Monday, September 14, 2020

THE ADVENTURES OF ZATOICHI (1964)





PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*



Everyone’s favorite blind samurai-masseuse made his ninth appearance in this amiable if unremarkable melodrama.

The itinerant hero, journeying through medieval Japan on his way to a sacred festival, meets a man who asks the blind fellow to deliver a message. Zatoichi presumes that it’s a love letter. In truth the young man is in hiding after having been implicated in Yakuza business, and the recipient of the letter is the fellow’s sister. Once Zatoichi knows the truth, he’s unable to keep from involving himself in the young man’s troubles, even though the local Yakuza have their own pet samurai.

There’s a second family-oriented subplots, though they aren’t as persuasive as the main conflict, or even a throwaway moment when Zatoichi reminisces about his being abandoned by his father. Perhaps that’s why he travels around, lending his talents to the needy-- not just out of altruism, but as a deferred act of familial defense?

The only downside is that the blind hero’s uncanny swordfights are usually over too quickly to prove very impressive.


ALMIGHTY THOR (2011)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical*




I’m no fan of Marvel Studios’ largely botched adaptation of Marvel Comics’ franchise character The Mighty Thor. Still, even the least of the three big-budget films, THOR RAGNAROK, offers a little more entertainment than this straight-to-DVD mockbuster.

Director Christopher Ray—son of Fred Olen Ray, whose credits also include reams of undistinguished schlock—hangs his narrative on that most popular of Nordic myths, the threat of Ragnarok, the utter destruction of the world. And how does he handle this portentous matter? With lots of tedious photography of people either running through woods, or running through some big city (presumably L.A) whose streets have no nearly no people in them. Loki (Richard Grieco) kills off his father Odin and one of his brothers in order to possess the Hammer of Invincibility. Younger brother Thor (Cody Deal), who manages to seem callow in spite of his impressive pectorals, swears vengeance on Loki. However, since he doesn’t know how to fight, a Valkyrie named Jarnsaxa (Patricia Velasquez of the MUMMY movies) succors the son of Odin. The two of them spend most of the movie running from pillar to post on a formless quest that the writer seems to be making up as he goes along. The script tosses in a few raggedy versions of Norse myths-- the weavers-of-fate known as the Norns, and some hellhounds given indifferent life by bad CGI. For what it’s worth, “Jarhsaxa” is the name of Thor’s wife in one myth. However, the writer’s book on Norse Mythology for Dummies must have been missing some pages, since he also works in the non-Norse name of “Hrothgar,” maybe just to prove he’s read BEOWULF.

The only actor who even tries to bring a little chutzpah to this mess is Grieco, who does his level best to exude unremitting malice, since this version of Loki is no trickster, but just a really mean, mean guy. The actor’s close-ups are most effective on those occasions when the film’s makeup department succeeds in keeping his skin a deathly shade of white.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

BATMAN: “ICE SPY” (1967)






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


The last episode of the second season is also the last hurrah for Mister Freeze (this time played by Eli Wallach) on BATMAN ‘66. I would assume that the sci-fi villain and his icy motifs would have proved too expensive for the scaled-down budget of the series’ third season. But it may be just as well, since, to judge from Charles Hoffman’s script, nobody on the show had anything much to say about the cold-hearted crook any more.

The episode at least starts well, as the frigid fiend assails an ocean liner in his own private iceberg, a visual reference to every “Titanic” flick ever made. On board the liner is famed ice skater Glazia Glaze, who’s working hand in glove with Freeze to locate a passenger, Professor Isaacson. Isaacson has perfected a formula that would make possible the construction of an ice-ray powerful enough to immobilize an entire city. Freeze captures Isaacson and subjects him to icy torments to gain the formula, but the professor courageously holds out. Meanwhile Freeze also demands a ransom for the scientist, though he intends to keep both money and prisoner. Batman and Robin track Ffeeze to his lair, and after the usual fight his gang shoves them into a freezing-chamber. Freeze promises Glazia that she will be able to skate over the icy bodies of the crusaders, which is about the only outstanding dialogue in the narrative.

In the second segment, the duo escape through another lame contrivance, but Freeze and his gang have deserted the hideout. Freeze worms the formula out of the professor and demonstrates it on select portions of Gotham. The heroes overtake Freeze once more and win the second fight. Batman shows a particular desire to put down the beautiful Glazia by revealing that he knows her inglorious real name, Emma Strunk—which action presumably marks her as one of the many molls lured into crime by the promise of an instant path to fame and money.

Sadly, though I tend to consider Eli Wallach a better actor than Otto Preminger, Wallach brings no real personality to the villain. Sometimes Wallach raves about his grand plans a la Preminger, and other times he’s a little more low-key. There’s no trace of the careful planner portrayed by both Preminger and George Sanders, and so “Ice Spy” is relegated to the position of the least of the three Freeze outings.

BATMAN: “POP GOES THE JOKER” (1967)

 




PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*


                             

With more work, Stanford Sherman might have turned this episode into an irony-laced assault on modern art—including, with even more irony, the fad of “pop art” that helped sell BATMAN ’66 to studio heads. But though Sherman does include a number of wry comments about the art scene, the whole never proves greater than the sum of its parts.


The opening scene, for once, doesn’t show the Joker executing some carefully laid plot. He appears at a modern art galley with some thugs, and proceeds to spray-paint several alleged masterpieces. Given that the character never justifies his actions, one can only suppose that he’s a traditionalist, and just doesn’t like what he deems bad art, at one point crying, “Away with dullness.” Batman and Robin show up and clean his clock. However, before they can take the supercrook to the pokey, an esteemed artist proclaims that the mutilated paintings are better art after being spray-painted (a possible sneer at Jackson Pollock, perhaps). Similarly, without the villain even making any effort, various empty-headed art-lovers attach themselves to the alleged New Face in Art, and Joker immediately forms his own art-school to take advantage of these dunces. The biggest duncecap goes to heiress Baby Jane Towser, who helps Joker gain acceptance in the art world, by claiming that his banal paintings signify things like “the emptiness of modern life.”

The Clown Prince of Crime naturally can’t content himself with simply sponging off rich fools, and Batman suspects as much. In the identity of Bruce Wayne the crusader goes undercover as a student at Joker’s art school, and the best scenes are those in which the two old enemies snarl at each other, even though Joker has no idea of Wayne’s true identity. Sure enough, Joker decides to hold all the rich fools for ransom. Wayne isn’t able to get away and don his Bat-garb, so Robin charges in alone. Despite assistance from the millionaire playboy, Robin is overcome and put into a deathtrap, while Wayne is tied to a chair so he can watch. The trap and the escape are both just average.


In the second half, Joker is apprehended but Baby Jane helps him dodge any charges because he’s just an eccentric artist. Indeed, Joker himself remarks on the moral neutrality of art, claiming that, “We artists aren’t required to be nice, only talented.” The script then loses its focus in the last few scenes, as Joker flees Batman’s wrath, seeks out Wayne’s mansion to swipe some easy cash, and gets summarily humiliated by Alfred.  


BATMAN: “BLACK WIDOW STRIKES AGAIN” (1967)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*




Robert Mintz’s script ptopounds a new villain with whom the Dynamic Duo have already contended: the Black Widow (Tallulah Bankhead). However, whenever the villainess interacts with the duo, none of them really seem to be well acquainted with one another, in contrast to the way the heroes interact with other first-time fiends like False Face and Bookworm. When the Widow tells the crimiefighters that she finds them to be crashing bores, she acts as if it’s the first time she’s ever encountered them.

Black Widow falls into the same category as Archer, Sandman and Marsha in being a collection of villainous “tics” with no hint of psychological consistency. Possibly Black Widow’s dominant motifs—brainwashing bank officials with a memory-gadget, and using various spider-based weapons—found inspiration in the fate of her presumably late husband Max, since she would be a literal “black widow” if she killed him off. But all we know of Max is that he was wont to uttering clich├ęs like “Money can’t buy happiness,” to which the Widow replies, “Happiness can’t buy money.”

For no particular reason, Black Widow uses her memory-gadget to rob all the banks in Gotham, going in alphabetical order. (Convenently, Gotham happens to have a bank for every letter from A through H.) After the duo consult their Bat-computer—once more, a source of dopey sub-juvenile humor—they trail Black Widow to her hideout with an “olfactory detector.” As usual the villain mousetraps the heroes and subjects them to a deathtrap without either removing their utility belts or staying to watch them perish, with the usual results.

The villainess, who speaks all of her lines with a droll attitude suggesting she considers herself above this folderol, does perpetrate one humiliation on Batman. By subjecting him to her memory-gadget, the crimefighter temporarily loses his moral compass, so that anyone can t\alk him into anything. While Robin is a captive and Batman is incapacitated, the villainess goes out on another bank-robbing caper, this time dressing up as Robin and taking along a dummy Batman. Robin does reverse Batman’s mental ennui by encouraging the crusader to sing something. The world presumably will never know why the Gotham Guardian chooses a selection from “The Mikado.” But if anything proves memorable about this dull episode, it would be the sight of Adam West singing, “Poor Little Buttercup I.”

BATMAN: “KING TUT’S COUP” (1967)





PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*





The third outing for King Tut, scripted by Stanley Ralph Ross and the team of Leon and Pauline Townsend, starts off with the Egyptian evildoer back in his identity as a Yale professor. However, some crumbling masonry hits him on the skull—as well as clobbering a couple of nearby students. Thus King Tut lives again, and two of his servants are even in on the delusion.

The script doesn’t trouble to give the royal robber a scheme for dominating Gotham City. This time, the obese overlord just wants someone to love. Tut decides that Lisa Carson, daughter of a rich Gothamite, is the reincarnation of Cleopatra, simply because she dresses as Cleo for a masquerade party. No one bothers to point out that the historical versions of Cleopatra and Tutankhamen lived in different eras, naturally. For once Tut “counts coup” on Batman, in that millionaire Bruce Wayne has been dating Lisa occasionally—which is very nearly the only time Wayne comes close to justifying his image as a “playboy.”

There’s also an odd touch in that Tut already has a moll, one Nelia (Grace Lee Whitney), and there’s a brief suggestion that Nelia and Tut have done a little more than verbal dalliance. This suggestion plays a minor role in the script when Nelia actually tries to free Robin from captivity so that he’ll remove Lisa from Tut’s overbearing attentions, purely with the idea of saving the king for herself. There’s a decent enough deathtrap and trap-escape, but I suspect that the priority of the writing-team was to come up with as many acidulous lines as they could for Victor Buono—and he chews the scenery in grand form, particularly in describing the terrible things he’d like to do to Batman.

That said, the hero, in both of his identities, gets two of the best lines. After the climactic fight, Tut reverts to his normal persona, and bemoans his fate in the legal system—whereon Batman borrows from an old Teddy Roosevelt speech, solemnly declaring that, “no man is above the law, and no man is below it.” On a much lighter note, the coda shows Bruce concluding a date with Lisa, accepting her invitation into her apartment for “milk and cookies,” because (as he tells the audience) “Man cannot live by crimefighting alone.”

BATMAN: “A PIECE OF THE ACTION” (1967)




PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*


By the time this crossover episode aired, it probably came too late to boost the ratings of THE GREEN HORNET, which the same producers had launched in response to the success of BATMAN. As TV crossovers go, it’s satisfactory enough, though Charles Hoffman’s script suffers from a weak villain—created to be weak, one might think, so as to not distract from the four crimefighters too much.


Though the Green Hornet (Van Williams) and Kato (Bruce Lee) have their own city to patrol—wherein they pose as wanted criminals in order to get the goods on real crooks-- for unspoken reasons they decide to investigate a criminal in Gotham City. Said malefactor is Colonel Gumm (Roger C. Carmel), the foreman of a stamp-making factory owned by heiress Pinky Pinkston (Diane McBain). Gumm’s main perfidy is that using his employment as a cover for counterfeiting rare stamps and selling the illicit items to collectors,,though by the episode’s conclusion he also plans to rip off a famous rare stamp known as “the Gotham Gothic.” He’s apparently outfitted the factory with super-villain weapons in case of crimefighters, though for once we have a villain who's not trying to garner attention for his crimes. 

Gumm's boss Pinky is somewhat of an anomaly in the Bat-series. Though she acts like a society airhead, dressing all in pink and pretending to talk with her Maltese dog Apricot, Pinky proves to be reasonably clever. She's suspicious of Gumm early in the episode, and when the villain kidnaps her, she finds a way (however preposterous) to leave a trail for the crimeifhghters. Moreover, she’s socially acquainted with both Bruce Wayne and Britt Reid, the respective civilian identities of Batman and Green Hornet. The precise backstory between Bruce, Britt and Pinky is not laid out. It's only stated that Bruce and Britt have been “rivals” for some time, possibly over Pinky, though she never makes romantic overtures toward either man. Thus their attempts to charm her may reflect more male rivalry than actual interest in the woman. Of course, the main purpose of the rivalry is to prefigure the inevitable conflict of Batman and Robin with the Hornet and Kato-- though in some ways the Bruce-Britt conflict is more interesting.

All four crusaders turn up in Gumm’s factory and get mousetrapped. Having Gumm trap Batman and Robin on an “undetachable glue pad” is no worse than many other larger-than-life perils in the series. However, the Hornet and Kato are subjected to one of the series’ stupidest deathtraps: feeding them into a machine that will supposedly turn them into giant stamp-reproductions of themselves. It’s a minor consolation that this does not actually happen, though the villain seems to believe it’s actually possible—and once again, we see a writer indulging in cartoony silliness, such as would become common in the third season.


There are a handful of moderately clever moments amid this tomfoolery. The “window-climbing” guest-star, actor Edward G. Robinson, makes an appearance in order to hype his reputation as a real-life art expert, which involves sneering at the very “pop art” that helped give rise to the BATMAN series. Robin does a role-reversal in which he assumes a dominant attitude toward his senior partner, though at the episode’s end Batman’s still the only one astute enough to guess that Hornet and Kato are really good guys. But the episode’s highlight is the big climactic fight, in which the Dynamic Duo battle both Colonel Gumm’s goons as well as Hornet and Kato. It’s a better choreographed fight-scene than the average Bat-battle, even if the heroes of the two respective serials are obliged to fight to a draw.