Tuesday, July 10, 2018

ALADDIN (1986)



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


Bud Spencer, best known for the "Trinity" comedy-westerns he did with Terence Hill, played a solo role in this strange piece of Italian cheese. Aside from the last Hill-Spenser collaboration, 1994's TROUBLEMAKERS, ALADDIN is probably the last Spenser film to be accessible to American audiences. (The promo card above blatantly lies, for Hill is not in this film at all.)

ALADDIN is basically a 1960s Disney comedy filtered through 1980s Italian sensibilities. A teenaged loser named Al Haddin stumbles across a lamp which allows him to call up an entity (Spenser) who never calls himself anything but "the Genie of the Lamp" (though he eventually allows other people to call him "Gene"). This Genie, like the one from the famed "Aladdin" take, is not restricted by any "three wishes" rule, but he'll do anything his master commands. Since Al is a nice guy, he usually asks for mundane things like getting a car to impress a cute girl or winning a basketball through cheating with magic powers. At one point, the youth-- who lives with his widowed mother-- even wonders if the Genie would be willing to marry his mother. This seems to be the only thing the supernatural spirit balks at, since he claims, "I'm old enough to be her great-great-great-great grandfather." He does also have one other weakness, in that he loses his powers at night-time. However, he's still a very big guy, and fans who can't get enough of the bulky actor slamming thugs around will find some satisfaction here.

It's a loosely plotted farrago of gags and setups, particularly whenever the Genie runs across the criminal activities of a local Miami crime-boss (who nevertheless seems as Italian as the day is long). Like most Disney comedies, the crooks are mostly involved in petty crimes, like the oddly antiquated crime of the protection racket. That said, there's a very strange section of the film in which the crime-boss has Al abducted and kept with a bunch of younger kids, in what appears to be a child slavery ring, until the Genie rescues everyone. Nothing like that in Disney comedies!






PERSEUS THE INVINCIBLE (1962)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *metaphysical, psychological*




This sword-and-sandal flick is best known in fan-circles by its risible American title, THE MEDUSA VS. THE SON OF HERCULES. The use of the “son of Hercules” tag was a marketing tool that often had nothing to do with the films placed under that rubric, and indeed the opening commentary establishes that sometimes these “sons” were merely figurative “relatives.” I’m reviewing the film under its Italian title because it deserves a little credit for making an attempt to adapt the Perseus myth of classic Greek mythology. That said, this film does to the Perseus narrative what THE MINOTAUR did to the mythos of Theseus: it puts the original through a sort of mythic mix-master.

The easiest way to approach the original is to boil it down to two essential plot-actions. In the first, Perseus must assert himself as the protector of his mother Danae against the lustful Polydectes, and to do that, he must conquer one monster, the Gorgon Medusa, and bring its head back to Polydectes. In the second, after slaying Medusa, Perseus encounters his future wife Andromeda, whom he rescues from a sea-monster. Curiously, as if the filmmakers wanted to “sell” the film on the strength of its monsters, both creatures-- creations of famed FX-maker Carlo Rambaldi-- are lumped together at the opening of PERSEUS. A particular part of Argos is inhabited by both a lake-dragon and a Medusa that looks like an ambulatory plant. The Medusa has tendrils rather than snakes-for-hair, and in place of a face, a single eye that can turn humans to stone. The propinquity of these creatures works out well for Acrisius, the king of Argos, because the monsters conveniently block any army that tries to attack Argos.

In the best known version of the myth, Acrisius is the grandfather of Perseus. Acrisius attempts to keep his daughter Danae from having any relations with men by imprisoning her in a high tower. She becomes pregnant by Perseus anyway, usually through the agency of the god Zeus, though one variant claims that she’s impregnated by her uncle Proetus, Acrisius’s rival for the throne.

In the film, Perseus’s father is a mortal who was murdered by Acrisius, who then married Danae, who was at the time of the marriage ignorant of Acrisius's crime. Perseus was also separated from both father and mother. At the time of the film's beginning, Danae is now aware of what her second husband did to her first one, and she curses both her husband and his grown son-by-another-wife Galenore (not in any version of the myth). She tells them that they will be punished when her son returns, and that they will know him by special birthmarks on his shoulders.

Thus, while in most myth-tales Perseus is inseparable from his mother, here the hero is reared apart from her, presumably by adoptive parents, in a neighboring realm over which Acrisius tyrannizes. The hero’s just a common worker—not in any way blessed with godly powers, or even a huge build. However, he’s attracted the attention of a local princess, Andromeda, who gets his attention by shooting an arrow at him. Perseus doesn’t initially intend to pursue the noblewoman, but he’s forced to compete for her hand when Galenore, who covets Andromeda, challenges the commoner to a duel. Perseus wins the duel but Galenore recognizes the commoner’s birthmarks and plots his demise.

Since the movie has already married Danae to Acrisius, there’s no need for a Polydectes. There is eventually a mother-son reunion scene. but as if to keep Danae from tying up any time Perseus might direct toward Andromeda, Danae is summarily killed by stepson Galenore. This leads Perseus, in roundabout fashion, to make a foray into the land haunted by the two monsters. Unlike the classical hero, Perseus gets no help from any gods or spirits, but uses his human skills and cleverness—again, looking into a reflective shield—in order to best the Medusa. Since it doesn’t have a head to cut off, Perseus resorts to the Cyclopean method of monster-slaying: stabbing the creature in its eye. After that the stone soldiers revive—which they don’t in any classical Medusa-myth—and help Perseus conquer his enemies and win Andromeda.

Of the many heroic roles essayed by American actor Richard Harrison in European productions, his Perseus is probably his most famous. It's not a great performance, but Harrison's earnestness is winning, and the fact that he isn't a boulder-shouldered monster creates a little more suspense for the hero's fate than one usually sees in peplum.

JUSTICE LEAGUE VS. TEEN TITANS (2016)




PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *metaphysical, psychological*



Though the Justice League gets top billing, this DTV release is primarily a TEEN TITANS story. The central plot centers upon Trigon, the demonic father of the mystic heroine Raven, and his efforts to escape his otherworldly confinement in order to prey upon Earth. In the comics this event transpires close to the point when the “New Teen Titans” are newly formed. In the comics it's a major accomplishment for the team, establishing that despite their youth they’re no longer "the Junior Justice League."

In this iteration, the Titans seem to have been operating for some time. The original Robin (a.k.a. Nightwing) is no longer with the group, but his sometimes inamorata Starfire now leads the young heroes, now consisting of Beast Boy, the Blue Beetle, and Raven, whose demonic heritage is not known to the rest of the group. (Starfire, incidentally, is now a respectable-looking, almost matronly heroine, in contrast to the innocently oversexed version that premiered in the early 1980s.) Nightwing persuades the Titans to accept the induction of a temperamental teenager: the new Robin. This version of Robin is Damian Wayne, the son of Batman by the daughter of the supervillain Ra’s Al Ghul, deceased in the DTV world.

At least a third of the film seems devoted to showing the arrogant Damien’s early contempt for the other teens, which, predictably enough, gives way to an esprit de corps by the final scenes of the film. The Leaguers are converted into possessed pawns of Trigon, which loosely parallels a similar NEW TEEN TITANS story in which the “old” heroes were marginalized in order to make the young bloods look good. Thus Raven is forced to confess all to her teammates so that the Titans can subdue their possessed quasi-parental figures—though, to be sure, Superman gets some action in that endeavor as well.

The action-scenes, the lifeblood of the genre, are decent but not especially memorable, while the character-arcs, especially Damien’s, are predictable and draggy. Both of these DC franchises enjoyed earlier TV-cartoon incarnations that remain fan-favorites today, and inevitably, the laborers behind this DTV version logically seek to make their visual versions distinctive. A few of the re-designs reflected costume-changes in the contemporary comic books, but even those that are original to the video are underwhelming. For the most part I found the video a decent time-killer, though the fan in me strongly disagreed with the attempt to align one of DC’s best villains—the aforementioned Ra’s Al Ghul, temporarily back from the dead—with a lesser fiend like Trigon.

MY SUPER EX-GIRLFRIEND (2006)




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




DOUBLE SPOILERS—

Are required this time, because I;m disclosing the plots of both a 2006 movie and an earlier film on which MY SUPER EX-GIRLFRIEND seems to have patterned itself.

As many others have said, there’s nothing new about movies swiping from other movies, as per the saying that “imitation is the sincerest form of Hollywood.” There are any number of “shark” or “ark” movies that make no bones about their derivative nature. In this case, though, it’s not impossible that the patterning was wholly intentional.

First., here’s a quick summation of the 2006 film:

Likeable schmuck Matt dates Jenny, a moody beauty. Matt has two work-friends: a male goofball who approves of the liaison, and a female buddy, Hannah, who seems less than pleased. Little do any of them know that Jenny is actually the secret ID of the superheroine “G-Girl.” Matt soon finds out not only her identity, but also that she’s clingy and prone to violent outbursts. When Hannah breaks up with her boyfriend, she and Matt end up sleeping together. Having fallen in love with Hannah, Matt breaks up with Jenny, and she uses her super-powers to take acts of petty vengeance against him.  Professor Bedlam, G-Girl’s resident super-villain, approaches Matt with a solution: to drain her powers with a meteor-fragment like the one that empowered her. Matt and Bedlam trap the erratic superheroine, but things go awry when some of G-Girl’s powers are drained into Hannah. The two super-women fight until Matt finally convinces G-Girl that Bedlam’s obsession with her is actually a measure of his devotion, at which point G-Girl pairs off with Bedlam and Matt remains with Hannah.

Now, a quick summation of the 2001comedy SAVING SILVERMAN:

Likable schmuck Darren, over the objections of his two goofball buddies J.D. and Wayne, becomes engaged to Judith, a “mean girl” psychologist who patently means to separate Darren from his old life. It's also apparent that she doesn;t really love Darren; she just likes controlling him. After the two goons are unable to block the impending marriage by appealing to Darren's better instincts-- particularly by setting him up with old girlfriend Sandy-- the duo kidnaps and imprisons Judith. Judith, a skilled martial artist, eventually breaks free of the goofballs and holds Darren to his commitment to marry her. But J.D. interrupts the wedding and throws himself on the "grenade" by telling Judith by telling her that the two of them belong together because they challenge one another. Judith releases Darren, allowing him to be paired with Sandy.

The common thread that may have led someone involved with SUPER to borrow from SILVERMAN is that both films concern powerful but bitchy women who impose themselves on nice guys and have to be diverted to other targets—i.e., not-so-nice guys—so that the nice guys can end up with nice girls. Of the two, SILVERMAN’s gender politics are at least sporadically funny, while SUPER just chalks up another epic fail for former GHOSTBUSTERS director Ivan Reitman.  Part of the reason is that while SILVERMAN speaks to a familiar malaise, in which marriage breaks up a gang of guy-friends, SUPER is an overly simple riff on superhero tropes, lacking any of the complexities seen in the roughly similar HANCOCK.

Even in terms of gender politics, the slob-comedy comes out better than the sprightly looking rom-com. Judith is innately a powerful woman, who, though inappropriately hooked up with a weaker man, doesn’t stop being powerful when J.D, persuades her that she needs a more challenging matchup. However, Jenny is essentially a nerd who has coolness thrust upon her, but remains a nerd at the core. Her origin explains that she and Bedlam were outcasts together at college. One night she was just on the edge of surrendering her virginity to him, when a meteor crashes to earth near them. Jenny’s exposure to the meteor’s radiation changed her into G-Girl, giving her the chance to play the savior of mankind but distancing her from her old almost-boyfriend. This twist on the Superman-Luthor dynamic has some potential, but it’s largely wasted, given that the film places more emphasis on the dull characters of Matt and Hannah. This too differs from SILVERMAN, which emphasizes the over-the-top absurdities of Judith and J.D.

SUPER isn’t entirely a waste of time. Jenny’s character is too one-note to give Uma Thurman anything to work with, but Eddie Izzard makes an urbane super-villain. Maybe the film resonates best with people who have had breakups with crazy exes, but I think that even they would find the film blandly derivative.

Friday, July 6, 2018

THE WHITE BUTTERFLY KILLER (1973)



PHENOMENALITY: *naturalistic*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological*


This film's heroine-- Pao, played by prolific Hong Kong actress Hsu Feng-- is never called "White Butterfly Killer" in the English version of this HK film. The title made me wonder if it might be an example of metaphenomenal cinema, since many HK films of the period touch on such material, even if it's only in terms of kung-fu avengers who wield unusual weapons for justice.

Pao is first seen running a tavern with three female companions, and all four of them display considerable kung-fu talents when local gangsters try to give them trouble. However, Pao is after more than serving drinks. Years ago, she was raped by the head of the local crime syndicate. Though the film doesn't explain how she or her employees acquire top-level fighting-skills, evidently Pao does train herself for the purpose of avenging herself on her rapist and his allies.

Female avengers were not extraordinary in 1970s Hong Kong films, but for once, the female lead isn't simply raped for the purpose of giving her a motive to beat up a lot of villains. To be sure, Pao does kick a lot of asses. But the script, so far as I can judge from the dubbing, devotes some effort to capturing her inner torment. When her romantic interest confesses that he can't credence her lust for vengeance because she seems so "soft," Pao smashes her fist into a wooden door, and asks if he thinks her softness makes her weak. Later, having been counseled that her rage will never be dispelled by seeking vengeance, she beats down one victim but starts to grant him mercy. However, the fellow then tries to jump her when her guard is down, and so pays the price.

The one element of the film that's almost metaphenomenal involves a memento from the time of Pao's rape, for the rapist cut off her queue. Apparently Pao somehow reinforced her ponytail with hide or metal, for when she battles her principal opponent at the climax, she hits the villain with the queue as if it was as hard as a flail. But because this element is used only at the film's end, I decided that it doesn't qualify as an uncanny form of an "outre device."

THE BRUTE MAN (1946)



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

In this review I commented that HOUSE OF HORRORS, the first in a two-episode "Creeper" series, was much better than it had a right to be, given the temper of the times. I also opined that HOUSE was probably the best film in the ouevre of workhorse Jean Yarbrough. In contrast, the last in the series-- THE BRUTE MAN, a rough prequel to HOUSE-- is pretty ordinary, which probably helped usher the series into oblivion.

The basic story is attributed to Dwight Babcock, who collaborated with George Bricker on HOUSE, and BRUTE's screenplay was written by Bricker and one M. Coates Webster. In HOUSE Bricker and Babcock used the deformed "Creeper" character to take pot-shots at the professional art scene, but there's no such ambition here The Creeper, who never had an origin in his earlier appearances, is wanted for previous murders at the point when he wanders back to a city where he once lived. After he commits a couple more murders, the killer encounters Helen, a young blind woman who does not show fear of his disfigured features. Like the character in HOUSE, the Creeper seems to have a dim desire to find someone who will befriend him, though again the killer is still largely focused on killing those responsible for his situation.

It comes out that two other locals, the now-married Cliff and Virginia, knew the Creeper when he was a normal-looking collegian, Hal Moffett. Because Cliff and Hal were competing for Virginia's attention, Cliff hoaxed Hal into giving the wrong answers on a chemistry test. This resulted in Hal being confined to the chemistry lab, thus giving Cliff the chance to move in on Virginia. Hal, however, contributed to his own tragedy by losing his temper and smashing a chemical container. The resultant explosion not only injures Hal, it also alters his glandular condition and results in the young man's hideous malformation. In real life, actor Rondo Hatton suffered from the disease of acromegaly, and BRUTE MAN was his last film before he succumbed to the malady.

Apart from the interest value of the "origin," though, BRUTE is a routine thriller. Only the blind girl is marginally sympathetic, but she's clearly just a complication in the Creeper's life, as he tries to steal enough money to furnish her with an eye-operation. The Creeper kills a few more victims, including his tormentor Cliff, but he's denied the bravura exit of a death-scene, since the police have to take him alive. Perhaps when the script was produced, no one surmised how close Hatton was to death, but during production, it was clear that his capacity was diminished, so that his last performance was negligible next to his somewhat more noteworthy acting in HOUSE OF HORRORS.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM (2008)



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

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS


Wikipedia quotes a Chinese reviewer who criticized THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM for its "American-Centrism." But to me this seems entirely appropriate. KINGDOM is essentially a love-letter to the major tropes of the Hong Kong kung-fu genre. John Fusco, an Italian-American who trained in the martial arts since age twelve and sparred with KINGDOM star Jet Li, pretty clearly was not seeking to celebrate Chinese culture as it has been lived by the Chinese, but in terms of the stories they put into cinematic form. Thus Fusco and director Rob Minkoff chose to use an American youth as an identifying character, even though the Caucasian character, played by Michael Angarano, is given the name "Jason Tripitakas," a clear reference to a Sanskrit-language term promulgated through Buddhism and given pop-culture relevance through the 16th-century Chinese fantasy-novel JOURNEY TO THE WEST.

There's no question that the filmmakers hoped to involve America's majority Caucasian audience by giving them a Caucasian viewpoint-character. Yet the Jason character isn't just the standard "exotic adventurer." He's defined almost entirely by his love for Hong Kong fantasy-films, though unlike the main character of BULLETPROOF MONK,  Jason has no fighting-skill whatsoever. An encounter with an ancient golden staff, reputedly once the property of Sun Wukong, the protagonist of JOURNEY TO THE WEST, hurls the hapless Jason into the world of medieval China.

Though Fusco's script uses elements of JOURNEY, the script's main focus is to involve Jason in assorted standard situations germane to Hong Kong cinema. The American youth is taken under the wing of "drunken fighter" Lu Yan (Jackie Chan), who immediately recognizes that Jason is destined to use the staff to liberate Sun Wukong, a.k.a. "the Monkey King," so that this quintessential Chinese hero can vanquish the evil Jade Warlord. The simian superhero is one of two roles played by the film's other big-name star, Jet Li, though Li spends much more time in the guise of another of Jason's trainers, "the Silent Monk." Thus Jason gets the benefit-- and the ordeals-- of being trained by two of the archetypes of kung-fu cinema: the disciplined monk and the drunken "wild man" of forest and tavern.

KINGDOM is a thinly plotted action-film, in which both the staff and an immortality-serum function as "objects pursued by both heroes and villains." Jason's quest to finish his quest and get back home obviously becomes secondary to the first team-up of Chinese titans Jackie Chan and Jet Li. As far as delivering on the team-up elements, Fusco gives both actors some pleasant but non-demanding scenes to play off one another, including an inevitable fight-scene before they become allies. No one will ever call this Chan-Li battle one of cinema's great fights, but it's adequate for what it does. Perhaps because Chan and Li are so charismatic, Angarano has little to do beyond being a source of humor. Still, he gets a little romance with a female heroine (named in honor of Cheng Pei Pei's "Golden Swallow") and has a decent fight with one of the Warlord's henchmen, a witch-woman who evinces yet another kung-fu fantasy-trope: that of the supernatural being able to extend her hair like a net of tentacles.

KINGDOM has no interest in the theme of JOURNEY TO THE WEST, with its opposition between the ruthless ambition of the Monkey King and the enlightenment of Buddhist knowledge. It's just a lively, fairly diverting martial-arts films, different from the hundreds once turned out in Hong Kong only by virtue of a bigger budget and internationally known actors.