Movie review: “Piranha” fun even though it bites


Woman straddling raft with toothy fish approaching

Keeping up with my shark-week themed reviews this summer, it’s time for a look back at “Piranha” (1978), if you dare…

The military-industrial complex hatches a plan to destroy the river systems of North Vietnam toward the end of the war.  The war ends, but the secret program lingers on to juice up piranhas and enable them to survive in fresh or salt water.  Sexy teens trespass into the old test site to go skinny dipping by moonlight.  After they’re eaten alive, an agent from a skip-tracing company (blonde and perky of course) is dispatched to find them.  Working together with an alcoholic single father mountain man, she pulls the plug on the pool to the horror of the man running the program, which drains and releases the piranhas into the river.

The duo dash downstream by raft, by stolen patrol car, and motorboat to warn the adults and save the children.  Of course, nobody believes them in time and a host of fisherman, swimmers, inter-tubers, and pleasure-boaters are turned into fish food.  It’s formulaic but fun.  The piranha backstory is clever as any creature feature.  The pace of the movie is pretty quick.

The good guys are actually well-developed characters.  The agent and the mountain man grow on each and the audience throughout the film.  They seem to be enjoying themselves along the way, which is kind of rare but refreshing for a movie like this.  We’re rooting for two to save his daughter.  Like “Orca” which came out a year earlier, the man is so focused on saving people that he ditches the bottle.

The supporting characters are one dimensional—a mean summer camp manager who refuses to listen to warning and jeopardizes campers in the process, a venal politician hell-bent on a big opening day for the water “arena” he helped develop, and a wicked witch of a scientist (brunette and dowdy of course) who consistently downplays the threat and treats people like dirt.

The movie seems to be low-budget because the piranha effects are crummy.  We never really see the fish, or when we do they look like flounder.  The sound effects, a high-pitched pulsing sound, are more annoying than scary.  Their impact on victims seems to vary in proportion to how good, bad, or inconsequential to the plot they are.  Some people end up nibbled and bloody, others get totally de-fleshed and a tub of ketchup explodes on the river’s surface in a matter of seconds.

No, it’s not as well-done or as good as “Jaws.”  It is corny but it is amusing.  There are some scenes like the skip-tracing agent ripping open her shirt to distract a guard that are worth a look and a chuckle.  Modern-day marketers brand it as a “cult classic” and it lives up to that designation.  Recommended.

A book review to kick-off the summer: Jaws


Variety rates “Jaws” as one of 10 movies that was better than the book.  Several lists on Goodreads also put the book Jaws in the same category, such as “The movie was better than the book” which puts Jaws one notch above The Silence of the Lambs.

So my expectations were low when I finally got a chance to read Peter Benchley’s classic.  Reading it easily blew my expectations out of the water.

Like the movie, Jaws opens with a topless teenager splashing into the waves after dark.  We all know what happens next.  But the true horror grows after the first shark attack as we meet the men pulling the strings in Amity.  They call the shots and have the power to make or break the lives of the locals.  The chief of police comes under their nasty pressures to keep the beaches open.  Amity is totally reliant on a very short vacationer season to sustain itself economically for the year.  Brody caves, but he remains a very sympathetic character because we know he wanted to do the right thing.

The biggest difference between the book and film in terms of the plot is that Brody’s wife cheats on him with Matt Hooper.  One Goodreads reviewer calls the sex “utterly pointless and adds nothing to the story,” but that comment misses the point.  Brody’s wife is from “the city,” and grew up vacationing with her middle class family in Amity.  The rift between “summer people” and the townees is one of the big themes in Jaws.  The shark doesn’t just threaten swimmers, but it threatens the fabric of life in Amity.  Hooper, the shark expert, offers the sophistication and care-free adventure that she misses as an Amity housewife.  The shark forces the characters to reexamine where they are in life.

Benchley depicts the escalating threat of the shark very effectively.  Each attack scene is scary and reveals something additional about the shark’s nature and the severity of the danger.  The text may not have the visceral impact to scare you out of the water the same way that the movie could, and it’s true that Stephen Spielberg made a terrific movie.  But that is hardly Benchley’s fault.  If I had written Jaws, I would have been thrilled for a great director to turn my book into a fantastic film.  And if I were Spielberg I’d count my blessings for the good fortune of starting production with such a great book.

Book review: Pacific Rim adds to the film


Pacific Rim novelization audiobook

The monster-versus-robot action movie “Pacific Rim” (2013) was subsequently novelized by Andrew Irvine.  Before reviewing the book version, a recap of the film may help.

I saw the movie “Pacific Rim” after it was released for home video.  For the life of me, two or three years later, I can’t remember a single scene.  It’s not that I remember it being bad.  It’s that I don’t remember it at all.

I have a theory on why the movie left no lasting impact on me.  Unlike “King Kong” and “Godzilla,” there wasn’t a single kaiju (monster) in “Pacific Rim” to focus on.  There were a half a dozen.  None stood out.  I think “Pacific Rim” tried to compensate for this by turning Gipsy Danger, the main robot, into a central “character.”  That may have worked visually in the movie, but in the novelization, Gipsy Danger is difficult to picture.  There are minimal if any descriptions of the robot’s appearance (color, size, shape, etc).  If Gipsy Danger was intended to be a character, she was a sadly flat one in the book.

Secondly, the human characters in the movie were cookie cutter.  On that score, the novelization made much more of an impact.  The backgrounds of the characters are laid out carefully and are well-explored.  There was more nuance to the Stacker Pentecost character (the officer in charge of war robot operations) in the book than I recall in the movie.  The relationship between robot ranger Raleigh Beckett and the female lead, Mako Mori, was engaging.  The B-story of Dr. Newt Geiszler’s attempt to mind-meld with a kaiju were a bit silly, even off-putting, but good for a chuckle.

The book was also more effective than the movie in establishing the reason why robots were the most effective means of fighting the kaiju (as opposed to conventional or nuclear tactics).  A book format gave the author more latitude to describe the context and historical background of the international defense against the monsters.  The premise is still cheesy and contrived, but for some reason it was easier to swallow in the book.

The author used very vivid language and sharp comparisons to convey complex science fiction type material succinctly.  Fight scenes, which can be easier to choreograph than to write, were handled well.  On the basis of the colorful writing, I would definitely read another Alex Irvine book.

I listened to the novelization in audio format.  Narrator Christian Rummel did impressive, captivating work as the narrator.

Pacific Rim is fun.  If the movie didn’t float your boat, you might enjoy the book a little more.

“Rogue” scares and satisfies


Rogue 2007

In the 2007 movie “Rogue,” Michael Vartan plays Pete McKell, a travel journalist who normally writes reviews of hotels, glamourous attractions, and restaurants.  Pete gets more than he bargained for when he joins a boatload of tourists on a ride upriver for a glimpse of saltwater crocodiles and other wonders in Australia’s rugged Northern Territory.

Kate Ryan, played by Radha Mitchell, runs the river tour company and skippers the flat-bottomed boat.  She is a tough, attractive, and sympathetic character who has never left the Northern Territory.  She and Pete develop a chemistry early on, and viewers can quickly predict how their relationship will develop.

Kate has to put up with a pair of human pests who harass her tour boat.  She must also contend with her own passengers who question her decision-making as the story progresses.  The tourists are a mixed lot of thrill seekers with their own strengths, weaknesses, and secrets—maybe just one aristocrat short of an Agatha Christie cast.

As viewers will guess, the boat quickly ends up in the territory of a particularly dangerous crocodile.  Ryan and her passengers have to attempt to fight their way back to safety.  This movie would appeal to fans of classic creature features like “Birds” and “Jaws.”  Unlike “Godzilla” or “Jurassic Park,” this is not a film about the hazards of scientific excess.  It’s about a big, old-fashioned natural predator and a series of missteps that leads a group of people deeper into trouble.  The fun and suspense is in seeing who gets offed and how any survivors escape.  The Australian vistas and realistic crocodile effects are also a treat.

The DVD can be bought on Amazon for $12.  Recommended with pizza and beer.