is the key to catching international super-criminal Kobra. Burr and Perez are attacked by a giant robot (which fell from space!) sent by Kobra to kidnap him, but they manage to defeat it. We then learn that Kobra and Burr's psychic connection is so acute that when one of them feels pain, the other feels it as well. So as long as Burr stays alive...ssssso doessss Kobra! (sorry, slipped into Kobra-ese for a moment). The first issue ends with Burr and Kobra meeting face to face, but Kobra escapes before the police can apprehend him.

It's at this point that Kobra, as a title, really takes off--Marty Pasko was free to take the story anywhere he pleased, and the book moves at a breakneck pace, jamming more crazy situations, settings, and character asides in six issues than several years' worth of comics do nowadays. In issue #2 we meet Burr's old lady Melissa--and we see that as Burr kisses her, Kobra "feels" it, too (exactly how far these feelings between the brothers can go is something left to the imagination--damn Comics Code). Kobra then runs afoul of another super-villain, named Solaris, whose weapon, the Heliotron, Kobra tries to steal. Perez and Burr get involved, ending with Burr and Kobra, locked in a struggle as they fall from the sky after Kobra saves Burr from getting blasted by the Heliotron.

In #3, the authorities rescue Burr, and they think Kobra falls to his death...but they can't find his body. When dealing with Kobra, you have to remember The Joker Rule: No Body = Still Alive. Shortly thereafter, Kobra shows up at Burr's apartment(!) and Burr's girlfriend Melissa seems to know him! After another tussle with Solaris, Burr learns that Kobra stole a large cache of "illegal cobra venom" from the C.I.A. (even though President Nixon ordered it destroyed!) and that's why the Feds are after him--to keep their illegal activities under wraps. (Hey--say what you want about Richard Nixon, at least he ordered illegal cobra venom destroyed.) Turns out Perez is not from the NYPD--he's C.I.A., and has been lying to Burr all this time. Burr is not amused.

In #4, Burr starts to suspect Melissa isn't telling him the whole truth, and they tentatively break up. Then he meets a mysterious stranger named Randu Singh, who is also after Kobra! Meanwhile, Kobra meets a two-headed alien (what are the odds?!?), who Kobra believes might, if he can experiment on it/them, help him learn how to sever the psychic link between him and Burr.

Kobra sends two of his giant robots, called "Servitors", to find Agent Perez. They find him at an airport, ripping the plane open, crushing him to death! Burr and Singh arrive, the aliens realize Kobra's plan and split, sending Kobra into a rage. He punches Burr out, which should knock him out, too...but somehow it doesn't, and he takes off. Does this mean Kobra is now somehow more powerful than Burr?

In #5, an old star from the DC universe shows up--private eye Johnny Double. Double stumbles onto this Kobra case when he's almost killed by an explosion, the only piece of remaining evidence being part of a suitcase with a Kobra symbol on it. He is apprehended by Kobra and strung up on the Golden Gate Bridge, which will be destroyed, along with all of San Francisco, when the approaching dawn triggers Kobra's new solar-powered machine called The Quaker.

In #6, Double manages to escape, and destroys The Quaker. Kobra gets away, and tracks down Burr, on a plane headed towards San Francisco. Burr is so sick of all this, he's ready to kill himself, as long as it takes his evil twin with him. Kobra then reveals that he has kidnapped Melissa! Meanwhile, Randu Singh and Johnny Double learn of Kobra's newest plan to tap into global communication cables, "bugging" the entire world. Singh and Double find Kobra's secret ship, called The Ark, and sneak on. Kobra blinds Singh with some gas from his glove, and then tries to fly away in the Ark. Double blasts it with a wrist-laser (stolen from Kobra), causing it to crash, seemingly killing Kobra...but that means Jason Burr is dead, too! Doesn't it?

In #7, we learn of course that Kobra survived. Burr, still alive, meets Johnny Double for the first time, and he tells Double the whole story. Kobra then kidnaps Burr, beaming him up into the Ark, where he sees Melissa in suspended animation! As if that wasn't bad enough, Kobra built a machine called The Empathic Magnetizer (patent pending), which "re-routes" pain felt by some of Kobra's minions (used as guinea pigs) into Burr, and Burr only!

Burr learns from Melissa that she knew Kobra years ago and fell in love with him. And even though he's an evil monster, she still does love him, in some way. Burr is convinced Kobra brainwashed her, and he escapes and tries to fight Kobra, who is now working on a plan to resurrect the dead! Kobra pushes Burr off the Ark into the water, and we see Kobra's ultimate weapon--the perfectly-preserved bodies of their parents, which Kobra will bring back from the dead! To be continued...well, sort of.

sgEven though it was advertised on the last page of #7, there was no Kobra #8, which promised to guest-star Batman. Luckily, the story did see the light of day, in DC Special Series #1, an 80-page anthology book featuring stories starring Aquaman, The Atom, The Flash, Green Lantern, and Batman.

In "The Dead On Arrival Conspiracy", Batman gets involved in the case, and makes his way to Kobra's secret HQ in the Swiss Alps. Here he finds Burr--who Kobra learned wasn't dead in the ocean after all--and is knocked out by Kobra's goons. He wakes up alongside Burr, dangling over the Lazarus Pit, something Batman is all too familiar with. Kobra plans to kill them both, and have them reborn as his slaves.

He makes the fatal mistake of not seeing his plan all the way through by sticking around, and soon Batman frees himself and Burr. He apprehends Kobra, while Burr takes off with the hypnotized Melissa. As they leave aboard a ski-lift, Melissa stabs Burr in the back, then throwing herself and Burr out of the car, to their deaths! Turns out Kobra killed Melissa, and reincarnated her as a slave, and she has carried out his orders to murderous perfection.

Batman is shocked when Kobra gets free and jumps off a cliff, seemingly to his death. But at the last second, Kobra's Ark ship grabs his falling body with a tractor beam, spiriting him away. We are left with Batman, vowing to never stop hunting Kobra and bring him to justice.

Wow--and that's only half the stuff that goes on in just these eight stories. Kobra has a crazy, movie-serial, what-else-can-they-throw-in next quality to it, and that feeling extends to the book itself. After Kirby, Marcos, and Berry on the art for Kobra #1, #2 is drawn by Chic Stone and Marcos, #3 by Keith Giffen, Terry Austin, and Dick Giordano, #4 by Pat Gabriele and Lowell Anderson, #5 by Rich Buckler and Frank McLaughlin. Only issues 6 and 7 were by the same team--Mike Nasser and Joe Rubenstein. Whew!

As ramshackle as the book is, it is entertaining in a way that not too many comics are anymore. Sure, a lot of it doesn't make sense (Two-headed aliens? Bringing the dead back to life? Nixon banning cobra venom?), but Pasko wrote Kobra as such a classic indefatigable villain that he's still around to this day, causing trouble in the DC Universe. (In 1985 alone, he was a genuinely creepy menace in Batman and the Outsiders, as well as the butt of jokes when taking on Superman and Ambush Bug in DC Comics Presents. Say what you want, the guy is versatile!) As a side note, I can't help but think, with all the accoutrements Kobra carries with him--henchmen dressed like snakes, the floating Ark, the Servitrons, The Quaker, the secret base in the Swiss Alps--Kobra might have made for a kickin' toy line from Mego. Oh well.

Marty Pasko, looking back, says: "I wrote all of Kobra with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek--it was a preposterous exercise dumped in my lap, and it helped pay the rent on a very nice place in the Village. As embarrassing as it is by today's standards, there is apparently still something appealing about the character, because other writers keep digging it out of mothballs every now and then. Nice to know those books are still entertaining somebody somewhere, if not in the manner originally intended."

All hail King Kobra!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Movie Monday: Piranha 3D

While I'm waiting for the next Facebook page-inspired film to arrive, I sat down and watched a movie I wanted to see when it came out last year, but am just now getting around to: Piranha 3D!

Sadly(?), I don't own one of those new fancy 3D sets, so I had to be able to immerse myself in the film via plain old 2D, like my ancestors did.

Piranha 3D opens in quite possibly the most charming, cool cameo in a film, ever: with a grizzled fisherman, played by Richard Dreyfuss, who looks a lot like he did when he played Matt Hooper in Jaws:
Even though he is credited here as Matt Boyd, the film makes no bones about who this is supposed to be: Dreyfuss here looks a lot like his old nemesis Quint did back in the day, we hear "Show Me The Way To Go Home" playing in the background, and the beer Hooper--er, Boyd--is chugging is labeled Amity (I guess Mayor Vaughn finally gave up denying Amity's shark-y reputation and decided to go the other way: merchandising!).

Why Universal's lawyers (surely the culprits here) couldn't just let Dreyfuss be Matt Hooper, I don't know: its not like they're doing--or will be doing--anything with the character ( that I say that, I can picture some awful Jaws prequel script being prepared, with Ryan Reynolds as Young Matt Hooper.

Okay, anyway, Matt runs afoul of the titular piranhas when his boat overturns as it sucked into a whirpool created by a seaquake, the same quake that frees the deadly little buggers. Matt is chomped to death, and as his mangled outstretched hand sinks beneath the surface for the last time, we get our credits:
The main movie is set during Spring Break at Lake Victoria, and we see that the quiet town has been overrun by drunken frat guys, dimwitted, big-boobed teen girls, and a Girls Gone Wild-esque host named Derrick Jones, played by Jerry O'Connell.

The town's police is overwhelmed, and the sheriff, played by Elisabeth Shue, doesn't have much patience for the spring breakers' jerky behavior. After one of them propositions her, she slams him into a car hood, cuffing him, and offering a taser for any of his friends foolish enough to interfere:
Her son Jake (Steven McQueen) is enjoying the festivities, sort of, as he banters back and forth with the beautiful Kelly (Jessica Szohr). They both get roped into climbing aboard Jones' boat, where he plans to shoot some more racy video. Jake is supposed to be minding his younger brother and sister, so he bribes them into not telling their mother as they go off on their own.

Later that night, Sheriff Forrester and her deputy (Ving Rhames) find Boyd's chewed-up body, and try to figure out what the hell happened. They find Boyd's empty rowboat, where a still living piranha has landed. They capture it and bring it to a local expert named Mr. Goodman (Christopher Lloyd, channeling Doc Brown). Goodman is amazed and horrified at what he sees, and can only offer vague theories as to where these nightmarish beasts came from.

Meanwhile, some oceanographers (led by Adam Scott) go exploring, and the two divers run into trouble--a lot of trouble. When one of them gets cut accidentally grabbing a baby piranha, he turns around his flashlight shows him just how much trouble he's in:
The piranhas are all CG, and most of the time the effects are fairly weak in that standard CG way: none of them seem to have any real weight, they move too fast and too fluidly. But there are occasional moments where it works, like in the scene pictured above. There's just the briefest of moments before the piranhas attack, and its pretty chilling.

While Jake is off partying, and his little siblings get stranded on a tiny island in the lake, the piranhas go wild, and attack near shore, ripping into each and every spring breaker:
This is where the movie really lets it rip: in a sequence about ten minutes long, we see untold amounts of carnage: a young paragliding woman has her legs eaten away, two young girls are sliced in half by a stray electric cable--before they even realize what's happened, their torsos have separated from their bottom halves.

One young injured woman, being carried ashore by two cops, falls apart like a piece of bread. Heads get ripped off, the water fills with blood. One punk, only concerned with his own safety, grabs a boat and gleefully mows down other people in an attempt to escape:
This part leads to, IMO, the film's nastiest, most unsettling gore effect: a young woman's hair gets entangled by the boat's motor, jamming it. The young d-bag doesn't care, and starts the motor again, ripping the scalp off the young woman, which we see in full daylight. Maybe I'm not as sanguine about gore as I was when i was younger, but that bit actually made me a little queasy.

Meanwhile, the piranhas are also attacking the Girls Gone Wild-ish party boat. One of the girls is eaten from the inside, and we see a piranha fly out of her mouth, a truly inventive bit. Jones gets attacked too, and is dragged aboard by one of the babes he was filming (Kelly Brook). This leads to the film's funniest, most audacious effect:
As Jerry O'Donnell--the top half, at least--screams in agony and the girl smacks the piranhas with a paddle, you have to laugh at the sheer ghoulish energy this movie has (it also helped me laugh that this effect reminded me of a sketch from the late, great Mr. Show, about a heavy metal band visiting their biggest, most indefatigable fan in the hospital).

Sheriff Forrester, once she learns her children are not safe, goes to rescue them, along with Scott's character Novak. They can't get too close otherwise they'll ground their boat, so they jerry-rig a rope line so everyone can repel across.

Back on shore, the carnage continues, and Deputy Fallon makes a final brave effort to kill every piranha he can: grabbing a motor, he plunges it into the water reducing many piranhas to bits as the rest tear him apart, bit by bit:
Sheriff Forrester manages to rescue everyone (well, almost: Kelly Brook's Danni is snagged by a piranha halfway across and is dragged into the water), leaving only her son and his erstwhile girlfriend Kelly, who is trapped in a cabin below that is slowly filling with water!

Using Jones' remaining corpse as a sort of appetizer, he throws it into the water as he dives below, coming back up in the cabin where he and Kelly will get towed out to safety, after they set an explosion via the boat's gasoline tanks.

The explosion goes off, leaving many piranhas belly up. Everyone thinks that's the end of it (why?), until they get a call from Mr. Goodman:
He has some bad news, which I will not reveal here but is probably easy to guess--especially if you saw the film's trailer, which gives it away! Nice job, marketing department!

I found Piranha 3D to be loads of fun, something woefully lacking in many horror films: the absurdly overqualified cast is really game here, and the director (Alexandre Aja) keeps things moving at a good pace; knowing when to slow down and knowing when to really let things go crazy: as I mentioned, the over ten minute sequence of frat boys and bimbos get reduced to bite-sized bits is a blast: the filmmakers know you hate these loud, crude, drunken, spoiled jackasses, and its fun watching them all meet a (very) grisly end. Or maybe its just I haven't gotten over not being popular in high school.

In any case, I enjoyed the film quite a bit; sure, its trash, but its fun trash that at 98 minutes doesn't wear out its welcome.

Ironically, the only part of this movie I had a problem with involves the opening cameo I loved so much: Matt Hooper/Boyd buys it, which I hated seeing! If we're to go along with the joke that Piranha 3D exists in the same universe as Jaws, then we know Matt Hooper is the only one of the three shark-hunters left (Quint died in the first film of course, and we learn that Chief Brody is dead by the abysmal Jaws 4).

Matt Hooper deserved to live, not get eaten by a bunch of piranha; I would have loved to have seen Matt survive and live to tell about yet another terrifying encounter he had on the water!

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