Monday, October 20, 2014

Tell Ya What, Cap'n, I'LL Go Down With the Ship

Once listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the Biggest Box Office Flop of All Time.

Cutthroat Island (1995)
Director: Renny Harlin
Writers: Michael Frost Beckner & James Gorman and Bruce A. Evans & Raynold Gideon (Story), Robert King and Marc Norman (Screenplay)

“Jamaica, Caribbean. 1668”  Geena Davis puts on her pants. And a vest. And a monkey. The man she just boffed (who has a luxurious mane of ringlets that makes him look like a languid, post-coital Tiny Tim) pulls a pistol from under the sheet and says, “You were amazing in the sack and I hope we didn’t shock the monkey, but I know you’re Morgan Adams the pirate, even though you look more like Maud Adams from Octopussy, so I’m turning you in for the reward” (I’m paraphrasing slightly). But the monkey hands Geena some ball bearings and she says “Ha! I took your BALLS!” (Not a paraphrase.).

Geena rides a horse through the surf at sunset for awhile in an apparent effort to sell us on some brand of pirate douche. Then she jacks a man’s dinghy and rows out to a pirate ship, where Frank Langella has part of a map and is making Geena’s dad (Pegleg Harris Yulin) give him the other half. But Harris foils them by jumping in the ocean. Geena tries to catch him but accidentally breaks the boat and falls in the water too; fortunately the movie manages to beach itself.

Pegleg Harris is slowly dying. He has time to bequeath his pirate ship to Geena, and ask her to shave his head (I’m guessing he has the other half of the map tattooed on his scalp, although it’s possible the RID shampoo and nit comb are proving ineffective). But when he hears her listlessly lisping lines like “I’ll fly his blood head [sic] as my banner!” he suddenly can’t die fast enough.

Cut to a fancy ball, where Matthew Modine is playing a Silence of the Lambs-style serial killer, since he appears to be wearing Cher’s scalp as a wig. He pilfers a woman’s barrette, but burly men, also in Cher wigs (let’s call them the Cher Bears) immediately catch him. The Top Fop in the room instantly condemns him to slavery; and since Matt’s the love interest, I guess we’re in for a neurasthenic, All-White revival of Mandingo.

Back at Pegleg Harris’s ship, Geena declares herself captain by waving her father’s scalp, which is indeed tattooed with a map, and which she apparently carved off his skull, giving new meaning to the phrase, “a chip off the old block.”  Unfortunately, it’s only one third of a treasure map. Her uncle has one piece, and Frank Langella has the other. Even worse, her Dad’s skin is written in Latin and Geena can’t even read English (I mean her character can’t, although her delivery does suggest she learned her lines phonetically).

Geena puts on a dress and trolls the prison for Latin scholars (personally, I would have tried the library, but I’m not the one with the photogenic overbite), where she decides to buy Matthew at auction after he confesses, in Latin, that he wants to wash her feet. Another buyer is interested, but Geena stabs him in the ass and the auctioneer bellows, “SOLD to the lady with the monkey!” (I myself like to shout this every time I make a successful bid on eBay).

The Cher Bears recognize Geena from her super-glam police sketch, and start a chase scene which is long and dull, but punctuated by moments of hilarity whenever Geena is replaced by her brawny stuntman.

Meanwhile, Geena’s friend Maury Chaykin is the Kitty Kelley of the pirate world, writing gossipy, tell-all books about Who’s Keel-Hauling Who, and the Top Fop wants Maury to betray her so he can get a slice of the treasure and we can all pretend there’s a plot.

Geena has to dress like a prostitute to visit her uncle (I guess we’ve all had to, especially around the holidays) and titillates him with her Dad’s scalp, which she’s been carrying around in her bikini area. He agrees to join her on the quest but says they’d better hurry, since her map is developing dandruff.

Frank shows up and demands the map, threatening her with a moray eel, but she refuses to admit that she’s using her father’s skin as a panty liner. He kills her uncle, but it’s okay, because it turns out he’s also her uncle, so she’ll still have an excuse to dress like a whore on Thanksgiving.

Frank gut-shoots Geena, then there's a stupid chase through the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, which ends when Matt turns into a 17th Century MacGyver, and blows up a lot of stuff like firkins and pantaloons.

They get back to the ship, where Geena is hemorrhaging to death from her gunshot wound. Fortunately, Matt is also a doctor, and he and Geena flirt shamelessly as he digs a rusty musket ball out of her perforated intestines.

Matt secretly stole the second piece of map off her uncle’s corpse, but Geena catches him with it and sentences him to be marooned. But just then her crew mutinies, and maroons her first. (What I wouldn’t give for Bugs Bunny to show up and comment on the quality and quantity of maroons in this picture.) But the joke’s on them, because Geena washes ashore on Cutthroat Island, which just happens to be where the treasure is! 

Frank and Geena’s disloyal crew also show up and camp on the island. During the night someone steals Frank's purse, and when he wakes up he realizes Geena must be alive, and screams, “Bitch STOLE…MY…MAP!” And just to demonstrate how peeved he is, he juices a tarantula with his bare hand. Meanwhile, I look at the time code on the DVD, scream “There’s STILL…AN HOUR…LEFT!” and squeeze the juice of one lime into two ounces of vodka.

Actually, it was Matt who stole the map, because he also washed up on this island that nobody could previously find without three separate maps, but now everybody's plowing into by accident.  Geena discovers him sinking in quicksand, and they do the old “Throw me a rope!” “Throw me the map!” bit, and anyone can see how this is going to end from a mile away, but the film takes a surprisingly dark turn when he gives her the map and she throws him a rope.

In the mood for scenes of people walking around the jungle? How about if they count off each and every step, just to rub it in? You’re in luck. Eventually, Matt and Geena find a cave where the treasure is just lying around loose. Geena goes for help, gets captured, she and Matt wind up dangling by ropes from the top of a cliff, and just decide to put us out of our misery by falling to the rocks below. But they’re saved by an act of Providence, as a rogue wave catches them just before impact. But it’s an incredibly fake-looking CGI wave that fools nobody, which I think is God’s way of saying that he secretly hates them and wants them to die.

Forty minutes to go. At this point I’d actually be fine if God spared Geena and Matt and smote director Renny Harlin instead, since that would let the producers invoke force majeure and write the whole film off as an insurance loss.

Maury Chaykin finds Matthew washed up again (they probably should have called this Washed Up Island, but looking at everybody’s IMDB page now, it seems redundant). He takes this as a cue to finally pay off that subplot we’d forgotten about, so he turns Matt over to Top Fop, who has apparently also stumbled onto this secret, uncharted island. Top Fop then sails off in Frank’s ship with the treasure and Matt.

Geena sneaks around her mutinied ship all ninja-like and secretly de-mutinizes it, then sails to intercept Frank’s ship. At last! An hour and 35 minutes into our pirate movie, and we’re finally getting our first battle at sea. But both Geena and Frank order their men to stealthily creep and crawl to their battle stations like kids sneaking downstairs to catch Santa, because what's your hurry?

Okay, I got a little ahead of myself; they’re not actually fighting yet. However, we do get a bunch of shots of hairy men squatting, if you’re into that.

Still not fighting.

Okay, now they’re fighting.  Wait.  No.  False alarm. 

Wait – I think they are fighting.  Yes, they’re definitely supposed to be fighting. It’s not really a qualitative difference from when they were squatting, but on the bright side, the primitive CGI flames and explosions make it look like both ships are filled with molten lava, and every time they get hit with a cannonball, a tiny volcano erupts. It actually looks less like a pirate movie and more like the cover of Dianetics.

I have something to confess…I’ve been sitting here for like ten minutes without typing a comment. I don’t usually do that, but this whole thing is just so snoozy and confusing. It’s consnoozy! Or snoofusing. I should get back to watching the movie.

Geena gets the brilliant idea of grabbing the treasure from Frank’s ship and blowing up the powder magazine; unfortunately, that’s not the order in which she does it. Eventually, she gut-shoots Frank with a cannonball, just to one-up him, then she and Matt jump off the ship as it explodes for the second time. But this time it means it, and is basically reduced to a blizzard of Ohio Blue Tips and hot lava scattered over a two square mile area. 

Crap, it’s not over yet?  Look, you don’t care, I don’t care, but we started down this road together, so dammit, take my hand, and let’s see it through to the bitter end.

Cut to the next day. Somehow they recovered the entire treasure from the vast area of ocean floor over which was scattered by the explosion, without sonar, or diving equipment or – hey, my will to live just left me. I could feel it. I think I actually heard a door slam…

No, no...I promised we’d get to the end credits together. After that, we may turn on each other like two hamsters in a cage. There may be death. There will be blood. But a promise is a promise.  So….The pirates are all rich, yay! But they want to stick together and keep pirating because maybe sequel! In the meantime, the monkey has gotten into the treasure and is draped in so many pearl necklaces it vaguely resembles Barbara Bush.

The End.

(P.S. There's still time to nominate a crappy horror film for for Wo'C's First Annual Horrible Halloween Horror Bash. Just leave your suggestion here. A review of the winning loser will be posted on October 31st.)


grouchomarxist said...

Would it be some comfort to you to know that the water in one of their studio tanks was accidentally -- at least, that's the story, anyway -- contaminated with raw sewage?

Scott said...

The news certainly intrigues me, GM, but I'm not the sort of person who would actually take comfort from such a mishap, unless it led to all Above the Line personnel contracting cholera

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

The news distoibs me.

Here's a little dragonfly pic.

(From a ways back, for the closure porpoises.)

Carl said...

We Finns tend to ignore that whole Rennie Harlin line...

Chris Vosburg said...

One of the most horrifying bits of news in the late nineties came in the form of an announcement that Geena Davis would be starring in a completely unnecessary American remake of "The Politician's Wife," the fascinating brit miniseries produced by Granada TV in 1995 with Juliet Stevenson in the titular role.

OH HELL NO!, someone had the good sense to say, and we were thus spared the indignity of seeing Geena Davis ruin yet another thing.

grouchomarxist said...


Nice amberwing! I've flubbed every picture I've tried to take of one of those little buggers.


According to the Mar/Apr 1995 issue of Spy magazine

Harlin [...] ordered everyone -- from stunt people to the star of the film, his wife Geena Davis -- to get into the [contaminated tank] anyway. Not surprisingly, everyone got sick.

Not sure how reliable that report was, but one can always hope ...

Li'l Innocent said...

Well, humf, I liked Geena in "A League of Their Own".. and she is a bona fide archery champ in RL, so there mnyah, you snooty sexist guys.

I don't have any opinion on this movie - sounds pretty crappy, all right - but holding the performers responsible for such crappiness is often unjustified. Talk about a committee artform. I will say, though, that I think the poster art is pretty damn good.

Li'l Innocent said...

Thunder, is that live dragonfly sitting on a stone with a fossil dragonfly embedded in it? Wow. What a resonant image.

Scott said...

Li'l: You're quite right, failure has a thousand fathers, and no more deservedly so than on a movie set. Based on my own limited experience in the industry, I think William Goldman said it best: "We're all at each other's mercy."

I've actually liked several of Geena's performances, including A League of Their Own, but she was woefully miscast in this picture and seemingly took every opportunity to make the hurt hurt harder. Even if she'd been born to play a pirate, however, the whole thing was doomed by Harlin's direction, and an editor who seemingly wandered off to get a sandwich and make some personal calls during the action sequences.

What I'm saying is, I'm not so much sexist as I am bitter.

Li'l Innocent said...

Aw, hell, Scott, I wasn't targeting you as sexist (or even bitter). I was targeting you and groucho and Chris V and...

It was a group-objective thing. And me, alone, with my lariat and magic bracelets and transparent fighter plane.

What's the odds Geena really, really didn't want to do the thing -- whether as originally proposed or as subsequently fracked by the assembled committeepersons -- but when you're united in holy matrimony to the director...

grouchomarxist said...

I like Geena Davis, too. She's done a terrific job in other roles -- just not this one. Maybe she only gave in because Renny whined and wheedled her into it. (FSM knows I've done the same to mizzusmarxist often enough.)

But it was the quote that specified Geena, not me. Personally, I'd have been just as happy if they'd said Matthew Modine was in the tank, instead of her. Probably happier.

Since it was the production and development company she co-founded with husband Renny that came up with this load of codswallop, there's also a chance that at least initially Geena really, truly thought she could play a pirate queen.

Hell, maybe she could, with a different director, co-star and screenplay. I don't see it, though of course that could be my lifelong crush on Maureen O'Hara clouding my judgment.

Chris Vosburg said...

Apologies to Lil and Scott-- you're right, Geena was very good in League of Their Own, and as a bonus, was that rarity in sportsball movies, an actor who could actually play ball. Awesome split-legged catch of that popup at the backstop, Geena!

Worst offense in this regard, by the way, may be Broderick Crawford in Larceny Inc., pitching to Edward G Robinson for the Sing Sing Nine, winding up and throwing like, uh, well, a girl.