Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Escape from Coral Cove (1986)

A corpse is set off to sea while priest Ming (Fung Woo) performs a ceremony that finishes up with the body of the deceased igniting in flames.  Cut to: some nude chick swimming and coming upon a burnt head floating among the coral (for absolutely no reason other than to display some skin and a little grue; hooray!).  Cut to: Alex (Alex Fong) and Chen-Chen (Yin Cheung Joh) cruising up the coast in Alex’s convertible where they are met en route by a helicopter carrying Chen-Chen’s sister San-San (Elsie Chan) and mutual friend Irene (the truly lovely Yuen-Ching Leung).  The quartet head to the titular cove, do some boating, and are “menaced” by a “monster” (Roy Cheung).

If Terence Chang’s Escape from Coral Cove (aka Tiu Chut San Woo Hoi) owes a debt to a film other than JAWS, it is Jack Arnold’s The Creature from the Black Lagoon.  Primarily, both films deal with a group of people who invade a monster’s territory incurring its wrath.  Further, and more importantly, they both feature a monster who falls in love with a woman in a white bathing suit.  The key difference is that Julie Adams didn’t have Donald Duck on her swimwear.  Actually, the key difference is that the Gillman had some personality, whereas the creature in this film (who is also named Roy, coincidentally) has less than none.  Also, the Gillman is one of the greatest monster designs and costumes in the history of cinema, while Roy is just Roy Cheung ambling around with a blank expression and looking like Roy Cheung.  

At any rate, this film deals heavily with lust and sexuality, and it’s set apart into two groups of three characters in this regard.  Alex, Chen-Chen, and San-San are the libidinous side of this equation.  Even though Alex is dating Chen-Chen, he has eyes for pretty much any female that happens to cross his path.  San-San is a large-bosomed floozy (and the film really, really focuses on that descriptor) who flings herself (in an extraordinarily chaste, cocktease sort of way) at Alex at every available opportunity, regardless of whether her sibling is within line of sight or not.  Chen-Chen just wants to have Alex all to herself, as she practically hangs off him like a feather boa.  The salacious nature of these three characters is the source of great friction.  Their concupiscence is the reason why they’re some fairly unhappy characters at heart.  

By contrast, Irene, Roy, and Dak (Louis Kong), the lowly painter who the group come upon and invite to tag along, are the virginal characters that actually drive what little story the film has.  Irene is always bright and sunny, and she always wears white (read: purity, though it is also a color associated with death and mourning in China, interestingly enough).  Further, she doesn’t spend her every waking moment thinking about or trying to engage in sex.  Likewise, Dak is coded as a virgin.  He is unassuming and awkward, and he has no interest in either of the bimbo sisters (okay, he likes checking out San-San’s bust, but that’s perfectly understandable, and he never acts on this anyway).  Roy was a virgin when he died.  While he kills other characters, he can only stare vacuously at Irene, transfixed by her beauty and stymied by his virginity.  This difference between the two groups is summed up by parallel scenes involving CPR.  Chen-Chen bites Alex’s lip in a fit of jealousy while he administers CPR to her.  This is followed by some testicular trauma.  However, before Dak can lay his lips on Irene later in the film, she comes to.  The lechery of the former trio is a source of turmoil and discontent.  The chastity of the latter group is the emotional core of the film, such as it is.  That Roy would kill to get to Irene is the pure expression of this virtue’s value.

Similarly, Escape from Coral Cove deals with class status to some degree, and again, this is divided up into the same two groups of characters.  Alex’s group is affluent.  He has a nice car.  He has a condo in an exclusive development.  He has a sailboat.  San-San has money enough to have a helicopter fly her to his side (under the guise of doing the nice thing of bringing Irene to see Chen-Chen).  Chen-Chen revels blithely in the luxury that her and Alex’s wealth affords them.  Alex despises just about every other character in the film and is unpleasant to all of them, his air of superiority wafting off his scrawny, yellow-speedo-slung body.  Contrariwise, Irene is posited as the humble friend (in terms of monetary status and demeanor).  She has just come back from a couple of years in Canada.  What she did there, we don’t know, but the idea is that she was divorced from the sisters’ lifestyle, becoming a better person while they became worse.  Dak is a lowly manual laborer, and he is included in the shenanigans on a lark.  Roy was a citizen of the fishing village that existed where the posh development now stands.  He was even buried in the cement that formed its foundation, a victim of the callous apathy of the ruling class.  And yet, all of these characters are lower than the white, ultra-privileged people who also live in (and, we can assume, own) the Cove.  Our protagonists crash a pool party where the elite dine on gourmet hors d'oeuvres and sip champagne.  When a blonde cougar makes a pass at Dak (“Hi, handsome!  Let’s be friends, shall we?”), her snobby, ascot-wearing husband has all of them ejected.  The protagonists are good enough to pay for property in Coral Cove, but they’re still considered undesirable by the people who truly control the wealth and power (and there’s a hint of racism to this, though it’s not emphasized overmuch).

All that said, Escape from Coral Cove is neither a very good nor a very enjoyable film.  Discounting the fact that Roy is unimpressive in both his lackluster “ugly” form and his “regular guy” form, the film is little more than home movies chronicling the vacation of people who are, by turns, unappealing and not compelling.  So much of this film is concerned with showing the one-dimensional characters doing beach/seashore activities, one gets the distinct impression that it not only doesn’t give a shit about its supposed monster premise, but also that the whole production was nothing more than an excuse for the cast and crew to go to the beach for a few days and get paid.  Fair play, if you can get away with it, but if you’re going to fuck off at work, you should at least try to make it look like you’re doing your job.

MVT:  Leung has a magnetism about her, and she’s certainly easy on the eye.

Make or Break:  The first glimpse of Roy is prosaic and immediately disheartening.  It’s not enough that he will transform later into a handsome man to make up for how much of a letdown this indifferent makeup is.

Score:  4.5/10

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Piranha Part Two: The Spawning (1982)

Down in Jamaica, Club Elysium hosts an assortment of “characters,” all soaking up the sun and getting into mischief while waiting for the annual Grunion fish fry.  Scuba instructor Ann Kimbrough (Tricia O’Neil) loses one of her students to and becomes entangled in a fight against unnatural, flying piranha.  Her husband (Divorced?  Separated?) Steve (Lance Henriksen) is the local police chief who divides his time between investigating the recent rash of grisly deaths and harassing various residents and visitors.  Their son Chris (Ricky Paull Goldin) is a horny teen (I’m of the thinking that the unhorny variety is as rare as hen’s teeth).  And that’s pretty much all you need to know.

Producer/uncredited co-director/co-writer (under the guise of H. A. Milton, along with credited director James Cameron and Charles H. Eglee) Ovidio G. Assonitis had a penchant for ripoffs (and some more original, unique fare; The Visitor, anyone?) that were cheesy as all hell but still had a certain air of legitimacy, because they included genuinely talented Hollywood luminaries onscreen who seemed to have no problems delivering some genuinely godawful dialogue.  Folks like Henry Fonda, Glenn Ford, Shelley Winters, and John Huston would saunter into an Assonitis film, seem to stick around for slightly longer than they actually do (courtesy of some relatively slick editing and pacing), and saunter back out.  In an interview (if I recall, it was in an issue of Fangoria), Assonitis was asked how he got such great actors to appear in his less than auspicious efforts.  The Greek maverick’s response was as honest and forthright (but most importantly, simple) as any of the unabashedly imitative celluloid he produced: “I paid them.”  

Naturally, since he couldn’t afford someone like Fonda for an entire shoot to take on the protagonist role (and the advanced age of some of these actors would have been a little prohibitive considering the physical requirements), that responsibility would fall to younger folks like Henriksen, Bo Hopkins, et al.  What’s interesting in Piranha Part Two is that Henriksen really isn’t the star of the show, as one might expect from his Chief-Brody-esque character.  Ann is the main character here, and she’s actually a fairly strong female protagonist, which I credit to Cameron’s contributions to the screenplay (the man does self-assured, headstrong women better than most).  She’s single-ish, raising and supporting Chris by herself (yeah, Steve makes time for his son, but it’s mostly just checking in with him and being proud that he might be getting laid by the aloofly coquettish Alison [Leslie Graves]).  Ann’s job is one of some authority, requiring both technical knowledge and solid instincts.  Ann propels the plot forward; when she states to Steve that there’s something fishy going on (sorry), he doesn’t believe her, causing her to seek out answers for herself.  She isn’t defined by the men in her life, but she’s still a sexual being, and she sleeps with whom she chooses.  In a genre mostly ruled by Everyman heroes (think: Doug McClure in films like Humanoids from the Deep, and I’m pro Doug McClure), it’s rather refreshing at this point in cinema history to have an Everywoman capable of defeating the Big Bad who isn’t just a Final Girl.

Much like in the first Piranha, the idea of evolution is at play.  In that one, the killer fish were engineered to withstand the cold waters of the rivers of Vietnam.  Here, they’re engineered to fly.  Why?  Because flying piranha.  Though said evolution is man-made like something the Marvel Comics’ character The High Evolutionary might do, it’s still purpose progression (and piranha that can fly certainly have that many more options for dinner).  This notion of evolution branches off into the realm of mating, being (as far as this non-scientist writer knows) the actual course that evolution takes.  There’s the Grunion spawning at the resort, wherein the female tastily-named fish flop themselves up onto the beach to lay their eggs and become inseminated by the males.  Meanwhile, we have such human characters in pursuit of sex as Beverly, the ditzy, soon-to-be-corn-rowed bimbo who desperately flings herself at dorky Leo as soon as she hears that he’s a doctor (those survival instincts kicking in).  Mal, the stuttering chef at the club, gets hoodwinked into feeding co-floozies Loretta and Jai based on the promise of a strenuous ménage à trois.  Ann beds down with scuba student (and possibly more?) Tyler (Steve Marachuk), and Chris, of course, gets a bit of trim from Alison.  Then there is the nameless, faceless couple who get interrupted just prior to bumping uglies as the film opens.  You can argue that the sex in this film has nothing to do with mating or advancing and propagating the species, that in Piranha Part Two, it’s all principally for pleasure (both the audience’s and the characters’), and you would be correct, but like Sinatra crooned, you can’t have one without the other, and this is where it starts.

What’s perhaps most intriguing about this film is that it succeeds despite its one-dimensionality.  Aside from Ann, none of the characters are all that compelling.  The people in films like this are typically set up to be fodder, and that rule remains in effect here.  Cameron and company give us no reason to feel anything when any of them bites it (or gets bitten by it, take your pick).  Where Joe Dante’s original film gave us satirical caricatures, Piranha Part Two simply gives us cartoons, but it still wants us to care about their fates.  The rich boat “captain” that Chris works for is a gormless snob.  Chris and Alison are just hot young hormones on parade (fair enough on that one).  Jai and Loretta are cruel, duplicitous opportunists.  Beverly and Leo are spastic geek.  The hotel manager (in the coveted Larry Vaughn role) is just venal enough to be a dick but not enough to stress what the annual fish fry really, really means for his business.  Gabby (Ancile Gloudon) and his son are local fishermen who ply their trade with dynamite (we know they’re okay, because Steve lets them off for, what I would take to be, a rather serious safety violation).  We get a couple scenes where they show up, but aside from being what I assume is the sole source of dynamite within a twenty-mile radius, they mean nothing to the story despite the death of one of them, which is intended to be solemn and carry some emotional weight (it doesn’t).  Which brings us to Steve, who should have some kind of development in regards to his relationship with his family.  Yet, all Steve does in the story is be somewhat of a condescending asshole to Ann and pat Chris on the head.  Yes, he takes part in the big climax, but honestly, for all that came before with his character, it could have been any one of the others doing what he does.  Nevertheless, Piranha Part Two still manages to be enjoyable up to a point, regardless of its vacuity, partly because it’s well paced, partly because it’s just cockamamie enough for a lark, and partly because it does have Ann as the one shining point around which the rest of it congeals.  It’s not a standout of the Horror/Animals Amok genre/subgenre, but it fits the bill as a harmless diversion.

MVT:  Ann is smart, and sexy, and adept, and O’Neil’s performance sells what could have been rather foolish in the wrong hands.

Make or Break:  The finale is nicely edited, intercutting multiple events and building tension competently.  An abrupt ending undercuts it slightly, but not enough to totally ruin it.

Score:  6.75/10 

Monday, September 12, 2016

White Water Summer (1987)

My attraction to outdoor adventure films is in the scenery. The story plays second fiddle to the cinematography for me. Sure, I need a good story to anchor the film, lest I get bored halfway through, but I’m coming for the scenery. I take to it as a cinematic vacation, where I can be one with nature from the comfort of civilian life. It’s a cheat for sure, but I can’t always be out in the wilderness. Film acts as a welcome avatar.

Mind you, I’m not much of a camper. I enjoy going on hikes, but I’d prefer not to stay in a tent afterward, acting as a human burrito for wildlife. Add in years of growing up in fear of both a bear attack and/or a crazed serial killer on the loose and you’ve got a hesitation toward the camping lifestyle (think of the Jim Gaffigan camping bit and you’ve got my similar feelings). And yet, I’m fascinated by films dealing with camping and the wildlife. It’s so picturesque and comforting even in the face of danger!

I grew up similar to the protagonist in “White Water Summer,” Alan (Sean Astin). I was an introvert who would’ve been much happier spending my summer indoors than out (though I enjoyed the safety of my neighborhood once I moved out of the dangerous city). My parents tried to convince me to try camping and becoming a boy scout, but were never pushy when they noticed my hesitation. Alan’s parents, his father specifically, are the opposite: seeing the chance to spend a few weeks camping as a lesson in survival and growth. They’ve enlisted the aid of Vic (Kevin Bacon), a skilled survivalist, to take him into the wilderness and become one with nature.

The first half of the film is as expected. Vic is the polar opposite of Alan, a lover of the outdoors. The two share similarities, such as in their intelligence, but utilize their traits differently. Alan catches fish by crafting a makeshift trap out of supplies and natural resources; Vic does it the old-fashioned way, by hand, and scoffs at Alan for cheating. He punishes the poor boy on numerous occasions, forcing him to stay behind until a task is finished. He challenges his natural instincts such as in abandoning him to travel a rickety bridge over a hundred feet above water and sharp rocks and leaving him dangling atop a mountain. We can understand Vic’s reasoning, to teach the young teenager to survive, but also challenge his responsibility. Is it really sane for a man to leave a child hanging for his life (literally)? Think of the lawsuit and jail time he were to face had the children in his care were to perish?

Director Jeff Bleckner plays with that throughout, especially in the second half. He struggles in adapting the screenplay, written by Manya Starr & Ernest Kinoy, resulting in Vic’s abrasiveness coming across as sociopathic. There’s one instance where he nearly shoves a camper over the edge of a mountain after a verbal dispute. Considering the film’s overall pleasant tone, and the generally happy ending, this comes off as a conflict of interest. One I found somewhat amusing seeing as how the atmosphere was reminiscent of a campground slasher at times, made more palatable by the inclusion of “Friday the 13th” alum Kevin Bacon. I
didn’t expect it to nearly come to fruition in the final act.

It’s not that the sudden change in tone is a kneejerk reaction. Bleckner builds to it well, hinting at Vic’s questionable tactics. He’s never made out to be the bad guy, just a man with a firm belief in building a person up by challenging their senses. It’s no different than when someone tosses their child into the deep end to teach them how to swim. He’s always presiding over them, even when visibly absent, to ensure their safety if need be. The issue is in when it’s cranked up too much to service the drama, where we must suspend disbelief that the guide would allow his campers to catch pneumonia in a harrowing storm with no tent or, even worse, a wildlife attack.

Does Vic prove his point? Certainly, even if Alan’s cheesy narration (filmed two years later to give credence to his reminiscing) dilutes it. It’s just done so in such a heavy-handed way, with a fatal accident changing the course of direction, that it can cause friction. The connective tissue is there, as is the message, so it’s not a lost cause; just a shaky one, as rickety as the bridge Alan must cross.

I came for the scenery and “White Water Summer” didn’t disappoint in that front. The cinematography by the legendary John Alcott (one of his final films) is gorgeous and atmospheric! Starr & Kinoy’s script infuses the cinematography with a solid pillar. Bleckner keeps all of this in check with his direction, imbuing the film with the right amount of comradery, growth, and danger. It may be too heavy-handed at times, but it’s a pleasant trip nonetheless.

MVT: John Alcott’s cinematography. Sure, it’s the reason I was drawn to the film, but that’s not why it’s my MVT. That’d be because it lent much-needed atmosphere to the proceedings. The wilderness and, more importantly, camerawork, are just as much of a character as the campers are.

Make or Break: The rickety bridge sequence. It breaks up the soothing tone of the film, which at this point came packaged with numerous soft montages. It sets the stage for the forthcoming drama without going too over the top like some of the later predicaments.

Final Score: 7/10