Tuesday, January 31, 2012

SWORD OF THE VALIANT (1984)



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

For my illo this time out, I looked for-- and found, without much trouble-- a picture of Miles O'Keeffe, star of SWORD OF THE VALIANT in which he looks as dopey as his movie.  I have no idea what emotion the actor was trying to convey, but he looks worried that his codpiece is chafing.

I'm usually fairly sympathetic to movies produced by the Golan-Globus incarnation of Cannon Films.  Usually they know that they're delivering huge truckloads of cheese, and they do so with great gusto in such films as the 1983 HERCULES.  But SWORD OF THE VALIANT sins in being both cheesy and boring.

IMDB informs me that SWORD's director Stephen Weeks had already made a film version of the medieval British tale "Gawain and the Green Knight," which I don't believe I've seen.  It surely must be better than this phlegmatic tale of "when knighthood was in the toilet." 

O'Keeffe is one of SWORD's most glaring flaws.  He seemed reasonably comfortable playing dim barbarians or jungle-men, but a film in which he had to play the soulful knight Gawain was entirely beyond his capacity.  It's rumored that Weeks wanted the role to go to Mark Hamill, who might have managed a credible performance despite everything against him here.  Allegedly Golan and Globus insisted on the casting of O'Keeffe, which may be one of the greatest favors anyone ever did for Mark Hammill.  All of the other actors in this knight-movement-- Sean Connery, Peter Cushing, Trevor Howard-- put across tolerable perfs but none of them manage to kindle much fire for this episodic melange.

Despite (or because) of the four writers working with Weeks on the screenplay, the story's structure is abysmal.  As in the medieval story, a mysterious Green Knight visits Arthur's court just as the king has finished castigating his knights for their lack of bravery.  The Knight challenges all assembled to a game: he will allow one of them to attempt cutting off his head with the Green Knight's own axe, and if he survives, he will then be allowed a return blow.  Only young Gawain, not even a knight, volunteers to meet the challenge.  Just as in the story, Gawain beheads the visitor.  He then reveals his supernatural nature by picking up his head and replanting it.

In the original romance, the Green Knight's original bargain was that he would be allowed to take his return blow after "a year and a day."  The Weeks version jettisons this fairy-tale motif, so that the Knight changes his mind about beheading Gawain just because he's too young.  This Knight then gives Gawain a nonsensical riddle to solve, which may save him when next they meet.

Where life is emptyness, gladness.
Where life is darkness, fire.
Where life is golden, sorrow.
Where life is lost, wisdom.

Unlike real riddles, this one has no conceptual logic behind its contradictions.  Each phrase simply refers to the outcome of one of Gawain's forthcoming adventures as he roams about trying to search out the riddle's meaning.  The adventures-- some of which borrow minor elements from knight-tales--  are poorly choreographed and the accompanying music is abominably rinky-dink.  Weeks's script makes no attempt to forge any of his adventures into a meaningful whole, aside from having  a romantic interest appear in most of them. 

The only time Weeks treats any element of his fantasy-world as having a symbolic value is at the end, when Gawain meets the Green Knight again, escapes beheading and slays the Knight, who implies that he is some sort of vegetable spirit, who rises only to be felled again.  But this "value" sounds cribbed from some grad student's paper on Frazer's GOLDEN BOUGH, and has no spirit of its own.  This feeble evocation of real mythic content is the only reason I assign this film a "metaphysical" function.

THE 27TH DAY (1957), TWELVE TO THE MOON (1960)





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

These two films from the Golden Age of Cinematic SF probably don't appear in most people's lists of the era's best efforts.  Their problems are essentially opposite to one another.  The first looks pretty good but its story flags and its theme is badly communicated. The theme of the second is reasonably consistent but the film's cheapjack budget caused it to be consigned to MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000.

27TH DAY started as a novel by John Mantley, which according to some reviews includes many points of difference from the screenplay.  This was written principally by Mantley himself, later a producer in television, as was the film's director William "BEWITCHED" Asher.  DAY focuses on what might be best described as a "Scruples" proposition framed in the context of a science-fiction drama, to wit: "What would you do if you had the power to destroy the world?"

A group of aliens give five Earthpeople the chance to find out.  The five randomly chosen individuals-- an American, a Brit, a German (with pro-American sympathies), a Chinese and a Russian-- are whisked to an undisclosed location.  A representative of the abductors (who are never seen en masse) tells the abductees that his people need a new place to live, and they would like to take over the Green Hills of Earth before the humans destroy their own world.  However, though the aliens have technology far superior to that of Earth, their moral code prevents them from directly dispossessing the humans.  They can however make it easier for the Earthpeople to destroy themselves.

The aliens give each of the Earthpeople a set of capsules.  If any of the quintet willingly causes the capsule-container to open, the capsules therein can then be used to extinguish whole populations.  Unlike the atom bomb the capsules can even get rid of an enemy people without devastating the cities or poisoning the earth.  Plainly the aliens are hoping that the Earthpeople will be pressured by their fellows to use the capsules to end the Cold War in one side's favor, ending with everyone killing everyone and leaving the field clear.  The aliens also further stage-manage the coming crisis by going on the airwaves and publicly revealing the names of the capsule-custodians (though only four, since Asher and Mantley bring about the death of one custodian soon after all five return to Earth).

The basic setup is rife for a great paranoia narrative, with the custodians trying to prevent their governments from using the doomsday weapons.  However, Asher and Mantley take the easy way out.  When the "good guys" (American, Brit, and German) are captured by the American government, the representatives of democracy don't stoop to coerce the trio into releasing their capsules.  The representatives of Soviet Communism, however, are only too willing to torture and bullyrag the Russian representative into giving up his weapon.

In a contrived happy ending, at the eleventh hour (which is also the "27th day," the day when the capsules run out of juice), the Soviets try but fail to zap the democracies out of existence.  The Americans activiate theirs, but it doesn't kill everyone in the opposing hemisphere, just all "enemies of freedom."  The German decides that this proves that the basic impulse of the aliens was actually helpful in nature, which makes one wonder what would've happened had the Soviets triggered their device first.  In any case, the democracies think it would be a shame to let the aliens wither away-- especially since they possess so much advanced technology-- so they invite the homeless extraterrestrials to set up camp in the now-deserted parts of Earth.  As a bonus, the aliens also reveal-- entirely out of left field-- that they want to invite the Earthmen to join a vast galactic empire.  All of which proves, I guess, that not every deal with the devil turns out badly for the deal-maker.

TWELVE, directed by the man whose only other major credit was THEY SAVED HITLER'S BRAIN, arrived in theaters about ten years after the cinema's landmark lunar adventure, DESTINATION MOON.  Where DESTINATION was scrupulous in its use of "real science" to describe a feasible moon-voyage, TWELVE only makes token attempts toward accurate science, though it does try, however feebly, to capture the aspect of life I term "cosmological:" the aspect of learning and making significant the phenomena of the physical world.

TWELVE's real focus, as with DAY, is sociological.  The moon-ship is manned, as the title says, by a whopping twelve astronauts, each of whom is a different science-specialist from a different country, and they also further burden the rocket by taking along an assortment of experimental animals.  The scientists' desire to investigate the moon's nature is explicitly secondary: the real purpose is to mount a United Nations-like initiative to decalre the moon "international territory," which no Earth-nation can then claim for its exclusive use.  This is certainly an interesting twist on the more common trope of moon-travel both real and imagined, where it was assumed that the first nation to the satellite would control it thereafter.

In addition, the multinational group hopes to leave behind the fractiousness of their native countries with this joint effort.  In some respects they seem successful: both the two females and the black African navigator are treated in a professional manner by their male white counterparts.  However, not long after takeoff the Israeli scientist Ruskin alludes to the way his family dies in WWII, and he resents the German scientist Heinrich just on principle.  The commander (American of course) frets about their having brought "all that muck" with them.

In short order, despite getting battered by some meteorites on the way, the explorers land upon the moon.  However, during their explorations they're assailed by various dangers, such as "lunar quicksand," which cuts their number down to eleven.  During the astronauts investigaton of a deep cave, two more members-- the medical team, a man and woman already in love-- disappear.  The remaining 'nauts get back to the ship, but while the injured German member is incoherent, he accidentally reveals to Ruskin his guilty secret: he just happens to be the son of the Nazi who exterminated Ruskin's family.

Then the surviving 'nauts receive a coded broadcast from the moon's native inhabitants.  The lunarites relate that they have the couple in custody and are studying them to see if their love "turns to evil."  They order the humans to leave, and the humans do so.

However, the lunarites aren't through with humanity.  As the lunar rocket comes closer to the Earth, they find that the Western hemisphere has been bombarded by a freeze-ray from the moon.  Desperate to save their people, the scientists decide that there's one way to dispel the ray's effects.  They can dispatch a "space taxi" from their rocket (gee, that rocket has all the comforts of home) down to Earth, drop an atom bomb down the volcano Popocatepetl, and that will reverse the ray's effects.  (I wish I could see what MST3K had to say about that plan.)

However, impossible though the scheme is in a scientific sense, it still serves a sociological function in two subplots.  Orloff, the Russian member of the team (the redoubtable Tom Conway) comes across the French member trying to sabotage the bomb; when questioned, the Frenchman tries to persuade the Russian to help exterminate the West.  Acting against type for a Russian of the time, Orloff fights with the Frenchman until the American captain arrives to subdue him.  Then, just to further the ideal of international amity, the German and the Israel bury their history and pilot the ship down into the volcano, where they lose their lives.

However, the sacrifice impresses the lunarites, who change their minds and broadcast that they value human love and emotions after all, and swear to make humans welcome on the moon.

Aside from being more thematically consistent than 27TH DAY-- which would have been more honest had it been framed as an anti-Communist screed from the opening-- TWELVE is a little more interesting in terms of the way scripter DeWitt (CAT PEOPLE) Bodeen threw out unusual story-ideas, though most of them don't come to anything.  The couple left behind on the moon aren't mentioned again, though one assumes that they got to go home once the aliens changed their minds.  Perhaps the same applies to the mission's experimental cats, because before the Earthmen leave, the aliens ask them to leave behind their cats, because the lunarites are fascinated by felines.  Maybe that was Bodeen reminiscing over better times with CAT PEOPLE?  During the exploration scenes, Orloff seems fascinated with a big jewel he dubs (for no clear reason) "the Medea jewel," which later catches on fire aboard ship; Orloff also burns his hands when he sticks them into a stream of what seems to be molten gold.  These incidents seem to imply some castigation of human greed but the moral is never made explicit, so their potential symbolic power lies stillborn.
 

Monday, January 30, 2012

DRACULA'S DAUGHTER (1936)





PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*

"No vampire can survive the stake"-- Prof Van Helsing, DRACULA'S DAUGHTER

This straight-faced statement proves ironic, in that according to David Skal's THE MONSTER SHOW Universal Studios' original plan for the film would have brought Dracula back from the dead, to be essayed once more by Bela Lugosi.  However, the film censorship office had so many problems with the original script, Universal eventually decided to start over with a new script that allowed the master vampire to remain dead and emphasized instead his daughter's quest to escape her father's evil legacy.

The question as to how a 500-year old dead man sired a child is never addressed, but the film repeatedly positions the character-- who uses the possibly phony name of "Countess Marya Zaleska"-- as being the Count's genuine daughter, not just a metaphorical one created by Dracula.  Late in the film Van Helsing says:

"Dracula had many victims, Sir Basil, into whose veins he infused his own tainted blood, making them creatures like himself."

So far so good.  Since Zaleska (Gloria Holden) makes oblique mention of having had a mother as well, perhaps Dracula sired a daughter when he was still a living human, and later infused her with his "tainted blood."

However, toward the film's end, Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan), the only person who places Dracula's age at "500 years," states that Zaleska died "one hundred years ago."  So it would seem that in this film's universe, being dead doesn't cut off a vampire's reproductive abilities.  As an alternative, one might also explain away the incongruity via some sort of Satanic magic, for though 1931's DRACULA doesn't evoke Stoker's notion of the vampire as a Satanic worshipper, Zaleska in DAUGHTER makes that association explicit.

The film picks up at the point where the 1931 film ended, as two London bobbies come across the crypt where Dracula has slain Renfield and the professor has staked the vampire in his coffin. Van Helsing and the bodies are both taken to Scotland Yard. The professor admits having killed the man he calls a vampire.  Commissioner Humphrey is not converted by Van Helsing's vampire tales, so Van Helsing calls in a former student, psychiatrist Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger), to help his legal defense, though both Humphrey and Garth protest that the professors needs a lawyer far more.  No one, including Van Helsing, considers the possibility of getting sympathetic statements from any of the people Van Helsing liberated from the vampire in the earlier picture.

To Van Helsing's good fortune, Countess Zaleska, having heard of her father's demise, arrives in London and disposes of the *corpus delicti.* Using her hypnotic talents and the help of her faithful non-vampire servant Sandor, the vampiress steals the body of her father from Scotland Yard.  In a deserted clearing Zaleska and Sandor burn Dracula's body, as Zaleska reads rites of exorcism consigning her father back to hell with his "dark, unholy master."  Later, in a rented art-studio Zaleska tells Sandor that she feels free of her father's evil influence at last.  Sandor, to whom Zaleska has promised vampiric immmortality at some future date, expresses extreme skepticism that she can just stop being a vampire.  Later, Sandor is proved right: Zaleska goes trolling in the London fog and mesmerizes a man, who later dies of blood-loss.

Garth, equally confused by his old mentor's fairy stories and by the connivances of his jealous secretary Janet (with whom he shares a combative-yet-loving relationship), meets Zaleska at a party.  He finds her fascinating, much to Janet's displeasure.  Zaleska for her part is intrigued when Garth claims that one can overcome any psychological dependence by using psychological resistance therapy.  Zaleska tests his theory, inviting a sweet young girl into her art-studio for the alleged purpose of sketching her. Zaleska hopes she can resist the blood-lust with the girl (perhaps *because* it's a female?). Zaleska fails the test, and yet another mysterious victim of blood-loss shows up at a London hospital.

Because the woman still lives but cannot seem to emerge from a paralyzed state, the hospital calls in Garth.  Garth fails to prevent the girl from passing away, but his sight of the vampire bites on her neck sways him to believe in his mentor's stories. 

Zaleska, feeling that her father's influence pursues her from the grave, tries to persuade Garth to return with her to Transylvania.  He refuses.  Zaleska and Sandor kidnap Janet and  fly back to the Dracula Castle.  Garth, belatedly realizing his love for Janet, follows.  In the meantime Sandor has become irritated at Zaleska's pursuit of Garth and her refusal to make Sandor one of the undead.  Sandor tries to kill Garth with an arrow when he arrives, but misses.  Slightly later, Zaleska tells Garth that she will release Janet unharmed if he will consent to become one of the undead.  He consents in what some might consider a male version of the concluding sacrifice in NOSFERATU.  However, before Zaleska can give Garth his first vampiric kiss, Sandor shoots her dead with an arrow, effectively "staking" her (possibly the first time in fiction that an arrow was drafted for vampire-killing duties).  Sandor also tries to kill Garth but a cavalry arrives to shoot Sandor first.  Garth is reunited with Janet and Van Helsing makes his remark about Zaleska's previousdeath. This seems odd, for back in London he seemed to have no specific knowledge of her existence.

DAUGHTER, though a much moodier film than the original DRACULA, is distinguished by a thoughtful script with unusually strong moments of comedy relief, particularly the verbal sparring between Janet and Garth.  Lambert Hillyer's direction follows some of the pacing of the Browning film, but he shows himself able to move the action along at a good clip whenever necessary.  The vampiric lore borrowed from both Stoker and Browning is internally consistent, though it's interesting that whereas Stoker's very old vampires do collapse into dust when killed, here neither Dracula nor his daughter decompose.  Of course, had Dracula turned to dust, the writers would have had to find a different plot-direction altogether.

The dominant myth-function here is naturally psychological in nature, rebuking psychology's own positivistic premises and subscribing more to an Old World notion of inescapable sin and the wages of sin.  In some academic circles, DRACULA'S DAUGHTER has acquired the aura of a vintage lesbian film because of Zaleska's attacks on two women.  I don't question that the filmmakers probably played to such titillating images, but Zaleska as written has zero interest in Janet, and as I said earlier, her invitation to the other young woman is a test of her own will NOT to seduce and destroy the girl, which test Zaleska fails.  At the same time, her preoccupation with Garth doesn't seem like hot hetero passion, either.  She seems to incline toward him as a talisman that she feels will dispel her father's power, although he's entirely inadequate to suppress her vampiric nature.  It would probably be fair to say that the daughter of Dracula does conjure forth all polymorphous pleasures, but then, in keeping with the mores of the time, defers them as being linked to death and therefore fundamentally unpleasurable.




Saturday, January 28, 2012

BOMBA AND THE JUNGLE GIRL (1952), SAFARI DRUMS (1953)








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

Though the Bomba films continued to follow pretty simple courses in the eighth and ninth outings, these two are at least lively compared to the earlier two.  On a minor note SAFARI DRUMS is the second film to assert that Bomba could talk to animals and persuade them (up to a point) to do his bidding.

BOMBA AND THE JUNGLE GIRL is the first film in which Bomba becomes curious about the parents that brought him to the jungle, and how it happened that they died and left him to be raised in the care of an unrelated white explorer.  When Bomba explores the effects of his deceased father-figure, he discovers a mutilated diary.  He tries to read it (keeping a bit of continuity with his increased reading-skills in ELEPHANT STAMPEDE) and finally gives the diary to Commissioner Barnes.  Barnes directs Bomba to a particular Masai village; according to the diary, Bomba's late parents were buried in the network of caves adjacent to the village.

On his way to the village, Bomba encounters the "jungle girl"-- or in actuality, one of two "jungle girls" important to the story.  Linda (Karen Sharpe) is really just a civilized girl who happens to be in the jungle as an assistant to her father Ward, who travels amongst the local tribes performing some form of vague "inspections" on behalf of the colonial government.  Bomba first sees Linda swimming in a local river, which to seasoned Tarzanphiles always connotes the aquatic ballets of Weismuller and O'Sullivan; however, the sight of Karen Sharpe in a full bathing suit is about all the eroticism one gets here.  Bomba saves Linda from a crocodile, but in a rare turnaround, she reaches shore and finishes off the croc herself with a rifle-shot.  Linda proves no less resourceful in later scenes, wielding her rifle to prevent the jungle-boy from being executed by natives, and later, in a combat scene, shooting one native off Bomba.

Linda escorts Bomba to the village, where he makes inquiries about his parents to the tribal chief Gamboso and his domineering daughter Princess Baru (Suzette Harbin).  The two of them give Bomba no info about his parents, and they claim that the tribal woman who nursed baby Bomba has died.  However, the old woman isn't dead, for her grown son seeks out the jungle boy and brings Bomba to her.  The old lady, blinded to force her to keep silent, reveals that Gamboso took over the tribe from the rightful rulers and had Bomba's parents killed so that they couldn't report the takeover to the white government.

A blowdart kills the blind woman, and Princess Baru-- whose unusual "authority" over the tribesmen is remarked upon by Ward-- accuses Bomba.  Linda and Ward don't trust the natives to take Bomba back to the regional authorities, and they liberate him. In retaliation Baru ambushes Ward's safari as it heads home.  Bomba manages to save Ward and Linda but most of the bearers are killed or driven off.  This forces the good guys to take refuge in the nearby caves-- at which point Bomba finds the graves of his parents, and his father's diary, which records the usurpation of the old tribal rulers.  Gamboso and Baru pursue the heroes to the caves, at which point it's revealed that Baru used the blowgun on the old woman.  Bomba and Linda fight it out with Gamboso and Baru.  Oddly, though Gamboso is simply defeated and captured, Baru is given an odd death-scene when she rushes out of the cave into a raging fire and is burned to death.  Gamboso is taken to the authorities and Bomba swings off, leaving Linda pining for more of his company.

What's most interesting about JUNGLE GIRL is that the title could almost apply as easily to Baru as to Linda, given that Baru really has grown up in the jungle (though the title suggests that the audience is going to encounter something more along the lines of a juvenile Sheena).  Prior to this 1952 film I can't think of any black females who are as formidable as Baru: the only "black female villains" I've seen are temptresses like the Georgia Brown character of CABIN IN THE SKY.  Jungle-adventure comic books sometimes included black females as villainous high priestesses and the like, but often such characters weren't drawn to look like African blacks, just dusky versions of white women.  It's also interesting that when Baru gets into a catfight with Linda, Linda loses and has to be rescued by Bomba.  So at least Baru gets to kick a little whitegirl ass before her big death-scene.

SAFARI DRUMS doesn't offer any characters as interesting as Baru, but it does return to the series' vaguely pro-ecological theme.  Rich Larry Conrad, a return to the "Ugly White Explorer" theme that launched the series, launches a safari into Commissioner Barnes' territory hoping to film exotic (read: violent) encounters with the local wildlife, for sale back in the States.  Barnes doesn't expect that Bomba will be sympathetic to Conrad and his party-- one of whom is young female assistant Peg-- but he sends a drum-message to Bomba anyway.  Bomba sends one back, essentially saying 'no."  Despite the prominence of "drums" in the title, they never play any role in the story greater than providing an exotic communication-system.

Conrad's party sets out without Bomba's guide-services, but two secrets accompany the safari.  After their departure Barnes learns one secret from local authorities, who tell Barnes that an unidentified murderer has apparently joined the safari.  This motivates Barnes to send a new message to Bomba, asking him to pose as the safari's guide and keep them busy until the local constabulary can overtake the caravan.  Bomba does so, and even uses his talent at calling animals to give the photographers more exotic subjects-- though with the stipulation that they can't needlessly shoot any of them.  When a trigger-happy fellow named Brad does shoot a lion, pretending to do so in self-defense, it's almost a given that he's going to be the killer.

Peg befriends Bomba and soon reveals the group's other secret: in one of the party's trucks Conrad's brought along a caged tiger.  Conrad plans to trap a lion and force it to fight the tiger in order to get exciting footage for the American audience.  Bomba refuses to help and deserts Conrad, yet tries to stay close to trap the killer and prevent the fight.  He's successful in the first respect but not in the last.  Apparently Monogram had access to some other film that staged a lion-tiger fight, and director Ford Beebe edited those scenes into this film, thus giving the audience the very sight that the script finds immoral.

The end is rather amusing.  Conrad, sheepish at having brought a killer along, confronts the local authorities, afraid that they might take his film away.  The colonials admit that there's no actual law against filming a lion-tiger fight-- not least because there are no tigers in Africa-- and permit him to keep his film.  However, Bomba's chimp friend Kimba intervenes with vigilante justice, exposing Conrad's film to sunlight and ruining Conrad's photographic epic.  The series doesn't always manage to dole out justice to its Ugly White (but non-criminal) Explorers, but SAFARI makes a happy exception.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

SCROOGED (1988)



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


Of all the strategies Charles Dickens employs in the original CHRISTMAS CAROL to show Ebenezer Scrooge's flaws, the most successful appears during the "Christmas Past" sequence.  During that sequence the reader sees that Scrooge, the miser who can't stand to spread his wealth around, rejoiced in his youth to receive just such bounties from his employer Fezziwigg.  The effect of the scene is to impress on both Scrooge and the readers that Scrooge has been among other things a hypocrite: enjoying largesse when it's applied to him but not willing to dispense same.

With that in mind, I find Richard Donner's SCROOGED to be guilty of the sin of hypocrisy.  Given that it's a Xmas film, not to mention the expectations aroused by any adaptation of CHRISTMAS CAROL, it's a given that it has to attempt to deliver the same moral message on how people need to care for one another, particularly the stand-in for Ebenezer, Frank Cross (Bill Murray). But given that at heart SCROOGED is a grossout comedy-- a genre which is all but based in extreme sadism, wherein he audience takes amusement at terrible things happening to people, whether they deserve them or not-- all of the film's attempts at pushing a message of lovingkindness seem more than a little strained.

Just as Ebenezer Scrooge's sin of Mammonism manifested through the way he ran his business, Frank Cross's very different sin-- that of promulgating "bread and circuses" to brainwash TV mass-audiences and make them buy more products-- manifests though his job as a TV executive.  Everything he does is calculated to screw around with beloved classics for the sake of ratings, including:

--A version of CAROL with Buddy Hackett as Scrooge and Mary Lou Retton as Tiny Tim,

--An action-opus in which Santa Claus teams up with "Lee Majors, the Six Million Dollar Man" in order to fight off a team of psycho terrorists,

--And an advertisement for the CAROL special designed to make the viewers literally afraid not to watch it, and which allegedly causes one old lady to drop dead in front of her TV.

Of course, even though the film has to tow the line with the notion that all of these are Very Bad Things, the truth is that the script takes particular joy in such spoofs and travesties, just as Bill Murray's Cross is fun to watch even when he's firing loyal employees on Christmas Eve or stealing a taxi from a burdened old woman.  It's not precisely that the audience likes seeing cruelty as such; rather, they like seeing their expectations for decent behavior turned upside-down.  Further, to some extent Cross' behavior is merely a more manic version of the "I'm all right Jack" attitude of his fellow TV execs: doddering Preston (Robert Mitchum), who thinks the station should skew its programming to include family pets' reactions, Cross's Marley-esque mentor Lew, who according to Cross paid for all his girlfriends, and smarmy up-and-comer Brice, who wants to edge Cross out of his job.

Despite my charge of thematic hypocrisy, SCROOGED does have a lot of funny bits, even if Murray mugs a little too often for my taste.  Just as readers of CHRISTMAS CAROL take pleasure in seeing the miser brought low, all the nasty acts of the absurdly tyrannical Cross (interesting name given the non-Santa aspect of the holiday) are set-ups for his slapstick humiliation by the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Future. 

Of the three ghosts, Christmas Past (David Johansen) is the least interesting, presenting himself as a slobbish cab-driver who takes Cross to the various haunts of his youth, revealing explicitly that Cross became fascinated by television as a compensation-mechanism to cope with his irrational and unforgiving father (one need not have taken Psych 101 to realize that Cross has also imitated the behavior of this dubious father-figure.

The Ghost of Christmas Future is a heavy-on-the-FX version of the traditional Grim Reaper, though in an odd tip of the hat to Dickens, it's conflated slightly with Dickens' imagery for the Ghost of Christmas Present (ghastly looking human shapes appear inside the Ghost's robe). 

However, the film outdoes itself with the Ghost of Christmas Present by essentially satirizing two saccharine images of children's entertainment: throwing together the image of sugar-plum fairies and the Billie Burke incarnation of Glinda the Good Witch from 1939's WIZARD OF OZ.  Carol Kane essays this role with incredible energy, and manages to steal the show from Murray in her scenes with him.

The conclusion is the biggest letdown, in which Murray, a reformed man, interrupts his own Xmas special to deliver a tortured appeal to audiences to stop watching television and reach out to one another.  Murray tries to give the speech his twisted comic appeal, but it just doesn't hold together when one realizes that in SCROOGED the real "gift that keeps on giving" is its freewheeling abuse of pretty much everything, whether deserving of mistreatment or not.

Even when I first saw the film, I thought the filmmakers undercut their own alleged message in one scene where Brice, the unctuous Uriah Heep-imitator, is victimized by having him blamed for the foulup of the Xmas special and then molested by a less than attractive female.  Since the filmmakers already diverged from the main theme of CHRISTMAS CAROL, I thought it might have been interesting if Brice, rather than just getting dumped on, had last been seen getting mobbed by the Three Ghosts, indicating that he too was going to get some "tough love."  But probably even that wouldn't have kept the film from being "scrooged over" by its own internal consistencies.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

THE INCREDIBLE HULK (2008)




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

In the interest of keeping all or most of my film-reviews in one place, I'm reprinting this 2008 review of the second Hulk movie from my ARCHETYPAL ARCHIVE blog as is.  In the text I don't make my usual references to mythicity or Campbellian functions but they should be pretty easy to deduce.


********

A number of reviewers have tagged 2008’s THE INCREDIBLE HULK (henceforth HULK ‘08) as “average” or “by the numbers.” This verdict bespeaks the inability of most critics to discern meaning in superhero films unless the film all but drives those meanings into the critic’s skull with a balpeen hammer.

HULK ‘08 is admittedly not a work of cinematic genius (whatever form that might take for the greatest of all possible Hulk movies). But for all of its flaws, it’s far from average—especially in that it’s a sequel to a previous attempt to bring the character of the Hulk to the big screen. Usually sequels are pale attempts to recreate the success of the original, but as directed by Louis Letterier, HULK ’08 is about as far as one could get from Ang Lee’s 2003 HULK. The latter shares the faults of many similar Hollywood renditions of comic-book properties: a tendency to borrow scenarios from comic-book properties without understanding their expressive potentials. In contrast, HULK ’08 captures the emotional core of the Lee-Kirby Hulk concept, as well as some of the later riffs on the concept, such as the Kenneth Johnson teleseries.

The TV show is the source of another wrong-minded critical broadside: that HULK ’08 is a virtual recreation of the series. Such critics have allowed themselves to focus on a few trees to the exclusion of the forest—here, a joke on the “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry” line; there, snatches of the show’s theme music. But HULK ’08 has little in common with Kenneth Johnson’s conversion of the Hulk concept into a good-Samaritan wanderer, modeled on the classic FUGITIVE teleseries. The raison d’etre of Johnson’s “David Banner” was that his curse forced him to hike around getting mixed up in ordinary people’s lives, with the Hulk serving as an eleventh-hour reprieve from danger. But ordinary people barely exist in HULK ’08 except as background. Only once does Letterier’s Bruce Banner intervene in a common person’s life, acting to protect a female co-worker from a masher, but she immediately disappears, having served only to set up Banner’s later violent encounter with the bully-boy and his friends. No, this Hulk is not a wandering teleChrist, any more than he is Ang Lee’s bundle of twitchy anxieties. The ‘08 Hulk incarnates the same myth that Lee and Kirby spawned from their knowledge of one of the most basic themes of monster-tales: the theme of the savage rebelling against the repressions of civilization.

This is the theme of HULK ‘08 that many have overlooked, even those who have approved of Letterier’s greater focus on “Hulk Smash” action as against Ang Lee’s more lackadaisical effort. Some critics have noted that the screenplay credited to Zac Penn (but ostensibly rewritten by actor Edward Norton) has minimized its references to the Lee film, particularly with regard to the Hulk’s confused origin therein (Lee’s nanotech-thingies are happily forgotten). Instead, Letterier’s one flashback to events from the previous film arranges things so as to excise references to Ang Lee’s bad-dad villain. Instead the main adversary is General Ross, who both here and in the original comic-series symbolizes the Hulk’s most primal enemy: civilization, as incarnated by the military, the guardians of society’s boundaries.

I should quickly add that when I speak of the conflict of “savage vs. civilization,” I don’t want to fall in with the critical camp that thinks in terms of “subverting the dominant.” The guardians of society don’t represent some superficial icon to be knocked down by the rise of benevolent Marxism; they are a force that arises in every society, under every political philosophy—and they always present the danger of tyrannizing those whom they are theoretically supposed to protect. That’s why a monster-hero like the Hulk, raging like a child against all constraints, contains such a primal appeal for audiences, even though the soldiers he kicks around (and maybe kills—the film’s careful not to shoot that) are fundamentally “our boys.”

A full analysis of INCREDIBLE HULK #1—the Lee-Kirby opus that birthed the characters of the Hulk and his ensemble—is beyond the bounds of this article. But the first half of the story, setting up the Hulk’s origin, remains one of the most mythically-complex sequences ever to appear in the comic-book medium. Ang Lee’s film did at least bring forth a portion of the comic-book ensemble ignored by the teleseries: Bruce Banner’s girlfriend Betty and her “heavy father” General Ross, who disapproves of his daughter’s dalliance with a weakling scientist and who becomes, as I said, the Hulk’s most enduring foe for a couple of decades’ worth of comics-adventures. But Ang Lee’s Ross shows little of the comics-character’s bellicose temperament, which is a trait that Letterier brings back in full force. In addition, HULK ’08 gives Ross the status—albeit subtly implied— as the emissary of a military run amuck. In HULK #1, Ross represents the U.S. military that wants civilian scientist Banner to unleash the gamma bomb’s Promethean fire, which fire ends up consuming Banner. In HULK ’08, General Ross, not Banner’s wacky mad-scientist dad, is made ultimately responsible for the Hulk’s mutation, and he chases the Hulk for an even more forbidding reason than the comics-character does: not just to kill the monster, but to dissect him for use in creating a breed of super-soldiers.

It should be said that in the comics Ross is not as dislikeable as he is in HULK ’08. HULK #1 was written during the full bloom of the Red Scare of the early 60s, and so General Ross’ bellicosity doesn’t exist in isolation: certainly his creators see him as preferable to any agent of the Communist regime. Indeed, one could see the Hulk as the spawn of the conflict between the two superpowers, for the U.S. military funds the creation of the gamma bomb, but the aggressiveness of Russia makes it necessary, and one Communist agent is even directly responsible for Banner’s mutation. Again, without going into great detail about HULK #1’s story, the first two pages of the story introduce not only Banner, Betty and the General, but also Banner’s lab assistant Igor, who is also a Russian double agent. One wonders where Igor got his espionage-training, since he not only fails to change his name to something like “John Jones,” he also aggressively antagonizes Banner (towering over the shrimpy scientist at one point in a threatening manner). His hostility to Banner, arguably, doubles and reinforces that of General Ross, which makes Banner’s transformation into the mountainous Hulk even more resonant. When Banner rushes to prevent teenager Rick Jones from falling victim to the gamma-bomb test, he tells Igor to stop the test, and Igor, acting on behalf of his Communist masters, allows the bomb to go off, hoping Banner will die in the blast. Ironically this act spawns the creation of a monster that continually assails the military forces of both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. As I’ve said, this shows that the Hulk’s creators saw him as a savage at odds with all of society’s guardians.

Now, Igor was merely a spear-carrier sort of character. After his act of malicious neglect, the newly-born Hulk comes across Igor and thrashes him, inadvertently serving the forces of democracy by exposing the lab-assistant as a spy. After that, Stan Lee never wrote another story with Igor, but he uses the same type of character (“Covert Soviet Operative #677) to create another Hulk-villain, the Abomination. In TALES TO ASTONISH #90, writer Stan Lee and artist Gil Kane had spy Emil Blonsky gain access to a gamma-ray machine created by Bruce Banner, and with said machine Blonsky deliberately changes himself into a “second Hulk,” albeit with more dinosaur-like features and full intelligence. He was not initially allied to General Ross, as they stood on opposite sides of the political spectrum, but after Blonsky deserted the Communist cause, he sometimes found himself working for Ross as a living weapon to take on their common green-skinned adversary. In all likelihood the HULK ’08 script is influenced by some of those later Ross/Abomination alliances.

Just as the Hulk of the comics cannot attack his real foe Ross without ending the conflict immediately, Letterier’s monster-hero can only fight Ross’ catspaws, be it big machines (like the film’s excellent sonic cannon) or villains like the Abomination. Arguably the sections of the film that build toward creating a super-powered opponent for the heroic monster might be fairly criticized as “average.” In the film the character of Emil Blonsky is a former Soviet commando now working hand-in-glove with the American military, who is enlisted by Ross to go after Banner with a squad of operatives. (The squad’s flagrant pursuit of Banner across international lines into Brazil perfectly summarizes contemporary Bush-era military attitudes.) When Banner does his Hulk thing, Blonsky—whose character seems to be that of a danger-junkie—avidly desires the Hulk’s power, and Ross endeavors to give it to him, though the first application seems to make Blonksy into something more on the level of Captain America. (In all likelihood the revision of the Hulk’s origin as being the result of a “super-soldier formula” will probably tie in with a Captain America film down the cinematic road.) This is where the film does lose its way slightly. Whereas Ross is never less than the total incarnation of the military mind, willing to do almost anything to anybody to insure the army’s superior firepower, Blonsky is never quite credible as someone who would be willing to risk becoming a hideous monster to attain superior power (which would have made him like an even darker version of Ross, who is ruthless but not utterly villainous inasmuch as he sees himself as serving his country). In my view Blonsky would’ve been better served had he been played not by modestly-sized Tim Roth, but by some would-be Schwarzenegger-type who had attained the biggest biceps possible to man, but felt himself outclassed by the Hulk’s boulder-shoulders and so desired his power.

Nevertheless, even if the film’s Abomination isn’t that deep a villain (any more than he was in the comics), Letterier’s military serves that purpose. Ang Lee’s HULK gave audiences some acceptable Hulk-rampages, recreating such comics-scenes as Hulk ripping the tops off of tanks—but these conflicts were superficial, since the central conflict evolved out of the bad-daddy concept (also loosely derived from comics-continuity, albeit not that of Lee and Kirby). This time, though Letterier doesn’t venture into Kent State territory—i.e., showing innocents actually shot down by the military in their obsessive quest for power—he still gets damn close when he has army jeeps and copters besiege a peaceful college campus when Banner goes there to contact Betty during his search for a cure. But I’m glad Letterier didn’t go the obvious route of trying to make the soldiers into obnoxious villains. Like the pilots who shoot down King Kong, the soldiers are just ordinary grunts trying to rein in what they think is a creature dangerous to society. (And since this time the monster has been created by the military, the military itself is ultimately more responsible for any deaths or injuries caused by the Hulk than the Hulk is.) As in the original KING KONG, only the audience has perspective enough to see the beauty at the heart of the beast. Indeed, when the Hulk flees the college with Betty Ross, and takes refuge in a cave with her, the scene recalls a similar scenario between Kong and his female prisoner in the 1933 film. This scene alone does more to establish a personality for the Hulk than did the Ang Lee film or the entire run of the Kenneth Johnson teleseries. In addition, the CGI that creates the Hulk seems much improved this time around. When the Hulk stands next to Betty, he seems to possess enough weight to crush her with one finger, and many of his facial grimaces recall those used by such comics-raconteurs like Jack Kirby and Bill Everett.

If Tim Roth was not the perfect choice for his role, I favor Edward Norton, Liv Tyler and William Hurt for Banner, Betty and Ross over the actors chosen for the Ang Lee outing. Hurt’s Ross is, as I said before, marked by a single-minded obsession with his military duty, while Banner has more of the incisive quality one might expect of a genius-scientist and Betty is simply more feisty. (Of course, some of Tyler’s scenes-- trying to make love to Bruce, helping Banner restrain the Hulk-persona-- are better material than anything Jennifer Connelly had to work with.) The savagery vs. civilization theme could have been exploited a bit more, but since it’s been said that a lot of scenes didn’t make the final theater cut, it may be that a HULK ’08 DVD will reveal further depths—which, of course, won’t be appreciated by most critics any more than the theatrical release was.

RISE: BLOOD HUNTER (2007)



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


Stylewise RISE: BLOOD HUNTER (written by Sebastian Gutierrez of SHE CREATURE and GOTHIKA "fame") resembles the hyper-realistic, moody, downbeat vampire dramas of the 1990s, such as 1994's NADJA.  Unfortunately, despite a talented cast-- Michael Chiklis, Carla Gugino and the "blood hunter" herself, Lucy Liu-- Gutierrez doesn't manage to do anything striking with this slightly more badass-themed vampire-adventure.

Sadie Blake (Liu) stumbles across a death-worshipping cult run by vampires, who have only minor similarities to the traditional Stoker kind: they're very strong and can heal most wounds, except those inflicted through the heart stake-fashion.  In addition, they feed (very messily) on the blood of people they hope will never be missed: the villain calls them "pedophilic wannabes and spoiled teenagers."  Sadie is captured and killed by head vampire Bishop and lady vampire Eve (Gugino), but Eve decides to resurrect Sadie because she fought so hard for life.  Other vampires then set Sadie up to gain vengeance on Bishop in order to eliminate their powerful enemy.

All of this sounds reasonably promising, but whether for reasons of taste or budget, Sadie's adventures generate little energy in the badass vampire-slaying department.  In addition, although Sadie moans a lot about being turned into a bloodsucker, her vampire angst carries no personal touches that raise it above the level of pedestrian kvetching.  Asian-American star Liu may have signed on to play Sadie because she's fairly down-to-earth compared to some of the Asian-flavored archetypes she's played in the past.  But Sadie simply doesn't compel the audience, and neither does her vampire-slaying companion, cop Clyde Rawlins (Chiklis).  Rawlins, like George C. Scott's character in Paul Schrader's HARDCORE, seeks to avenge himself for the loss of his daughter to the cult, and eventually becomes Sadie's reluctant backup.  Predictably enough, Sadie isn't the only pretty lady who gets brought back from the dead, but here too, Rawlins' confrontation with his undead daughter are another case of "been there, seen that."

The vampire fantasy is one that's almost tailor-made for deep psychological symbolizing, but Gutierrez's script merely follows the numbers all the way.  The "pedophilic wannabes" line above was about the only piece of writing I found memorable in this deadly-dull undead-offering.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

THE WORLD, THE FLESH, AND THE DEVIL (1959)



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


"There's enough for three."-- Sarah Crandall, only apparently talking about the food in her picnic basket

THE WORLD, THE FLESH, AND THE DEVIL, one of cinema's earliest "after the Bomb" scenarios, may strike modern audiences as a trifle too obvious and mannered in its attempt to posit a better world arising from the ashes of the old.  The entry from THE OVERLOOK ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SCIENCE FICTION FILMS asserts, perhaps correctly, that the film's final image-- of the three stars resolving to make a new civilization together-- implies the end of "monogamy and racial purity."

However, the same entry also claims that Mel Ferrer's character Benson is a bigot, a charge from which Belafonte's character Ralph explicitly exempts him (in a conversation with the only other character, Inger Stevens' Sarah).  More, the Encyclopedia falsely states that Benson is aghast when he thinks Ralph and Sarah may be a couple.  In point of fact, when Benson first encounter with the only other local survivors of the Bomb, he's too ill to show any concern for who's shacking up with whom.  In the very next encounter, when Sarah's tending Benson at bedside, he says nothing about their relationship.  Instead, Sarah's the one who brings up her non-existent relationship with Ralph, and Benson is mildly surprised that they're NOT doing anything.

While it's possible that WORLD's filmmakers meant to take a shot at conventional monogamy, the narrative still validates the underlying ideal of true love.  Belafonte's Ralph survives the fall of the bomb by dint of being underearth at the time, he then makes his way to New York City, where an old TV-broadcast helpfully informs Ralph that the citizens all fled to the countryside. One must presume they died of radiation poisoning out there, thus sparing the film-audience the sight of a New York clotted with dead bodies.  The emptied city does remind one of the much later notion of the "neutron bomb," which theoretically would kill people but leave the buildings in their cities standing.

Just at the point Ralph begins to lose his grip to the crushing loneliness of being alone in the big city-- he starts talking to department-store dummies and naming them-- he encounters Sarah.  The two of them remain wary of each other at first, but soon they're taking pleasure in one another's company.  Only once does race come up: when Sarah thoughtlessly declares in conversation that she's "free, white and 21."  Ralph doesn't particularly like the implication that one has to be white to be free and says so, but the script goes no deeper into race relations than that. 

Long before Benson shows up, it's evident that Ralph and Sarah have fallen in love, and she's more than a little impatient with his "chaste Negro" schtick.  Ralph never decisively explains his reticence, but it seems likely that he doesn't want her to love him because he's her only choice: hence, his desire for some proof that she really loves him.

Benson, by presenting a rival for Sarah's affections, ironically gives Ralph that validation.  Sarah naturally likes both men, but neither of them wants to share.  Both finally determine to fight a gun-duel in the empty streets of New York.  However, while Ralph's on the run he sees a United Nations inscription with the commandment to "make war no more."  Ralph surrenders to Benson, undermining the battle of the alpha males with the turning of a cheek.  Benson, being a decent guy at heart, can't kill a man who's not afraid and gives up on Sarah just as she shows up.  Interestingly, the final decision is hers: though it's plain that she loves Ralph, she invites Benson to come with them and build the new civilization-- though it's anyone's guess what status Benson will have in the new world.  Number Two Husband, perhaps?

There are several films of the period that endorse a Christian attitude of renunciation on the part of black Americans, and some of them are more than a little ideologically suspect.  Here, whatever the flaws of WORLD, it seems evident that all three characters, not just the black one, have to imitate Christ in terms of renouncing their old-world habits and preferences.  Such a myth probably seems naive to modern viewers, but in its quaint way, it does attain a deeper resonance than one generally finds in "after-the-Bomb" films.



MISS ROBIN CRUSOE (1954)



PHENOMENALITY: *naturalistic*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, sociological*


ROBINSON CRUSOE, meet THELMA AND LOUISE.
Not really, but for the first thirty minutes of this bargain-basement, gender-switching take on the Daniel Defoe novel, the audience does see two women stranded on an island but allied in a common cause against the tyranny of men.  However, as CRUSOE is a light romance, the ladies' negative experiences with the male gender must be proven to be nothing more than Darn Bad Luck.  Thus a studly male makes it to the island as well, literally (as the lobby card above shows) coming between "Miss Robin Crusoe" and her black female companion, unimaginatively dubbed Friday (which allegedly means "day of freedom" in some country or other).

Unlike Defoe's Crusoe, Miss Robin (Amanda Blake) is shipwrecked on an island with one other survivor of her ship, a male sailor.  He immediately chases Robin with rape in mind, but she runs to the top of a cliff and manages to kill him by pushing him off. Her mental soliloquy then informs the audience that she was the only woman aboard her father's ship, and that every man aboard had been lusting for her until the day of the wreck. This experience isn't the sole reason for her hatred of men: before that, as she will inform one of her two island-companions, her drunken father drove her mother to death and forced Robin to work in a public house (implicitly as a serving-girl, though one imagines this still wasn't the best place to encounter a nice guy).  Later her nasty father took her on board the ship to save the cost of a cabin boy, but though the dead paternal unit isn't explicitly identified as having molested his daughter, he certainly put her in a position where her rape was highly probable.  One might hazard that the nameless sailor she manages to kill is a stand-in for her worthless dad.  Later the association of sex, the sea and ships will crop up again.

After managing to build herself a treehouse against the elements, Robin mopes about a while until, as in the novel, a tribe of black islanders paddle their canoes to the island in order to execute a sacrifice, the tribeswoman (Roberta Hayes) who will become Friday (and to some extent, Robin's "savage" alter ego).  Robin snatches Friday from the jaws of sacrifice and repels the black island-men with her firearms; in addition, Friday proves more than competent, killing one islander with a knife and another with a spear.  Friday, who like her people has never seen firearms before, initially regards Robin as a god. Robin modestly tries to convince her that they are equals, though the relationship, as in the novel, remains one in which Robin still gives all the orders.  Once or twice there are dim suggestions that Friday may come to have some feeling for Robin beyond friendship-- Friday looks lovingly down at a sleeping Robin Crusoe-- but I tend to think that the filmmakers were thinking less of Lesbos than of the ideal of Mammy-ism: of the phenomenon of a black woman treating a white woman as if the latter were her child.

Friday, having almost been sacrificed by a bunch of male tribesmen, enthusiastically agrees with Robin's animadversions against all men.  Enter polite male castaway Jonathan (George Nader).  Initially Robin has Friday tie the man up to prevent his trying anything, but after a little sane male reasoning she lets him go off to some other part of the island.  At the same time Robin, using tools saved from her ship's wreck, endeavors to fix the damaged two-person lifeboat in which she and the sailor arrived on the island.  Jonathan finds out about the boat and seems too interested for Robin's liking. Friday likes the new arrival even less, and fails to inform the man when he accidentally samples some poison fruit.  Ironically, this gambit backfires on Friday, as civilized Robin nurtures the hated male back to health.

Soon Robin begins to regard Jonathan in a new light.  One night Friday takes it into her head to build a big fire and dance around it with heathen abandon.  Robin watches the dance and it unlocks all her buried erotic emotions, paving the way for a seashore tryst between her and Jonathan.

However, as so often happens with the break of day after the night of passion, Robin awakes from her post-coital sleep to the sight of betrayal: Jonathan rowing away from the island in her lifeboat, leaving both Robin and Friday behind.  To say the least, this does not improve Robin's opinion of men.

Naturally, all's well that ends well: Jonathan really left so that he'd have a better chance to find a manned vessel, which he does, and he returns just in time to help Robin and Friday fight off the return of the pissed-off black islanders.  The film closes with their marriage, and though the audience never finds out what happened to Friday afterward, at least she's still alive at story's end and so isn't used for the egregious "heroic death of the loyal black servant" trope.

The scene in which the civilized white woman is "enlivened" by the savage black woman has its basis in Caucasian culture's framing of sociological terms like "savage" and "civilized," but it's not that noteworthy.  Jonathan's theft of the boat, though, is more significant, because it appears so quickly after his "theft" of Robin's virginity, and so reinforces the Robin character's association between the sea and rapacious males.  Moreover, the way that he steals the boat only after she's let down on her guard and allowed herself to be seduced has a strong folkloric vibe to it.  It's as if, as long as she's got her virgo intacta, he can't steal the boat; once she yields, he can whisk away with the prize like Heracles escaping with the girdle of Hippolyta.

As for the categorization of the film's phenomenality, the only thing that renders it a little dubious is a short scene following Jonathan's abandonment.  Robin, wandering the island full of betrayal, happens upon Friday, who has constructed a man-shaped image on the earth out of stones.  She appears to tell the future from the stones, telling Robin, "Good man come back."  Robin kicks the stones apart, whereon Friday dourly predicts, "Now bad men come."  As it happens, both predictions come true, but because it's not decisively established that Friday can predict the future-- since she could be just uttering her own fears and/or preferences-- I regard this as a species of illusionism, and hence beneath the naturalistic version of the "enthralling hypnotism and illusionism" trope.

Monday, January 23, 2012

OUTLANDER (2008)



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


I've always thought it a shame that so many Sci-Fi Channel movies (whether directed produced by the channel or simply conceived along similar lines) have followed the rather brain-dead "disaster of the week" format, usually with some gargantuan critter taking the place of a natural upheaval.  Next to most of these staggeringly ordinary works, "big bug" flicks from the 1950s, such as THEM! and TARANTULA, are mythic masterpieces.


OUTLANDER still includes a giant monster, but the script-- co-written by director Howard McCain-- does so with considerably more fun than most of the "colossal creature" flicks of recent years.  This is a little surprising, since McCain's most notable script before OUTLANDER was the rather-dull UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS, but then, no one's at their best taking over some other writer's franchise.


The plot comes down to the statement: What if both Beowulf and Grendel were aliens who fell to Earth amid a community of Vikings (Vikings being substituted for the less recognizable tribes of the epic poem).  The race of the humanoid alien Kainan (Jim Cazeviel) is destroyed by the monstrous Moorwen, who then flees to Earth with Kainan in pursuit.  He's taken prisoner by a tribe of Vikings (a couple of whom take the names of characters from the poem) and must convince them to be his allies against the monster.

This is essentially a basic socialization myth, in which the stranger who comes to defend the small town ends up becoming a part of it.  He's converted in part by the headman's daughter (Sophia Myles),  a feisty tomboy who doesn't want to marry the local alpha male but gravitates quickly toward the studly stranger.

There's no attempt to duplicate the deeper themes of BEOWULF the poem, and perhaps that's all to the best, given how poorly Beowulf has usually been served.  But the socialization theme gives the actors-- Cazeviel, Myles, John Hurt, and Ron Perlman-- some meaty material with which to work, putting them far ahead of the unfortunate stars of such monster-disasters as MEGAPYTHON VS. GATOROID.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

THE DAYDREAMER (1966)



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological*


"It's the dull stuff that makes the world go around these days."-- Papa Andersen in THE DAYDREAMER.

Early on, when young Hans Christian Andersen (called "Chris" throughout the film) is grousing about the drudgery of his homework, his mild-mannered pop gives him the above advice.  It's not intended as a statement of the theme for this odd Rankin-Bass concoction of live-action and stop-motion animation, but it fits nevertheless.  Despite the fact that the film is being promoted as a recapitulation of the real Andersen's imaginative (if sometimes depressing) fantasies, the story seems to have very little to say about the nature or value of fantasy.  It urges practicality and conformity, and seems faintly hostile to the idea of fantasy, even in this mild "uncanny" form, where the mermaids and giant frogs are all part of a boy's daydreams.  The script-- co-written by producer Arthur Rankin Jr and directed by his partner Jules Bass-- even loosely implies that excessive fantasizing leads one to acts of egregiously selfish behavior.  This might be a valid theme if the filmmakers had pursued it diligently, but the script waffles and never really makes any point more profound than "there's no place like home," roughly in the vein of Maeterlinck's BLUE BIRD.  (Interestingly, the 1940 Shirley Temple adaptation of the Maeterlinck play also focused on an extremely selfish child, which according to Wikipedia is not an element in the original play.)

At the outset Papa Andersen (Jack Gilford), a kind old shoemaker, makes the mistake of telling his discontented boy-child a story about the Garden of Paradise, where no one has to work for food and knowledge. Chris, having already established himself as the sort of kid who asks his widowed father to sell his wedding ring so that they can have fun with the money-- decides he's leaving in pursuit of Paradise, where he'll never have to do homework.  He's quite unmindful of the distress this will cause his doting dad, who drops everything to look for his wandering boy as soon as he learns of Chris running off.
Chris takes a boat looking for Paradise.  He dreams that a storm smashes his boat and that he sinks, drowned to death, to the undersea world of King Neptune and his mermaid daughters.  One of them, the forerunner of adult Andersen's "Little Mermaid" (Hayley Mills), falls in love with the dead boy and makes a bargain with the Sea Witch to restore his life.  The bargain is naturally not quite the same as in the Andersen tale, but it ends just as badly for the Little Mermaid.  Chris soon leaves her underwater domain, still looking for Paradise, and unaware that the Mermaid has sacrificed her happy life in the sea for his sake.
Chris wakes from his dream, still in his boat, which he then navigates to shore.  This establishes the film's basic narrative pattern: every time "real Chris" stops in his journey for a sleep, "animated Chris" takes over and encounters figures from the stories Andersen will write as an adult.

Next up, Chris visits the world of "The Emperor's New Clothes."  This is a pretty efficient retelling of the classic tale; however, it has nothing to do with Chris' journey and deals a serious blow to the narrative momentum; a blow from which the film never really recovers.  It does little except to show that Chris isn't too bright in addition to being selfish; the crooked tailors of the story use him as a stooge and he's as fooled by their manipulations as the Emperor and (almost) everyone else.

The story more or less gets moving again when "animated Chris" encounters Thumbelina (Patty Duke), who's also searching for Paradise.  However, in their travels they're forced to deal with two evil animals, the Rat (Boris Karloff) and the Mole (Sessue Hayakawa).  This "adventure" is pretty dull but it goes even further to show how callous Chris is toward a wounded sparrow, in contrast to how Thumbelina gives the creature aid.  In return the sparrow offers to take Thumbelina to the Land of the Little People, which is Paradise to her.  But it's not Paradise to Chris-- even though he's the same height as the girl-- so he breaks off from her and goes looking again.

Chris does finally find his Garden of Paradise, with guidance from that guardian of dreams, The Sandman.  The Sandman doesn't approve of Chris' selfish actions.  Chris claims that he'll do better, and the Sandman does lead him to the Garden (populated, like Adam's, only by himself and various animals).  But like Adam, Chris is given an injunction not to eat the "flowers of the Tree of Knowledge" (maybe the scripters thought the traditional apple would smack of blasphemy).  Chris promises not to touch the Tree, thinking he has no needs in a world where all of his wishes will instantly come true.

However, no sooner does the Sandman depart with Chris' promise than a "devil" shows up, though this devil looks to be a boy Chris' age, albeit with horns, and he's dressed more like Pan than Satan.  The tempter talks Chris into doing what he surely wants to do anyway, claiming that the blossoms of knowledge will reveal how Chris can make it in the real world.  The fact that Chris falls for it indicates that he really wants to excel  in the real world; he just doesn't want to work for it.  Chris is thus expelled from the last of his wild dreams, which means that he wakes up to his real self's problem.  He's captured by a cruel guardsman who has already taken his father prisoner for supposed poaching activities, and both stand in danger of being servants for the rest of their lives.  But Papa Andersen wins free by offering the guard his wedding ring in exchange for their freedom.
By story's end, Chris is finally attacking his books with real diligence.  The Sandman observes that in many ways he wasn't much worse than anyone else, but that Chris will find his Paradise as an adult, when he writes his great fairy-tales on the subject of mankind's foibles.

It's a little refreshing to see a kid-protagonist who's not overly nice, and Chris does resemble some of Andersen's less admirable protagonists.  But he seems to give up his selfishness largely because he has no choice, not because he's impressed by his father's magnanimous gesture.

It's ironic that just one year later, the same production-team came out with MAD MONSTER PARTY, which celebrated the power of fantasy (not to mention making a much better use of Boris Karloff).  Maybe PARTY benefited from the fact that movie-monsters aren't expected to be as proper and moral as certain fairy-tales and their purveyors. 

Thursday, January 19, 2012

WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO AUNT ALICE? (1969)



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

ALICE is one of three films produced in the 1960s by Robert Aldrich which all starred older female stars in roles suggestive of crime and/or horror.  In its advertising ALICE, the last of the three, made patent reference to the first with the tag-line: "Whatever happened to Aunt Alice was more terrifying than what happened to Baby Jane."  However, I deem neither of these to be metaphenomenal films simply because they deal with macabre or violent subject matter.  Both are essentially mundane crime films first, and ALICE, unlike WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE, doesn't even contain the trope that most causes confusion: a "perilous psycho."  It's quite clear that the villainous Clair Marrable (Geraldine Page) kills for money, not for any reason flowing from a messed-up psyche.

The plot is essentially a cat-and-mouse game.  Clair, rendered destitute by her late husband's bad investments, gets the bright idea to hire elderly housekeepers, bilk them of their savings and then kill them, burying them in the garden behind her Arizona domicile.  However, after knocking off at least two such targets, a new housekeeper, known as Mrs. Dimmock (Ruth Gordon) arrives with an agenda.  She knew one of the victims and decided to take her missing friend's previous position in order to suss out possible misdeeds.  Dimmock's nephew, who knows her as "Aunt Alice," is aware of his aunt's imposture and continually tries to persuade her not to play amateur detective.  By the climax Clair finds out about Aunt Alice's agenda and the duel is on, ending up with fatal consequences for Aunt Alice.  At the close, Clair's crimes are found out, and in the film's only genius moment, she learns with terrible irony that she never needed to have killed anyone, because of an unexpected bequest from her late husband.

ALICE is all the way an actor's film: its strengths are in watching Page and Gordon interact with each other and the other principals.  I rate the film's mythicity as poor because it has no deeper symbolic resonance beyond being a cat-and-mouse tale.

As a sidenote, I will say that the second of the Aldrich-produced "old lady movies"-- HUSH HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE-- does, to the best of my recollection, qualify as a bonafide horror film.  Possibly in a future post I'll have a chance to show why.   

NIGHT IN PARADISE (1946)



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

The only good lines from Universal's 1946 romantic drama NIGHT IN PARADISE (quoted from memory, but essentially accurate) appear when Princess Delarai (Merle Oberon) and Leonides, chancellor to the court of King Croesus, plot to destroy a mutual enemy by making it appear that he's tried to get it on with Delarai, which will bring down the wrath of Croesus on the enemy's head:

LEONIDES: Now, remember, when we break in, we must find you and Aesop irretrievably enmeshed!
DELARAI: (offended) "Irretrievably?"
LEONIDES: Well-- "enmeshed," anyway.

I couldn't find out anything about the source for PARASIDE, a novel by one  George Sidney Hellman, but I imagine that whatever Universal took from the novel was heavily worked over to reflect the studio's formulas for the  subgenre sometimes called "costume romance."  To my knowledge this is the only work in this subgenre set in the Greek world of Aesop and Croesus. PARADISE essentially rewrites this tale from Plutarch:

Plutarch  tells us that Aesop had come to Delphi on a diplomatic mission from King Croesus of Lydia, that he insulted the Delphians, was sentenced to death on a trumped-up charge of temple theft, and was thrown from a cliff-- Wikipedia entry for Aesop.

The film PARADISE somehow manages to enswathe this story-nugget in a bewildering "mesh" of storylines, none of which are ever all that compelling, though I give points to director Arthur Lubin (best known to horror-fans for 1943's PHANTOM OF THE OPERA) and the novel's two adapters for being a good deal more ambitious than the standard romance of this type.

As with many romances, the central conflict revolves around the attempt of a young man to win a young woman away from an older and undeserving tyrant.  Oberon's character Delarai of Persia is sent to become the bride of gold-loving sovereign Croesus (Thomas Gomez). As Lydia is a great power in the Aegean, Croesus extracts tribute from several nearby vassal states, but by doing so he sows the seeds of his own destruction.

The first sowing comes via ancient-looking, hunchbacked Aesop (Turhan Bey), who journeys to Lydia as the ambassador of the isle of Samos.  He makes the attempt to convince Croesus that he would prosper less by tribute than by forging a treaty of mutual respect and affirmation with the fiercely independent island.  Unsurprisingly, Croesus doesn't fancy the idea of getting LESS gold, and orders Aesop's execution.  To Aesop's fortune, Delarai is impressed with the aged storyteller's famous fables, and she persuades Croesus to let the ambassador live.  Aesop doesn't exactly give Delarai much credit, though, as he finds fault with her for planning to make a political marriage.  She naturally goes off in a royal huff.

The other sowing comes when Croesus sets up a scheme to bilk a fellow ruler, Atossa of Phrygia (Gale Sondergaard).  For some time Atossa has been trying to get in Croesus' good graces for the possibility of a union of royal houses: it's not clear whether she actually loves the Lydian King or whether she too just wants to marry her power to his. Croesus' statements to his chamberlain make clear that he has zero interest in the older woman.  To his misfortune, Atossa simultaneously finds out about both the swindle and the king's plans to marry a younger woman.  Since Atossa happens to be versed in the dark arts of Phyrgia, she lays plans to bewitch the greedy monarch.

Her first few sendings-- mostly mysterious voices-- soon have Croesus climbing the walls in fear.  He seeks the advice of Aesop, who professes a belief in pure reason and discounts stories of sorcery.  Briefly, Aesop's counsel banishes Atossa's sendings and Aesop stands high in Croesus' books.

However, old Aesop continues to rag on Delarai, and she gets pissed enough that she sets him up as mentioned above.  However, Aesop has a secret: he wears a false hunchback and old-age makeup to cover his genuine youthfulness, because "people only value wisdom when it comes from age."  However, it isn't pearls of wisdom he wants to swap with Delarai.  Atossa sends her own image to appear before skeptical Aesop, in order to mock him for his own desires, his real reason for despising the coming marriage.  She also tries to get Aesop to poison their mutual enemy Croesus, but though he's flabbergasted by the appearance of real magic, Aesop refuses the temptation to do evil. 

Still, all the talk about his true motives fires him with the resolve to romance Delarai as his true self.  He doffs his old-age makeup, and keeps the rendezvous with Delaria not as Aesop, but as his young student "Jason of Tyre."  Delarai is quite taken with this younger version of her foe and soon they're whispering sweet nothings in the garden.  After more lovemaking she figures out his secret and helps him escape before Leonides bursts in to accuse Aesop.  In fact, Delarai reworks her plans to embarass the chancellor.

While Delarai continues to put off her royal suitor, Croesus hasn't forgotten the insolence of Samos in refusing him tribute.  He sends Aesop to the oracle of Delphi to determine whether or not he'll be successful if he makes war on Samos.  Apparently hoping to confuse the issue, Aesop uses his double identity again.  As Aesop he represents himself to the Delphi priests as Lydia's ambassador; as Jason, he poses as the ambassador of Samos.  As he expects, the priests give each ambassador the foretelling that they think he wants to hear, rather than making any real prophecy.

Before Jason/Aesop can expose the priests on his own terms, Delarai also seeks out the temple looking for him.  This forces Aesop to protect her from the angered priests and to condemn them roundly for their corruption.  As in the Plutarch tale, the whole town of Delphi turns out to drive both Aesop and Delarai over a high cliff to their dooms.  Croesus shows up at the last moment, trying to persuade Delarai to marry him anyway and forget Aesop.  She refuses, preferring to die with her beloved.  The Delphian spears force them off the cliff...

...but because the story needs a happy ending, Atossa for some unspecified reason saves the lovers from death in the sea below, and they go on to a happy wedded life with many children.  Atossa closes the story by telling the audience that Croesus went mad, caring about nothing but his gold for the rest of his life. It's rather surprising that Atossa would be satisfied with such a meager punishment for the king who scorned and swindled her, but perhaps the writers thought it unnecessary to kill off the tyrant, given that historically he was destined to die at the hand of Cyrus the Great (though probably no one in the audience would have known or cared had Croesus gone off the cliff next).

I rate the mythicity of this frothy romance as "fair" more for some of the tropes that suggest meaning rather than because they succeed in conveying it.  Initially, there's a bit of a "West vs. East" theme in the story, with "Samos" standing in for modern American independence and rationality, while "Lydia" represents the tyranny and self-indulgence of the Orient.  Though most of the romantic dialogue between Delarai and Aesop is forgettable-- as is the performance of Turhan Bey-- there are some interesting sparks between the two of them, in that they mingle the emotions of hate and fascination for one another before they truly acknowledge their desires.  Lastly, though Aesop in the old story doesn't escape his death by falling from a great height, there are a substantial number of archaic Greek characters who escape this kind of death through some god's blessing-- though, as *deus ex machina* go, real gods would have been preferable to rescue by a mortal sorceress who has no particular reason to grant the lovers life.  But all of these motifs are pretty much stillborn children-- the sort of motifs I term *inconsummate* in this ARCHETYPAL ARCHIVE essay.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

THE SHADOW STRIKES (1937), INTERNATIONAL CRIME (1938)



PHENOMENALITY: (1) *uncanny,* (2) *naturalistic*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: (1) *adventure,* (2) drama
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*


Usually when a studio gets the rights to a serial property, the filmmakers use the first entry as a template for future entries, and only change the basic model for the hero's adventures over considerable time (if at all).  Grand National Pictures, the first film-studio ever to adapt the adventures of the pulp-magazine hero The Shadow, broke that particular mold.  After coming out with just one film showing their hero "Lamont Cranston" (or "Granston," depending on the film) as a costumed crimefighter, their very next entry in this "series" re-imagined the character as a completely down-to-earth crime reporter.

Directed by Lynn Shores (whose only other noteworthy film in my book is CHARLIE CHAN AT THE WAX MUSEUM), THE SHADOW STRIKES is adapted from a Maxwell Grant Shadow story.  Indeed, the credits for STRIKES make pointed reference to the Shadow's origins as a "Street and Smith" character, though no such reference appears in the subsequent picture.  The story is an undistinguised mystery in the vein of "Who Killed the Rich Guy This Time," with a subplot involving the heroic "Lamont Granston" looking for the murderers of his father. This is apparently this Shadow's motive for having become a crimefighter.  I gather that by the end of the story he found them, because at the close Granston's confidante/butler wonders whether or not the hero wishes to retire the Shadow costume.  Frankly, I was too bored to follow the plot that closely.

LaRoque, an actor with a long list of silent and sound credits-- none of which I've seen-- acquits himself reasonably well in the Granston role, but Shadow fans then were surely disappointed that he only changed into a Shadow-like outfit twice in the film, and only very briefly.  When he first appears in a darkened room and gets the drop on a couple of crooks, he's wearing only a black hat and a black cloak, with nothing whatever to guard his face.  Author William Gibson detailed all sorts of illusionistic devices that the prose Shadow used to make it seem as if he disappeared before his opponents' eyes.  The Grand National Shadow looks like he could be exposed by shining a flashlight in his face.

INTERNATIONAL CRIME is a very different kettle of warmed-over mystery cliches.  The mystery itself isn't much more interesting, but the actors have better lines and the direction by Charles Lamont (best known for his eight 1950s Abbott and Costello films) is much more energetic.  IMDB asserts that this story too is based on a Shadow prose tale but the credits don't go out of their way to advertise the source.

This time Lamont Cranston is a crime reporter with both a radio show and a newspaper column that go under the rubric "The Shadow Says."  As Shadow-philes know, the prose hero evolved out of a host-character who narrated crime-stories on the radio, so making the Shadow a radio-reporter at least keeps him close to his parent medium.  Curiously, though this protagonist never assumes any sort of costume, nor does he perform any Shadow-style illusions, a headshot of the Street & Smith "Shadow" appears both as a logo above Cranston's print column and in a picture on Cranston's wall.  There are occasional uses of catch-phrases from the Shadow radio-show, like "the Shadow knows" and "crime does not pay." Cranston also has two assistants reminiscent of the print-Shadow's network of operatives: taxi-driver Moe ("Moe Shrevnitz" in the pulps) and female reporter Phoebe Lane (very loosely based on "Margo Lane," conceived for the Shadow radio series in 1937).  However, whereas Moe is largely indistinguishable from his model, Phoebe Lane's character follows the pattern of the "would-be female sleuth," and is played for comedy rather than as a valuable asset.  The comedy elements in this film are its most appealing aspects: the hero seems to spend more time tweaking the noses of the dopey cops than he does ferreting out the international criminals of the title.

IMDB notes that two different production companies assembled these disparate entries, both of which were released by Grand National, so that may explain the extreme dissonance between the two LaRoque Shadows.  By my lights, despite the use of the name "the Shadow," INTERNATIONAL CRIME doesn't belong in any compendium of metaphenomenal films.  It doesn't even invoke the same "outre outfits" trope seen in STRIKES in any more naturalistic context. 

The two films also diverge in terms of the Fryean mythoi I've assigned them.  Admittedly, both films are simple mysteries at heart, but STRIKES does try, however badly, to have a larger-than-life crimefighter solve the mystery, while in CRIME the ace reporter is distinctly life-size, and therefore fits the mythos of drama-- or more specifically, "melodrama."
   

Sunday, January 15, 2012

BLACK PANTHER (2009)






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

The DVD collection of the short-lived BLACK PANTHER teleseries-- produced in concert between Marvel Productions and the BET channel--  accurately adapts Reginald Hudlin's graphic novel (a collection of the first six issues of volume four of the BP feature).  It's watchable but not especially compelling.

Given that the animation takes the "motion comic" approach, the chief virtue of the visuals is that they mirror the strength of the pencilwork of comics-artist John Romita Jr.  Hudlin is credited with the adaptation of his comics-script, although he adds a few elements not present in the original GN, such as a guest appearance by the superheroine Storm (whom the Black Panther later married in Marvel comics-continuity).

The greatest strength of the Hudlin comic-turned-teleseries is its attempt, however imperfect, to center the fantastic cosmos of the heroic Panther and his wondrous African realm Wakanda within the sphere of real-world political concerns.  The original Black Panther backstory created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the 1960s, while admirable on many levels, essentially rewrites innumerable Tarzan film-tales in which the ape-man repels invaders from his pristine African paradise.  Lee and Kirby's main innovation was to posit a black hero being every bit as heroic against invaders as Tarzan and his many jungle-kindred.

Hudlin, in part following the lead of other raconteurs  who followed in the footsteps of Lee and Kirby, re-imagines Wakanda as a realm apart from the dirty politics governing the rest of the world, including the borderline-corrupt United States of America.  At one point a Wakandan emissary deprecates most of the rest of the world for its lack of "spirituality," implicitly in comparison to Wakanda itself.  Hudlin never really defines that alleged spirituality, though: rather, Wakanda's main strength is its ability to repel the attacks of the modern mechanized world.  It's a badass version of Shangri-La.

Some reviewers complained that the series was too overburdened with references to Marvel continuity, particularly with a wide number of characters borrowed or modified from Marvel Universe comics.  I wouldn't mind seeing a Panther divorced of his Marvel origins but there's nothing intrinsically wrong with one intimately tied to the rest of Marvel (and there was no way Marvel was going to promote anything else, of course).  On occasion it's interesting to see certain figures, like Captain America, interpreted through a lens of political oppositionalism.

In any case, the plot's pretty straightforward: various Marvel villains-- the Juggernaut, Batroc, the Radioactive Man-- are organized to attack Wakanda by the Black Panther's foremost villain, Ulysses Klaw.  Klaw is given a more ideological slant here-- he's the descendant of a colonial family that helped found South Africa (which to say, an instant and unqualified villain in this ideology).  The Panther and his aides find various ways to stop the villains and even manage to send the United States packing from an ill-advised attempt at intervention.

It's all very ideologically fulfilling, but its chief fault is not the intrusion of Marvel characters.  Rather, in contrast to the many-faceted character of the Black Panther as presented by Lee, Kirby, and many other Marvel creators, Hudlin's Panther is just like his country: a tough badass-- and nothing more.  This Panther touches all the "right" bases-- he's respectful to his mother, he tells an awestruck young kid that he's just a man, not a god.  But it's weak tea next to the more nuanced portraits of Don McGregor and Christopher Priest.

Apart from some nice voice work-- though not by Stan Lee, who has an absolutely HORRIBLE bit part-- there's nothing here that isn't seen to better effect in the GN.