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."

Thursday, May 25, 2017

"In the Cutting Room" in Fiction Southeast

My latest story, "In the Cutting Room," has been published online in Fiction Southeast, an online literary journal of short fiction. Fiction Southeast has previously featured work by Joyce Carol Oates, Aimee Bender, and Robert Olen Butler.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Sean Gill's "Edifice and Artifice in Buda and Pest" wins the 2017 Micro-Fiction Prize at River Styx

River Styx has announced that my short story "Edifice and Artifice in Buda and Pest" is the winner of their 2017 Schlafly Micro-Brew Micro-Fiction Contest. The story will appear in print this summer in River Styx #98.

River Styx is a St. Louis-based literary journal (active since 1975) that has published work by writers such as Margaret Atwood, Rita Dove, Derek Walcott, and Czeslaw Milosz.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

R.I.P., Powers Boothe

It saddens me to report that we've lost another one of the greats. While he was known to most for his booming voice, cast-iron stare, and pants-shittingly terrifying performances (like DEADWOOD, U TURN, EXTREME PREJUDICE, TOMBSTONE, NIXON, SUDDEN DEATH, etc.), I always personally enjoyed Powers Boothe as the good guy, whether he was assisting high school guerrillas in RED DAWN, surviving the bayou in SOUTHERN COMFORT, handing out helpful handkerchief tips in CRUISING, or solving crimes as PHILIP MARLOWE, PRIVATE EYE. I also was happy to see his late career, post-DEADWOOD resurgence, where he seemed to pop up in everything from 24 to THE AVENGERS to SIN CITY. Suffice it to say, he's the only reason I will ever watch MACGRUBER.

It certainly takes a special breed, not only to be named "Powers," but then to actually live up to the name. So load your VHS of EXTREME PREJUDICE, pour one out for Powers, bite a scorpion or whatever, and bid farewell to an inimitable character-acting powerhouse... you will be missed.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Film Review: NATION AFLAME (1937, Victor Halperin)

Stars: 4 of 5.
Running Time: 74 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Directed by Victor Halperin (WHITE ZOMBIE, PARTY GIRL). Story by Thomas Dixon, Jr. (THE BIRTH OF A NATION, MARK OF THE BEAST). Starring Noel Madison ('G' MEN), Lila Lee (BLOOD AND SAND, THE UNHOLY THREE), Harry Holman (MEET JOHN DOE, BARBARY COAST), and Douglas Walton (MURDER MY SWEET, BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN).
Tag-lines: "Exposé of a Hooded Menace!"
Best one-liner(s): "Boy, the suckers will eat it up!"

In what's coming to be a regular feature of this blog, I find myself writing about American hate groups, fascists, and their cinematic depictions. Today's film happens to be written by Thomas Dixon, Jr., whose early novels celebrated hate and formed the basis for the racist, denialist 1915 epic THE BIRTH OF A NATION, which casts the Ku Klux Klan as the heroic saviors of the South during the "dark days" of Reconstruction.

However, sometime in the 1930s (upon witnessing the revived Klan and the rise of European fascism) Dixon underwent an apparent evolution of character. In NATION AFLAME, his final work, he delivers a formidable condemnation of the Klan, American Nazism, xenophobia, and political hucksterism that's more than worthy of our attention in 2017. If Thomas Dixon's mind can be changed––a mind that was directly responsible for the second wave of the Klan in the 1920s––then truly the sky is the limit: NATION AFLAME is as remarkable in this aspect as it would be if Steve Bannon were suddenly to produce a film denouncing the white nationalist movement.

Allow me to begin by offering a rundown of the plot, which unfolds with the simplicity of a fable across a slim, 74-minute runtime.

Enter: Roland Adams, the political huckster. A rich, aging clown-prince who has a certain way with crowds, and rules them with the wave of his jester-faced scepter: he wears the absurdity of this persona as a badge of pride.

With his eldest daughter reining in his more outrageous peccadillos, Adams once was Mayor of a typical middle-American city.

Against his daughter's wishes, however, he has made some dangerous friends; career criminals who know that the the huckster's power over the uneducated mob can be exploited, a fast lane to power and riches. His new right hand man is an Italian immigrant named Sandino who has re-fashioned himself as "Sands," and, in a believably hypocritical path to personal agency, becomes a true master of the xenophobic rhetoric that was once leveled against his friends and family.

He becomes Adams' brain, his attack-dog, his Richelieu. Adams' daughter has very little power over him now, though it pleases her to pretend. Sands and Adams make their xenophobic, "America First" pitch at a political cocktail party, and while it fails to impress the intelligentsia, the seeds are planted for a Populist campaign. The following clip is well worth watching:
And so the Avenging Angels are formed; a "grassroots" organization subsidized by gangsters and protected by corrupt politicians, whose members wear black hoods (patterned after the Black Legion and the second-wave Klan) and commit acts of political, racial, and anti-intellectual violence.

 Sands lays out their mission in a manner that is straightforward and unfortunately prescient:
"The only way that we can save the youth of our nation is to organize them in one single group, and through them, enforce the precepts of 100% Americanism! Corruption and politics must go! Civic virtue and patriotism must be our goals! We must enforce a reverence for our flag and our Constitution!  And what is more, protect our American womanhood, and guard the sanctity of our homes! We must guarantee that the wealth of America must be shared only by real Americans! To maintain and declare absolute boycott against foreigners is our only salvation!"
We are treated to extensive scenes of Adams, Sands, and their cronies practicing their bluster as an acting exercise, repeating the same lines over and over again until they feel they've attained the proper patriotic fervency.

"Boy, the suckers will eat it up!" says Adams. And they do. The gang is able to enrich themselves financially and politically, selling Avenging Angels memberships and apparel for $25 a pop.

"For twenty-five dollars, be true Americans!"

It should come as no surprise that Adams rides this wave of hate to ascend to a fresh political office: the Governorship. Under his rule, and amid a mosaic of domestic terrorism, the Avenging Angels beat to death reporters who dare to criticize them.

Now Governor Adams has the Oval Office in his sights, an idea planted by Sands, who grows more power-hungry by the day. Sands doesn't care much about the scandals and inquiries piling up at the Governor's doorstep, because he operates in secrecy and will still wield the full power of the Avenging Angels no matter Adams' fate. Adams' daughter makes regular visits to his office in an attempt to save his soul:

"Daddy, I'd rather see you resign than be impeached," she says...

But Sands always visits afterward, and the Governor happens to be the kind of man to take the advice he's heard most recently.

With political opponents closing in, Adams eventually decides to buck his gang and forge his own path. This, unfortunately, is short-lived as he is immediately assassinated by Avenging Angels who, at Sands' insistence, believe he has betrayed them.

Governor Adams is dead, his jester-faced scepter smashed. And the power of the Angels lives on, vindicated by the destruction of those who were not pure enough; those who were less than "100% American."

Adams' daughter aligns herself with the Angels' progressive foes and is burned in effigy amid growing misogynistic rhetoric.

Fearing her reputation already ruined, she sacrifices her remaining stature to take out Sands, entrapping him in a sex scandal that, in 1937, proves to be enough to sink the Avenging Angels for good. The end.

For me, NATION AFLAME film can only reframe Dixon's body of work, not rehabilitate it. However, like other films of the era such as BLACK LEGION and LEGION OF TERROR, it is very much the product of 1930s American Progressivism, fearful of fascist movements in Germany, Italy, and Spain worming their way into the American South and Midwest. That it comes to us courtesy of a man who never would have described himself as a progressive, and in fact publicly wore the mantle of "white supremacist," is staggering. I suppose this is evidence that even the harshest, most monstrous ideologue can have a breaking point: a crisis of conscience. This is something we must bear in mind.