Film Review: Cutthroat Island (dir by Renny Harlin)

Today is Talk Like A Pirate Day which, let’s just be honest, is an extremely stupid holiday that mainly exists to remind us that “doubloon” is a deeply silly word.

Doubloons were a currency that were popular in Europe and South America back in the 18th century and pirates were always looking for doubloons.  If you listen to enough pirate talk, you’ll quickly discover that there’s a lot different ways to say the word doubloon.  Some people put the emphasis on the fist syllable while others emphasize the second.  Some people say Due-bloon while others say Duh-bloon.  Either way, it’s impossible to listen to pirates talk about doubloons without thinking that they sound very, very silly.  The secret behind the success of The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is an understanding that it’s impossible to take pirates seriously.

Unfortunately, I chose not to watch The Pirates of the Caribbean for Talk Like A Pirate Day.  Instead, I watched 1995’s Cutthroat Island.

Cutthroat Island is a story of pirates, a lost treasure, and one big sea battle that literally seems to go on and on.  There is occasional talk of doubloons, though not enough for my liking.  Instead, most of the film deals with the efforts of Morgan (Geena Davis) to find a hidden treasure before her uncle, Dawg (Frank Langella), discovers it.  Morgan has one-third of a map.  It was originally tattooed on her father’s head.  After he died, she scalped him and took over his boat.  She also purchased a swashbuckling slave named Shaw (Matthew Modine) because Shaw is capable of reading Latin, the language in which the map is written.  Needless to say, Shaw and Mogan fall in love while Dawg teams up with corrupt colonial officials to not only track down the treasure but to also capture his niece.

The film starts out as a romance with a dash of comedy before eventually transforming into a standard action movie.  That means that boats get blown up and there’s a lot of scenes of people fencing.  There’s also a lot of slow motion footage of bodies plunging into the ocean.  The climatic battle goes on forever and it actually features Morgan hissing, “Bad dawg!” at her uncle.

(Amazingly, “Bad Dawg” isn’t the worst of the dialogue to be heard in Cutthroat Island.  Morgan has a habit of saying stuff like, “I will maroon you on a rock the size of this table, instead of splattering your brains across my bulkhead” and “Since you lie so easily and since you are so shallow, I shall lie you in a shallow grave.”)

Throughout the film, there are hints of what Cutthroat Island could have been, if it hadn’t been such a by-the-numbers action flick.  The fact that it was Morgan who was continually rescuing Shaw was a nice change-of-pace from the usual damsel-in-distress clichés that one finds in most pirate movies.  When Morgan effortlessly breaks the neck of a soldier and sets free her crew, it’s a great moment, comparable to Angelina Jolie taking out Liev Schreiber in Salt or Milla Jovovich kicking zombie ass in a Resident Evil film.  Unfortunately, director Renny Harlin (who was married to star Geena Davis, at the time) is usually too concerned with getting to the next action set piece to truly take advantage of the film’s subversive potential.

Frank Langella is smart enough to bellow his way through his villainous role while Matthew Modine appears to be so amused by the film’s terrible dialogue that it’s impossible not to like him.  Geena Davis is convincing when she’s breaking necks and swinging swords but she delivers her dialogue like someone who has already figured out that the movie was a bad idea and resigned herself to the fact that her film career will never recover.  She doesn’t appear to be having any fun, which kind of defeats the purpose of being a pirate.

Cutthroat Island was a huge and notorious box office flop and it’s still considered to be one of the biggest financial disasters in film history.  Apparently, Hollywood was so traumatized that it would be another 8 years before there was another major pirate production.  That production, of course, was Pirates of the Caribbean, a film that captured the fun that was so lacking in Cutthroat Island.

Insomnia File No. 7: Fair Game (dir by Andrew Sipes)

What’s an Insomnia File? You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable? This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!


On Tuesday night, if you were suffering from insomnia at midnight, you could have turned over to HBO Signature (commonly listed as HBOSIG) and watched Fair Game, a remarkably mindless action film from 1995.

Originally, my plan was to start this review of Fair Game by telling you, in quite a bit of detail, just how sick I am of the Russian Mafia.  Seriously, Russian mobsters have become the default villain for lazy crime films everywhere.  And, quite frankly, I’m getting bored with them.  I’m bored with how the head Russian mobster is always described as being “former KGB” and is always found sitting in the back room of restaurant, wearing an overcoat and smoking filterless cigarettes.  I am bored with how his main henchman is always some big guy with a crew cut and that guy always has a thin sidekick who wears his hair in a pony tail and has a bad mustache.  I’m sick of the overexaggerated accents of American and British accents trying to sound Russian and the way they’re always listening to EDM while driving.  It’s all so predictable and tedious.

But then I considered that Fair Game was made 20 years ago.  Even if the villains are Russian mobsters and even if they are some of the least interesting Russian mobsters in cinema history, it’s totally possible that, when Fair Game, was made, there was still some sort of novelty about the Russian Mafia.

However, even if we give Fair Game a pass on using the cliché of the Russian mob, the villains still weren’t particularly interesting.  Kazak (Steven Berkoff) is … well, the film isn’t really that clear on what Kazak’s big plan is but he has a lot of henchmen and they certainly do end up killing a lot of people.  Kazak runs his operations off of a yacht that belongs to a Cuban criminal named Emilio (Miguel Sandoval).  Emilio is in the process of getting divorced and attorney Kate McQuean (model Cindy Crawford, who made her film debut here and has never played a leading role since) is determined to repossess his boat.  So, Kazak decides that the perfect solution would be to murder Kate…

Which makes absolutely no sense.  Kazak doesn’t want anyone to discover his operation so he decides to blow up a good portion of Miami, all in pursuit of one person.  Wouldn’t it make more sense for Kazak to just blow up the boat and buy a new one?

Anyway, as the film opens, Kate is out jogging when suddenly someone driving by in a car opens fire on her.  She ends up getting grazed in the arm, not that it seems to bother her.  She wears a bandage for a few scenes but it soon vanishes.  Kate is all business so, even after getting shot, she still goes into the office and starts to make plans to repossess that yacht.  Personally, if anyone ever shot at me, I would probably be so freaked out that I would never leave the house again.

Now, you may be thinking that Kate was shot because of Kazak but actually, it turns out that the shooting was just a random thing that happened.  Apparently, the shooter was trying to shoot someone else and Kate just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  So, we never find out who actually shot Kate and that really bothered me, as that seems to be kind of a huge plot point to bring up and then refuse to resolve.

Anyway, Kate meets a detective named Max Kirkpatrick (William Baldwin) and, soon, they’re on the run from Kazak’s assassins.  The majority of the film is made up of Max and Kate running from one location to another.  One thing that really bothered me was that literally everyone that Max and Kate talked to ended up getting killed just a few minutes later.  At one point, Kate flirts with a computer service expert to get him to help them out.  The scene is played for laughs but then, five minutes later, that same innocent technician guy is being brutally tortured by a bunch of Russians and, though we don’t see it happen, it’s safe to assume that he was eventually murdered by them.  And no point do Max or Kate appear to feel any guilt or concern about the number of innocent people who are killed just for associating with them.

Anyway, Fair Game is a completely mindless film that has a rather nasty streak of sadism to it.  (I imagine, when this film was released, it probably set a record for close-ups of people getting shot and stabbed in the crotch.)  William Baldwin and Cindy Crawford both have perfect bodies and give totally wooden performances, which leads to them having a dimly-lit sex scene that is both physically hot and emotionally cold at the same time.

(I have no idea what entropy at absolute zero means but it sounds like a pretty good description of the chemistry between Cindy Crawford and William Baldwin in Fair Game.)

One good note: Salma Hayek has a small role as Max’s ex-girlfriend.  Whenever she shows up in the movie, she starts screaming at everyone.  I don’t blame her.

Fair Game

Previous Insomnia Files:

  1. Story of Mankind
  2. Stag
  3. Love Is A Gun
  4. Nina Takes A Lover
  5. Black Ice
  6. Frogs For Snakes


The Daily Grindhouse: Kiss Daddy Goodnight (dir by Peter Ily Huemer)

To me, Uma Thurman will always be Kill Bill‘s Beatrix Kiddo and, for that reason, she will always be one of my favorite actresses.  Though we take that film and her performance in it for granted now, the fact of the matter is that Kill Bill, Volume 1 was one of the most important milestones in my evolution towards becoming a film fanatic.  I was a senior in high school when I first saw that movie and I had the same insecurities that every 17 year-old girl has.  However, when I watched the Kill Bill films, I felt like I could survive anything.  If Beatrix Kiddo (in the form of Uma Thurman) could survive being shot in the head and come out of her coma kicking ass, then I knew that I could certainly survive breaking up with my boyfriend or getting my period in gym class or waking up with a big zit in the middle of my forehead.

However, even Uma Thurman had to start somewhere and that somewhere, in her case, was with an obscure, low-budget film called Kiss Daddy Goodnight.  Kiss Daddy Goodnight, which also features Steve Buscemi in a small role, is one of those moody, atmosphere-drenched films that always seems to show up in cheap, 10-movie box sets.  I recently watched it as a part of the Night Chills box set and I discovered that it’s not really as terrible as many reviewers claim.

First released in 1987 and looking as if it was produced with a budget of about a $1,000, Kiss Daddy Goodnight  is another one of those oddly fascinating and pretentious grindhouse films that tries to mix art and exploitation.  Shot on location at some of the sleaziest locations in New York City, Kiss Daddy Goodnight is the ennui-drenched story of Laura (17 year-old Uma Thurman).  Laura is an actress who supplements her income by going out at night with a Louise Brooks wig on, picking up rich men, drugging them, and robbing them.  Laura steals an ornate dagger from one of her victims and makes plans to give it to her mom as a birthday present.

Kiss Daddy Goodnight is also the story of Sid (Paul Dillon), a friend of Laura’s who, having previously left for reasons unknown, returns to New York and announces that he’s looking for Laura’s ex-boyfriend, Johnny.  Sid wants to start a band.  Laura tells him that she doesn’t know where Johnny is but she allows Sid to crash at her apartment.  Sid spends most of the movie walking up to random people and asking if they’ve seen Johnny.  He also finds the time to go through Laura’s closet whenever Laura’s not at the apartment.  “Fucking bitch,” Sid randomly exclaims while looking at Laura’s dresses.

Kiss Daddy Goodnight also tells the story of William (Paul Richards), a courtly older man who lives in an apartment with a rabbit and who spends most of his time missing his daughter Lara, who wants nothing to do with him.  William becomes obsessed with Laura, who looks almost exactly like Lara.  We’re never quite sure what William does for a living but he’s rich enough to have a henchman who follows Laura whenever she leaves her apartment.

Finally, Kiss Daddy Goodnight is the story of Johnny who, once Sid does find him, turns out to be played by a very young Steve Buscemi.  Johnny is only on-screen for about 5 minutes but, since he’s played by Buscemi (who, as opposed to Dillon and Richards, can actually act), he becomes a major character by default.  Johnny is the only character in the film who seems to have a life outside of what we’re seeing on-screen.  When Sid says he wants to get the band together again, Johnny says he no longer plays.  When Sid says, “Laura says hello,” Johnny simply gives him a contemptuous stare and turns on the TV.  The camera zooms in on the TV and we spend a few minutes watching football players tackling each other in slow motion.

Yes, Kiss Daddy Goodnight is an odd little film.  While the film’s nominal plot is basically William pursuing Laura while Sid attempts to protect her, the film itself has a random, almost improvised feel to it.  The film is more interested in documenting the weird people around Laura and Sid than in Laura and Sid themselves.  When Sid applies for a job in a seafood place, the camera pans over to the two men in sitting in the booth behind him and we spend a minute listening to them talk about a friend who has been kicked out of a private school in Europe.  When Laura takes a taxi to her apartment, the driver discusses philosophy with her.  The phone number 559-8317 appears throughout the movie, cryptically scrawled on apparently every wall in New York.  No one calls the number or even seems to notice it but it’s there as evidence that Kiss Daddy Goodnight is far more concerned with preserving a specific time and place than with telling a traditional story.  When viewed as a  historic document, Kiss Daddy Goodnight is a success d’estime.

Kiss Daddy Goodnight has a pretty bad reputation.  One need only visit its page on the IMDb to see how little most people seem to think of Uma Thurman’s debut film.  I, however, found it to be a bit more interesting than its reputation would lead one to suspect.  Along with serving as a time capsule of New York City, the film proves that, even early in their respective careers, both Thurman and Buscemi had the talent and charisma necessary to become stars.  If nothing else, just the fact that Uma Turman could go from Kiss Daddy Goodnight to Kill Bill, should give us all hope for the future.

It’s just more evidence that anything is possible.