Episode 51: Piranha (1978, Joe Dante) & Piranha (1995, Scott P. Levy)

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Horror franchises and would-be franchises evolve and devolve in the most unpredictable directions. The Piranha series is an illustrious and obscure one, as we began talking about in our look at Piranha II: The Spawning. In this episode of An Alan Smithee Podcast we complete our preparations for Piranha 3D, the biggest 3D horror event since the last one, with praise for the 1978 Roger Corman-produced original Piranha and abhorrence for the little seen 1995 Showtime channel remake also produced by Corman.

In 1978 Joe Dante got to direct his first film for Roger Corman after working for him as a trailer editor. Piranha announced to the world Dante’s expertise at monster movie nostalgia, a filmmaking role he was destined to practice throughout the special effects driven regressive childhood of the 80s. Alan Smithee has discussed his unjustly ignored monster and boyhood nostalgia throwback Matinee (1993). One of the few filmmakers taken under the wing of Steven Spielberg – that kindlier, cornier purveyor of boomer childhood and other people’s adulthoods – Dante must have known there’s no better way to get his attention than making a smarter and funnier competitor to that year’s Jaws 2.

Death Race 2000 or Rock ‘N’ Roll High School might have been the trash masterpiece that marked the peak of Corman’s second renaissance after the days of Vincent Price, but Piranha gave movie fans a warmup for Dante’s future stories of monster movie tropes intruding on the TV version of reality.

One of Piranha‘s secret weapons was the first genre screenplay of Johny Sayles, who’d go on to become one of the most respected independent filmmakers in America. In 1995, Corman was selling off his assets and remaking old titles for as little money and thought as possible, including the liberal recycling of the old scripts themselves. Piranha ’95 is a photocopy of the original crumbing away on cheap, brittle paper. The piranha themselves are mostly recycled as well, footage from the original film. This movie is almost guaranteed to disappoint fans of the original even more than Piranha II: The Spawning.

Piranha 3D has the good luck charm to be the third reputable follow up to the continuing adventures of good old Project Razorteeth. The cast indicates an appreciation of the original’s b movie eclecticism: Ving Rhames, Elizabeth Shue, a long lost Christopher Lloyd and Richard Dreyfuss in a Jaws spoofing cameo. Director Alex Aja knows how to pile on the grist they way they did 20 years ago. Incidentally, Dante has a 3D family friendly horror film called The Hole coming out later, so all three may now join that exclusive club inhabited by Dante and James Cameron called “What the heck do we have in common? Oh yes, piranhas and 3D.”

NEXT EPISODE: CONDUCT ZERO (2002, JO GEUN-SK) & FAR CRY (2008, UWE BOLL)

Episode 48: Darkman (1990, Sam Raimi) / Darkman II: The Return of Durant (1995, Bradford May) / Darkman III: Die Darkman Die (1996, Bradford May)

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There aren’t many original film superheroes. The few that were made between those DC epochs, 1978’s Superman and 1989’s Batman straddled every genre that didn’t require a cape – science fiction, pulp noir, horror – resulting in films whose protagonists tended to violently undergo disgusting transformations unchained to the demands of preselling McDonalds collector glasses to children already familiar with the characters. Between Superman and Batman, original superhero-ish action fantasy films could appeal to older audiences, or at least teenagers with cynical attitudes who read comics by Alan Moore or Frank Miller and were already enjoying a golden era of stylized ultra violence in 1980s cinema.

The apotheosis of these ideals was Robocop and since the Alan Smithee Podcast has already done that special we’re now moving to the next best example of this rare subgenre to ever be produced by a major studio: Darkman, the super-noir-anti-hero created by Sam Raimi years before his famously licensed official superhero movie when he couldn’t secure the gig directing Batman or The Shadow.

As a franchise, the Darkman series is informatively typical of Universal Studios business practices in the 1990s and Sam Raimi’s career in the future. The visually deft direction tells the comic book story as if we’re glancing over wordless panels on a page, seeing what happens through one striking image after another. Some of Raimi’s shots of Darkman can be seen elsewhere in the Spider-Man trilogy and then there’s the business of his swinging on a rope between skyscrapers during the action packed finale. While the cheesiness of parts II and III were predictable, Raimi’s executive producer credit on both also indicated a willingness to take the money for squeezing out numerated excrement below his own standards – as witnessed with Spider-Man 3 and a few lower profile cash-ins along the way in the 1990s under the Renaissance Pictures.

Universal’s production of Darkman II and III was done practically on autopilot in the same manner as their previous back-to-back part 2 and 3 franchise sequels had been handled before (i.e. Back to the Future, Problem Child and Child’s Play) and would continue to be handled with the Tremors sequels and TV franchise to come. Universal Television’s corporate synergy with the film department even generated a Darkman TV series pilot, and at times the two films nearly resemble sewn together plot ideas from some unmade first season.

As the subtitle heralds, Darkman II: The Return of Durant brings back Larry Drake as the first film’s memorable villain Robert G. Durant – the dorkiest frighteningly sadistic crime boss since Kurtwood Smith’s Clarence Boddicker in Robocop, natch. Aside from the painful Toronto production values of the film, the biggest problem is a story which barely acknowledges Darkman at all – it’s almost 30 minutes before he even realizes Durant has returned – and in this regard there’s an unfortunately coincidental resemblance to Robocop 2. Die Darkman Die isn’t nearly as bad, thanks in part to the awesome title. Perennial b-movie staple Jeff Fahey is a better villain than the warmed over Durant and the story is written by a different duo than Part II, who know enough to implicate Darkman as more than a cipher.

Darkman became a trilogy to resounding indifference. Until now! Darkman fans rejoice, for your hour has come. Julieeeeee!! Duraaaaaaaant!!! And tune in next time when Larry Drake returns yet again…

NEXT EPISODE: BLACKMAIL IS MY LIFE (1968, KINJI FUKASAKU) & DR. GIGGLES (1992, MANNY COTO)

Episode 43: Dead Man (1995, Jim Jarmusch) / The Net (1995, Irwin Winkler)

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Do actors still matter? The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would have you believe so. Sandra Bullock’s recent Academy Award for Best Acress is essentially a recognition of lifetime achievement in mediocrity. Ever since Speed (1994, Jan De Bont) Bullock has been filing the quota for inoffensive white women in uninspired product, from thrillers with politically correct gimmicks or sermons about race to “chick flicks” to inspirational dramas like the fim for which she was nominally commended. The actual commendation is for being a reliably undistinguished cipher with name recognition, a pretty face with just enough acting ability to be blandly adequate in blandly adequate entertainment.

The Net was Sandra Bullock’s first actiony-thriller after Speed. As usual, she acquits herself, and is something of a perfect match for director Irwin Winkler who shoots every scene as predictably as possible. Even his attempts at stylish flourish – like crane shots – seems to come out of a manual. The biggest disappointment of the film from modern ironic hindsight is the relative lack of amusing Hollywood ignorance regarding computers. Gross exaggerations of the personal computer’s abilities have been a grand tradition at least since Matthew Broderick hacked into the Pentagon to play nuclear war games against a sentient program on his IMSAI 8080. As the title implies, The Net was at the forefront of extending that ignorance to the era of AOL. Unfortunately 1995’s Hackers was the camp champion of absurdity while The Net merely uses computers and their techspeak as a springboard to get Bullock running from terrorists who want to kill her. They’ve deleted (look it up) her identity from government records, you see, and now her identity has been stolen a good ten years before online identity theft became a cultural meme and burgeoning e-surance industry.

Exceptionally convoluted and wasteful of its few genuine assets (why bring Dennis Miller in as comic relief and then not-so-comically kill him?) The Net is at almost two hours a needlessly long and cumbersome bore which in the grand scheme of things existed only to move Miss Bullock’s career to its next destination. To her credit, she obviously knew how to pick ‘em.

Johnny Depp probably couldn’t be any more different in his chosen career path than Sandra Bullock. Tim Burton’s favoritism toward him in the last decade has drawn some deserved ire lately, and while he has shown an unhealthy predilection to playing foppish or pasty faced dandies, there is something admirable in his refusal early in his career to coast by on good looks as an interchangeable leading man in forgettable romantic comedies and action-thrillers. Were but all talented actors so adventurous! The same years that Bullock was working with Winkler, Depp accepted the lead in yet another black and white movie (having just played another pale fop for Burton in Ed Wood) in the Jim Jarmusch directed Western, Dead Man.

The greatness of Dead Man does not hinge on Depp as the nucleus, which is more or less the point of his praiseworthiness as an actor: he’d rather be in a good movie than be expected to carry a bad or mediocre movie and make it bearable. As with Jarmusch’s other films, Dead Man actually has a constantly engaging array of talented actors in roles as short as one scene, including among others Crispin Glover, Alfred Molina, Lance Henrickson, Robert Mitchum, and John Hurt. Among many brilliant features discussed in this episode, Jarmusch brings to this film the same poetic, naturalist take on an established and mythical genre that he would to crime films with Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai four years later.

Years from now, or maybe today, this film will most likely be reassessed as a “Johnny Depp movie” given that he is today the most celebrated famous person of the production and like so many of his other willfully eccentric roles, he wears fanciful costume and makeup throughout to distract from his movie star handsomeness.

By contrast, Sandra Bullock plays a “hacker” whose shut-in lifestyle is an integral detail of that film’s stolen-identity plot, yet has a trim enough waistline and healthy enough skin to go sunbathing in a bikini. So, who “deserves” an Oscar?

NEXT WEEK: WATCHMEN: THE ULTIMATE CUT (2009, ZACK SNYDER)

Episode 38: This Gun for Hire (1942, Frank Tuttle) / Congo (1995, Frank Marshall)

Where would Hollywood be without the literary adaptation?

Accusing the system of unoriginality has never been out of style and with good reason: before there was other media to plunder, turning books into movies was a great way to turn a profit, from Gone With The Wind to the bible. During the golden age of the airport novelist, which came and went between the creation of television and the ability to watch Lost on a Game Boy, pulpy imaginations like that of Stephen King and Tom Clancy ruled the skies. Our movies in this episode reflect the best and worst of the mass-produced page turner seat filler fodder – fifty years, a thousand worlds and one Frank apart.

This Gun For Hire came from the pen of The Third Man author Graham Greene under the original, subtler title of A Gun For Sale. Partially fashioned as a showcase for the up and coming Veronica Lake, the scant 80 minute story allows her two nightclub song and magic numbers before throwing her on the lam with Alan Ladd in a fast paced plot of espionage and cold blooded revenge. Rumors have persisted that this pairing was conceived in consideration of the two rising stars’ relatively low stature – literally 4″11′ (hers) and 5″6′ (his).

Lake is every bit as wry and sexy as she was in Sullivan’s Travels but the show surprisingly belongs to Ladd, whose morally shifty hitman makes the film one of the most formative early works of fim noir. Also great is Tuttle’s direction and the supporting cast, particularly Laird Cregar as the slimy, corpulent double-crosser whom Ladd is gunning for.

Despite a more prolific involvement in film from the very beginning of his career than Greene, Michael Crichton still had to wait 15 years to see the film version of his 1980 thriller Congo. Upon seeing the results he may well have preferred to wait longer or not to have begun the process at all. This film is an abject disaster on every conceivable level, failing to produce either the escapist fantasy the filmmakers intended or an unintentional work of hilarious incompetence.

Being produced on the heels of Jurassic Park, one gets the sense that the studio responsible felt that Crichton’s name alone guaranteed a hit. Thus the low cost casting of b-movie hired guns like Joe Don Baker, Tim Curry and Bruce Campbell alongside low cost indy darlings like Laura Linney and Dylan Walsh. Even more cynical is the withholding of the story’s star creatures, a bunch of marauding killer gorillas, until literally the final 15 minutes of the film. Jurassic Park would not be the same film with only 15 minutes of dinosaurs, and killer apes are a poor substitute for dinosaurs in the first place.

To make the children of America who only wanted to see more people being chased through jungles by PG-13 monsters wait through over an hour of idiotic banter between Ernie Hudson and an animatronic gorilla is nothing short of fraud. For sheer lack of even the most rudimentary distracting spectacle, Congo is perhaps the worst film of 1990s Summer blockbuster era.

NEXT WEEK: PSYCHO SPECIAL! PSYCHO II (1983, RICHARD FRANKLIN) & PSYCHO (1998, GUS VAN SANT)

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Show Notes: Episode 3: The Trial of the Incredible Quentin, Part 1 of 2

This episode, Matthew and Andrew start their examination of Quentin Tarantino–discussing his “original trilogy” of RESERVOIR DOGS, PULP FICTION and JACKIE BROWN, as well as his steady screenwriting work during the 1990s.

It surprised me we never got around to discussing Tarantino’s iconic soundtracks, but they fall under my basic rubric for the guy: he appropriated other peoples really cool stuff so that his name would forever be associated with it.

- Chip

Films discussed:
Maximum Potential (1987), Reservoir Dogs (1992), True Romance (1993), Natural Born Killers (1996), Pulp Fiction (1994), Four Rooms (1995), From Dusk ‘Till Dawn (1996), Curdled (1996), Girl 6 (1996), Jackie Brown (1997), Clerks (1994), Badlands (1973)

Show Notes: Episode 2: Carpenter was a Jesus, Part 2 of 2

Continuing their conversation on Carpenter, Matthew and Andrew pick up with his Christine adaptation. Following a discussion of all his theatrical releases, they touch on his recent television episodes and become wistful at thoughts of his future endeavors.

Films discussed:
Christine (1983), Starman (1984), Big Trouble in Little China (1986), Maximum Overdrive (1986), Prince of Darkness (1987), They Live (1988), Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992), Body Bags (1993), In the Mouth of Madness (1995), Village of the Damned (1995), Escape from L.A. (1996), Vampires (1998), Halloween H2o (1998), Ghosts of Mars (2001), Cigarette Burns (2005), and Pro-Life (2006).