Those who’ve watched MTV’s Spring Break and wished for its undulating crew of debauched partiers to be devoured wholesale or who’ve witnessed Girls Gone Wild’s shameless exploitation of drunken college girls and longed for its smarmy founder Joe Francis to receive a grisly dose of karmic justice or who’ve seen any of Eli Roth’s films and hoped for the “torture-porn” impresario to receive a dose of his own vile medicine will find their catharsis in Piranha 3D. What they will not find is much in the way of a plot quality acting or anything remotely resembling restraint. But you weren’t really expecting that in a film about killer fish were you?
In Piranha 3D director Alexandre Aja's (High Tension The Hills Have Eyes remake) overriding concern is with his relentless onslaught of T&E — tits and entrails. He often groups them together in the same scene — presumably for efficiency’s sake — as when a busty topless parasailor (an IMDB search reveals her to be a porn star named Gianna Michaels) is bisected during a brief dip below the water’s surface or when a similarly-endowed party girl is separated from her bikini top — and then much of her upper torso — by a stray cable from a tumbling platform. Indeed Piranha DDD might be a more suitable title for the film given Aja’s Russ Meyer-meets-Faces of Death sensibility.
Given the ridiculous subject matter Aja has little choice but to wholeheartedly embrace the camp of it all and Piranha 3D is nothing less than the Avatar of B movie schlockfests. In addition to its array of grotesquely violent set pieces the film boasts a gleefully wicked sense of humor the primary vessel of which is Jerry O’Connell who plays internet sleaze merchant Derrick Jones an obvious stand-in for the aforementioned Francis. In search of fresh meat for his co-ed porn site he combs the fictional Arizona resort town of Lake Victoria at the height of spring break for new prey. Unbeknownst to him his prospective talent pool is about to be decimated by a swarm of piranhas recently freed from their undersea prison by a timely earthquake — this despite the heroic efforts of the town’s pair of hardy but laughably impotent sheriffs (Elisabeth Shue and Ving Rhames).
These razor-toothed piranhas may seem like mindless predators but they are not without their share of admirable traits. Before beginning their feeding frenzy for example they’re considerate enough to allow the lake’s doomed revelers one last hedonistic hurrah the highlight of which is an extended sequence in which Jones’ two most prized fillies played by softcore titans Kelly Brook and Riley Steele frolic naked underwater to the tune of “The Flower Duet” from Delibes’ Lakme. (“They’re like fish with boobies!” their director shouts ecstatically.) The fish clearly possess a taste for the ironic and perhaps a bit of a feminist streak as well as we witness when O'Connell's character is literally emasculated during an ill-timed dive. (Fittingly he gurgles “Wet t-shirt” as his final blood-drenched words.) As his severed manhood sinks toward the bottom a piranha arrives and snaps it up but it doesn’t quite agree with the creature and the penis is quickly burped up in disgust. Even the fish can’t stomach him it seems.
Hancock must have sounded great--at least on paper. Hancock (Smith) is the anti-superhero a crime fighter with a bad attitude in contemporary Los Angeles who drinks way too much dresses like skid row and doesn’t give a hoot what anyone thinks about him. Of course since he can fly like Superman stop a speeding train with his fist and take care of just about any badass gang member with his little finger he is invaluable to the police. But the public hates him--so into his life comes PR wizard Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman) who is determined to remake Hancock into the image of a hero the city can embrace including getting a spandex outfit. When Hancock comes over to Embrey’s house his wife Mary (Charlize Theron) gets an immediate bad vibe about the guy. There’s good reason and therein lies the film’s big twist which comes at the half-way point of the very tight 92-minute running time. To say much else about where the plot goes would put us in spoiler hell and for a movie so reliant on the sudden turn it takes you’ll just have to figure it out yourself. They call the 4th of July “Big Willie Weekend” because Smith has been responsible for opening so many blockbusters during this time frame including Independence Day Bad Boys Men In Black among others. The movie-going public obviously loves him (so do we) and he’s coming off two strong recent performances in I Am Legend and The Pursuit of Happyness. On the surface the role of Hancock--a complicated reluctant superhero who is all ’tude-- fits right in with the rest of the resume but despite the star’s best efforts Hancock comes off a little too contrived and affected. Will’s charisma is going to have to work overtime for eager audiences to completely buy this character. An abrupt tonal shift halfway through presents a strong challenge to Theron who suddenly isn’t who she appears to be at first. Credit must go to this fine actress for making the awkward transition Mary Embrey seamless. And thank God for Jason Bateman whose innate charm and ability to play comedy makes Ray a guy in a REAL quandary--the most likeable of all the main stars as he is caught in a Twilight Zone of superhero antics. Actor-turned-director Peter Berg (The Kingdom Friday Night Lights) is all flash and style with Hancock. He moves his shaky camera right up into the stars faces and back again awkwardly shifting the tone from comedy to maudlin drama and trying to ramp up a story that just doesn’t make a whole lot of narrative sense. Films about comic-book superheroes are a dime a dozen in the summer months and audiences have shown they can easily suspend disbelief if they have a protagonist to root for. Berg’s failure here is to present Will Smith in such a way that we don’t care. The movie is full of botched opportunities with the whole arc collapsing as the thin screenplay recklessly takes off in unexpected directions--including a ridiculous scene in which Hancock goes to prison (for no good reason) that gives new meaning to the term “butting heads.” Not only do sequences like this seriously challenge the viability of the film’s PG-13 rating they test our patience for all its worth. Even though there are some nice special effects and its faults do not lie in our stars (we still love you Will) Hancock does not set off the kind of fireworks you may have been expecting this Big Willie Weekend.
More than just the frighteningly awful things that go bump in this particularly nasty fog The Mist is really a morality play about how fear and paranoia feed on a panicked scared group of people looking for some semblance of sanity about what’s happening to them. Set in a small Maine town (where else in a King story?) local denizen David Drayton (Thomas Jane) his young son Billy (Nathan Gamble) and several townsfolk are trapped in a local grocery store by a strange wraithlike mist. Even though they are warned early on that there are “things in the mist” killing people not everyone in the store believes it. But when it becomes evident all is indeed not well terror begins to build fueled by a religious zealot (Marcia Gay Harden) who starts preaching fire and brimstone--and eventually human sacrifice--in order to appease a vengeful God. Rational thought is quickly thrown out the window to the point that David begins to wonder what terrifies him more: the monsters in the mist or the ones inside the store--the human kind the people who until now had been his friends and neighbors. He decides he’ll take his chances in the mist. Darabont has collected a fine ensemble cast starting with Jane (The Punisher) as the film’s capable Everyman just trying to make sense of the horror unfolding while keeping his son as safe as possible. As little Billy Gamble (Babel) is quite affective especially when he turns on the waterworks and calls for his mother who must be food for the gods at this point. Also scarily good is Oscar-winner Harden as the religious nut who inevitably whips her burgeoning flock into a murderous tizzy. Other standouts include: Andre Braugher as one of the non-believers who has a running beef with his neighbor David; Toby Jones (Infamous) as a rational grocery store clerk with a wicked aim; Laurie Holden (Silent Hill) as a kindly newcomer and mother figure for Billy; Sam Witwer (TV’s CSI) as a doomed U.S. soldier who gives the reason why the mist has come upon them; and veteran character actors Frances Sternhagen and Jeffrey DeMunn (who is also a Darabont staple) as David’s allies in escaping the store. All are very capable at their jobs. Maybe Darabont and King are twins separated at birth. No other writer--or director for that matter--has been quite as successful as Darabont in capturing the true essence of a King novel evident in both of Darabont’s Oscar-nominated King adaptations The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. This is the first time Darabont has tackled one of King’s horror stories but the writer/director innately understands what makes King’s The Mist a terrifying experience. Much like John Carpenter did with The Thing Darabont’s well-written script focuses on the human factor--the fear-feeding frenzy these ordinary people get themselves caught up in showing how human nature can ultimately be more horrifying than any monster. But of course Darabont has to reveal The Mist’s otherworldly creatures or the movie wouldn’t be complete. He visualizes King’s vivid descriptions of the monster attacks as best he can but unfortunately The Mist’s special effects come off a tad sub-par especially in this day and age. Still The Mist should keep you riveted until the final moments--a rather depressing new ending Darabont wrote himself with King’s thumbs-up approval.
Ira Black (Chris Messina) is a prototypical movie New Yorker--he wears a lot of black he's in therapy (well technically analysis) and he's in the habit of over-thinking everything he does from his Ph.D. dissertation to what to order for lunch. Then he meets free-spirited empathetic Abby Willoughby (Jennifer Westfeldt) and everything changes. They're engaged within hours married within a week and in couples' therapy not long after. Meanwhile their long-married parents--uptight opera-going Sy (Robert Klein) and Arlene (Judith Light) Black and freewheeling easygoing Michael (Fred Willard) and Lynne (Frances Conroy) Willoughby--have their own issues to face. And their own professionals to consult. In the end everyone's left pondering the true meaning of love commitment marriage and mental health. When a movie's cast is as full of talented professionals as Ira and Abby's it's hard to begrudge the fact that most of them are playing somewhat familiar characters. Messina's Ira is angsty conflicted and quick to question happiness--in other words every neurotic New Yorker Woody Allen ever played. Meanwhile Westfeldt (who also wrote the film) works the same loquacious slightly kooky charm she perfected in Kissing Jessica Stein; you can't help liking Abby even when you want to shake some sense into her. In the supporting cast Klein Light Conroy and Willard are all strong rising above the "conservative" and "hippie" labels hanging over their characters' heads (it's particularly nice to see Willard in a role that's a bit toned down from his usual brand of cheerful oafishness). And familiar faces like Jason Alexander Chris Parnell and Darrell Hammond are a welcome too. Ira and Abby is only Robert Cary's second feature film credit; his first Standard Time was a musical and you can see some of that genre's broad sensibility here too. Ira's pre-Abby world is all dark colors cool light and sharp lines--but when he crosses into her sphere suddenly primary hues are everywhere rooms are suffused with warm yellow glows and furniture is for relaxing on not admiring. Unfortunately too many of the same kind of obvious cues direct the story as well. Westfeldt's script is smart and often charming but it's never very hard to guess where Ira and Abby is going: If you're looking for a "and then they got married and lived happily ever after" story you won't find it here. Ira and Abby's perspective on marriage may be a bit more realistic than the Grimm brothers' but you still shouldn't recommend it to any newlyweds you know.
John Q is just your ordinary average blue-collar worker in Middle America trying to make ends meet. Unfortunately things are slow at the plant and John's hours have been cut in half. To make matters worse his wife's car has just been repossessed and he can't find a second job to bring in more income. Then the hammer really falls: his son collapses during a Little League game and the doctors say the boy needs a new heart--and fast--or he will die. When John finds out that his insurance won't cover the operation (his policy has been downgraded by his company because his hours were cut) and that the hospital won't put his son on the organ transplant list without a stiff up-front cash payment John takes matters into his own hands. Holding the ER hostage John demands that the hospital put his son on the organ transplant list.
Denzel Washington is Everyman letting his hair get unruly packing on some un-Hollywood-star inches around the middle and wearing nothing but cheap hats and jeans. Despite some silly screenwriting Washington manages to raise John above soap-opera dramatics and weak polemics ("The enemy is us--we shot down national healthcare") with genuine emotion and convincing resolve but barely. James Woods is perfect as the sniveling smarmy and supercilious doctor but unfortunately he and the rest of the talented cast are wasted as one-dimensional characters and saddled with routine clichéd dialogue. Anne Heche (who should be commended for taking on such a villainous role) is the icy hospital administrator; Robert Duvall is the by-the-book hostage negotiator; Ray Liotta is the trigger-tempered police chief; and Shawn Hatosy is the big-city brat who just won't stand for being a hostage. The rest of the hostages aren't even remotely interesting nor are any of the other characters.
While weak dialogue is partially to blame when a cast as strong as this one can't breathe real life into their characters some of the culpability must be laid at the feet of the director. Nick Cassavetes' (She's So Lovely) movie suffers from heavy-handed treatment: every five minutes the audience is beaten over the head (again) as someone rails against the country's failing health system and places guilt on this party or that complete with obligatory tight close-up shot (and halo) directly on that character. Not to mention Cassavetes tips his hand with the opening scene. The patter by screenwriter James Kearns (TV's Highway to Heaven) is cute at times but on the whole the script is didactic yet inane and would make for a poor episode of E.R.. The story however does manage to engage the audience on an emotional level with its timely message. One cannot help but root for John Q no matter his vigilante ways. After John's denouement Cassavetes closes the film with news clips of celebrities stumping for the cause. This is typical of the movie as a whole; while it attempts to deal with the serious issue of health care reform it only does so on the most superficial level.