Movie Review: Pinata Survival Island

Happy Cinco de Mayo!

I know it’s late, but allow me to inflict upon share with you my review of the classic 2002 Nicholas Brendon (late of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) Cinco de Mayo-themed party film, Piñata Survival Island (also known by the much less descriptive title, Demon Island.)1

The box art pretty much tells you what you need to know.  There’s an island.  And college kids.  And a piñata.  Wait, what?

A piñata?

Let’s see what this is all about…

The film opens on a small village, probably located in the fictional Latin American country of Brazentinumbexico, sometime in the (presumably) distant past.  The village is in the midst of a terrible drought, and the locals are at a loss to explain why.  Apparently the local witch doctor decides that the problems are due to the evils and misdeeds of the villagers, and that the way to solve the problem is to magically suck the wickedness out of everyone and infuse it into a clay piñata made by the village piñata maker.

The piñata maker, who can’t be bothered for a rush job even though the locals are dropping like flies, carefully crafts the magical vessel out of clay, water (wait – I thought they were in a drought…) and pig’s heart.

Just go with it.

There’s also something about a sacred stone, but that never really comes up again, so nevermind.

Anyway, the entire village treks off to the riverbank to perform the magical evil-sucking-transfer-to-the-piñata ceremony, where the witch doctor summons the (ever dwindling number of) villagers to the front of the crowd and mumbles some vaguely Spanish-sounding words and transfers the evil into the clay-and-pig-heart piñata.

Note the piñata on the left.  We’ll see him again.

Hey! You shocked me!

Once everyone has been appropriately zapped, they cast the piñata adrift in the river, where it eventually floats out to sea, presumably never to be seen again.  If that were the case, it would be a very short, mercifully short, movie.

Unfortunately, they still had budget at this point, so we flash forward to Cinco de Mayo, circa 2002, where two boats full of bikini and trunk-clad students from Woodson University are headed towards an island – among them our two “big-name” stars – Nicholas Brendon (late of Buffy the Vampire Slayer)2 and Jaime Pressly who I dimly remember hearing about from something, but I can’t remember what.

Our intrepid group of victims  piñata bait promising young students hits the beach for the annual Woodson University Cinco de Mayo scavenger hunt, and are met by the two official judges, Paul and Monica.  (Paul, for anyone who cares, is played by Garrett Wang, who played Harry Kim on Star Trek: Voyager.)

The group heads to camp to prepare for the hunt.

The scavenger hunt works like this:

Around the island are scattered several thousand (!) pairs of underwear.  Couples are handcuffed together and given until nightfall to collect as many undies as they can, and the winning couple gets some cash.3  And oh, by the way, there are piñatas placed around containing “refreshing beverages”  (wink wink nudge nudge.)

The couples are paired up, and off they go.  Except for Kyle and Tina (Brendon and Pressly).  Those two apparently broke up shortly before the events of the film, and obstinately decide to sit the game out rather than cooperate.

The other groups, who I’ll call Disposable Couple #1, #2, #3, and #4 respectively, all have their own strategies for winning.  Let’s have a look:

DC #1 break away from the others.  Guy 1 produces a handcuff key and a joint, and they start scavenging while loaded.  Girl 1 notices a familiar clay piñata stuck in the mud.  She pulls it out, and calls her partner over.  They bash on the thing with a rock, figuring it must contain some thirst quenching treats, but when they crack it, the only thing they’re treated to is some weird howling and wind.

When they turn their backs, we see the piñata grasp a stick.

Oh, they’ve got a live one here…

They turn to notice the piñata is gone, only to have it spring out of the bushes behind them, and (in a completely predictable bit of role reversal) start clubbing Guy 1 about the head with a stick.

Does anyone know the name of a good dentist?

Girl 1 wastes no time in exiting the area, which is probably a wise thing to do.  Now, at about this time, the producers of the film seemed to realize that using a short guy in a rubber piñata suit might not adequately convey the cinematic gravitas that they were trying for, so they apparently enlisted the crack CGI wizards over at SyFy to help out by adding some glowing lines and stuff.

While all this horror is going on, Kyle and Tina decide that they’ll play the game and try to cooperate, and head out into the jungle to scavenge unmentionables.

Let’s check in with DC #2.  Guy 2 has managed to have a secret stash of Fruit of the Looms buried on the island.  He and his partner are looking for it when they’re set upon by a very stressed Girl 1, who’s covered in what is supposed to be blood but looks more like southwestern ranch salad dressing.  She tells them that something killed Guy 1, but they think she’s trying to scare them out of the game, so they ignore her.  She runs off and they go back to searching for their stash.

They find their shovel and start digging.

Here we get to see the other great special effect: Piñata Vision.  Our antagonist sees the world through this weirdly prismatic faux-thermal view:

Where have I seen something like this before?

Right about here, I had an epiphany!  A group of people in an isolated jungle being stalked by a stealthy enemy that sees the world in the infrared.  I’ve seen this movie before, only with higher production values and Arnold Schwarzenegger!  Piñata Survival Island is a rip-off of Predator!

Needless to say, this realization greatly enhanced my viewing experience.

Back to the film.

DC #2 have set their shovel down and are transferring their ill-gotten booty covers (see what I did there?) into their bags when they notice that the shovel has disappeared.

Our nimble monster quickly springs into action, once again going crazy with the cheez-whiz and bashing people like he expects candy to fall out of them.  (Actually, I forgot to mention that in a sense, it does.  When the piñata monster kills someone, he sucks out their soul for reasons that aren’t exactly clear.)

About this time, Girl 1 has found her way back to the judges and told them her story.  While they don’t quite believe everything (heh), they’re smart enough to realize that something has gone pear shaped and they need to bring everyone back in and get off the island.  They hop on their ATVs and first encounter Kyle and Tina, who have begun to work through their issues.  They head back to camp to fire off the Game Over pistol while the Paul and Monica continue on.

Cut over to DC 3, who are tonsil diving out in the jungle.  The monster, showing it’s skill in ropecraft, strings itself up on some vines and lowers itself behind them.  When they finally come up for air, they notice the (freaky looking) piñata (that wasn’t there just a few minutes earlier) dangling off of a vine.  Guy 3 picks up a stick to take a swing, only to be intercepted by the monster with its cat-like piñata skills.  It proceeds to dispatch him with great aplomb, removing something that resembles a pot roast from his belly.  Then it turns its attention on the screaming girl.

Oddly, we never see the thing attack the second member of each pair while they’re handcuffed together.  I guess maybe it’s a technique that the director picked up in Dramatic Tension 101.  Or maybe they ran out of budget.  Or forgot there were other actors on the set.  Not sure.

Back to the “story”.  In short order, Paul and Monica run across the strung up (like a piñata!) remains of Guy 1, and with their Holmesian powers of deductive reasoning conclude that something is indeed amiss on the island, and perhaps Girl 1 wasn’t merely in the grips of a booze and weed-fed hallucination-fest.  They head back to their ATVs to (I assume) look for the other missing students, but quickly attract the attention of the piñata monster, who has now morphed into its more mature form, which looks sort of like a pile of rocks in the vague shape of maybe a minotaur with glowing lava in the cracks.  Supposedly the filmmakers punched up the monster because the initial three-foot-high Porky Pig on Acid approach wasn’t getting it done.  While this is going on, Kyle and Tina discover that something has destroyed their boats, and left behind a bunch of hoof-like footprints.

The monster thunders after Paul and Monica, but they almost manage to shake it until Monica’s ATV smashes into a large tree trunk (hey! who put that there?) and explodes.  She’s thrown free, and Paul comes back to try to save her.  He does, but not in quite the way he planned, proving that in order to escape pursuit by a giant burning piñata monster, you only have to be the second slowest college student.

Monica scrambles through the jungle, taking a tumble down a cliff (well, a short embankment – cliffs are expensive) and hiding in the undergrowth.  Taking another cue from Predator, the monster can’t see her and heads off.

Back at camp, Kyle, Tina, and Girl 1 are waiting for anyone else to return, and, prompted by the hoof prints on the beach, Kyle remembers an old folk tale about a drought and a village and a piñata that has a pig heart in it.  Immediately, they all conclude that this is exactly what they’re dealing with.  Unfortunately, Kyle’s folk tale doesn’t really give them any insight into how to get rid of the bloody thing, since the approach that the villagers took was to set the evil-filled party favor adrift in the river and make it someone else’s problem.

Cue the timely arrival of DC 4, who have had about 30 seconds of screen time in the entire movie.  Now we are five.  The group waits out the evening, then after a spirited debate in which everyone changes opinion several times and can’t seem to sort out who to agree with, decide to strike off into the jungle in search of their missing friends.

For a group that’s being picked off by an unidentified enemy, they’re remarkably cavalier about this, with DC 4 lagging behind several times.  This ultimately becomes his undoing, as our monster, once again displaying the skills that earned him the vine-craft merit badge back in horror scouts, snares him up into a tree, where he slowly expires while his dim-witted, can’t be bothered  to look up friends mill around below.

At this point, Girl 4 and Girl 1 decide they’d be safer back at the camp, and start the hike back.  What’s the worst that could happen, really?  Well, how about a goofy piñata monster swinging out of a tree wielding a stick (or maybe the shovel from a while back – not sure…) and taking out Girl 4 while Girl 1 takes a bio break behind a shrub?  Which is exactly what we get.  Kyle and Tina have meanwhile spotted some tracks headed back towards the camp, and are on their way back when they find Girl 1 screaming (again).

Kyle gets all manly and decides to take off after the monster with a stick and a small hunting knife, while Tina tries to talk some sense into Girl 1.  This works about as well as we might expect at this point, with Girl 1 rabbiting (again), forcing Tina to follow.

In another part of the jungle, Kyle finds a nearly catatonic but amazingly alive Monica, and they head back to where he left the girls.

Girl 1, having made it back to camp, sees movement in one of the tents, and unwisely decides to go inside.  She meets her end right as Tina arrives, and the monster bursts from the tent in yet another new form – now it looks like (I’m not making this up…) a giant flying tadpole made of rock and lava.  It’s also gained the heretofore unseen ability to breathe out some sort of deadly darkness.  Apparently it can’t fly too fast, though, as Tina outruns it and stumbles into Kyle and Monica.  The three hide behind a convenient tree, and distract the monster with some thrown rocks (that always works…).

At nightfall, they decide to make a stand, and head to the ATVs to siphon the gasoline out of the tanks and into their canteens.  They escape just before the monster shows up, having attracted it when Monica screamed as Paul’s body drops out of a tree.

The trio head back to camp, and in a montage straight out of Predator but with less Schwarzenegger proceed to set up  snares, traps, and torches.  Then they set out a dummy as bait and have Monica loudly talk to herself to lure the creature in.

It works, and the piñata shows up at the edge of camp.  It attacks the dummy, and when it realizes it has been fooled, it assumes the shape of a two-headed flying tadpole and searches around the campsite.  At the right moment, Kyle triggers the snare, which catches the monster in a tent.  They set fire to it, and appear to be on the verge of success when the canvas tent burns through, and the monster drops to the ground, hitting Monica and knocking her out.  It turns on Kyle, who does a surprisingly good job of holding his own.  Apparently Nick Brendon’s seven seasons of Buffy taught him well.

The monster, however, starts to get the upper hand.  Just before it can deal a death blow, Tina lunges out of the shadows and handcuffs a gas-filled canteen with a wick onto the creature.  The trio dives behind a table as the canteen explodes, showering the area with flaming bits of terracotta and the freed souls of the monster’s victims.

Game, set, and match.

The next morning, campus police have made it to the island, and the credits roll as the questions begin.

Good grief, but that was a slog.

The bizarre thing about this is that when I was casting about for a movie to review, I remembered a fragment of a movie on SyFy with Nicholas Brendon in it that had a beach and a woman in a bikini.  The resulting Google-fu led me to this movie.

But this isn’t the same movie!   This means that we live in a bizarre universe where there are at least two movies that would run on SyFy with Nick Brendon, beaches, and women in bikinis.

Think about that when you think your world isn’t strange enough…

-Jay
———-
1I’ll point out that this review is something of a response to my pal Skippy’s excellent review of Enter The Ninja.  He threw down an implied challenge, and I felt compelled to sink to it.

2I was a big fan of the Buffy TV series.  Nick Brendon’s Xander Harris was one of the best characters on the show.

3At this point, you might be thinking “Dammit, Badger!  Are you reviewing a dead naked teenager movie?  The answer to that is “no”.  Despite the initial bikinis, the underwear-themed scavenger hunt, and the handcuffing, this is an extremely tame film.  I’ve honestly seen more objectionable material on ABC Family.

Movie Review – Speed Racer (2008)

When I started elementary school in the mid-1970s, my TV diet consisted of PBS standards like Sesame Street, The Electric Company, and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.

It didn’t take long for my classmates to suggest alternatives.  One of those was Speed Racer, the American dub of the Japanese series Mahha GoGoGo.

My mom objected to shows like this and the old Spider-Man cartoon most vocally on the grounds of the excessive violence, which served only to increase my desire to see them.  Forbidden fruit and all that.

Speed Racer, to my young eyes, was all about the car – the Mach 5.

The Mach 5
This was gonna be my first car...

Speed Racer and the Mach 5 might be claimed as a source of inspiration for many vehicle-themed shows that later followed – Knight Rider, for example.

So, a few years back when the Wachowski Brothers, still riding the cachet they’d built with The Matrix1 and its sequels, got attached to a live-action version of Speed Racer, I was intrigued.

The film tanked at the box office when it was released in 2008, and drew generally negative reviews.  I picked up the DVD about a year ago at Target for the princely sum of $5, but it gathered dust on the shelf until last night, when a combination of insomnia and lack of anything better to do led me to pop open a beer and throw Speed Racer into the player.

I’ll say up front that not even reviewing films like Mega Shark Vs. Crocosaurus could have prepared me for the Wachowski Brothers’ take on Speed Racer.

Let’s begin.

We meet a young Speed Racer in school, unable to concentrate on his work.  Constantly caught up in daydreams about racing, he’s considered an outsider by his classmates and a poor student by his teacher.  We come to learn that his father builds race cars, and his brother Rex drives them.  These aren’t just any race cars, either.  They’re impossibly high-performance machines that race on tracks that look more like fancy Hot-Wheels setups:

Not your father's race track

In Speed Racer’s world, physics doesn’t seem to have much use.  Cars spin, flip, drift around turns, spring over other cars, and travel at speeds approaching 500 MPH.

Speed’s brother, Rex, is a very talented racer, but has a fallout with their father, Pops (a horribly under-utilized John Goodman), and leaves home on a dark and stormy night.

Shortly after, a racing accident kills Rex, who was living under accusations of cheating.  The Racer family is crushed.  Mom (played by Susan Sarandon, who spends most of her scenes looking like she’s trying to find an escape from the set) takes Rex’s death particularly hard, but provides the emotional glue that holds the family together.  (Ms. Sarandon was given possibly the most well-written dialog in the entire film.  Nevertheless, one must wonder just what sort of leverage the Wachowski’s had on her to get her into this thing.)

Speed grows up (portrayed by Emile Hirsch)  to become a fine racer in his own right, and after dramatically winning a local race, is approached by Royalton (Roger Allam) to join his stable of racers.  The Racer family, long an independent racing team, is suspicious of Royalton’s offer, but goes with him to visit his headquarters, accompanied by Speed’s long-time girlfriend, Trixie2 (Christina Ricci).

After the initial visit, Speed and Trixie discuss Royalton’s offer and Speed’s future.

 

Trixie and Speed

 

The Wachowski’s aren’t subtle.  Anyone who can’t figure out that Royalton isn’t one of the good guys is either dead or asleep (which, by this point in the film wouldn’t be out of the question.)  We can tell because his eyebrows have a sort of villainous arch to them.

 

All he's missing is a waxed mustache...

Really, they could have made it a little less obvious.  Anyhow, when Speed declines Royalton’s offer of indentured servitude employment, Royalton tells Speed that the Racer family name won’t even have any cache on a late night infomercial, let alone in the racing world.  (Apparently the sport of auto racing in the reality of Speed Racer is little more than a front for corporate manipulation of stock prices, and the winners of every major race are negotiated beforehand.)

Sure enough, before you know it, things have gone bad for the family.

Enter the mysterious RacEr X and (in what has to be one of the most ridiculous names ever) Inspector Detector of the CIB (or something – it’s a group that investigates corruption in the racing business).

Racer X (left, duh.) and Inspector Detector

They have a proposal for Speed – team up with RacEr X and some other driver who we were introduced to a few minutes ago that I didn’t bother to mention to win a big road race that will lead the third driver to give up a file he has on corrupt drivers and team owners and put people like Royalton with funky eyebrows out of business.  (You’ll note that Inspector Detector is clearly a good guy – nary an arched eyebrow in sight.)

Speed and Trixie decide to accept the offer against the wishes of Speed’s parents, and head to the race under cover of a skiing trip.

The bad guys put a bounty on Speed’s team, and automotive hijinks ensue as the various drivers deploy whatever dirty tricks they have at their disposal to win.

Some dramatic tension unfolds as the race goes through the same cave that Speed’s brother, Rex was killed in – a stretch of road that RacEr X seems unusually familiar with.

Speed and company ultimately prevail and win the race, only to discover that the third driver really didn’t have a file on all the corrupt players, and was simply using Speed and RacEr X to win the race and boost his father’s stock price.

Disillusioned, Speed heads home, but has finally used his keen senses of observation and logic to almost figure out that RacEr X showed up shortly after Rex’s death, and that Rex’s body was unrecognizably burned, and that RacEr X drives like Rex and knows Speed’s moves!  OMG! RacEr X must BE Rex!

Speed soon confronts the mysterious masked man about it, who removes his hood to prove to Speed that he isn’t his brother, but knows that his brother would be proud of the man Speed has become.  (Speed, demonstrating that he’s not the sharpest tool in the garage, appears never to have heard of plastic surgery…)

The third driver’s sister shows up with an invitation for Speed to participate in the Grand Prix, which is his life’s dream.  The family has less than two days to rebuild Speed’s car and get to the race, which we know they’ll do for no other reason than that this would be a very bizarre way to end the movie.

The Grand Prix race, as presented by the Wachowski’s is an eye-scorching, ear-splitting eruption of garish color and noise:

 

Really, the whole movie looks like this...

 

Basically, if you’ve ever played a Mario Kart game, the Grand Prix is Rainbow Road with the volume turned full-up on the TV.  The long and the short of it is that Speed wins, the Racer family regains its lost honor, and the corrupt businessmen like Royalton are exposed for the wretched villainous scum they truly are.

Meh.

This was a very difficult movie to watch for a number of reasons.

First off, the characters were uniformly uninteresting – even the leads.  John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, and Christina Ricci are all talented, but they aren’t really given anything to work with here.  Emile Hirsch seemed to be asleep most of the time, even in the “intense” racing scenes, and it went downhill from there.  Even the Mega Shark films have something to their characters that makes them less of a chore to watch.

Second, as the screenshot of the Grand Prix should illustrate, the visual style of the film seemed designed mainly to make the viewer’s eyes bleed.  I understand the challenges in making a live-action film from a cartoon.  Trying to keep the original visual style probably won’t work, but neither will going with a fully real-world approach.  Nevertheless, the source material for Speed Racer would have allowed a much more realistic approach that might have made the film less exhausting to endure.

Third, the characters were all different from how they “should” have been.  In the cartoon, Speed was more confident, Trixie was less aggressive, Racer X more edgy.  Here, we have a Speed who can’t seem to look anyone in the eye, Trixie exuding a smoldering sexuality that seems out-of-place (I think that’s really more just Ricci…), and Racer X who never lives up to his potential.  This wasn’t Speed Racer so much as something that superficially resembled Speed Racer.

Fourth, and finally, by the end of the film, nothing had really changed.  The family still thinks Rex is dead.  Pops still builds his own cars without any sponsorship.  Speed is still racing, and the racing world, now that its most corrupt players have been rooted out, is the honorable world that Speed and his family believed it to be at the start of the film.

They’re all right back where they started, and I’m out five bucks.

-Jay

———-
1As visually innovative as that film was at the time, it just doesn’t grab me much now for some reason .  And the sequels always seemed unnecessary to me.

2In the original cartoon, it was easy to come to the conclusion that Trixie was Speed’s sister, especially if you were watching the show at six or seven years old.  Even when I watched most of the series a few years back, their relationship still seemed fairly low-key.  Christina Ricci, however, brings a more aggressive Trixie to the screen.  It’s a PG-rated movie, so she doesn’t go overboard with it, but still…