Skip to main content

Stop eating my sesame cake!


Congo
(1995)

I doubt that Congo would be top of anyone’s list of Michael Crichton adaptations. Indeed, the Golden Raspberries  (generally a boorishly literal arbiter of quality) gave it the dubious honour of seven nominations. I don’t think it’s nearly as bad as that rotting garland might suggest, although neither is it especially good. The picture’s one saving grace is a sensibility usually quite foreign to Crichton’s self-important storytelling; it sets out to have a bit of fun.


Post-Jurassic Park, there was renewed interest in the author’s work (the ‘80s were significant for producing only under-achieving directorial efforts from Crichton himself), and the prospect of utilising the CGI that brought dinosaurs to life was seen as the key to realising the apes of Congo. This stumbled when hair was found to be tricky (even the King Kong remake, 10 years later, renders a very definitely CG creation for all its detail; even with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, for my money suits and animatronics are less distracting). Kathleen Kennedy sequestered Stan Winston to make ape the suits, which are pretty good for what they are, and brought in hubby Frank Marshall to direct. As I understand it, Crichton wasn’t overly impressed with the results and wished he’d been consulted. I don’t think that would have helped matters, as a big part of the picture’s problems derive from his source material.


Crichton was inspired to write a King Solomon’s Mines-style adventure, and pitched it as a film even before he’d written the novel (which was published in 1980). So this is a tale of lost cities, valuable diamonds, strange tribes, exploding volcanoes and hitherto undiscovered animal species. And, being Crichton, cutting edge technology. In the novel, the diamonds were required for boring old semiconductors. The movie changes this so they now power communications lasers. Much sillier and zappier, and therefore appropriate to the general tone. Also to be learnt from Congo; African countries in a state of political upheaval are a whole a lot of fun! Did I mention the talking ape, Amy? I guess she’s the key attraction. I’ve never really seen the appeal of monkey movies, Planet of the Apes excepted. Their underling anthropomorphic tendencies don’t draw me in, and having one talk in a computerised girly voice derived from sign language does nothing to persuade me otherwise. But this is element makes it abundantly clear; the only way to adapt the novel without throwing out half the plot is to embrace its essential silliness. With a talking ape you can’t even rely on a sub-Indiana Jones semi-seriousness.


Having said that, Congo probably has more merit than the most recent Indy movie (it’s a close call, but at least Congo makes me laugh in places). The production actually bothered going to Africa to film, while Spielberg and Lucas showed stayed at home. If Crystal Skull looks like it was filmed entirely on sound stages (even the bits that weren’t), the joins in Congo are readily apparent, particularly during the lost city climax. That seems appropriate, however. I can’t imagine any version of this movie not being cheesy. If it had been made during the ‘70s it would have featured Doug McClure.


As such, Frank Marshall is exactly the right guy for the job. Spielberg’s long time producing partner has only directed four features but could have directed 10 for all I knew. He’s so anonymous that I confuse him with another of the Spielberg family, Joe Johnston. Marshall debuted with Arachnophobia, trumpeted to be Jaws for spiders to public indifference. I suspect it was too formulaic in its adventure-comedy styling, aware that a determined effort to make spiders scary would be a tougher sell than it seemed. He followed it with plane crash cannibalism, Alive. He’s competent, but so bland. You could interchange his with Johnston’s work on the same year’s Jumanji and I doubt that anyone would notice the difference.


Confusing the key personnel seems to be a running theme for me with this movie. I had the vague recollection that Chris O’Donnell was the lead. Remember O’Donnell, the least memorable would-be young star of the ‘90s? I guess devotees of NCIS: Los Angeles will respond in the affirmative. I’ve never troubled myself with it, and I doubt I am missing out. Having also never bothered with Nip/Tuck, I had no idea who actual lead of this picture was even on seeing his name.  The visage of Dylan Baker only drew blanks. Was this the slightly less shlubby older brother of Seth Rogen? What had the director seen in him? What had the director seen in the script? Michael Crichton’s name in bold letters, probably. Baker’s ape fancier is as unengaging as Marshall’s direction, so they suit each other perfectly.


It could have been so different. Bruce Campbell, who appears in the prologue as the leader of the lost expedition that ignites the plot, was up for Baker’s role. Instead he received the consolation prize of a character that is offed in the first five minutes. He’s a blast during those few minutes, coming on great guns and with lines like “This whole place does the shimmy!” you’d think he was adlibbing. The makers add insult to injury by dangling the carrot that he might be still alive (Laura Linney’s motivation for going in search) only for his (or an extra’s) corpse to show up during the third act.


But, imagining Campbell as the lead, the movie suddenly makes sense. You can see him trading ham with Tim Curry, Delroy Lindo and Ernie Hudson. And the grating cuteness of the gorilla expert and his ape companion takes on a whole new dimension of self-awareness. The picture instantly becomes a camp classic, making a virtue out of all its deficiencies. The point where Baker, the animal lover, pulls out a gun and starts killing angry apes becomes hilarious if Campbell replaces him.


In the final film it is spectacularly misjudged. A movie that, if it has any message, is about man messing with nature rather than preserving it (a hot Crichton theme that, interfering with the natural order) climaxes with the protagonists blasting the aberrant new species into extinction. And we’re presumably supposed to go along with this? I mean, it is funny because it’s such an oblivious choice. And the sight of Laura Linney laser-zapping the crazed creatures is spectacularly silly ("Put them on the endangered species list!"). The novel speculated that these apes where gorilla/chimpanzee hybrids or gorilla/human hybrids. The latter is unsurprisingly dropped as this is very much a kids’ movie, but thematically it makes sense; the interaction between Baker and Amy verges on Max Mon Amour tenderness.


So be grateful for the trio of Curry, Hudson and Lindo. Linney is game, but her role doesn’t allow for much exaggeration; Grant Heslov, Joe Don Baker and Joe Pantoliano all make an impression, and there’s an early role for Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. But none of them are blessed with the opportunities for scene-chewing that these three wholeheartedly seize. Curry plays a “Romanian philanthropist” complete with an outrayyygeous accent that wouldn’t sound out of place on an episode of ‘Allo”Allo. I’ve never paid much attention to Hudson’s career; he’s the most boring part of Ghostbusters, so I didn’t expect him to be so funny. His accent is that of a posh English toff and his cheerful bravado towards adventure is a consistent high note; “Monroe Kelly; I’m your… great white hunter for this trip. Though I…  happen to be black”. Hudson is having a great time. “I’m black, I should have luggage on my head” he says, as explanation for a tribesman’s surprise that he is head of the expedition. Lindo is only on screen for a few minutes, but his heavily accented (they’re all at it!) Captain Wanta manages to steal a scene from Curry (no mean feat) as he screams at him “Stop eating my sesame cake!”)


If it weren’t for Timeline, Congo might even hold the dubious distinction of being the worst Crichton adaptation. Unlike Timeline, Congo was a moderate hit. It made the Top 10 of the summer of ’95 to the tune of $150m (inflation-adjusted). I don’t think anyone’s going to claim Marshall did the novel a great disservice. You can’t make a silk purse out of a gorilla’s ear. And for the first two-thirds the picture splutters along in a likably silly fashion. Come the lost city, however, and the director is engulfed with substandard clichéd action heroics and plot developments. The earlier sections had a bit of fun with the familiar tropes, but by the end they just become tiresome.

**



Popular posts from this blog

Abandon selective targeting. Shoot everything.

28 Weeks Later (2007) (SPOILERS) The first five minutes of 28 Weeks Later are far and away the best part of this sequel, offering in quick succession a devastating moral quandary and a waking nightmare, immortalised on the screen. After that, while significantly more polished, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo reveals his concept to be altogether inferior to Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s, falling back on the crutches of gore, nihilism, and disengaging and limiting shifts of focus between characters in whom one has little investment in the first place.

The Bible never said anything about amphetamines.

The Color of Money (1986) (SPOILERS) I tend to think it’s evident when Scorsese isn’t truly exercised by material. He can still invest every ounce of the technical acumen at his fingertips, and the results can dazzle on that level, but you don’t really feel the filmmaker in the film. Which, for one of his pictures to truly carry a wallop, you need to do. We’ve seen quite a few in such deficit in recent years, most often teaming with Leo. The Color of Money , however, is the first where it was out-and-out evident the subject matter wasn’t Marty’s bag. He needed it, desperately, to come off, but in the manner a tradesman who wants to keep getting jobs. This sequel to The Hustler doesn’t linger in the mind, however good it may be, moment by moment.

Captain, he who walks in fire will burn his feet.

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) (SPOILERS) Ray Harryhausen returns to the kind of unadulterated fantasy material that made Jason and the Argonauts such a success – swords & stop motion, if you like. In between, there were a couple of less successful efforts, HG Wells adaptation First Men in the Moon and The Valley of the Gwangi (which I considered the best thing ever as a kid: dinosaur walks into a cowboy movie). Harryhausen’s special-effects supremacy – in a for-hire capacity – had also been consummately eclipsed by Raquel Welch’s fur bikini in One Million Years B.C . The Golden Voyage of Sinbad follows the expected Dynamation template – blank-slate hero, memorable creatures, McGuffin quest – but in its considerable favour, it also boasts a villainous performance by nobody-at-the-time, on-the-cusp-of-greatness Tom Baker.

If this were a hoax, would we have six dead men up on that mountain?

The X-Files 4.24: Gethsemane   Season Four is undoubtedly the point at which the duff arc episodes begin to amass, encroaching upon the decent ones for dominance. Fortunately, however, the season finale is a considerable improvement’s on Three’s, even if it’s a long way from the cliffhanger high of 2.25: Anasazi .

My hands hurt from galloping.

Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021) (SPOILERS) Say what you like about the 2016 reboot, at least it wasn’t labouring under the illusion it was an Amblin movie. Ghostbusters 3.5 features the odd laugh, but it isn’t funny, and it most definitely isn’t scary. It is, however, shamelessly nostalgic for, and reverential towards, the original(s), which appears to have granted it a free pass in fan circles. It didn’t deserve one.

Your desecration of reality will not go unpunished.

2021-22 Best-of, Worst-of and Everything Else Besides The movies might be the most visible example of attempts to cling onto cultural remnants as the previous societal template clatters down the drain. It takes something people really want – unlike a Bond movie where he kicks the can – to suggest the model of yesteryear, one where a billion-dollar grosser was like sneezing. You can argue Spider-Man: No Way Home is replete with agendas of one sort or another, and that’s undoubtedly the case (that’s Hollywood), but crowding out any such extraneous elements (and they often are) is simply a consummate crowd-pleaser that taps into tangible nostalgia through its multiverse take. Of course, nostalgia for a mere seven years ago, for something you didn’t like anyway, is a symptom of how fraught these times have become.

I’ve heard the dancing’s amazing, but the music sucks.

Tick, Tick… Boom! (2021) (SPOILERS) At one point in Tick, Tick… Boom! – which really ought to have been the title of an early ’90s Steven Seagal vehicle – Andrew Garfield’s Jonathan Larson is given some sage advice on how to find success in his chosen field: “ On the next, maybe try writing about what you know ”. Unfortunately, the very autobiographical, very-meta result – I’m only surprised the musical doesn’t end with Larson finishing writing this musical, in which he is finishing writing his musical, in which he is finishing writing his musical… – takes that acutely literally.

Out of my way, you lubberly oaf, or I’ll slit your gullet and shove it down your gizzard!

The Princess and the Pirate (1944) (SPOILERS) As I suggested when revisiting The Lemon Drop Kid , you’re unlikely to find many confessing to liking Bob Hope movies these days. Even Chevy Chase gets higher approval ratings. If asked to attest to the excruciating stand-up comedy Hope, the presenter and host, I doubt even diehards would proffer an endorsement. Probably even fewer would admit to having a hankering for Hope, were they aware of, or further still gave credence to, alleged MKUltra activities. But the movie comedy Hope, the fourth-wall breaking, Road -travelling quipster-coward of (loosely) 1939-1952? That Hope’s a funny guy, mostly, and many of his movies during that period are hugely inventive, creative comedies that are too easily dismissed under the “Bob Hope sucks” banner. The Princess and the Pirate is one of them.

Who gave you the crusade franchise? Tell me that.

The Star Chamber (1983) (SPOILERS) Peter Hyams’ conspiracy thriller might simply have offered sauce too weak to satisfy, reining in the vast machinations of an all-powerful hidden government found commonly during ’70s fare and substituting it with a more ’80s brand that failed to include that decade’s requisite facile resolution. There’s a good enough idea here – instead of Charles Bronson, it’s the upper echelons of the legal system resorting to vigilante justice – but The Star Chamber suffers from a failure of nerve, repenting its premise just as it’s about to dig into the ramifications.

You’re going to make me drop a donkey.

Encanto (2021) (SPOILERS) By my estimation, Disney brand pictures are currently edging ahead of the Pixars. Not that there’s a whole lot in it, since neither have been at full wattage for a few years now. Raya and the Last Dragon and now Encanto are collectively just about superior to Soul and Luca . Generally, the animation arm’s attempts to take in as much cultural representation as they possibly can, to make up for their historic lack of woke quotas, has – ironically – had the effect of homogenising the product to whole new levels. So here we have Colombia, renowned the world over for the US’s benign intervention in their region, not to mention providing the CIA with subsistence income, beneficently showered with gifts from the US’s greatest artistic benefactor.