Monday, June 12, 2017

Only now does it occur to me... IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS

Only now does it occur to me... that John Carpenter's IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (1994) is such a wealth of creatively horrific visuals and ideas that one of its throwaway scares (not even really a scare, per se, moreso a morbid detail) became, in 2017, the entire basis of the marketing campaign for a $125 million Hollywood blockbuster.

I'm speaking here of THE MUMMY reboot (starring Tom Cruise), a film I must admit I have very little interest in seeing. However, I couldn't help but notice that the creepy "double-iris" of their Mummy has become quite ubiquitous:

Upon seeing this poster on the subway, I immediately thought of IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS––particularly the scene where a mad axeman looms behind Sam Neill and Bernie Casey outside a Manhattan diner.

Toward the scene's conclusion, while the axeman is menacing a frightened Sam Neill, we get a closer look at his eyes, which contain the double-iris effect:

What's funny is that this scene is so tightly constructed and confident in its "horror in broad daylight" premise that the whole "double-iris" aspect is probably only the fourth or fifth scariest detail of the entire tableau.

I reviewed IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS at length seven years ago (seven years?!), and for those who haven't seen it, the entirety of IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS is similarly layered––it has a sort of "throw in every scary thing you can think of and the kitchen sink" sensibility, but it really thrives on it. It's a mosaic of nightmare and lunacy that is incredibly focused; every element is carefully curated to fit the bigger picture, both thematically and visually. The double-iris is such a small detail that it's possible many people who have seen the film may have forgotten about it by the time the credits rolled. And yet, that's the power of Carpenter's films––from the spider-leg head in THE FACULTY (referencing THE THING), to CHILD'S PLAY 3's "Colonel Cochrane" (referencing HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH) to DAZED AND CONFUSED paraphrasing the best line ("I've come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass...") from THEY LIVE, etc., etc., apparently Carpenter minutiae have been enthralling Hollywood for decades.

Note: it's also possible that THE MUMMY designers were inspired by DOUBLE VISION (2002), or something else entirely of which I'm unaware, but I'm going to go ahead and continue assuming that John Carpenter is the center of the universe.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Only now does it occur to me... LEGIONNAIRE

Only now does it occur to me... that when Jean-Claude Van Damme makes a $35 million prestige picture and it ends up going straight-to-video... there's a reason for that.

Written by JCVD himself in collaboration with Sheldon Lettich (LIONHEART, DOUBLE IMPACT) and Rebecca Morrison (SCORCHER) and directed by Peter MacDonald (RAMBO III, THE NEVER ENDING STORY III), LEGIONNAIRE sees Van Damme playing "Alain Lefevre," a 1920s French boxer with a level of moral righteousness that is usually only seen in movies where the star is also the executive producer. Did I mention that this film is produced by (among others) Jean-Claude Van Damme and Edward R. Pressman (BADLANDS, WALL STREET, AMERICAN PSYCHO)?

Anyway, the film begins promisingly enough, with punching and grunting

and the bursting of flashbulbs, and you can tell from the styling that they think they're making RAGING BULL. When JCVD is told to throw the fight, he refuses and winds up on the run in a lavishly produced chase scene on the streets of Marseille,

complete with a weepy damsel waiting at a fog-machine-drenched train platform.

However, JCVD never makes his train, and, while on the lam from French gangsters and sorrowfully hiding on a cart of discarded vegetables,

he spies a poster for the French Foreign Legion,

which luckily has a late-nite drive-thru recruitment station.

Next thing you know, JCVD's wandering the desert with a rifle, and the movie has transformed into a kind of tedious '90s variant of GUNGA DIN or Von Sternberg's MOROCCO. And it's here that the movie begins to really drag.

It's trying very hard for poignancy the entire time, too, which makes it all the more painful, even if the filmmaking is technically more competent than his Cannon work.

You can tell it is a Serious Picture because of JCVD's patented pathos-face.

Anyway, there's lots of men and dust and guns and horses
and men with guns on dusty horses

and some Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje

and I can't decide if it's more or less homoerotic than LAWRENCE OF ARABIA

I mean, maybe it's technically more homoerotic,

in practice, if not in spirit.

In comparison, JCVD's THE QUEST (which he directed and co-wrote) was also an earnest attempt at Oscar bait, but it brought a certain joie de vivre (Joie-Claude Van Vivre?) to the proceedings. It, too, was a period piece with tear-jerkin' pretensions, but it was at least centered around a martial arts tournament, and sort of felt like BLOODSPORT mixed with a '40s swashbuckler (and maybe a Dickens novel?)

In LEGIONNAIRE, JCVD still has the amazing newsie cap from THE QUEST, though it seems to have shrunk a bit.

Alas, his clown makeup from THE QUEST does not make a reappearance.

In any event, perhaps all you really need to know is that there are no splits in LEGIONNAIRE, at least not on-screen.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Film Review: CONGO (1995, Frank Marshall)

Stars: 3 of 5.
Running Time: 109 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Laura Linney (THE TRUMAN SHOW, TALES OF THE CITY), Dylan Walsh (NIP/TUCK, ARCTIC BLUE), Ernie Hudson (GHOSTBUSTERS, THE CROW), Tim Curry (CLUE, THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW), Grant Heslov (TRUE LIES, ENEMY OF THE STATE), Joe Don Baker (CAPE FEAR '91, CHARLEY VARRICK, MITCHELL), Mary Ellen Trainor (DIE HARD, THE GOONIES), James Karen (THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, MULHOLLAND DR.), John Hawkes (DEADWOOD, FROM DUSK TILL DAWN), Peter Jason (THEY LIVE, PRINCE OF DARKNESS), Bruce Campbell (EVIL DEAD, ARMY OF DARKNESS), Taylor Nichols (METROPOLITAN, BARCELONA), Delroy Lindo (MALCOLM X, CLOCKERS), Joe Pantoliano (MEMENTO, THE MATRIX, THE SOPRANOS), Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (LOST, OZ), and a special appearance by Jimmy Buffett. Music by Jerry Goldsmith (ALIEN, GREMLINS). Edited by Anne V. Coates (LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, THE ELEPHANT MAN, OUT OF SIGHT). Based on the novel by Michael Crichton (JURASSIC PARK, ER, WESTWORLD). Screenplay by Academy Award and Pulitzer Prize winner John Patrick Shanley (DOUBT, FIVE CORNERS, MOONSTRUCK).
Tag-line: "Where YOU are the endangered species"
Best one-liner: "Are you serving that ape a martini?"

In a familiar, darkened alleyway:

"What are you smiling about?"
–"CONGO, man. CONGO."
"I don't get it."
–"1995 was a magical year. The stars aligned. You see, in 1993, Michael Crichton's JURASSIC PARK was a runaway hit. In 1994, Crichton's ER took television by storm. Also in 1994, THE LION KING became the highest-grossing animated film of all time.  Therefore, a Michael Crichton action-adventure piece, featuring a character named "Dr. Ross" (though here, it's Laura Linney, not George Clooney), involving prehistoric creatures and African wildlife should have been the blockbuster of the year... Yes, indeed, the stars aligned on behalf of CONGO. But they did not create box office gold. No, they aligned to give us a cyborg gorilla named "Amy" who wears a No Fear backpack. And I'm more than okay with that."

"This looks like a tough sell to me."
–"Aren't you always claiming to be an intellectual?"
"I don't really see how that pertains–"
–"Don't you enjoy the dramatic word, courtesy of Academy Award, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright John Patrick Shanley?"
"Sure, but–"
–"Then buckle up, cause Shanley has brought an advanced toolbox of dialogue-writin' skills, and he's not afraid to use 'em. You like alliteration? You got it, brother.

There were plenty of other ways to put that potted pleasantry, but none had the proper pithy, pompous pizazz."
"Okay, you can stop."
–"They're a regular Tracy and Hepburn over here. 'Are you a pound of sugar?'"

'No, babe, I'm a primatologist.' Are you taking notes?"
"I'll not have you poking fun at a giant of the American stage on my watch."
–"I'm not poking fun. I'm praising him. For instance, only a giant of the American stage could imbue a speech about monkeys in heat with such fluency and pop-culture poetry..."

"What's going on here? Is that Ernie Hudson? What are you trying to do to me?"
–"I'm not trying to do anything. Ernie Hudson, however, is trying his damnedest to save this picture. And, somehow, with his jocular demeanor and that measured twinkle in his eye––he almost succeeds.

As the dashing freelance adventurer 'Munro Kelly,' he uses Cary Grant-inspired over-enunciation and Clark Gable-ish flair to saturate the film with old Hollywood flavor.

Don't you just want to hang out with Ernie Hudson? Maybe he deserves a spin-off film that doesn't traffic in 3-D glasses and cyborg gorillas."

"Tell me there are good action sequences, at least."
–"I think any '90s action-adventure film is defined by its setpieces. Who can forget the storm drain chase from TERMINATOR 2, the hospital climax in HARD BOILED, the Keanu vs. Swayze foot race in POINT BREAK...? Well, in CONGO, who can ever forget the heart-stopping hippo-attack scene?"

–"Or this setpiece, which is almost a shot-for-shot remake of the Xenomorph perimeter attack scene from ALIENS, complete with automated gun turrets that are dangerously low on ammo?"

"So you've amply demonstrated CONGO's mediocrity. So what? I'm fairly certain everyone knew that already. Now you're just slandering John Patrick Shanley and making me feel bad for Ernie Hudson. What's the point of all this?"
–"You know me better than that. You know I devote myself to the subtle beauty of things like... Joe Don Baker screaming 'I NEED THOSE DIAMONDS!'"

"I can see that sort of thing in MITCHELL, JOYSTICKS, or CAPE FEAR '91."
–"But can you see an ape drinking a martini on a transcontinental flight?"
–"Can you always see a soupçon of well-meaning-but-disappointed James Karen?"

–"Or Joe 'Joey Pants' Pantoliano in a silly, uncredited, Hawaiian shirt-heavy role that essentially paraphrases Hunter S. Thompson?"
–"Or Bruce Campbell being terrorized by a camera-angle, straight out of EVIL DEAD?"

"I must admit, I'm intrigued."
–"Good. Let me raise you one bug-eyed, unbridled Tim Curry."
"My God. Are you ser–"
–"With an inconsistent Romanian accent, no less. Perhaps you'd like to see him eating sesame cake like a boss while an uncredited Delroy Lindo vocally disapproves?"

"This movie is a veritable roller coaster of human emotion."
–"Then you'll simply love this tender moment between Whit Stillman-standby Taylor Nichols and Bruce Campbell just prior to their horrific deaths at the hands of prehistoric albino gorillas."

"I'm speechless. Does this fit into the Stillman-verse? Is it supposed to be post-LAST DAYS OF DISCO?"
–"That'll be a question for the film historians. Finally, how do you feel about journeyman character actor and eventual Oscar nominee John Hawkes showing up for one scene where his only purpose is to wake up and scream 'AHHHH!' before he expires?"

"That's not even an 'under-five,' I don't think."
–"You're darn tootin', it's not. So how do you feel about CONGO now?"
"Eh, honestly, I think I'll just stick with JURASSIC PARK."
–"Alright. I have one last concept for you to wrap your narrow mind around. What about a Laura Linney action-movie one-liner?"
"It'd have to be a pretty good one-liner. Shanley would have to bring his A-game. It'd have to be as morally complex as DOUBT, with the pastoral poignancy of OUTSIDE MULLIGAR, and the quiet desperation of PSYCHOPATHIA SEXUALIS."
–"Sure, sure. What if I told you there was a not only a Linney-zinger worthy of all that, but that it was accompanied by an albino gorilla-blasting laser gun?"
"I'd want to hear it spoken aloud."
–"Okay. So during a climactic moment of quiet desperation, mid-prehistoric-albino-gorilla-onslaught, Laura Linney brandishes a diamond-powered space laser. Ernie Hudson asks her what she intends to do about the prehistoric albino gorilla situation.

And then Linney, with a poetic sensibility worthy of the American stage that brought us Arthur Miller and Eugene O'Neill (or at least Golden Era Schwarzenegger) says:


Now what do you have to say about that?"
"Fine. You win. We can watch CONGO."
–"That's all I ever wanted. Now how's about a double feature with another great '90s primate flick, MONKEY TROUBLE, with Harvey Keitel and Thora Birch?"
"Don't push your luck, pal."