Tuesday, June 19, 2012

James Cameron Roundtable #2: Piranha II- The Spawning

Individual reviews are useful, but film criticism is a dialogue, not a monologue. I’m Max O’Connell of The Film Temple, he’s Loren Greenblatt of G-Blatt’s Dreams, and we’ve got some things to say in the James Cameron Roundtable. Next up, his first full-length film, Piranha II: The Spawning.

Max’s Grade: 32 (C-)
Loren’s Grade: C

Loren Greenblatt: So…Piranha II: THE SPAWNING! The flying piranha movie. It…uh…

Max O’Connell: Well, it sure was something…possibly Cameron’s masterpiece?

LG: Possibly. This thing is…

MO: Ridiculous?

LG: It’s Jaws with wings… and without the smarts. It starts off with of those horror movie couples do incredibly stupid things considering that they’re in a horror movie. They go scuba-diving at midnight at a shipwreck… for sex. I guess both their parents where home. Anyway so they’re fooling around, she’s naked, she slices his swim trunks off with a knife.

MO: And then they kiss underwater like they were expecting to be killed. Like, “oh, we don’t have a lot of time left, so let’s not worry about air!”

LG: And the piranhas eat them. And the credits…it feels like a Bond movie is about to start.

MO: It’s honestly not a bad credit sequence, but to back up a minute, when the actual movie starts, we just hear people talking over an empty shot of the ocean, and I thought to myself, “What are we looking at, and why?”

LG: Well, it’s a very dark print.

MO: Well, yeah, it’s a dark print, but the shot itself has no purpose.

LG: We go to an island near Jamaica. The island is set-up like Amity Island in Jaws. I guess it’s as good a time as any to say that this is a sequel to the original Piranha, a knock-off of Jaws from Roger Corman.

MO: The original Piranha was Directed by Joe Dante of The Howling and Gremlins fame, and written by independent filmmaking legend John Sayles, and I hear it’s not bad. It’s like a knowing parody of Jaws. Piranha II, on the other hand…

LG: Is completely unknowing. It’s just a Jaws rip-off. At one point we got tired of waiting for the Jaws theme to pop up so we pulled up Spotify and just started playing it.

MO: It’s more interesting than what happens for most of the movie…

LG: We spend thirty minutes meeting I swear every person that lives on the island.

MO: I counted at least twenty characters, maybe more. There’s “wiener boy”, as we dubbed him, a teenage kid who seems to know a little bit about science, but that pretty much goes away. He’s very creepy, and very awkward. There’s wiener boy’s mom, played by Tricia O’Neil…

LG: Honestly one of the better actors in the film. She’s not bad.

MO: Yeah, she acquits herself well as basically a proto-Ripley. There’s “Not Jeff Bridges,” a character who feels like he would be played by Jeff Bridges in a big-budget version of this because he’s a sandy-haired love interest, only played by a terrible actor. Then there’s “pussy Burt Reynolds,” who looks like Burt Reynolds but wimpy.

LG: There’s two ditzy girls who are introduced fawning over a dentist and a lifeguard. They’re set up as monster food, and yet we don’t get that payoff. There’s the horny older Jewish lady.

MO:  Who has a great moment where she says, “You know how my husband died? Excitement”, which is basically like saying “Too much fucking”. Then there’s my favorite character, the fey dude in a white suit who’s clearly homosexual.

LG: Though to be fair, he’s not a mincing stereotype the way we feared he was going to be. But he’s pretty flaming. He might be the only gay character in a Cameron film, actually.

MO: There’s “hot girl with a weird looking husband”.

LG: He looks like he’s made of clay, like one of Da Vinci’s caricatures.

MO: There’s two black men with the best introduction ever: they’re dynamite fishing.

LG: And that’s when we meet Bishop/Chief Brody.

MO: Yeah, Lance Henrikson, the only recognizable actor in this, played Bishop in Aliens and one of the cops in The Terminator, among other things. It’s strange, because he looks in this thing like a cross between Chief Brody from Jaws and Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones.

LG: And there’s the girls who have two character traits: naked and mean. There’s this amazing sequence with a stuttering chef where one of the girls convinces him to bring food to their boat, only to knock them into the water in this awful comic relief scene that’s supposed to justify their eventual deaths.

MO: And almost none of these characters are built up, so my question is why do we introduce these people in the clunkiest set-up ever and not go for an action scene for
about forty minutes?

LG: Because it’s a ninety-minute film and we’ve got time to kill?

MO: Yeah, but…it’s not really fair to compare this to Jaws, but let me compare it to Jaws. The opening twenty minutes of that film introduces a handful of characters, we get to know who they are and what their relationships are to each other, what the town dynamic was, and who the protagonist is, and still have another attack where the dynamics shift. In this, there’s forty minutes of clunky build-up with terrible writing and static shots and generic filmmaking.

LG: It’s not an unusual pattern for the film to follow, honestly. Recently I was watching this film on Netflix Instant called Frogs from the early 70s, where we meet really boring people doing really boring stuff at a mansion, and then to tide us over we get a handful of shots of frogs…planning? We get a few shots of piranhas doing that here as well, not as many as in Frogs, though honestly, it’s much cheaper to shoot frogs than piranhas, because…these were “expensive” special effects.

MO: Yeah, no. This is a very cheap looking movie. It’s pretty amateurish.

LG: It’s interesting: Xenogenesis is pretty impressive despite the low budget. These look like flying sausages with wings and jaws. The actors have to hold up the piranha to their neck to have it look like it’s attacking.

MO:  You compared it to the bats in The Munsters, and it’s really that bad. The pacing, meanwhile, is so sluggish. This thing is just a crawl.

LG: We could have used…anything to pick it up. More of the dynamite fisherman would be nice, but we don’t see them again until the end despite an introduction worthy of Quint from Jaws. Either introduce them and learn something about them, or don’t introduce them until they’re needed.

MO: We have to keep in mind how little control Cameron had over this. He was the special effects supervisor, the original director was fired, and he took over.

LG: Cameron at this point had worked as a special-effects whiz on Roger Corman’s Battle Beyond the Stars and Galaxy of Terror, which are rip-offs of Star Wars and Alien.

MO: I think it’s worth noting that Roger Corman, who produced the first one, didn’t produce this.

LG: Yeah, this is an Italian horror knock-off.

MO: Though not as good as what Lucio Fulci might have done with the Zombie movies that ripped off Romero. Corman, whatever you thought of his films, gave his directors a lot of control so long as they gave him violence and boobs. You could basically do what you wanted, and he did this with Jonathan Demme, he did it with Scorsese, he did it with Coppola. These guys gave Cameron nothing to work with, and you can see the difference.

LG: And apparently Cameron was fired during filming and had it cut against his wishes, and he had to steal the film to get his version made. And even then, they found out and re-cut it again. We have no idea what cut we saw. It’s a convoluted release. But we don’t know if you can make a good film out of this.

MO: As for Cameron’s style…did you really see anything?

LG: There are a few here and there. His use of slow-motion to intensify shows up. There’s a…maybe not great, but good scene where one of the dynamite fisherman loses his watch in the water, and he’s distracted, and when he looks up the piranha attacks. It’s very Hitchcockian, though the effects get in the way.

MO: Oh, yeah, you can tell he had no control over that, because he’s a perfectionist in the Ridley Scott-Stanley Kubrick mold.

LG: And a tech-head. There’s no way he wanted this.

MO: But there’s some Cameron in here. It’s his first water-based film (he looooves the ocean). There’s a lot of scuba-diving. What do you think of the diving scenes?

LG: Uh…they’re…pretty weak. The pacing is terrible, and they go on forever. And it’s not helped by the music, which goes back and forth between being “actually pretty good” and “terrible.” It’s like different pieces of stock music. We have to talk about some of the insanity of this film. After all of the boring stuff, the second half goes insane.

MO: All of the characters that we don’t care about are re-introduced for one scene. And then the piranhas attack, and it’s…amazing.

LG: It’s the same set up as Jaws where the entire financial security of the island is based around a festival. There’s a fish spawning festival where another type of fish washes ashore to spawn, and then the people eat them. And all of the people are marching onto the beach shouting “WE WANT FISH! WE WANT FISH!”.

MO: It’s one of the better moments of humor in the film. It’s a nice bit of self-awareness. And then the remaining dynamite-fisherman takes the fish on…with a torch. And when he’s killed, the people look onto him like they’re mildly disappointed. “Oh, that’s scary…I guess.”

LG: They’re working like audience surrogates. He’s built up like a badass, and we get nothing. It’s like how we feel.

MO: It doesn’t help that he, the leading actress, and Lance Henrikson are the only not-terrible actors in this thing.

LG: It’s very clear what the spine of this movie should be. There’s this very Spielberg-like story of the fractured family- the Ripley-woman trying to keep everyone from getting killed, the wiener son, and the cop husband played by Lance Henrikson, and it ends with them all getting back together. But you’d forget they’re related because they disappear for so long.

MO:  The son and his love interesting disappear for a long time, giving way to the weirdest exchange in the movie. The girl says: “We’re lost…lost at sea…how romantic” in the most bored way possible. And the guy says…

LG: “Words cannot describe the trouble we’re in.”

MO: He reads it like Tommy Wiseau. There’s no sense to what he emphasizes at all.

LG: It’s not the only weird exchange in the movie. Not Ripley and Not Jeff Bridges break into the morgue to look at a body, and he remarks that “It’s really dark in here”. They’re outside, and it’s night!! OF COURSE IT’S DARK OUTSIDE AT NIGHT! Then this lady catches them, and she’s barely even annoyed. She has this speech that basically goes, “Not again, people keep having picnics in here”, but she’s about as annoyed about people tampering with dead bodies as she would be if she dropped her pen.

MO: And at the end, the helicopter scene is…unbelievable. Lance Henrikson has to rescue his son and the son’s love interest, but rather than lowering his helicopter, he purposely crashes it so he can swim out to them and go to the mother’s boat. Swim in the piranha infested water. It’s…amazing. It’s as if they knew the climax where they blow up the ship where the piranhas have nested was anticlimactic, so they threw in another explosion.

LG: He is the worst sheriff ever.

MO: He’s another thing: Cameron’s whole filmography shows a fascination with science and technology, and we get that here a little bit where we learn that the fish were genetically engineered to be killing machines in Vietnam.

LG: They’re built up as weaponized fish so much like in Aliens that we expected a piranha queen, prompting your joke…


LG: There’s a couple of other Aliens-parallels, like when Not Ripley goes to the authority to convince them to shut down the festival and they write her off as a loon.

MO: Though that’s also in Jaws. The gay manager is like the mayor in Jaws, in that he’s an inept authority figure. Cameron takes a lot from Spielberg and other 70s directors who are distrustful of authority.

LG: Plus Not Jeff Bridges is a mole for the government trying to get one over on Not Ripley until they fall in love. And it’s terrible, because it’s not set up in any way at all. You could imagine a good actor maybe selling it, but this guy is terrible. The Terminator is Cameron’s next film, and there’s an amazing jump in the quality of the filmmaking, the writing, the special effects, the acting…

MO: You go from something that’s kind of crappy to a masterpiece, or near masterpiece in your words.

LG: I have my issues with The Terminator, but it’s a great film. As for Piranha II, if you watch it with your friends while you’re drunk, you might get a kick out of it.

MO: I don’t know, you might fall asleep. There’s a lot of dead air.

LG: Maybe if you skip the first forty minutes…what else to say? It’s bad?

MO: Yeah, it’s bad. It’s not Cameron’s fault.

LG: Oh, it’s clear there was a lot of meddling, but…

MO: It is what it is.

LG: It is the best flying piranha movie ever made.

MO: Yeah, and that’s saying something.

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