Thursday, July 19, 2018

SUPERMAN/BATMAN: PUBLIC ENEMIES (2009), A[POCALYPSE (2010)




PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

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


These two direct-to-video cartoon-movies were the first two team-ups of Superman and Batman produced by the awkwardly titled production group, "DC Universe Animated Original Movies." Both are derived from DC comic books that I have not read.

The PUBLIC ENEMIES of the title are, in fact, the "World's Finest" team themselves. Whereas Silver Age comics showed Superman and Batman as clean-cut, well-adjusted types, later incarnations favor the idea that they're friends that constantly rag on each other. The script for ENEMIES does this passably well, though often the humorous byplay is lain on with a trowel. Just as intrusive-- as shown by the still above-- is director Sam Liu's visual trope of showing various characters with jagged shadows on their faces, regardless of light-sources. Perhaps this schtick was in the original comics-work.

In Superman comics, the hero's perpetual enemy Lex Luthor maneuvered himself into the role of the U.S. President, which became a long-running headache for the Man of Steel. ENEMIES starts with Luthor in the presidential office and ends with him leaving it, presumably because such long-term plotlines proved problematic in DTV productions. Luthor, despite running on a law-and-order platform that excoriates superhero vigilantism, has somehow improved the economy enough that even a few superheroes, such as Captain Atom and Power Girl, have pledged him their allegiance. However, Luthor's regime is marked by a catastrophe, in which a titanic kryptonite meteor is on a collision course with Earth. Yet, despite this danger, Luthor's priority is still all about getting rid of Superman. After framing the hero for murder, the pernicious president places a bounty on Superman's head, so that both real heroes and long-time villains are after him. Batman joins his buddy in a running battle with Luthor's forces, while trying to dope out a means of annihilating the killer asteroid.

The action-scenes are competently done, with the highlight being Batman's combat with a grotty looking Solomon Grundy. There are assorted re-designs, with a really bad one for Power Girl, and a total reworking of classic Superman villain Toyman, who becomes a precocious thirteen-year-old genius. (Definitely an improvement over the worthless version seen in Bruce Timm's SUPERMAN teleseries.)




SUPERMAN/BATMAN: APOCALYPSE is a comparative improvement, being directed by Lauren Montgomery with a greater emphasis on splashy, hard-hitting action-scenes. In this case the inciting storyline was DC Comics's introduction of its fourth major iteration of the "Supergirl" character, so in essence the friendship of Superman and Batman takes a back seat to the new heroine, though there's enough interplay that I would consider all three of them central characters, while others, like Wonder Woman and Big Barda, play supporting roles.

In this iteration, Superman's cousin Kara Zor-El comes to Earth in a rocket sent many years ago by her parents before the explosion of Krypton. Her parents apparently gave her no advice about how to keep a low profile and learn about Earth's customs quietly, for she panics in the unfamiliar environment and rips up big hunks of real estate before the World's Finest Team subdues her. It's not clear why Kara is such a handful. She is an adolescent with hormone problems, and she saw her parents die before she was rocketed from her homeworld, but the script doesn't quite succeed in making her a rounded character. Because she seems so fractious, Wonder Woman shows up and invites the Kryptonian heroine to come to Paradise Island and train herself. However, Supergirl isn't there very long before the forces of Superman's old foe Darkseid come looking for her. 

Lacking a viable way to reach the the hellish world of Apokolips-- which is how the comics spelled the name of Darkseid's homeworld-- Superman,  Batman, and Wonder Woman appeal to a former native of that world, Big Barda. In order to keep things simple, the DTV prunes away the more complicated aspects of the comics-character's backstory, so that she's just a super-tough denizen of Darkseid's world, who came to Earth to get away from her tyrannical master. However, she joins the rescue team without any real conflict.

Almost as soon as Supergirl arrives on Apokolips, Darkseid seems to bend her to his will with ridiculous ease. In the 2000s, it was almost de rigeur for every major comics-character to manifest a "dark side," and thus Supergirl turns evil, as signified by her donning an outfit worthy of an exotic dancer. (Darkseid's motivations might be more comprehensible if he wanted to seduce the super-nymphet, but he only seems to want her to be the leader of his shock troops, "the Female Furies," and doesn't even seem all that interested in messing with Superman's mind.) 

So Superman fights his cousin to restore her sanity, while the other heroes run around creating as much chaos as possible on an already chaotic world. The subtler aspects of Jack Kirby's NEW GODS opus are dropped in favor of showing the Apokolipians (?) as one-dimensional devils. The script does have one tantalizing myth-reference, when Darkseid tells his minions to fetch him "the girl who fell from the sky," which puts him in the ballpark of Satan, seeking to suborn one of God's angels. But that's as far as the DTV is willing to explore metaphysical myths. Even after the Girl of Steel is returned to Earth, Darkseid drops his Satanic deceptions and shows up on Earth to duke it out with both of the Kryptonian cousins, as if he were one of Jack Kirby's more muscle-bound menaces.

Still, there are a lot of fights, with dozens of Earth-Amazons and Female Furies, so there's that.

SNOWBEAST (1977), ANTS (1977)



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


SNOWBEAST is more or less "Jaws at a ski-resort." A Bigfoot starts picking off skiers at a resort which is celebrating its long history with a winter carnival. Writer Joseph Stefano, famed for his work on the 1960 PSYCHO and on the teleseries "Outer Limits," tries mightily to keep resort-owner Sylvia Sidney and her grandson from sounding too much like the mayor in JAWS. It helps somewhat that the grandson, the first person to spot the snowbeast, describes something much more fantastic than a shark, so that the owner's decision not to warn everyone has a different context to it.

Since it's a TV-movie done on a budget, the director avoids showing the Bigfoot on-camera as much as possible. This results in some amusing "creature-eye" POV scenes. As in JAWS, a loose association of people come together in order to combat the menace, but they're all fairly unremarkable stereotypes: the grandson, the local sheriff, a female journalist who just happens to have done stories on Bigfeet, and her husband Gar. Gar (Bo Svenson) is, apart from the snow-creature, the focal character here. He's a Gold Medal skier who has rested on his laurels for a little too long, and most of the minor subplots concern threats to his masculine ego, such as his wife's wandering affections, but none of his conflicts are especially interesting. Gar gets the honor of slaying the beast, whose nature Stefano's script never explores, except to call it a "mutant."



As dull as SNOWBEAST is, ANTS, another telefilm-shocker from the same year, is duller by far. In place of ripping off JAWS, the inspiration here seems to be 1972's FROGS, in which natural creatures revolt against human incursions. The ants, like the creatures in FROGS, are framed as ordinary insects provoked to uncanny wrath. This prompts them to attack a hotel, which like SNOWBEAST's ski-resort, suffers some economic straits. However, this time the proprietor of the business-concern (another Hollywood luminary, Myrna Loy) is a sympathetic type who doesn't do anything to impede others from realizing their mutual danger.

Though various innocents are killed by the invading ants, the script's real targets are an evil developer (Gerald Gordon) and his mistress (Suzanne Somers), because they plan to bilk the hotel's owners out of their property in order to build a casino. Though Somers's character really doesn't do anything but go along with her associate, the film seems to take particular pleasure in having her ravaged by ant-swarms. This may the reason, as Svengoolie reported on his program, that managers of videocassette stories in the 1970s and 1980s reported a high loss-rate of rental copies. I'm not sure if that means that the people swiping the cassettes were fans or Suzanne Somers, or that they really just liked the idea of seeing "Chrissy of THREE'S COMPANY" meet a horrible death.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1964)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical*


Like most of Roger Corman's adaptations of Poe, MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH is obliged to build up the author's rather schematic plot with a number of subplots. The original story is concerned with Poe's most prevalent theme; that of doleful death overcoming all of the beauties and felicities of life. There is, however, a slight element of class warfare in the way that Prince Prospero attempts to remove himself and his aristocratic kindred from the misfortunes of the hoi polloi, and scripters Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell logically build up that element. However, I'm more impressed by the fact that they also show their Prospero-- in this Vincent Price iteration, a believer in Satanism-- treating his fellow aristocrats as badly as he treats the lower classes. When he denies two aristocrats entry to his castle, he's at least partly motivated by the possibility that they may carry the Red Death. But he also takes sadistic pleasure in informing the male aristocrat that he Prospero has already slept with the man's wife,

The Satanism alteration strengthens the plot's narrative momentum. Even viewers who have no familiarity with the Poe story will probably expect that somehow Prospero's sanctum will be violated and that he will fall victim to the plague. But Poe's Prospero is merely a selfish, flamboyant aristocrat, while Prospero the Satanist is more nuanced. He's first seen tyrannizing over his subjects, abducting virginal young Francesca for his pleasure and imprisoning the young woman's father and her lover Gino. Yet unlike some of Price's other tyrant-figures, Prospero doesn't immediately take advantage of Francesca. Indeed, he tries to convince her of the superiority of his Satanist faith, describing how Satan is the god of "reality." In one line, he almost sounds like Melville's Captain Ahab, seeking to "strike through the mask" of outer appearances:

Somewhere in the human mind, my dear Francesca, lies the key to our existence. My ancestors tried to find it. And to open the door that separates us from our Creator.

It seems obvious that what Prospero really wants is both a confidante and a convert by the way he earnestly seeks to persuade her to renounce her naive Christian faith. Strangely, though in one line he credits his ancestors with seeking "the key to existence," in another he excoriates his ancestors for being Christians who tortured hundreds of victims in order to save their souls. I'm not sure Beaumont and Campbell really had Prospero's ancestry worked out, but at the very least, they were aware that the Christian hegemony was based on violence and death. Prospero has decided that because some of his ancestors were deluded, he's going to pursue Satan as a guide to reality, and he proselytizes to Francesca in the same way that Sade's libertines repetitively seek to persuade their audiences. He fails in his Sadean scheme to force Francesca's boyfriend and father to fight one another, but succeeds to some extent by forcing them to court death in order that each may save the other. Yet, even after Prospero kills Francesca's father and casts Gino out of the castle in order to be killed by the plague, Francesca seems not entirely averse to the saturnine aristocrat at the film's end. No sympathies are voiced, but it's as if Prospero did partly convert her, not with his sophistry but out of his sheer neediness, born of his soul's emptiness.

While the Satanist content improves the character of Prospero, it's rather a waste of time when applied to the original character of Juliana, the prince's consort, essentially cast aside in favor of Francesca. While Prospero believes that his allegiance to Satan will insure that the Red Death never broaches his castle, Juliana's motive for pledging herself  to be Satan's bride seems to have no real motivation. She suffers a bloody death attributed to the Dark Lord, and it may be that director Corman simply wanted a little more gore in the middle of the film to keep audiences interested.

Somewhat more successful is a subplot derived from Poe's "Hop-Frog." In that story, a dwarf revenges himself upon a king and his courtiers by tricking them into dressing up like apes and then immolating them. The film changes the dwarf's name to "Hop-Toad" and only has him kill off one enemy in this manner, but it's at least a serviceable gore-piece.

The conclusion is much more metaphysical than the Poe original. As in the short story, Prospero meets the specter of the Red Death, but this death-figure is a little more moral than Poe's. Earlier Death is seen rendering minor aid to good-guy Gino, and Death allows Francesca and a few others to escape the fate meted out to countless others. But far more significantly, Death also destroys Prospero's Satanic beliefs before slaying the prince, telling him:

Each man creates his own God for himself, his own Heaven, his own Hell.

If MASQUE had centered entirely upon Prospero's subversive philosophy, even if it was still for the purpose of subverting the subversion, I think I would have rated its mythicity higher. But the subplots, while necessary structurally, distract from the symbolic discourse.

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.