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Double TTC feature: “The Expendables,” “Piranha 3D”

(Rare it is that not one but TWO films come along that duke it out for top billing in Terrifically Terrible Cinema. But “The Expendables” came along, and then “Piranha 3D” — it was a perfect storm-like convergence of events — and both are so awesomely bad that they must stand together as the most fun you’ll have in what’s left of summer 2010.)

“The Expendables”
Starring Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Mickey Rourke

Sly Stallone the director and writer, with a few exceptions, does not do subtlety. This is a foreign and unwelcome concept to him, kind of like sap is to Quentin Tarantino. So anyone who waltzed into “The Expendables” expecting anything more profound than a messy, magnificent orgy of testosterone, guts and violence deserves, quite frankly, to be disappointed. In short, “The Expendables” is a certain kind of movie for a certain kind of person: a person who likes to see things — and people — get blown up in large and exhilarating and nasty ways. That’s Stallone’s plan, and he sticks to it using a time-honored formula that requires enjoyably overexaggerated bad guys (a hearty high-five to Eric Roberts for looking so suave while being so evil) to bump heads with quippy, sweaty, rough-edged hero types — “the other guys.” This gaggle of mercenaries who accept suicide missions includes former SAS soldier Barney Ross (Stallone); Lee Christmas (Statham), aces with a blade; martial artist Yin Yang (Jet Li); Gunnar (Dolph Lundgren), a sniper dangerously frayed around the edges; Hale Caesar (Terry Crews), a weapons specialist; and Toll Road (Randy Couture), a demolitions expert. Their newest mission is their most perilous yet: These comically named specialists must overthrow Mexican dictator General Garza (David Zayas), whose outrageous accent and furrowed brow fairly scream Very Bad Guy. But all too often behind every ferocious dictator there is an even more deadly financier, and so it is with CIA agent-gone-rogue James Munroe (Roberts), who is positively Idi Amin-like in his greed and lust for power. Barney, Lee and their pals, of course, really loathe such men – especially because they are qualmless about abusing beautiful women (Giselle Itié) with a lot of spunk – and mean to punish them as slowly and painfully as possible. This is where “The Expendables” excels, because Stallone knows deep in his burly soul how to make things explode in ways that will elicit a collective “HELL yeah!” from his viewers. The fight scenes – like Stallone’s throwdown with Steve Austin , or Li’s faceoff with Lundgren – are thrilling, while Crews’ gun should be the basis for a new world religion. Other facets of the movie aren’t quite so impressive, like Stallone and Couture’s forced performances, but Statham, Roberts and Mickey Rourke (an ex-Expendable who now gently weeps over his tattoo needle) are a hoot and a half. And that’s just what summer 2010 needed.

~~~~~~~~~~

“Piranha 3D”
Starring Elisabeth Shue, Steven R. McQueen, Christopher Lloyd, Jerry O’Connell

The tagline for Alexandre Aje’s gory bootyfest “Piranha 3D” really should have read: “It’s your only chance this year to see a penis get devoured by a fish — in 3D.” There are many other similarly ludicrous things that happen in this remake of a remake of a remake, but the penis-as-a-palate-cleanser signals the film’s intentions. They are not honorable; in fact, they are not even in the town housing the ballpark of honorable. Aje has one goal and one goal only in this raucous, raunchy sendup to horror film cliches, ham-fisted dialogue and even worse acting: to entertain. And entertain he does, in nearly every way imaginable. “Piranha,” besides being a gem of a 3D film (who wouldn’t rather a piranha explode off the screen than watch sweaty kids shake their moneymakers?), is a barrel of laughs — some goofy and stupid and crude, others highbrow, or at least middlebrow, jabs at films like “Jaws,” “Deep Blue Sea” and “Titanic.” There’s also an unusual ensemble cast with a few surprise cameos. The screwball plot, as it were, goes like so: An earthquake rocks Lake Victoria, setting loose a school of prehistoric piranhas trapped in deep caverns below. Because Mother Nature has a wicked sense of humor and impeccable timing, this happens during Spring Break, when teeming throngs of drunk, nubile young hardbodies fill the waters with vomit and pheromones. Sheriff Julie Forester (Shue), Deputy Fallon (Ving Rhames) and a team of seismologists must get medieval (tee hee) on the tushes of these man-eating relics to save the lives of these hormonal horndogs, including Julie’s straight-laced son Jake (McQueen), his smokin’ crush Kelly (Jessica Szohr), a leering Joe Francis wannabe (O’Connell, an explosion of zeal and sleaze) and his bikini-clad, balloon-chested leading ladies. Oh, and there’s even time for Doc Brown himself to swoop in, though not even a DeLorean can save these teens from becoming shrieking bait worms. There’s not a thing serious about “Piranha,” not even half a teaspoon of nuance, but that’s why it clicks. With everyone – even the normally reticent Shue, who’s clearly suppressing some grins – delighting in this smorgasbord of cheese, it’s hard not to get hooked. (For the real hard-sells out there, a penis gets eaten in 3D. Unless porn goes 3D, answer opportunity when it raps on the door.)

Review: “Back to the Future” (1985)

Ah, the future. Weight has nothing to do with it in "Back to the Future."

People who chance upon the wonder of time travel all tend to want the same thing: second chances. For what is time travel if not the ultimate cosmic do-over, a chance to make a different choice in the past and hope that alteration will improve the future? Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is a little different. With youth on his side, he has few real regrets, so his accidental time-travel mission involves changing the lives of others. It just so happens those “other lives” belong to his teen-age parents (Crispin Glover, Lea Thompson) circa 1955.

Director Robert Zemeckis, who co-wrote “Back to the Future” with Bob Gale, merges these two unlikely concepts to create a film brimming with wit, intelligence, sidesplitting sight gags, more than a little heart and a most creative (if monumentally disturbing) reinvention of the Oedipus complex. “Back to the Future,” then, is a rare movie indeed, one where there’s sturdy balance of science fiction and humor. Factor in the very human and subtly poignant backstory that involves the redemption of a painfully timid character, and the first installment of this trilogy becomes even more rare: a film that does, in the simplest sense of the word, offer something for everyone.*

The story Zemeckis and Gale creates begins in 1985 in Hill Valley, Calif., where Marty lives what he believes is an unenviable life. His father George (Crispin Glover) lacks a spine and spends his days at work being bullied by his boss (Thomas F. Wilson), while his mother Lorraine (Lea Thompson) glugs vodka at dinner. But there are two things that make Marty happy: his girlfriend (Claudia Wells) and his friendship with scientist Dr. Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd), a kook who sports a ‘do that puts Albert Einstein’s to shame. He’s the kind of chap, we expect, whose inventions never amount to much … until the day they do. Doc Brown’s constant tinkering moves from strange to astounding when he accidentally creates a time machine out of a souped-up DeLorean. Why a DeLorean? “If you’re gonna build a time machine into a car, why not do it with some style?” Oh, that Christopher Lloyd. Always with the bug-eyed witticisms.

A chase (also accidental) finds Marty rocketing down the Twin Pines Mall parking lot in the time machine and landing somehow in 1955. And Hill Valley in 1955 is as unprepared to experience Marty as he is to experience Hill Valley. The ’80s-centric teen can’t quite believe what’s happened to him until he finds himself sharing counter space at the local malt shop with his father, a hopelessly shy nerd. That meeting leads to a mishap that changes Marty’s parents’ initial meeting (turns out his mother finds her future son most attractive) and threatens to alter his own life permanently.

The clash between 1950s-era ideals and Marty’s futuristic notions — pay attention to the smallest details; they matter — provides some of the funniest moments. Hill Valley’s townspeople see his puffy vest and keep asking him why he’s wearing a life jacket. A much-younger Doc Brown scoffs at the idea that Ronald “the actor?” Reagan could win the presidency. “I suppose Jane Wyman is the First Lady,” he retorts, and later imagines plutonium is sold like Tylenol in drugstores in 1980s America. At the school dance, Marty rips into a guitar solo that leaves the students speechless. “I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet,” he observes, but assures them “your kids are gonna love it.”

What’s amazing about “Back to the Future” is the timeless feel of these sight gags. Over the years, every last one of them has refused to age, to seem dated or grow stale. Instead, they feel as fresh and funny today as they did in 1985. That timelessness is a powerful testament to the strength of the actors’ performances (here we see glimpses of the exquisite comic timing that would make Fox a name) and Gale and Zemeckis’ visionary script. Perhaps that’s because “Back to the Future” reminds us that while we can’t predict our future, our choices give us the power to navigate it how we choose.

Grade: A

*Avoid cliches like the plague.