Episode 40: Gosford Park (2001, Robert Altman) / Piranha Part Two: The Spawning (1981, James Cameron)

With the Academy Awards once against swelling like a malignant infection, An Alan Smithee Podcast takes a completely inadvertently coincidental look this week at two films from frequent Oscar nominees: the late great Robert Altman and the not so great lately James Cameron. Altman’s career began anonymously in television before graduating to film and earning the acclaim of the academy when it was fashionable for them to do so. Only by making a film about Hollywood years later did he fall back into their favor, receiving at least the courtesy of nomination for the remainder of his life and career while the honors ultimately were bestowed upon keepers of the middle brow like Robert Zemeckis and Ron Howard.

James Cameron blossomed in the special effects boom of the 80s which drove directors like Altman into the darkness. He also did arguably more for the mainstreaming of special effects driven films than Steven Spielberg or George Lucas by making The Terminator and Aliens, blockbusters which established a permanent market for violent action films involving robots and/or aliens targeted at teenage boys instead of the entire family. Flash forward to the present day when serious Academy Award nominated dramatic actors vie to play villains in superhero movies and Cameron stands to sweep the industry’s highest self-congratulatory accolades for directing a 3D aliens and robots movie. Male adulthood has been replaced by perpetual adolescence and Cameron is truly king of the world. Yet even kings have to start somewhere as big fish in little ponds, before they spread their wings.

Gosford Park contains many of Altman’s trademarks, most prominently a sprawling cast with overlapping dialogue in the service of social satire. Ostensibly a murder mystery, the first half of this long story is spent establishing a myriad of ladies and gentlemen and their faithful servants gathering for a party in the countryside of England, 1932. Their social protocol is antiquated yet not so far in the past as to be unrecognizable, and the duality between the hosts and help is a fascinating look at the function and perception of privilege. The depiction of the servants behind the scenes is of particular interest to anyone wondering what the daily lives of maids, butlers et all were busy exchanging bon mots and stabbing each other in the back. Altman’s roving camera and Julian Fellowes kaleidoscopic screenplay create an amazing tour through the waning days of the British empire’s high society and one of the director’s most transportive works.

Roger Corman is scheduled to receive a lifetime achievement award at this year’s Oscars. The actors and directors he gave breaks to are legion and it will be interesting to see whom among them have enough self confidence to be associated with him, or even give their permission to be shown in the inevitable compilation reel alongside Jack Nicholson in The Little Shop of Horrors and Sylvester Stallone in Death Race 2000. Actually, Stallone will probably be too proud to OK the use of that clip.

Whether Cameron will give a tip of the hat to his earliest employer is a toss-up. Corman’s 70s outfit New World Pictures not only gave Joe Dante his first directorial work on Hollywood Boulevard and Piranha, but Cameron’s first special effects work on New World’s Galaxy of Terror and Battle Beyond The Stars. Surely this got Cameron the recommendation for the non-Corman produced sequel Piranha Part Two: The Spawning. Whereas Dante’s original spoofed Jaws while simultaneously making an exciting monster movie, Cameron’s sequel rather straightforwardly takes itself seriously even with the idiotic premise that some of the killer piranha have learned to fly.

If nothing else – and there really is nothing else – at least Cameron got some more special effects expertise under his belt for the future, which was only looking up. There’s a half-eaten Jamaican who looks remarkably similar to a battle damaged Arnold Schwarzenegger.

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NEXT WEEK: COMMENTARY TRACK SPECIAL! BATMAN (1989, TIM BURTON)

Episode 36: The Stranger (1946, Orson Welles) / Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001, Kevin Smith)

Kevin Smith and Orson Welles have a lot in common. Firstly, they’ve both written and directed many of their own films. Secondly, they star in their own films. Thirdly, they like to eat. Okay, so they have three things in common.

The Stranger is quizzically one of Welles’ lesser known works despite being one of his most accessible. In a plot seemingly inspired by Hitchcock’s Shadow Of A Doubt, Welles himself portrays a Nazi war criminal hiding undetected in the milieu of small town America while plotting his future schemes. He’s so evil he kicks dogs! Hot on his trail is Edward G. Robinson, who nyaah sees through his perfect American accent and begins to turn the screws on Welles’ newly married bride, the lovely Loretta Young. When confronted, Welles strings her along as long as he can. But for how long?

Many sophisticated crane and tracking shots distinguish this modestly budgeted thriller as a warmup for later Welles classics such as Touch Of Evil. Despite his own dismissal the project as mere work for hire – which it certainly is – work for hire from Orson Welles amounts to an entertaining thriller easily in league with any other. While Robinson’s character is not particularly developed, Young’s is a minor masterpiece of tragic love for a man she has begun to understand is bad without fathoming the true extent of his evil. Welles does not give so much as a single noble quality to his beast.

Unlike a work-for-hire job, Kevin Smith’s Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back is nothing less than one man’s completely unwarranted magnum ode to himself. Back in 2001, Miramax was far from bankruptcy and was actually willing to fund such folly. This is 22 million dollars they probably wish they had back right now. Smith has never been a serious moneymaker screenwriter on the level of, say, Joe Eszterhas or Shane Black, but what he lacked in misogyny he made up for with good casting, unpretentious comedy and the cutting edge gimmick of having his characters talk about Star Wars and Marvel comics for no reason.

His accumulated goodwill as the comic writer-director for geeks in the 90s finally put him over into the mainstream with Dogma. Then he had a choice to make. Either branch out beyond his New Jersey buddy comedy that began with Clerks five years earlier, or do more of the same. Promising to his lovingly patronized merchandise-consuming online fan following that Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back would be the final film in that mold – replete with cameos by the characters of each previous film – he wrote a stream of consciousness ripoff of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure starring himself. Then he broke his promise with Clerks 2 after Jersey Girl bombed.

We give a little extra time in this episode to his evisceration, but only because we were once fans ourselves.

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NEXT WEEK: MEAN STREETS (1973, MARTIN SCORCESE) & SHOWDOWN IN LITTLE TOKYO (1991, MARK L. LESTER)

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).