Movie Review: Piranha 3D

This review has taken me a long time to write (mostly because of how difficult it is to spell Piranha) but it is without a doubt an important one to read. Piranha 3D may be the best summer movie of 2010- due in no small part to the dearth of quality entertainment in this year’s cinemas, but also due to the shockingly watchable direction of Alexandre Aja and the remarkably well-structured screenplay by Pete Goldfinger & Josh Stolberg. While not exactly Hitchcock or Shakespeare, the film offers no pretense of haughty intellectual aspirations, instead hitting its comedic and narrative beats with surprising aplomb, not to mention reverence to summer movies history. Rather than providing us with a bare-bones rendition of an obvious premise (hint: piranhas attack!), Piranha somehow manages to do the impossible, making us care about its characters and regret their gruesome deaths, no matter how small or irrelevant their roles may be.

In many ways, Piranha is a knowing homage to Jaws. Both films rely on their characters to provide distractions from the occasionally cheesy or overwrought special effects, and both movies center around a small beach town community overrun by a sea-dwelling menace. It’s fairly obvious that the filmmakers adore horror history and wanted their movie to be both referential and cutting-edge, so allusions and surprises abound. What separates Piranha from its predecessors is its borderline NC-17 sensibilities. Not since the Roger Corman films of yore have I seen such blatant exploitation of the female form in a theatrical release. That being said, it’s both sexy and lesberiffic! (Note: This quote available for back-of-DVD.) Beyond the valley of the boobies, there is a jaw-dropping amount of gore in this picture. The blood splatters range from hilarious to horrifying, and despite the piranhas’ adorable design they still bring a cringe-worthy tension whenever they approach their prey.

The cast of characters is packed to the brim with bit players, each with their own unique and likable schtick. Only Jerry O’Connell martyrs himself as the sole hate-worthy player in this picture, simply because his rendition of a Joe Francis-esque purveyor of Girls Gone Nuts entertainment is equal parts hammy and spot-on. Adam Scott often looks confused as to whether he should be grinning more often, and Elizabeth Shue is the only hold-out in an otherwise perfect set of tongue-in-cheek performances. Even the young lead actors in the cast, Steven R. McQueen and Jessica Szhor, provide compelling performances within obvious type roles. Brooklynn Proulx and Sage Ryan- both terrific examples of why you should not let your parents decide your stage name- are an adorable pair of tots hugely reminiscent of Bart & Lisa Simpson in terms of chemistry. Usually it’s the cheap newcomers in horror movies that make the films so tedious to watch, but here it’s the young talent that really owns the picture, occasionally making the more experienced elders look old and out-of-place.

There is plenty to love in Piranha 3D. The creativity of the deaths should delight horror fans, as should the number of nods to horror history, the badass cameos- thank you, Mr. Eli Roth- and the insane duration of the massacre sequence, which somehow manages to eat up (excuse the pun) half the movie. Let there be no mistake, this film is violent, raunchy and sadistic, but beneath its garish and off-putting exterior there is a sweet caramel core that infuses the movie with heart. I never expected to care about any of the characters in this movie. I expected to meet an assortment of hot, young douchebags whose deaths I would giddily anticipate. In Piranha, even the slutty and repugnant characters are worth mourning, because their pre-mortem dialog is amazingly affable. The deaths are so disturbing and omnipresent that you have little room to gasp before another actor bites the big scaly bullet. You begin to hope that someone, anyone will survive. That’s right. This is a horror movie where you actually root for the protagonists instead of the murderer!

By the time Christopher Lloyd showed up, I realized I was watching the perfect summer movie. In the same way that Jaws and many of Spielberg’s films embraced schlock while reinventing it, Piranha embraces its cheesy b-movie roots while never bending over backwards to placate anybody or undermine itself. This is still a movie, and there is never a point where anyone looks at the camera sheepishly and says, “This bites, literally!” That in itself is an accomplishment under the new Hollywood regime, hellbent on incapacitating its audiences with plotholes, shameless formula, and an absence of edge or originality. Piranha pushes every possible boundary it can get its fins on, often at the expense of decency and good-taste but never to the point where its narrative integrity crumbles. The 3D effects are better and more convincing than Avatar’s and probably the best example of why 3D doesn’t suck that I’ve seen outside of How to Train Your Dragon. While a completely different genre, tone, and type of film, I might rank this movie a little ahead of Inception in terms of fun. There’s nothing cerebral or inventive cinematographically in Piranha, but the fact that the movie is competently shot and directed (another rarity in horror) places it leaps and bounds ahead of Nolan’s attempts to revive the dying spy movie genre. You mean to tell me that someone made a tongue-in-cheek homage to b-horror-movies that holds its ground against classics and new releases alike? Sign me up for the sequel (as the guy whose brain gets eaten first).

Party Down & Out: The Death and Reincarnation of TV’s Greatest Comedy

I can’t claim to be a long-time fan of Party Down.  I wasn’t one of those early adopters who jumped at the chance to order a third-tier cable movie network for the thin glimmer of hope that it could replicate HBO’s success in a freshman programming effort.  The way I saw it, even Showtime had faltered in its effort to produce comparably entertaining original material, often taking a slightly broader and less intellectual approach to its programming than HBO.  I’m sure fans of Weeds can make a strong case to the contrary, but as a fan of Dexter myself, I can admit that I often watch the show with gritted teeth, allowing my fandom to carry me through the cringe-inducing moments of stupidity.  Therefore, it could be reasoned, that if Showtime was the red-headed stepchild of HBO, then the Starz network was some far-flung mutated cousin, and the success of each network was akin to the genetic make-up of the clones in Multiplicity, each slightly more retarded than the last.

But this isn’t an article meant to disparage these (read: cruddy and lesser) networks.  This is not an article with the intention of berating Starz for the idiocy of canceling what can only be described as the finest comedy on television for two consecutive years.  Unlike my optimistic compatriots on Twitter, those proudly retweeted by Party Down‘s Martin Starr and his #savepartydown campaign, I’ve been through this too many times before.  Arrested Development‘s tongue-in-cheek “Save Our Bluths” episode is a good example of how I feel about the resurrection of dead sitcoms.  To satirize their own imminent cancellation, the writers of Arrested forced their characters to host a formulaic fundraiser to save the family, parodying notes from FOX that the show’s characters were too unlikable.  In a mesmerizing moment of irony, voice of reason Michael Bluth addresses the fundraiser guests and lists the many legitimate grievances that they may have against his family, suggesting that this fundraiser is a sham.  “And maybe the Bluths just aren’t worth saving, maybe we’re not that likable, you know,” Michael admits.  And to a certain extent he was absolutely right.

Much like another FOX program, Family Guy, Arrested Development‘s popularity sky-rocketed largely due to DVD sales and ex-post-facto word of mouth spreading across college campuses.  In spite of Arrested‘s current rabid legion of fans, many of them- myself included- failed to see the appeal of the show when it originally aired.  Providing the post-Simpsons line-up with an unexpected dry spot and immediately barraging the viewer with its fully-sculpted characters and universe at an unforgiving pace, the many nuances and in-jokes that would later result in the show’s many accolades were too subtle to appreciate upon first viewing.  In addition, the show’s beautiful HD presentation was lost on many households that had yet to convert from standard definition televisions.  Until people had the DVDs in hand and could pour over the episodes, scanning for hidden jokes and quotable lines, the show seemed confusing, self-important, free from broad laughs, bloated yet dull.  Of course we all know the joys of GOB, George Michael, Buster and Tobias now, but the surface tension between Arrested Development and popular cultural didn’t burst until well after the show’s demise.

According to That Crazy Rap Music‘s Josh Sherman, few of the original writers of the first two seasons of Arrested Development were hired back for the third season.  Under the assumption that there wouldn’t be a third season due to the show’s painfully low ratings, the original writers found jobs elsewhere before discovering that the show would be picked up again.  The subtle yet noticeable change in tone between the second and third seasons is a direct result of a different writing team having their hands on the scripts.  Even if the new writers’ satiric pandering had caught the attention of HBO or another cable network, the version of Arrested that followed would have been a vastly different series than the original two seasons imply.  For this reason and personal ones, creator Mitchell Hurwitz balked at the opportunity to move the show to another network desperate for quality programming (read: Sh**time).  Forced to end the show at a rapid-fire pace, Hurwitz concluded the story as best he could with a bastardized version of his original staff.

Fans of the series will rabidly proclaim otherwise, but I believe Hurwitz made the right decision.  Frankly, at this point, I hope they never make an Arrested Development movie (even though I know they probably will when everyone gets old and greedy enough).  Based on the absolute train-wreck awfulness of Hurwitz’s Arrested follow-up, the animated yet limp Sit Down, Shut Up, I believe that Arrested might be lightning in a bottle for Hurwitz, and that its tarnished third season is enough disgrace to the show’s legacy without adding a potentially half-assed or bloated feature to the mix.  “But wouldn’t it be fun to revisit those characters just one more time?”  Maybe, but wouldn’t it be significantly less fun to see everybody a decade later, crammed into old characters like a cash-grab reunion show?  Michael Cera isn’t chomping at the bit to play George Michael again (even though he’s been practically doing that in every movie since), and after the indignities that Tobias suffered in the third season, could his character even coherently exist in the universe much longer?  In any case, the show is dead and gone, and revisiting it would most likely be a pandering chore in the vein of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Light. What does this have to do with Party Down?

If Arrested Development was the king of television comedy, Party Down was the heir apparent.  Packed with an equally strong cast of characters with defined persona and clear motivation, Party Down succeeded even where Arrested failed- it was instantly likable, so long as you had the Netflix Instant subscription to watch it streaming, or had figured out what the heck the Starz Network was.  Riotously hilarious and consistently engaging in an ever-deepening way, Party Down presented trope characters in a true-to-life setting, allowing its characters to ramble and ruminate until, whaddya-know, they became real people we love.  Rather than presenting the vapid pseudo-reality of Entourage, Party Down‘s Hollywood was packed to the brim with struggling actors, writers and comedians all vying for the same glimmer of hope.  In a brilliant display of casting, Party Down‘s ensemble represented extremely talented players whose personal experience had been exactly that of their characters.  Often struggling and unappreciated in the real world, Party Down represented that ‘big break’ that so many of their characters desired, bringing them one step closer to reality while humbling them all the same.  The tone of the series and the chemistry of the characters speak to a communal experience, a shared knowledge of the hell of life in Los Angeles when you’re pursuing an impossible dream, and amongst the real-world cutthroat competition for parts, success and fame, the team at Party Down Catering existed in a Utopian liminal state between heaven and hell.  Sure, they worked a degrading job, but it was slightly less miserable when they had each other.  And for the audience, it was paradise, a veritable Eden of comedic performance, writing and direction.

Like Arrested, the evolution of Party Down‘s characters is something to admire.  Each character grew and changed, dealt with love, rejection and heartbreak at a realistic pace.  Unlike Arrested, characters were never boiled down to a single joke.  The caterers were consistently invited to evolve during the course of each episode.  Whether it was Martin Starr’s uptight geek Roman learning to loosen up a little, or Megan Mullaly’s Midwestern soccer mom Lydia deciding whether or not to participate in an orgy, the characters faced outrageous challenges to their personal and moral philosophies.  While ridiculous, these challenges and the crazy situations that facilitated them were never beyond the realm of possibility in Hollywood.  The core tone of realism and believability served Party Down well, providing it with a backbone as well as heart.

The best performance of the series (among many stellar performances) belongs to Ken Marino’s frequently troubled boss, Ron Donald, a character as immediately love-to-hate hilarious as Ricky Gervais’ David Brent in The Office.  Often the broadest and most unbelievable of the characters, Ron’s incompetence and innocence borderline on Homer Simpson immensity, causing him to do things that no normal human being would consider an intelligent idea, like booking the catering company he runs for his own high school reunion.  While this seems like an obvious and sitcom-y premise, the real humor and sadness comes from Ron’s honest desire to show his former classmates how far he’s come as a catering manager, incorrectly assuming from the start that his position of servitude will somehow rewrite their memories about what a drunken loser he used to be.  Ron’s bad decisions are always ridiculous, but they usually come from split-second errors of judgment and are always clearly motivated by an honest desire to succeed.  Ron’s constant desire to be evaluated and judged as a success is shared by his Party Down colleagues, but Ron simply tends to wear his heart on his sleeve a bit more.  While everyone else shirks work to take phone calls about acting gigs, Ron is the one pumping the host for positive remarks on the post-party comment card.  The others worry that they are about to hit rock bottom, whereas Ron is climbing out of the ditch on the other side, dreaming of a SuperCrackers.

Adam Scott and Lizzy Caplan were the show’s Pam and Jim equivalent, and an advantage of the series’ brief lifespan is that we never had to see their romantic tension die and evaporate like we did in the American Office.  Unlike Pam and Jim’s storybook (read: gag me) romance, Adam and Lizzy’s retired actor Henry and unsuccessful comedian Casey faced their fair share of relationship troubles, often arguing and redefining the structure of their relationship like a real-life couple.  Their romance was difficult to define for both the characters and the audience, but for some reason it was immediately intoxicating.  Even when it seemed like all was well, the show’s writers were never content with giving their characters a reprieve from drama or chaos, thrusting awkwardness upon them and making them fight for what they love.  Henry’s constant internal battle between self-loathing and loving acquiescence is what made him so endearing to the audience, but so occasionally pathetic in Casey’s eyes.  Could he really be happy with bartending and quipping jokes all day?  What happened to the guy who once dreamt of being an actor?  As Henry found himself slipping into true romantic infatuation with Casey, she, like a true comedian, retreated at the first sight of complacency.  Their romance was beautiful and unfinished, like a love letter anthology with a missing final chapter. In that lack of conclusion there exists the idyllic sensation of peace.  We never had to see their love die, and never will.

Party Down should not have been cancelled.  Even with Adam Scott’s departure to the cast of Parks & Recreation (a show with equally tenuous job security due to its unfortunate bump to mid-season) and Lizzy Caplan’s constant courting by the major networks, not to mention Kyle Bradway’s potential for solo success with his latest pilot project, there was still ample room for the show to thrive.  Unlike most sitcoms, a rotating cast of players could have served Party Down successfully, providing a season-to-season switch simulating the actual job’s turnover rate amongst struggling actors.  Megan Mullally replaced Jane Lynch for the second season when Lynch left for Glee, so it would be hardly unprecedented.  With Paul Dano, Mullally, and Martin Starr intact, the rest of the roles could cycle in and tell new stories about other trope Hollywood characters.  The advantage here is that the Party Down show format- a different party catered every week- provides infinite opportunities for fun premises, specifically those that can be geared toward forcing new characters into difficult situations, thereby making them grow and evolve at a rapid pace, as guided by our cast of regulars.

Of course this possibility is long gone, a mere pipe dream, but nice to consider.  I’m sure the geniuses at Starz considered much when they made their decision, and I’m also sure that it was a by-the-numbers failure to secure ratings that killed the series.  (Hell, I never ordered Starz.  I watched every single episode on Netflix Instant. I love to share the show with friends at every opportunity, but my lack of viewership through traditional media, not to mention the studio’s anachronistic refusal to include web-hits as valid ratings, murdered this poor program.)  The show remains endlessly watchable, and in that way is an odd survivor of the execution block.  Unlike Arrested Development, which closed the doors of its narrative abruptly, the Party Down universe, like that of the formerly canceled Futurama, leaves us with a question of hope rather than a true conclusion.  If there was a way to resurrect Party Down through DVD sales or tweeting or social media voodoo, I would be there fighting full force.  But the impossibility of the odds, like the randomly divine nature of the show itself, makes me wonder if we didn’t already get the best possible outcome: a two-season show, untainted by network retooling, that never faltered or failed or strayed from its mission statement.  Even as the show’s meta-framework grew and expanded, it never exploded beyond the bounds of its initial conception, thereby always staying true to the design of its creators and more importantly, to its wonderfully interesting characters.

So this week we witness the death of the greatest comedy on television, but when the network gods close a door they open a window.  FX’s Louie already proves to be a groundbreaking experiment in sitcom reformatting and could be the perfect chaser to Party Down Catering’s champagne.  Would I be pleased if Party Down got picked up by another network?  Of course.  But would I trade the sense of satisfaction I have for the conclusion of what can only be described as a perfect television series?  Nope, not for anything in the world.

Matt Shore is an actor, writer, comedian and television enthusiast.  He is also heavily opinionated and welcomes your argumentation in the comments section below.