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Retro Review: Congo

In the summer of 1995, “Congo” was positioned to be the year’s “Jurassic Park.” It too was based on a novel by Michael Crichton, it was directed by Steven Spielberg’s longtime producing partner, Frank Marshall, all the proper toy lines and licensing deals had been mapped out, the film featured some great animatronic work from Stan Winston Studios, and it had a cast full of some of the best character actors Hollywood had to offer – Bruce Campbell, Ernie Hudson, Laura Linney, Joe Don Baker, Joe Pantoliano, and Tim Curry. As a 9 year-old still riding the high of “Jurassic Park” from two years prior, I was totally, unabashedly onboard with “Congo.” I needed my monster movie/adventure film fix and I needed it fast.

Looking back on the film 17 years later, I’m amazed at how forgiving a film critic I was in my youth. I loved the movie without reservation. As I write this, I’m realizing that “Congo” may have provoked the first review I ever wrote, and while that particular piece of prose is probably long gone, my affection for the film, however misplaced, isn’t. The film’s a goofy mess whose screws aren’t loose, but missing entirely. Frank Marshall had no idea what kind of movie he was making, which is highly unusual for a big-budget tentpole release. “Transformers” may suck, but you know exactly where it and Michael Bay stand. “Congo” is ethereal filmmaking, as if analyzing the picture will cause it to disintegrate and float away.

To write a plot synopsis for “Congo” in the year 2012 would be silly at best, but if you’re not familiar with it, it’s about killer gorillas. A tech company sends an expedition into the Congo for diamonds and then a subsequent expedition to look for the first that was brutally mauled (on camera, seen via satellite). There’s no logical explanation for anything that happens in the movie, including but not limited to a “good” gorilla that knows sign language and appreciates a good cigarette, a brutal African mercenary that rants endlessly about his sesame cake, and a climax so stupid that Alan Smithee wouldn’t want anything to do with it.

The actors all think they’re in different films, but it’s hard to blame them because the screenplay (by noted Oscar-winning playwright John Patrick Shanley) is so unintelligible. It sets out as serious action fare, veers into camp, then into broad comedy, topped off with a touch of political commentary and scenery chewing (mostly from Hudson and Curry). Sometimes this happens all in one scene. During the middle of the film, the narrative skates from an impromptu “California Dreamin’” sing-along to a poorly staged hippo attack within 90 seconds. Yet, I suppose this inanity eventually gives way to charm. There’s no other way to cope with the film than to skip the first four stages of grief and move right to “acceptance.”

“Congo” was the subject of several schoolroom conversations I had in the fall of 1995. My 4th grade classmates laughed hysterically about the “evil” gorillas illogically jumping off their perches into a river of lava, and I laughed with them. I kept my affinity for the film a secret. Did I know how stupid the movie was? Did I appreciate it on a subconscious level for what I now know it to be, or did I think it was genuinely a good film? Considering the lackluster box office, it’s amazing that any of my classmates saw the film. For a film whose tagline was “Where You Are The Endangered Species,” there was truth in advertising. “Congo” ticket buyers were indeed endangered that summer.

Hanging onto the films of your youth is a major component of growing into better movies. Some remain enjoyable from age 7 to age 27, but some lose their luster quicker than others. Nothing will ever pack the guttural punch that “Jurassic Park” did for me as a 7 year-old, but that’s what made it so special. What I appreciate that film as now only complements what I thought of it as a kid. “Congo,” on the other hand, is evidence that sentimentality can often trump common sense. In the end, I’m not sure what to make of it all these years later. The movie is a wreck in all respects (and lacks plenty of things that made “Jurassic Park” great – amazing CGI, Jeff Goldblum, etc.), but some small amount of excitement I had for it as a kid won’t ever leave me. Younger generations will likely have the same feelings toward the dumbest of modern day summer blockbusters. All we’ll be able to do is smile and say, “When I was your age…”

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (OK)

Release Date: June 9, 1995
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director: Frank Marshall
Screenwriter: John Patrick Shanley
Starring: Laura Linney, Dylan Walsh, Ernie Hudson, Tim Curry, Grant Heslov, Joe Don Baker, Bruce Campbell, Delroy Lindo, Joe Pantoliano
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for jungle adventure terror and action and brief strong language)

Retro Review: Idiocracy

In the fall of 2006, 20th Century Fox unceremoniously dumped Mike Judge’s latest film, “Idiocracy,” on a measly 130 screens, purely to meet contractual obligations. The box office returns were low and the critical reaction was middling. I happened to see the film in its first weekend, and by the end of Officer Collins’ investigative slideshow into the world of a “pimp’s love,” I was laughing so hard that the emptiness of the rest of the theater faded away. Comedies tend to thrive in packed houses full of excited filmgoers, but parts of “Idiocracy” played just as well with an audience of five people.

Mike Judge’s “Office Space” was a sharp, biting, but ultimately humanistic satire of the American workplace. His follow-up turned out to be something else entirely. “Idiocracy” is a bizarre, futuristic spin on the dumbing down of American society – a time in which “Ow My Balls!” is the highest rated show on television, the government is “brought to you” by Carl’s Jr., and the President is a machine gun-toting ex-professional wrestler.

The cast isn’t exactly teeming with movie stars and the screenplay is a dedicated exercise in absurdity, so it’s easy to see why Fox didn’t believe in the film. It shouldn’t work. It’s ugly and weird and occasionally condescending. The lead character, Joe (Luke Wilson), is literally the most average man on the planet, but he’s one of just two characters who isn’t a blithering idiot. On paper, a film stocked with such strikingly stupid characters would have “grating” written all over it. Maya Rudolph and Dax Shepard mostly meander through their supporting roles and the narrative goes off track near the 60-minute mark, never really righting itself.

Amazingly, Mike Judge fashioned all of these anomalous components into a remarkably funny, creative comedy. The film is completely unique and its sci-fi bent is fully realized in a way that some sci-fi films fail to capture. As President Camacho, Terry Crews steals every scene he’s in, and the fictional sports drink, “Brawndo,” has since become an actual sports drink thanks to the ultimate success of the film on DVD.

The case of “Idiocracy” demonstrates that original, quality filmmaking usually finds its audience. In 2006, DVD was the only avenue for this particular film, but in the years since, our ability to track down smaller films has increased tenfold. “Idiocracy” isn’t high art – in fact, that’s the point – but its slow-building success gives me faith in audiences and their increasing thirst for films that aren’t sequels, remakes, or adaptations of books and TV shows. Although it may be in short supply, inventiveness is still alive and well in Hollywood, and it always will be – as long as audiences demand it.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: September 1, 2006 (Limited)
Director: Mike Judge
Screenwriter: Mike Judge, Etan Cohen
Starring: Luke Wilson, Maya Rudolph, Dax Shepard, David Herman, Sara Rue, Stephen Root, Justin Long
MPAA Rating: R (for language and sex-related humor)

Retro Review: The King Of Kong: A Fistful Of Quarters

Brian Kuh is pacing back and forth, with insatiable urgency, through a winding maze of lights and buttons and whirring noises. This is his digital wilderness, his 8-bit terrain, but somehow, inexplicably, there’s a new threat to the throne on the premises. A “mysterious visitor from the west coast,” in Kuh’s own words. His nerve-wracked voice echoes off the high ceilings of the Funspot Arcade as if from the tongue of a modern day Paul Revere. No phrase has ever been uttered with such searing intensity: “There’s a potential Donkey Kong kill screen coming up, if anyone’s interested!”

2007’s “The King Of Kong: A Fistful Of Quarters” is the most absurd, joyous, and mesmerizing documentary of the 21st century. Its trick is that it somehow turns something inherently trivial into what seems like an all-out war for human decency. The film pits American Hero/Everyman, Steve Wiebe, against corporate stooge/slimeball, Billy Mitchell (complete with mullet), in an incendiary battle for the Donkey Kong world record. Wiebe is as likable a protagonist as you’ve ever seen (teacher, family man, perpetual underachiever), or at least is framed as such. Billy Mitchell is an unhip goon in an American flag tie who won’t give someone the time of day if it doesn’t serve Billy Mitchell. If Steve doesn’t beat Billy, life as we know it will come crashing down around us!

Of course, there’s no way for us to know what these men are really like, but it’s a tribute to director Seth Gordon (who has since gone on to helm “Four Christmases” and “Horrible Bosses”) that these characters are drawn so impeccably well. Assuming the film’s editing is occasionally misleading, it’s mostly immaterial because these are real people in a real fight over a video game world record. More or less, these characters (from Steve Wiebe to the astonishing Brian Kuh) exist and Seth Gordon was there to chronicle these events.

This world of “professional” gamers is backlit by an act 1 history lesson and then the viewer is quickly launched into a world of grudges and betrayals – all among men who consider video games to be the pinnacle of their existence. Not only are the characters fascinating, but Gordon walks an incredible tightrope. He’s certainly mocking his “villains,” but never to the point of belittling their passion because it would derail the trajectory of our hero – and the film itself.

There isn’t much to learn from the film (no heady life lessons here, folks), but if you’ve ever dabbled in video games or enjoyed any kind of competition, “The King Of Kong” is a documentary you’ll never forget. I saw the film upon its DVD release in 2008, but I’m sure it was an especially fantastic theatrical experience. It’s too bad it never received a wide release. I like to imagine moviegoers breaking out into spontaneous chants of “USA! USA!” towards the end of the film. And to have attended one of the screenings at which Steve Wiebe made a world record attempt? Game over.

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Excellent)

-J. Olson

Retro Review: That Thing You Do!

“That Thing You Do!” was Tom Hanks’ highly publicized debut as a writer and director, but it turned out to be the 60th highest grossing film of 1996. Those two tidbits might seem incongruous now, as Hanks remains one of the biggest movie stars in the world. But the low key response to the film must have been even more confusing in the mid-90s, with Hanks coming off consecutive Oscars. He was an industry titan at the top of his game, so a Hanks-helmed, family-friendly pseudo-musical must have seemed like a sure bet at 20th Century Fox. Amazingly, it fizzled at the box office.

On its surface, “That Think You Do!” is something of a throwaway tribute to 60s pop. The theatrical cut is relatively light on character development and the actors spend most of the running time practically winking at the camera. It’s very bright and cheery and all but ignores the dark side of the music industry. Yet, the film rightfully found an audience on VHS and has continued to win over viewers on DVD and cable, eventually leading to the release of an extended cut in 2007.

Its place as an overlooked gem is attributable to many things, but none as much as the title song, penned by Adam Schlesinger (of Fountains Of Wayne) and performed by Mike Viola. It’s three minutes of timeless power pop with an irresistible backbeat and a chorus as memorable as any from the era it’s so lovingly lampooning. It’s rare enough that a pop song can carry itself to conclusion, let alone a full-length motion picture! The term “chorus” doesn’t even apply in any normal sense. The whole song is a chorus, teeming with golden hooks and airy harmonies.

It’s hard to know if the film would have hit such a sweet spot without its lightning-in-a-bottle theme song, but the rest of its style parodies are all on target, from Motown to surf rock. The cast – anchored by Tom Everett Scott, Steve Zahn, Liv Tyler, and Hanks – is electric, apparently having the most fun anyone has ever had on a film set. The result is absolutely contagious. The pace is relentless.

As far as “comfort films” go, “That Thing You Do!” deserves a primo spot on any music fan’s DVD shelf, hard drive, or Netflix queue. It’s not so light that you instantly forget it (although, rediscovering it every few years is one of its joys), but it’s not at all demanding and the film’s energy is unparalleled. It’s absolutely impossible not to smile when “The Wonders” hear their song on the radio for the first time, and Hanks does an incredible job in keeping up that sense of momentum throughout the movie.

★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

-J. Olson

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