Monday, February 19, 2018

MONSTER MASH (2000)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological*


Having been a fan of Universal horror for many years, I can appreciate the basic intent behind this Italian-American salute to Universal's "Big Three of Terror." The direct-to-video animated film has the virtue of brevity-- it's only a little over an hour-- and it sticks close to its one idea without wandering about.

Perhaps owing something to the mold of "Casper the Friendly Ghost," three goofy-looking monsters have to prove that they can still scare modern audiences. Drac, Frank, and Wolf are told that they no longer impress the younger generation, which has become enamored of more violent, visceral feat-figures. The three has-been horrors, who once strutted their stuff in scary movies, have perhaps been guilty of contributing to their own bad reps, as they're shown doing tricks on stage like vaudeville performers. (The script misses a logical step when it doesn't show the middling monsters making movies with analogues of Abbott and Costello, since a few critics deem A&C movies a comedown for the Universal fiends.) Given that they've all fallen so low anyway, it doesn't seem that much of a threat, when the Superior Court of Horrors threatens them with spending the rest of their lives entertaining at kids' parties. Their only hope of escape: terrify the members of a typical American family, the Tinkelmeisters.

For the most part, the three monsters fail with various comic consequences, but they prove just so gosh-darn lovable that even the Tinkelmeisters try to help them succeed. Still, three modern monsters don't want the old fear-fogies to succeed, and they undermine the trio at every turn.



The problem with the film is that it tries too hard to hold onto the comedy-image of the monsters from various "cute monster" schticks-- not least being, of course, Bobby Pickett's "Monster Mash" song, which is played once too often in the movie. The silliness is so pervasive that even very young viewers probably wouldn't believe that such goofuses were ever scary, even in black-and-white. Moreover, even as comedy conceptions, these versions of Dracula, Wolf Man and Monster are thoroughly routine in conception, lacking even the relative inventiveness of, say, THE MUNSTERS. Ironically, the writers actually show more inventiveness with the "modern monsters." One of these is just a clone of "The Alien," but the second one, "Chicky," is a feminized take on "Chucky." For some reason this evil doll is armed with a channel-changer that can alter reality. I'm tempted to believe that the writers were really concentrating their animus against modern monsters against Freddy Kreuger, who of all monsters is best known for creating weird fantasy-worlds. The name of Freddy is recycled into the third modern monster, "Freddy Spaghetti," though he looks for the most part like Jason Voorhees. He's apparently made of spaghetti inside, which sounds a bit like a comedic version of a Clive Barker Cenobite-- and he's the source of the flick's only decent joke, involving the associations of Italian seasonings and how vampires don't like one particular spice.

There's a sort of confrontation of old and new monsters at the climax, but it's not a "combat" as such, just a bunch of comical reversals. (Wolf, acting like the lupine from "the Three Little Pigs," unleashes a huge wind that blows "Chicky" away.)




GHOST IN THE SHELL (2017)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological, sociological*


GHOST IN THE SHELL, though it's more coherent than some of Masamune Shirow's original manga, isn't a patch on the best of the anime movies. However, it's far from the critical disaster some have called it.

GHOST is the second feature-film from Rupert Sanders, who scored well with 2012's SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN, a riff on the famous fairy tale. With GHOST it seems like the director and writers felt constrained to follow the manga as nearly as possible, including Shirow's indebtedness to 1982'S BLADERUNNER. Ironically, Sanders might have done better to be a little more free-flowing in their adaptation, just as BLADERUNNER itself was with respect to its Philip Dick source-novel.

The film starts off with amnesiac heroine MIra Killian (Scarlet Johansson) awakening to her new life as a robot with partial memories of her former human existence. Some of the first lines of dialogue involve Mira's "re-creator" Doctor Ouelet justifying the title for any puzzled viewers, dutifully explaining that Mira's original human consciousness, her "ghost," has been installed in an entirely robotic body, the "shell." Ouelet's motives are benign, but not so much the aptly named Cutter, head of Hanka Robotics. Mira finds herself touted as the vanguard of a new cyber-species in a world where many citizens opt for "cyber-enhancement." Cutter oozes villainy from the start, and when he maneuvers things so that Mira becomes a counter-terrorism officer, not many viewers will doubt that Mira's supposed origin may be something of a "ghost" as well.

Mira initially accepts her new role and throws herself into pursuing enemies of the state, such as Kuze, a madman who has mounted a terrorist campaign against many of the businessmen behind the robotics company. It will transpire that Kuze is an aborted "ghost in the shell" experiment, but one who, unlike many others, survived to wage war on the company that re-created him, only to throw him away.

Even for a film several months old, this isn't much of a reveal, just like Mira's discovery that her body died under suspicious circumstances. GHOST's plot feels like it's made up of the "shells" of older SF-ideas, and most of the characters feel well-used also, with the exception of Johansson's Mira.

In the original manga-anime concept, robotic Mira is given the appearance of a Japanese woman, which is in line with her original human identity, a woman named "Motoko." The film may have been hurt at the box office by the self-professed enemies of "whitewashing," who have argued that any race-bending of a Caucasian into a POC is desirable (as I noted in reviewing the IRON FIST series), and anything that goes the other way is evil, evil, evil. But Johansson's sensitive performance is one of her best, overcoming the limitations of the well-traveled material, and it's hard to see how the performance would have been better just because a Japanese actor played the role.

There's a standout scene in which an invisible Mira pursues an armed hitman. Despite the breakthroughs in CGI, I haven't been impressed by a lot of "invisible man" films in the last fifteen years. But GHOST does put across one of the more memorable "invisible person vs. visible person" fight-scenes within recent memory.

IVANHOE (1952)




PHENOMENALITY: *naturalistic*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*

On my philosophy-blog I've devoted two posts to Walter Scott's most famous novel IVANHOE: here and here. Despite the book's status as a classic-- as well as being Scott's best-known title-- neither it nor other Scott works get many props for their complexities. Scott is often dismissed as a writer of lightweight adventure novels, which IVANHOE at least is not. But one could easily get that impression from the 1952 MGM film-adaptation of the book, even though it's probably the best-known of the cinematic translations.

Only one element of the novel even comes close to proving relevant to this blog's phenomenological concerns: the fact that for most of the book a mysterious "Black Knight" interacts with the hero, his opponents, and his allies, and his identity is not revealed until close to the end. Neither the Knight's general appearance nor his use of his armor to conceal his identity move the book into the realm of the uncanny; both are naturalistic, for the same reasons I discussed in this essay with regard to the "Masked Rider" of Zane Grey's RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAGE. The movie elides the figure of the Black Knight, though oddly, the hero Ivanhoe appears in all-black armor for the tournament-scene, and he duplicates some of the actions of the novel's character in that scene.

In the essay regarding centricity, I disagreed  on another essayist's notion that Ivanhoe was not the hero simply because he wasn't all that interesting, though I admitted that Scott devotes much more authorial attention to two supporting characters. One is Rebecca the Jewess, who falls in love with Ivanhoe even though he's pledged himself to the Christian Rowena. The other is the villainous knight Bois-Guilbert, who falls in love with Rebecca. The knight's love for the Jewish maiden proves his downfall. At the climax Rebecca is accused of witchery, and can only escape burning if a champion defends her in combat. Bois-Guilbert is put in the unhappy position of fighting for the side that wants Rebecca burned, while Ivanhoe-- wounded in an earlier battle-- volunteers to contend for Rebecca's life. This leads to an unusually subdued contest for such a battle-heavy adventure-tale, for the first time Bois-Guilbert crosses weapons with Ivanhoe, the evil knight falls dead, killed not by any would but by the "contending passions" between obeying his superiors and preserving the life of Rebecca.

Apparently someone involved with the 1952 film agreed that both Ivanhoe and Rowena were rather dull characters in the book, for the film's script builds them up to function more like the typical lead hero and heroine of the average swashbuckler flick. Robert Taylor (a very athletic looking 41 years old) does a credible job building up the image of Scott's noble knight. Joan Fontaine's Rowena has more scenes that the prose version did, but trying to make Rowena more than the typical "hothouse flower" is a doomed endeavor.

Sadly, the script drops the ball regarding Rebecca (Liz Taylor), her tragic love, and her representation of the Jewish people's travails in 12th-century Christian England. The novel dramatizes the sufferings of the scattered Jewish people under the Christian aegis; the film barely touches on Scott's theme of ethnic equality. Further, Taylor's Ivanhoe never nurses even a secret attraction for Rebecca; he just remains dully loyal to dull Rowena. And although Bois-Guilbert is allowed to express passion for the Jewess, the filmmakers unfortunately cast George Sanders in the role. Sanders had his virtues, but his urbane persona didn't allow for much expression of passion.

Other plotlines involving Robin Hood and the Knights Templars are minimized or eliminated, though the scripters did come up with a way to unify Scott's sprawling novel: emphasizing the heroes' goal of rescuing England's rightful king, Richard the Lion-Hearted, from his imprisonment in Austria. But although the film was nominated for an Oscar, it seems pretty workmanlike, except for the cinematography and the action-scenes. In keeping with audience-expectations, the climactic battle of Ivanhoe and Bois-Guilbert is not forestalled by the villain's achey breaky heart. Ivanhoe fights the villain and wins, though Bois-Guilbert in death is at least given a final scene to express his unrequited love for Rebecca.

Monday, February 12, 2018

S*H*E* (1980), THE D*R*E*A*M* TEAM (1999)



PHENOMENALITY: (1) *marvelous,* (2) *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*

The original Bond craze insured that the 1960s were replete with dozens of acronym-agencies, most of which were thoroughly, gloriously absurd. Hollywood films pretty much got away from nutty abbreviations, except in explicit comedies. However, occasionally TV productions went back to that particular well.

For a TV-movie pilot that never became a series, S*H*E* isn't half bad. The "security hazards expert" of the title is essayed by Cornelia Sharpe, who in 1980 had racked only a smattering of roles in Hollywood flicks like SERPICO. Sharpe never became even a well-recognized jobbing actress, but her performance here, as glamorous secret agent Lavinia Kean, might've boosted her career had a series come to pass. I'm not saying she re-invents any wheels, but Kean has a little more depth than the standard secret agent. For one thing, when she's assigned to vamp villain Omar Sharif to learn about his insidious plan to destroy American oil reserves-- yes, the memory of the Oil Crisis was still fresh in 1980-- she does fall for the "bad boy" a little bit.

The script is by Richard Maibum, who as of this writing worked on an even dozen Bond-movie scripts, and thus some of the character's insouciance probably stems from his work. Admittedly, it's "spies-on-a-budget," with only limited location work. However, there are some pleasantly familiar faces in the cast besides Sharif, such as Robert Lansing, Anita Ekberg, and Fabio Testi. In addition to the SF-influenced plot of the bad guys, which involves a plot to contaminate petroleum, there's also a weird robot insect that one of the bad guys uses against Lavinia (I forget why).

Lavinia Kean has a few fight-scenes, adequately if unspectacularly orchestrated. Director Robert Michael Lewis helmed tons of TV-projects, though the only one I particularly liked was "The Nature of Evil," a better than average episode of KUNG FU, reviewed here.




In contrast, following its movie-style pilot, THE D.R.E.A.M.TEAM became a series, although it only lasted five episodes despite the stunt-casting of Roger Moore in a minor mentor-style role (more or less taking the place of top-billed Martin Sheen from the telefilm). I dimly remember seeing the five episodes but would guess that none of them had metaphenomenal content.

However, the pilot film does fall into the domain of the uncanny, thanks to its villain Oliver Maxwell (Ian MacShane). Maxwell isn't nearly as ambitious as the Omar Sharif character from S*H*E*; his main evil scheme is to unleash anthrax germs upon the U.S. He has the requisite island-HQ favored by villains operating out of the Caribbean, including some automatically-controlled machine guns (they get their best scene killing off Paul L. Smith, a.k.a. "Bluto" in 1980's POPEYE.)

Obviously the correct solution is to storm Maxwell's hideaway with massive military force. But for some damn reason, American intelligence decides to send four undercover agents: male coordinator Zack (Jeff Kaake) and three gorgeous lady models (Eva Halina, Traci Bingham, and Angie Everhart), who infiltrate the master villain's lair by pretending to be models doing a magazine-shoot.

The three female stars are unabashedly gorgeous, but they're all one-note characters, not even as developed (in the characterization sense, that is) as the feminine stars of the then-still-current BAYWATCH. In the pilot at least, only Kaake and Everhart show any real fighting-prowess, and the climax pits Kaake against MacShane while Everhart gets to take on none other than former porn-star Traci Lords. Star-spotting aside, the only dream fulfilled by this team is one of unstinting mediocrity.






Friday, February 9, 2018

DATE A LIVE: SEASONS 1-2 (2013-14)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological*


Over the years I've admired the many bizarre concepts that have flowed from the Japanese manga/anime empire. Whereas a lot of American SF has a reputation for being sober-sided, the Japanese have been known to bring an antic quality to their fantasies, sometimes bordering on the manic. Yet most of the time this penchant for wild humor doesn't undermine a basic respect for establishing the logical parameters within which weird things happen.

DATE A LIVE, though, is a peculiar exception. Like many modern manga/anime productions, this one had its origins in a series of "light novels," the Japanese equivalent of "young adult fiction," albeit with a lot more sexy fan-service. I don't know if the light novel series fills in any of the logic-gaps I found so prevalent in the two seasons of the DATE A LIVE anime series. Nevertheless, the anime-makers seem so blissfully unconcerned with laying out the parameters that I suspect their source-material wasn't too helpful. Both the light novel series and the anime series appear to have been monetarily successful-- though attempts to launch a manga-adaptation fell apart for various reasons-- so it may be a case of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."

The minimal setup establishes that for thirty years previous to the present, the planet Earth-- seen only from Japan's corner of it-- has suffered intermittent destructive quakes. The tremors stem from a group of otherworldly humanoids called "Spirits," who are all ravishingly hot young women. Nothing is ever revealed about the provenance of the Spirits or their world; they simply show up, flying around the skies of Earth and triggering quakes with their powers before going back wherever they came from. During those 30 years, various Earth-agencies seek to find ways to destroy or control the Spirits when they appear. An organization named Ratatoskr, named for a mythical squirrel in Norse myth, comes up with an answer: if the female Spirits can be made to fall in love with a human male, their powers will be "sealed" and the catastrophes will cease.

This idea sounds pretty ridiculous even for a Japanese "harem comedy." In this comedic subgenre, the setup must usually find some excuse to surround a young man with several ladies, all of whom compete for the male's attention. Nevertheless, even the wackiest of harem comedies still show some concern with plot and characterization, notably Ken Akamatsu's LOVE HINA, which I wrote about in this essay. DATE A LIVE sets up an absurd situation but does nothing to explore its possibilities.

Ordinary high-schooler Shido Itsuka is drafted to be the guy who has to approach one of the Spirits, without weapons and depending only on his masculine charms. Shido's not a player in the least, but his easygoing nature immediately intrigues the first Spirit he encounters. She, unlike some of the others that follow, has no name, so he gives her the name "Tokha," which refers to the date on which they met. While Shido attempts to befriend Tokha, agents of Ratatoskr speak to him via a com-link, trying to play Cyrano to Shido's Christian, counselling the young man about how to impress the Spirit-girl. This is the principal and most repetitive gimmick of the series, as the people on the other end of com-link comically debate what Shido ought to say next. Despite this dubious "help," Shido's influence "tames" Tokha, and in subsequent episodes has the same effect on other gorgeous Spirit-girls, most of whom become part of Shido's harem, even though Tokha remains pre-eminent. For good measure, a couple of Earth-girls show inordinate interest in Shido as well, and one of them-- as if to fulfill a quota for *ecchi* content-- is Shido's adoptive younger sister, Kotori.

That's pretty much the whole ball of wax here. One Spirit isn't as easily tamed as the others, and becomes the closest thing the series has to an antagonist, but her character isn't adequately developed. Sister Kotori has the greatest symbolic potential of any of the characters in the harem, especially since anime serials in the last ten years have milked the "brother-sister love" theme so thoroughly that it's almost a de facto joke in any harem-series. The Kotori subplot is complicated by the fact that when she first appears, she appears to be an ordinary, somewhat air-headed teenager. Then, with no rationalization whatever, two major revelations come down the pike. First, at some point in the past Kotori, despite being an Earth-girl, became possessed by a Spirit. She instantly began destroying things with her out-of-control power, but something happened between her and her brother Shido that 'sealed" her powers. The two of them then completely forget what happened to them, but somehow Ratatoskr finds out, after which they enlist Kotori to join their organization. Thus, the real reason Shido is enlisted to romance Spirits is because of his experience with Kotori, whatever it was. There's a vague reference to him having kissed his sister during her possession, and this transgressive act is apparently what both of them have succeeded in forgetting-- though Ratatoskr found out just enough to use the information in their "girl-taming" program.

Shido, for his part, has no interest in his sister even though he knows they're not related, so this subplot seems to be something of a non-starter, even when Kotori-- somehow no longer a ditz, but a competent paramilitary commander-- seems jealous of his Shido's other conquests. Compared to a more nuanced work like LOVE HINA, the jealousies of the harem-members are just as repetitive as Shido's guileless quasi-seductions.

I might not have written about DATE A LIVE at all, except that I had to ask myself, "Is this a combative comedy?" It's true that roughly every other episode depicts a situation in which the psychological "seal" on a Spirit-girl's powers breaks down. Then she flies around, blasting power-rays and fighting either other Spirits or military personnel. Yet these combat-scenes are usually transitory, because the raison d'etre of the series, such as it is, is that Shido's plain-spoken honesty can always soothe the termagant tendencies of teenaged drama queens.

Usually, even the looniest conceptions in Japanese anime have some enlightening psychological quirkiness worth exploring. In this regard, though, DATE A LIVE is more like "the date from hell."



Wednesday, February 7, 2018

BULLETPROOF MONK (2003)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *metaphysical, sociological*


I've never read the 1998 comic book on which MONK is based, but I tend to think that the filmmakers were no more indebted to their source material than were the MEN IN BLACK films. The main idea seems to have been to find a vehicle for Chow Yun-Fat following the success of his 2000 film CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON. In MONK Chow again plays a martial-arts master with a human side, but MONK's script is bereft of any psychological or sociological insight.

I imagine that if MONK debuted in theaters today, there would be protests about having a Caucasian character mentored by an Asian. Concerns about "cultural appropriation," after all, informed much of the response to the Netflix IRON FIST series. I could wish that MONK willfully flew in the face of such political correctness, but the movie's script is not clever enough to play with the tropes it invokes.

Kar (Seann William Scott) is a pickpocket with a penchant for amateur martial arts. He encounters a Tibetan monk (Yun-Fat) who has spent the last sixty years guarding a mystical secret from the hands of a ruthless Nazi overlord, and frankly, the Monk-- who has foresworn the name he was born with-- would like to turn the task over to someone else. He can only do so if certain prophecies reveal the proper candidate, and it seems to be none other than Kar.

There's a lot of shooting, running around, and fighting, moderately well handled but nothing memorable. Chow, Scott and female lead Jamie King are all appealing, but Chow's character never catches fire, so his relationship with Kar goes nowhere. The quarrelsome relationship of Kar with King's character is more enjoyable-- as are King's own martial maneuvers-- but again, been there, seen that.

A decent timekiller, no more.

Monday, January 29, 2018

ZORRO'S BLACK WHIP (1944), THE MAN WITH THE STEEL WHIP (1954)



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*


To re-iterate the same point made in practically every other reference to the film, there is no "Zorro" in the house. Republic had no rights to use the character, so they just stuck the name onto the title of their serial and presumably hoped no one would bother to sue.

There's not much to say about this bare-bones adventure, except that it's one of the rare serials in which a heroine is presented as a formidable adventure-character. This was actress Linda Stirling's second serial, following THE TIGER WOMAN the same year. TIGER WOMAN is far from one of the best of the chapterplays, but it shows far more care in its stuntwork and writing than BLACK WHIP, which I suspect was rushed into production.

Possibly the initial script was produced with the idea that the heroine would inherit the Zorro role from a male perceptor. The first chapter, taking place in Idaho in its pre-statehood era, posits that there are lawless elements seeking to foil any attempts to bring the territory under U.S. aegis, so that it can remain a haven for lawlessness. A masked, whip-wielding hero, the Black Whip, has arisen to oppose the owlhoots. But he's fatally shot, and Barbara Meredith (Stirling) comes across the wounded hero, just in time to learn that it's her own brother who has assumed the role of masked avenger. Barbara, who for a girl of the 1880s is unusually adept at fighting and shooting, takes up the role. As in TIGER WOMAN and related serials, the heroine's male companion has to handle the majority of the fight-scenes, and here it's George J. Lewis, playing Vic Gordon, a local cowhand on the side of justice. However, there are still a fair number of scenes in which the main heroine mixes things up with male outlaws, none of whom notice that she's not quite as broad-shouldered as the old Whip. The serial-makers at least have Stirling doubled by a female substitute during the action-scenes, so that the viewers still know that she's female. Why the outlaws don't notice is anyone's guess.

Despite the repetitive nature of the perils and the colorless villains, once in a while the script does convey some of the characters' uncertainty over the fate of their home state, which gives the serial a little sociological heft. But the gimmick of Barbara posing as a man wears a little thin, even if her buddy Vic Gordon takes her place toward the end to protect her dual identity. In the end, even if the outlaws never know what Barbara did, WHIP does strike a blow for gender equity.




Today the name "Richard Simmons" connotes an exercise-guru with a swishy gay persona, but in the 1950s, it was just the name of one more serial-actor. The 1950s Simmons' essays a dual role for THE MAN WITH THE STEEL WHIP, playing both tough rancher Jerry Randall and his masked I.D. "El Latigo." And both the rancher and the masked hero are very manly men, except when El Latigo turns into a woman.

STEEL WHIP came out during the fading years of the serial film, and it's one of many such films that simply recycled footage from earlier chapterplays. In this case, El Latigo's costume was modeled after that of 1944's Black Whip, so that the studio could rework footage from THE BLACK WHIP into STEEL WHIP and so save money. This results in one amusing aspect of this dead-serious oater: that in some episodes El Latigo suddenly changes into a much smaller and more feminine version of himself, since he's being played by Linda Stirling's female stunt double. Still, when Simmons himself is on the screen, he plays his scenes with a fair amount of brio.

That non-diegetic aspect aside, the most interesting sociological aspect of STEEL WHIP is that it's yet another story in which evil white outlaws are seeking to force Native Americans off their reservation-lands. Even in 1954 this was a pretty hoary plot, having perhaps been done best in 1935's MIRACLE RIDER, though that serial took place in the 20th-century West. STEEL WHIP takes place back in the 1800s, and thus the villains-- another colorless lot-- are using the old "fake Indians" strategy to rile up the white ranchers, so that the Indians will be driven away and the criminals can claim their lands.

A handful of serials, such as 1940's MYSTERIOUS DOCTOR SATAN, assert that the contemporary avenger follows in the footsteps of some earlier crimefighter. Jerry Randall pursues this trope as well, choosing to model himself on an earlier hero who was a friend to the local Indian tribe. The Native American characters aren't subject to any denigration here, since they're meant to garner sympathy. However, there are some sections of the well-meaning serial that might reflect the trope of The Great White Father. In one episode, the question is raised as to whether the tribal Indians should sell some of their lands to new settlers. El Latigo, friend of the red men, advises the Indians to take the offer, arguing that the Indians don't need all their land because they hunt, rather than farm, for their sustenance. To modern ears, this almost puts the hero on the same side as the villains. He may not share the bad guys' precise motives. But these days, any white guy who tells an Indian that he ought to yield a little lebensraum doesn't sound too terribly heroic.