Aja, Cameron, Hanks, Ophüls, Saladoff

Piranha (Alexandre Aja, 2010). It’s remarkable that a film that so overtly embraces its own willful trashiness can still be dour, flatfooted and boring as hell. Richard Dreyfuss’s early cameo as a scruffy boater who’s a victim of carnivorous fish is only the first overt reference to Steven Spielberg’s superlative Jaws. The entire plot about the vicious water-dwellers is essentially lifted from the earlier feature, with the family vacation crowds in a terrorized tourist tour replaced by ribald Spring Breakers, all the better to fill the screen with R-rated nudity. It’s gory, ridiculous and almost deliberately inept. It’s also no fun at all, largely because Alexandre Aja directs it with no verve whatsoever.

Larry Crowne (Tom Hanks, 2011). After the relentlessly fantastic That Thing You Do!, I was certain that the presence of Tom Hanks’s name in the writing and directing slots of a film’s credits would always be a cause for celebration. He sure proved me wrong. Fifteen years after his chronicle of the one-hit Wonders, Hanks returned to the director’s chair to film a script he co-wrote with Nia Vardalos, creator of the miserably bad runaway success My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which Hanks, let us never forget (or forgive), was instrumental in getting to the screen in the first place. Larry Crowne concerns the middle-aged fellow of the title, played by Hanks, who’s downsized from his appliance store job, leading him to pursue a degree at the local community college. There he encounters and whole new band of mild misfit friends and pursues a romance with one of his teachers. It’s all hopelessly drab and not a single moment rings true. Hank probably thought he was generating something wistful and sweet to serve as a thoughtful counter to the misery of those confined to the static middle in the American class war, but his stabs at empathy come across as condescending. What’s worse, there’s no live in the film, which only highlights how completely it’s devoid of cleverness and panache.

Letter from an Unknown Woman (Max Ophüls, 1948). The film that’s largely considered German director Max Ophüls’s clearest masterpiece from his Hollywood years is moody, wise and psychologically astute. Joan Fontaine plays the writer of correspondence of the title, sending off a letter to a famed pianist (Louis Jourdan) in Vienna in the first part of the 20th century. She details her longstanding love for him, including a passage in his life when he romanced her and tossed her away. Ophüls has an incredible capability for covering mood with the shadows in a scene and the way his camera eases through the delicate moments. Fontaine is striking in the role, playing a woman through a wide range of years and across a long arc of swelling emotional destitution. The two together provide the ideal cinematic definition of heartbreak, a state only slightly salved by a sharp dose of time-delayed comeuppance.

Hot Coffee (Susan Saladoff, 2011). I remember watching an episode of Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect shortly after elderly Stella Liebeck won a lawsuit against McDonald’s for third degree burns she sustained after spilling hot coffee she had just purchased while going through the drive-thru of one of their many restaurants. Maher was mocking the supposedly frivolous lawsuit, as many were at the time, until Ralph Nader challenged him with some details that were largely absent from the frothing public commentary: the facts of the case. Susan Saladoff’s documentary does the same, incorporating the information into a broader exploration of the multitude of ways that corporations have conspired with elected officials and the more pliable members of the legal profession to insulate themselves against answering for the malfeasance they perpetrate against their consumers in the name of bolstering their bottom line, regardless of the human cost. Saladoff makes a compelling argument and presents it as a rock-solid piece of documentary journalism. It’s more steady than sensational, but that can often prove to be the more effective approach.

The Terminator (James Cameron, 1984). Now that he’s become practically a franchise unto himself, it’s worth remembering that James Cameron’s breakthrough with The Terminator came after a decidedly unpromising early career. He was following up a writing and directing gig with the film Piranha II: The Spawning, after all. The introduction of the time-traveling cyborg assassins of futuristic evil machine overlord Skynet and the saga centered around the Connor clan seems dated and an even a little cheesy now (it’s admirable restraint on Cameron’s part that he’s never pulled a Lucas and tried to clean up the drifting models and soundstage dystopia of the future war), but there’s also a charming earnestness to it. This is tenderfoot sci-fi nerd Cameron eagerly sharing his vision, unconcerned about how he can leverage it into a recurring profit center. It may not be uniformly great (it’s possible no film with Michael Biehn ever could be), but it’s still commendable.