Saturday, March 30, 2013

MURDER BY DEATH (1976), SO I MARRIED AN AXE MURDERER (1993)



PHENOMENALITY: (1) *uncanny,* (2) *naturalistic*
MYTHICITY: (1) *fair,* (2) *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: (1) *psychological, sociological,* (2) *psychological*


I won't spend a lot of time analyzing the plotline of MURDER BY DEATH, even though it is, to my mind, Neil Simon's best contribution to the annals of comedy in any medium.  Patterned after the mystery-subgenre of the "country-house whodunit," the story revolves around a dinner-party convened by the mysterious owner of the country-house involved, a fellow with the risible name of "Lionel Twain" (a pun that no one under a certain age will get). All of the guests to receive the invitation are parodies of famous fictional sleuths.  In the photo above, they're comprised of Charlie Chan (Peter Sellers) and his son, the lady secretary (Eileen Brennan) to Sam Spade, Hercule Poirot (James Coco) and his sidekick, Miss Jane Marple (Elsa Lanchester) and companion, Sam Spade (Peter Falk), and Nick and Nora Charles (David Niven, Maggie Smith).  Once the master investigators have assembled, Twain issues a challenge to them, to solve a murder that will be committed that very night.  Many amusing misadventures ensue, though in contrast to most comedies, MURDER BY DEATH sports a bizarre, somewhat unsettling ending worthy of the most acerbic irony/satire.  Still, I categorize this movie as a comedy because the bulk of the events are played for farce (a tough private-eye displays a penchant for women's dresses, Twain berates the Chinese detective for talking in the pidgin-English popularized by the many "Charlie Chan" films).

What I find interesting is that this film doesn't make any of the editions of John Stanley's CREATURE FEATURES guide, though Stanley does include not only jillions of old-dark-house films (irrespective of whether anything supernatural is suggested), but also the various versions of Agatha Christie's AND THEN THERE WERE NONE.  I've gone on record as disagreeing that this work and its adaptations (like this one) deserve to be considered within the corpus of horror/fantasy/SF genres, a.k.a. what I term "the metaphenomenal."  However, though MURDER clearly borrows from the pattern of Christie's serial-murder opus, Simon's mystery-spoof has much more metaphenomenal content, given that the country-house is gimmicked up with assorted delusive or deadly devices.  Because one of these devices involves using the power of illusion upon the nonplussed detectives, I give this film an entry in the "enthralling illusionism" category, though it's just as noteworthy in the "outre devices" category, since the detectives are set up to dodge perils like chair-impaling spears and ceilings set up to crush the occupants of the corresponding rooms.  I could speculate that because MURDER doesn't ever attempt to conjure forth the emotion of fear, as do many of the "old-dark-house" flicks, that lack may have moved Stanley not to include it; to consider MURDER BY DEATH to be a comic inversion of "realistic" mystery-- in spite of the gimmicked-up Twain house.



In contrast, the 1993 Mike Myers comedy SO I MARRIED AN AXE MURDERER-- which appeared (and flopped) in U.S. theaters in between Myers' more far more successful WAYNE'S WORLD films-- is neither uncanny nor funny.  Wikipedia points out that the project had its genesis in men complaining about their problems with women, but if AXE ever had anything interesting to say about gender problems, it gets lost in Myers' regurgitation of his Saturday Night live routines (particularly one involving a crazy Scottish family) and attempts to play to the humor of obscure nostalgia (Myers plays a modern-day version of a 1950s beat-poet).

Through a string of allegedly comic contrivances, Myers' character Charlie first falls in a love with a butcher-woman named Harriet, and then begins to suspect that she's a serial axe murderer who has chopped up all of her previous husbands.  Since the idea of axe-killings suggests extreme gore, many films with such figures qualify for the status of "perilous psychos" in the uncanny phenomenality, such as 1964's STRAIT JACKET and 1971's THE MAD BUTCHER.  However, though this film also sports an axe-murdering psycho, this psycho fits the naturalistic phenomenality, as there's no attempt to build up the psycho in question as demonstrably "strange," in contrast with other modern-day, non-Gothic crazies such as Norman Bates in PSYCHO and Hexina in HEXED.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

WEREWOLF OF LONDON (1935)



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

In my review of THE ISLAND OF LOST SOULS I wrote:

...suffice to say that SOULS' narrative grafts many aspects of Universal's successful 1931 FRANKENSTEIN to the skeleton of Wells' novel-plot, and for good measure ratchets up the sex and violence as well.
I don't want to sound like I believe that every horror-script writer in the early 1930s was looking to the success of FRANKENSTEIN for inspiration.  However, WEREWOLF OF LONDON-- the first English-language film to attempt creating a consistent mythology for the werewolf-- may have borrowed at least two concepts central to the 1931 Whale opus.  One concept is fairly generic, in that the victim-protagonist of WEREWOLF is a delver into strange secrets who from one point of view may have been cursed because he meddled with the unknown.  The other concept is a little more specific .  The 1931 FRANKENSTEIN, in contrast to the Shelley novel, hints at a possible romantic interest between Elizabeth, the fiancee of mad Henry Frankenstein, and Henry's best friend Victor Moritz.  Though nothing ever comes of the suggestion in the film as completed, in my opinion the only reason a scripter would have suggested the possibility of  a "rebound romance" would have been if an early version of the film was meant to end in Henry's death, so that Elizabeth would have a "consolation prize" waiting for her. 

In any case, jealousy over a romantic rival, which plays nearly no role in FRANKENSTEIN, is central to this 1935 Universal film, whose script is credited to four writers and is directed by Stuart Walker.  All five seem to have been journeymen talents, with WEREWOLF OF LONDON standing as the most noteworthy work any of them produced. 

Botanist Doctor Wilfred Glendon of London could be said to have created his own romantic travails.  Like Frankenstein, he invests too much attention to his scientific investigations, thus forfeiting-- in a symbolic sense, at least-- his ability to keep his much younger wife satisfied.  That said, we don't know anything about Glendon's home life when the film begins. 

He's first seen, along with fellow traveler named Renwick, hiking through misty Tibet with a gang of bearers.  The bearers revolt and refuse to go further once they learn that the Englishmen want to explore a valley rumored to be haunted by demons.  The bearers run away when they see an apparition that they mistake for a demon, though in truth it's a Catholic missionary.  Though not precisely subscribing to the locals' beliefs, the missionary warns Glendon and Renwick away from the valley.  The Englishmen ignore him and press on alone.

Oddly, when the two men enter the valley, they experience weird effects, with Renwick feeling as if he can hardly move his legs, while Glendon feels some invisible force strike him.  Glendon explains the effect as one of "autosuggestion;" the words of the Tibetans and the missionary have semi-hypnotized them into expecting trouble.  Renwick is so tired from his efforts that he rests while Glendon presses on in search of his botanical "holy grail."  He finds the rare flower "Mariphasa," a dormant flower that is rumored to bloom only by moonlight.  He takes cuttings of the plant, but no sooner has he stowed the cuttings in his pack than he is attacked by a shadowy figure.  The stranger bites Glendon on the arm, but Glendon drives his attacker off with a knife.  Despite his wound, Glendon manages to escape the hostile-seeming valley-- presumably with Renwick, though we never hear anything more of Glendon's traveling companion.

Back at Glendon's manor in London, we meet Glendon's wife Lisa, who immediately makes clear her disaffection from her husband's scholarly interests, as she comments that he ought to marry his laboratory.  She's clearly more attached to the London high-life than he, expecting him to drop his researches in order to attend the party she's hosting.  The party serves to bring two other significant characters into Glendon's orbit.  The first is Paul Ames, a childhood friend to Lisa, with whom she had a romantic relationship that ended badly some time before she married Glendon-- suggesting that in a sense Glendon was the real "rebound romance" here.  The second is another botanist, a Doctor Yogami, who claims to have met Glendon abroad.  Yogami possesses intimate knowledge of Glendon's current line of research, an attempt to cause the reluctant Mariphasa flower to bloom via exposure to artificial moonlight.  Yogami's words impart what some critics would call a "liminal" quality to the flower, claiming that it shares qualities of both plant and animal.  Not coincidentally, Glendon's London laboratory includes at least one animal-eating plant, which symbolically sets the stage for the appearance of a hybrid between man and animal.

Yogami mentions that the Mariphasa is a vital flower to those afflicted by the disease of "werewolfery," though he stops short of admitting what the audience will surely intuit: that Yogami himself is so afflicted, and so is Glendon.  Yogami conveys all this information in the hope of persuading Glendon to let Yogami share in his research.  But though Glendon fails to connect Yogami with the strange man who attacked him-- even when Yogami references Glendon's wounded arm-- the botanist insists on keeping his findings secret.  Yogami dolefully admits that the cuttings of the Mariphasa provide only a temporary antidote to the werewolf malady.

Soon enough, Glendon realizes that he shares this malady. He returns to his researches, and succeeds in causing the Mariphasa to bloom with his artificial moonlight.  However, the moonlight also causes Glendon's hair to sprout fur.  He quickly uses the bloom's juice to reverse the effects. Strangely, in his next encounter with Yogami (the next day?), Glendon still plays things close to the vest, even when Yogami informs the botanist that the werewolf kills that which it loves best.

Glendon has no more room for doubt the following full-moon night.  Shortly after having had his jealousies aroused as Lisa continues to visit with her old flame, he transforms into full wolf-man mode.  He seeks out the curing Mariphasa blooms, only to find that the flowers have been removed by persons unknown.  Fearing that he will fulfill the destiny of the werewolf, Glendon flees his house into the street.  The next day's papers carry news of a woman being mangled to death. 

Glendon returns home, but again he and Lisa quarrel over her continued assocation with Paul-- though, to be sure, Lisa is never seen to violate the marriage covenant.  Again, as the moonlit night approaches, Glendon flees his house, this time taking a room in a low-class part of the city.  That night, the werewolf strikes again, this time providentially targeting a slutty young woman who's trying to talk a married man into leaving his wife.  For good measure, her killing takes place in a zoo, causing the authorities to get confused as to whether there's a real wolf causing the killings.

One of the archetypal scenes of werewolf-fiction-- the scene in which a werewolf's friend locks him up to prevent his killing-- transpires the next night, though Glendon's helper remains ignorant of the reasons why the botanist wants to be confined to a cell in an abandoned abbey located on the property of Lisa's family.  The cell fails to keep wolf-Glendon confined, and as it happens, Paul has brought Lisa to the abbey that night, trying to talk her into leaving her husband.  Glendon attacks both of them.  However, as shown by the comparatively easy way Glendon drives off the Yogami-werewolf in Tibet, wolf-Glendon is also fairly vulnerable, and Paul manages to stun him so that the couple can escape.

After that, Paul begins to put the pieces together, in part because Yogami, desperate to find some way to access the Mariphasa, insinuates himself into the police investigation of the murders.  The piecing-together is for me the weakest section of the film, however necessary.

In any case, the police finally decide to converge on Glendon Manor.  So does Yogami, looking for more blooms.  He finds them, but by using them on himself, he makes himself vulnerable to wolf-Glendon.  Yogami dies, but the cops show up in time to shoot down wolf-Glendon like, well, a wolf, which leads to yet another archetypal scene: the reversion to normalcy in death.

WEREWOLF is a better than average horror-film, but it lacks that extra "something" that makes an exemplary film-- such as the more well-lauded WOLF MAN.  It's interesting that parts of WOLF MAN suggest that its scripter was playing around with the notion that the "werewolf malady" in that film really was brought on by superstition and "autosuggestion."  The fantastic events of the Tibetan valley-- which seem more like spiritual forces than scientific phenomena-- seem almost prophetically poised to reject this sort of false rationalism.  Both the improbable moonlight-blooming Mariphasa and the strange "werewolfism" disease exist outside the bounds of rational thought; they reflect one another's natures in a way that Western science would never recognize.  Glendon, by pursuing strange forms of life, becomes a strange form of life.  Perhaps it happens in part because of the gulf between him and his wife, but Walker and his scripters nonetheless suggest that the world of WEREWOLF OF LONDON is far stranger than science can comprehend.  Of the early 1930s Universal films, perhaps only 1932's THE MUMMY so thorougly rejects commonplace rationality-- though it too, like WOLF MAN, is a far more profound work.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1939)



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

The 1939 HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, the first Sherlock Holmes film to be set in the Victorian era, was also the first of two 20th-Century Fox adaptations of the character.  For many, including the fellow playing the Great Detective, HOUND is one of the best of the Sherlock films.  I admire it, but I prefer the second Fox film, THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, which I consider Fox's best contribution to the saga of "Holmes on film."

Since HOUND's complicated plot deals with a hidden villain who plans to kill a man through a deception involving a "demon hound," this places it-- like the original Doyle novel-- in the category of the "phantasmal figuration."  Doyle's novel creates a strong ambivalence as to the existence of the hellish beast, despite the general expectation that no demons will appear in the world of Holmes.  Fox's HOUND-- somewhat stodgily directed by Sidney Lanfield, principally a specialist in comedies before and after HOUND-- doesn't deliver on the novel's spookiness, despite featuring one of the most impressive backlot sets ever, in order to create the atmospheric domain of Dartmoor.

In my review of the 1959 HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, I said:
This HOUND was Hammer Films’ only venture into the world of the Great Detective. The film—directed by renowned horror-meister Terence Fisher-- is not as faithful to the novel as the 1939 film from 20th-century Fox, but Fisher’s film manages to sustain its own identity as well as delivering the mythic content of the story.

I still think the 1939 film is closer to the spirit of the original novel, but upon re-screening the Fox version, I have to admit that there are also some sizeable changes here.  In the novel, the character of Beryl is something less than admirable, even though she's been victimized by the principal villain.  The Hammer film makes its version of Beryl an unregenerate accomplice to the main villain-- indeed, visually she's more memorable.  In contrast, the Fox version is totally innocent of any crime, being unaware of her nefarious stepbrother's plans as she engages in a love-affair with Sir Henry Baskerville.  So which version is really closer to Doyle's intent as to Beryl's character?
Similarly, I wrote of one plot-thread in the 1959 film:
The film follows most of the peregrinations of Holmes (Peter Cushing) and Watson (Andre Morrell) as they investigate a wealth of mysterious doings around Baskerville Hall. The only significant deviation from the novel is that early in the film Henry Baskerville is menaced by a tarantula. While I imagine the filmmakers threw in this development to escalate the sense of visible danger, its inclusion telegraphs to the audience the likelihood that a merely mortal villain is behind the skullduggery. 
When I wrote that, however, I didn't remember that the Fox film did much the same thing at almost the same point in the film.  Instead of threatening Sir Henry with a tarantuala, the villain-- concealed within a hansom cab-- aims a pistol at Sir Henry and fails to kill him only because Sherlock warns the young lord.  Both early attempts to do away with Sir Henry would seem to run counter to the villain's long plot, to extinguish Henry with a phantom hound; in the novel, the villain makes no such early attempt.  If I had to choose between them, the tarantula-gambit is far preferable.

Overall, despite shortening or eliding scenes from the novel (which nearly every film-adaptation of a novel MUST do), Lanfield keeps the essential elements of the Doyle novel.  As others before me have commented, the final revelation of the phony hellhound is something of a disappointment, but it's true that Doyle's phosphorescent beast may be one easier to suggest on the page than on celluloid. The Fox script actually gets its best spooky moments out of a seance-scene nowhere in the novel, which some later adaptations continued to use.

As I noted above, Basil Rathbone liked his performance in this film better than any of his later takes on Holmes.  I find it just a little too stiff at times, though there are certainly scenes where Rathbone succeeds in humanizing the hyper-intellectual sleuth.  Nigel Bruce gets one of his best outings, since HOUND allows Doctor Watson to play detective on his own for a considerable period.  And of course even in small roles actors like Lionel Atwill and John Carradine are always welcome.

Monday, March 25, 2013

SILENT MADNESS (1984), HORROR HOUSE (1969)



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological, psychological*


Here we have two slasher-flicks, though the second one predates the slasher-craze by ten years.

SILENT MADNESS deals with a homicial maniac, one Howard Johns, released from an asylum because of a computer error. One of the asylum-doctors, Joan Gilmore (Belinda J. Montgomery), tries to track down the psycho by researching the circumstances of his case. Also pursuing Johns are two hamhanded handlers from the asylum, more motivated with covering up the mistake than with preserving lives.

MADNESS is slowly paced but has an assortment of reasonably engaging psycho-scenes, though director Simon Nuchtern avoids explicit gore.  Montgomery delivers a solid performance as the feisty doctor, who ends up fighting both Johns and the asylum-handlers, and there's a moderately interesting "surprise ending" that reveals the truth about the crimes for which Johns was committed.  However, Solly Marx-- principally a stuntman before essaying the role of Johns-- is pretty much just a stiff, lacking either charisma or pathos.  In addition, every time a character speaks his name, one is likely to think of "Howard Johnson's," the famous bed-and-breakfast.

Still, though MADNESS is nothing special, it's far more watchable than HORROR HOUSE.  HOUSE is one of the most boring horror-films I've ever seen, which is strange since writer-director Michael Armstrong made the considerably better-- if far from classic-- MARK OF THE DEVIL one year later.



I've not seen the DVD commentary in which Armstrong blames the mangling of HOUSE on producer interference, on reshoots and re-edits beyond his control.  It's quite possible that he is blameless.  Nevertheless, for whatever reason, the film plods along showing sequence after sequence of party-going teenagers, with barely the suggestion of a plotline. When the teens (including bankable American star Frankie Avalon) check out an old deserted house on a lark, one of the partygoers is killed. The police investigate, and find no killer.  Eventually some of the youngsters decide to find the killer on their own.

This is such a phlegmatic film that it wasn't even able to get any benefit from Avalon, who's so toned-down that he hardly seems like himself.  The killer's revelation has no particular impact, which again may be the result of tampering-- but it also suggests that the original story wasn't all that solid to begin with.

THE DEADLY MANTIS (1957)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological*


Though William Alland was credited as producer on several of the key "creature features" of the 1950s, only rarely did he officially assume writing-duties on the screenplays of the movies he produced.  DEADLY MANTIS is one of those few, where Alland shares credit with Martin Berkeley, with whom he previously collaborated on 1955's REVENGE OF THE CREATURE.

As I demonstrate in my review of the 1955 film and its sequel, REVENGE, the middle film of the series, is the only one of the "Creature trilogy" that does not set up a rivalry betweeen two male leads engaged in hunting the titular monster.  Whether by coincidence or design, the Alland-Berkeley script for MANTIS also eschews such rivalry, even though, unlike REVENGE, MANTIS has two distinct male leads who could have had a rivalry over the starring female while they pursued the menacing monster of the title.  Also on the reunuion-front, this film also reteamed Alland with director Nathan Juran, whose first directorial effort was Alland's 1952 THE BLACK CASTLE-- the first of many fantasy-films for both Alland and Juran.

In contrast to many of the nuclear-mutant monsters of the period, the Mantis is entirely the product of nature, and it's theorized that the creature only shows up because it's been entombed in ice since prehistoric times and has been released by a volcanic eruption.  The first half-hour devotes much attention to the efficiency of the United States' early warning radar system (similarly emphasized in 1954's KILLERS FROM SPACE), a system which the Mantis soon transgresses.  Unlike the ants of THEM!, however, this big bug never takes on any symbolic resonance of the Commie Menace.

Colonel Joe Parkman (Craig Stevens) tries to find out what sort of entity could wipe out an entire military outpost, and consults with various specialists, including the one who will be most in the forefront of the investigation, Dr. Nedrick Jackson (William Hopper).  Ned happens to be friends with Marge (Alix Talton), a lady reporter working for a science magazine, who smells a hot story when she learns of the consultation.  She manages to get assigned to follow Ned to Canada, where she and Ned meet Joe-- whom she eventually falls for-- and a lot of other female-deprived G.I.'s.

The Mantis makes its first attack on Joe's outpost while both Ned and Marge are present.  In fact, the way this big bug attacks-- looming over one of the buildings, and first seen (and screamed at) by the female lead-- mirrors a similar scene in Alland's earlier film TARANTULA (1955).  The Mantis tears up buildings, kills some more people, and flies off.  Later Ned deduces that in prehistoric times the Mantis once preyed on the ancestors of human beings, explaining that the big bug still considers modern humans its proper prey.  The Mantis dodges the attempts of jets to shoot it down, but eventually takes on America in a symbolic sense by descending upon Washington, D.C.  The incredible insect ends up in the Holland Tunnel and dies when Joe manages to lob a bomb in its face.  Anticipating the 1980s rage for killers who revive briefly for one last scare, the Mantis's claw briefly menaces Marge, but Ned explains that the movement was merely a reflexive one.

The Mantis marionette is the film's standout asset,  Hopper, Stevens, and Talton do credible enough jobs with what they're given, but Alland apparently wanted no human conflict between the leads, as we would have had if there had existed some romantic relationship between Ned and Marge prior to her liaison with Joe.  The script supplies some moderately enjoyable scientific detective work by which the Mantis' existence is deduced prior to its appearance.  The female lead of CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON represented an advancement in feminine roles in SF films, while the female lead of REVENGE OF THE CREATURE is something of a step back.  Marge, however, is just "there," not registering as much of a positive or negative. 

Saturday, March 23, 2013

MOONRAKER (1979)



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


The original MOONRAKER novel is one of Ian Fleming's strongest works, but like LIVE AND LET DIE it's a story that would only work within the same historical milieu during which Fleming wrote it.  In the novel Bond is called upon to investigate Hugo Drax, a British WWII veteran who has become a self-made millionaire and who has become a national hero due to his financial sponsorship of Britain's first nuclear warhead.  Films about nuclear brinkmanship persisted long past the 1950s-- indeed, the previous Bond film in the series, THE SPY WHO LOVED ME,addresses that very concern-- but the idea that sells the novel, of a private British citizen intervening in his country's nuclear program, seems to me quintessentially of the fifties.

In addition, the MOONRAKER novel could only have taken place within a few decades of the end of World War II.  James Bond eventually learns that Drax is actually a German Nazi officer who has masqueraded as a British veteran, his deception facillitated by battlefield injuries that required extensive surgery.  His plot-- to annihilate London by dropping on it the very warhead he creates with the government's cooperation-- is not the first "bizarre crime" that smacks of the uncanny phenomenality, but it is the first Fleming-crime that involves a world-shaking threat comparable to the later THUNDERBALL.  In addition, Drax is like the previous "super-villain" Mister Big something of a physical freak, not only because of his facial reconstruction but also because he possesses "ogre's teeth," the production of congenital thumbsucking (Bond becomes a positive armchair psychologist on this theme).  Drax is also a personification of Germany's reputation for "efficiency"-- one explicitly referred to in the novel-- and is exemplified by Drax's German-born missile-building employees, all of whom sport shaven heads to discourage their being recognized.

The film begins with a "teaser" sequence with no direct ties to the main plot; the very sort of thing that will be gently mocked in by the next film in the series, the more naturalistic FOR YOUR EYES ONLY. This sequence includes an attack by Bond's foe from the previous film, Jaws (in his second and last appearance in the series), as well as Bond's dazzling escape from free-fall peril.

Following the teaser, Bond is called upon to investigate the circumstances by which an American space-shuttle built by Drax Industries (based in California) disappeared while being transported by a British plane-convoy.  The convoy crashed, but the remnants of the shuttle were not found.  Thus Bond sets up a meeting with Drax at Drax's California estate.  Though Drax is not said to be of German descent-- indeed, he's given no backstory to speak of-- he does seem to value "efficiency," for Bond witnesses a cadre of well-toned men and women doing calisthenics on the estate's lawn.  The agent also sees Drax toss meat to his guard dogs, and how the dogs refrain from eating the meat until Drax permits them to do so.

Bond also encounters three other characters: standoffish Drax-scientist Holly Goodhead, the more approachable secretary Corinne, and Drax's main bodyguard, a man who, though dressed in traditional Japanese garb and played by a Japanese actor, is given the dominantly Chinese name "Chang."  Almost as soon as 007 gets there, Chang and other Drax agents make two attempts on his life.  The agent perserveres until he gets a chance to break into Drax's files, which gives him a clue to a new avenue of investigation in Venice.  Corinne, after sleeping with Bond, keeps silent about his trespasses and pays for it with her life.

In Venice Bond tracks down a Drax laboratory and witnesses a demonstration of a fatal nerve gas.  He also encounters Holly Goodhead again, and slightly later learns that she's a CIA agent, out to investigate Drax on behalf of America's interest in the missing space shuttle.  (Thus she loosely parallels the policewoman character of the Fleming novel, who works alongside the hero while both investigate Drax.)  Bond tries to persuade Holly to work with him, but at the first opportunity she takes flight.  The hero, after dodging an attempt to kill him in Venice's canals, engages in an above-average fight with Chang and kills the Drax bodyguard.  Amusingly, the fight briefly takes an "East vs. West" theme as Bond employs a European rapier against Chang's Japanese sword. 

Bond attempts to lead his superiors to the secret lab, but by the time he does, Drax himself has had the whole location remodeled, so that Bond looks the fool.  However, the agent has managed to procure a sample of the gas, which he turns over to M while pursuing a new avenue in Rio de Janeiro.  Meanwhile, with Chang out of the picture, Drax gets on the phone to find a new enforcer.  Thus Jaws-- whose assassination attempt in the teaser was presumably from some independent contractor-- finds his way into the main plot.

Bond encounters Jaws twice in Rio and briefly allies himself with Holly again; however, as a result of the second encounter, Holly is taken prisoner by Drax's operatives.  Bond's next clue takes him down the Amazon River, where he escapes yet another (by now repetitive) attempt on his life and then all-too-easily finds his way to Drax's secret citadel.  Here Bond once more meets the super-healthy minions of Drax seen back on the estate, and learns that Drax, like Stromberg in the previous series-film, plans to decimate the population of the world.  His plan is to escape Earth to a radar-shielded space station orbiting the planet and to bombard the world with missiles filled with nerve gas.  When the chaos is over, Drax will then descend to rule the world alongside his eugenically-perfect soldiers.

Drax reunites Bond with Holly in order to kill them together, in a manner notably derived from a similar peril in the novel.  Bond and Holly hijack one of the shuttles and follow Drax to his space station.  Without dwelling on all of the particulars of the climactic scenes, only two are worth noting.  One is when the agents manage to destroy Drax's radar shielding, in jig time a batallion of American astronauts zoom up to check out the hostile station and engage Drax's people in a very STAR WARS-y laser battle.  The other comments on the eugenics aspect of Drax's plan, for though Drax has allowed Jaws to come on board-- along with a pigtailed girlfriend Jaws picked up in Rio-- Bond makes clear that a freaky fellow like Jaws has no place in Drax's perfect world, so that the villainous hitman joins Bond against his former master.  All the rest is a very splashy but somewhat predictable spectacle, though I'll note that Holly Goodhead, despite her jokey name, proves herself to be one of the most physically adept of the "Bond girls."

Compared to the previous film in the series, MOONRAKER's script is considerably less tight, narrative momentum being furnished by the constant attempts on Bond's life.  In its emphasis on spectacle over story, this film comes closer to the model of DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER, though MOONRAKER is better about providing motivations for 007's peregrinations. Happily Jaws never returns after this, for the filmmakers far too often milk the joke of his "Wile E. Coyote" survivals of dire fates, and the sequence where he experiences "love at first sight" with the pigtailed girl is too corny by half.  When I first saw this, I was put off by the overly frequent merchandise-placements and by the attempt to place Bond in an overly "science-ficitonal" context.  Moore loses the credibility he brought to the Bond character in SPY, becoming little more than a joke-machine again, but Lois Chiles as Holly and Michael Lonsdale as Drax score well.  Though SPY is a better overall film than MOONRAKER, I do feel that of the two doomsday villains, Drax is a little more appealing than Stromberg.  Though Nazism is never referenced for the movie-Drax, his quest for genetic perfection-- even though his minions are multiracial-- still evokes the spectre of the Third Reich admirably.




Thursday, March 21, 2013

KUNG FU: SEASON 1, EPISODES 10-12 (1973)



PHENOMENALITY: (1) *naturalistic* (2) *uncanny,* (3) *naturalistic*
MYTHICITY: (1) *good,* (2) *fair*, (3) *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological, metaphysical* 

 

“Alethea” is a complex meditation on the interrelationship of “truth” and “error,” which flies in the face of the themes usually propounded on network television shows: that truth is a discrete thing whose revelation can banish error—as in, say, a murderer being exposed so as to save the life of an accused innocent.

 

Wandering through the forest, Caine hears the music of a mandolin, being played by 10-year-old Alethea (Jodie Foster).  The little girl is on her way to a stagecoach-station, to take the stage to the town of Cardiff, for a visit with her uncle, Sheriff Ingram.  The priest and the precocious child take a liking to another, as she remarks innocently on his “funny” eyes. Caine follows her on the remainder of her journey to the station.

 

The stationmaster passes a less than innocent remark on Caine’s ethnicity, but Alethea defends her new friend.  Moments later, when Caine drinks from a water-dipper, one of two cowboys—actually a pair of road agents waiting for the stage—objects to his drinking from a white person’s water-source.  The stationmaster echoes the road agent’s bigotry, refusing to let Aletheia drink from a dipper that a “Chinaman” has touched.  Then the stage arrives, and the road agents draw on the guards, provoking a shootout.  One of the stage-guards throws a pistol to Caine seconds before the guard is shot by one of the thieves.  Alethea, confused by the eruption of violence, thinks that Caine shot the guard, and she tells her uncle and the townspeople of Cardiff that Caine is a killer.

 

Caine, though he protests his innocence, is so in tune with nature that he does not seek escape from being tried by the bigoted townspeople -- except once, when a pair of lynchers are prepared to kill him extra-legally.  Caine then flashes back to his Shaolin days, when Master Po entrusts young Caine to deliver a sacred scroll to another monastery.  The scroll also concerns the confusion of truth and illusion, relating the famous Taoist parable of “Chang Jo” (as the show’s script calls him), a man who could not decide if he was a man dreaming himself as a butterfly, or vice versa.

 

However, while on his errand young Caine is attacked by two Chinese “road agents” (thus putting him in the position of the murdered stage-guard in the main story).   An itinerant magician named Shangtzu (whose name is very close to the common rendition of the butterfly-dreamer) happens by.  He drives off the thugs with his kung-fu movies.  Caine, though sworn not to disclose the nature of his errand, allows his unctuous rescuer to learn the nature of the prized scroll.  Shangtzu pretends to teach Caine a magic trick by having him immerse himself in a lake.  While the boy is out of sight, Shangtzu steals the scroll, thus teaching Caine a vital lesson in deception.

 

Adult Caine, as always professing an indifference to death, is prepared to let the townspeople execute him, because he respects the purity of Alethea’s wish to speak the truth, even though she does so in error.  But when he goes to the gallows, Alethea retracts her testimony, lying to protect Caine.  In a clever twist that shows her awareness of her elders’ prejudices, she claims she lied “because he’s a Chinaman.”  Caine tells her that for all she knows, her lie has freed a murderer.  He determines to give her back her “truth” by seeks out and capturing the road agents.

 

In parallel fashion, the flashback story reaches its conclusion.  After young Caine confesses his failure to Master Po, the Chinese police come to the monastery, bringing both Shangtzu and the recovered scroll.  Shangtzu protests that he did not steal the scroll, that young Caine lent it to him.  Because young Caine owes Shangtzu his life, the boy monk does lie for the thief. Master Po knows better but intercedes for the life of the scheming magician, and then meditates on the loss of Caine’s “innocence.”

 

In this episode Caine does not perform any metaphenomenal feats.  However, the next one, “The Praying Mantis Kills,” shows him once more exercising his Taoist charisma to call a stallion mourning its dead mate.

 

“Mantis” takes its name from one of Caine’s anti-killing parables: when a character kneels to pray prior to fighting for his life, Caine reminds him of the praying mantis, an insect that looks as if it is praying just before it kills.  As always, Caine’s attempts to avoid the ethic of retribution, as seen in the episode "An Eye for an Eye," cause him to be labeled a coward by those who believe that retribution is the answer to life’s difficulties.

 

Caine happens to be in a town when the Darrow Gang robs the bank.  The Darrows warn the people in the bank that they’ll kill anyone who identifies them.  One of the customers, Mrs. Roper, defies the thieves and they shoot her before the eyes of her husband.  Caine sees the criminals leave and gives their descriptions to the sheriff, in contrast to Mr. Roper who, like the other townspeople, fears the Darrows and will not testify.

 

The sheriff tells his deputy/son Martin to take Caine to their home to protect him from the robbers.  Caine, who can’t help displaying his unusual talents—horse-calming, shooting arrows to their targets without using his eyes-- takes a quasi-paternal interest in Martin.  Martin barely understands the Chinaman’s enigmatic ways.  He only wants to be a courageous defender of law and order like his father, but recognizes that Caine has unique strengths as well.

 

 

Caine also takes an interest in Roper, mourning his wife and feeling guilt for having not had the courage to identify his wife’s killers.  Caine, remembering the lessons of Master Po—that it is not cowardice, but rather “love of life,” to avoid unnecessary battle, tries to counsel Roper.  Roper, Martin, and Caine end up at the sheriff’s house when the Darrow Gang attacks.  Roper, who has never fought anyone before, manages to wound the gang-leader Hap Darrow.  The sheriff arrives and catches the gang in a crossfire, but before they flee one bandit manages to shoot Martin’s father fatally.

 

The bereaved Martin locks up Hap Darrow and waits for the other bandits to try to break out their leader.  Martin believes Caine a coward because in the previous scene Caine would not use a gun against their attackers.  Martin tries to get Roper to be the new sheriff, and though Roper agrees to help out, he admits that he’s a coward and is at peace with it because “it lets you know where you stand.”

 

Despite his admission of cowardice, Roper does stand with Martin when the robbers besiege the jailhouse. The bandits are only beaten because of Caine’s skillful intevention.  This makes it more than clear that Martin and Roper would have died without him.  Once again Caine’s ethic—that it is wrong to futilely cast one’s life away against hopeless odds—takes issue with the standard heroic ideal seen in the majority of westerns.  

 

“Superstition” is another naturalistic episode, even though it deals with dispelling both the ghosts of the past and the haunting spectre of capitalism.  Caine stumbles across a mining-town that seems almost deserted.  Judge Stern and his hirelings arrest Caine on a trumped-charge, so that he must join a mining-crew.  Caine learns that most of the town’s original populace fled due to superstitious fear when it was learned that the mine uncovered a tomb of Indian skeletal remains.  Lacking a willing labor force, Stern and his flunkies press-ganged both genuine outlaws and innocents into working the mine for them, under threat of torture and death.  Caine also learns that Stern has no intention of releasing any of his slaves.  Whether the workers are innocent or guilty of crimes, their enslavement keeps Stern's bank balance healthy.

 

Caine does not attempt to escape, accepting in Christ-like fashion the ordeal levied upon lesser men.  Sentenced, along with another man, to punishment in a “hot box,” he teaches his meditational skills to the other inmate, so that both survive the hostile temperature without suffering the usual torments.  “The prison is in your mind,” Caine advises, and his flashback deals with how Master Po taught him to transcend superstitious fears of death.

 

 Stern recognizes that Caine is more than an ordinary prisoner.  This is further proven when one of the miners dies in a cave-in.  The workers attempt to rebel against the judge and his armed men, but Caine refuses to fight, even though one of the miners labels him a coward.  The judge realizes that Caine is a threat to his operation; that the most formidable kind of leader is one who can infuse his followers with “hope and dignity,” because that can dispel the fear by which Stern controls the men.  Caine, in conversation with one of the miners, preaches that the miners must seek not to think in an “either-or” manner, that they must either die in the mines or by the gunfire of the judge’s men: they must “claim” their destiny as men.

 

Fittingly, Stern decides to propound a new “superstition” to dispel Caine’s power.  Stern’s man Bannock commands Caine to dig in a certain spot in the mine, knowing that Caine will uncover Indian bones.  Bannock then plans to kill Caine so that it will seem as though he died from an Indian curse, thus depriving men of a potential leader as well as infusing the workers with a new superstitious fear.  Bannock’s plan backfires: his attempt to kill Caine foments a cave-in, trapping Caine, Bannock, and three other men in the mine.  Caine must teach all of them—even his enemy—how to relax so as to not use up their dwindling air supply.  Above ground, the other prisoners dig furiously to reach the entombed men.  In so doing, in demonstrating their loyalty to men who may already be dead, they throw off their fear of the judge’s actions, ignoring his commands that they desist.  Stern, unable to command men with dignity, flees the mine.  The survivors are rescued.  It’s mentioned that a local marshal will be summoned to make sure the illegal press-gang never re-organizes.  But the essential struggle here has not been that of law versus crime, but of life finding ways to stave off death— which fittingly is twice represented by fears of premature entombment, both in the “hot box” and in the mine.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

CRIMES AT THE DARK HOUSE (1940), SWEENEY TODD (1936), SWEENEY TODD (1982)



PHENOMENALITY: (1) *naturalistic,* (2) and (3) *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, sociological*


Two of the three films examined here are the first ones I've reviewed in the oeuvre of British horror-actor Tod Slaughter, and two retell the famous tale of bloodthirsty butcher Sweeney Todd.

CRIMES AT THE DARK HOUSE is loosely based on a Wilkie Collins novel I've not yet read, THE WOMAN IN WHITE-- though I have seen film adaptations thereof.  The Collins story has been substantially rewritten to feature the thespian talents of Slaughter, for in the novel the character of Sir Perceval Glyde is a nobleman with a nasty secret.  At the start of this 1940 film, Glyde is killed (via a spike through his head!) by a bounder whose true name is never revealed, and who successfully impersonates Glyde on his return to England.

Interestingly, though DARK's production values are modest and Slaughter's character dominates the film, the film still manages to be true to one Wilkie Collins theme: his support for women and sympathy for their marginalization in British society.  Phony Percy, on returning to the murdered man's estate, learns that he has no money in his coffers.  He plots to marry Laurie, a rich-- and much younger-- heiress.  Despite the fact that Laurie has an age-appropriate (but title-less) suitor courting her, Phony Percy uses the strength of his title to bring pressure on Laurie through her father, so that the poor girl doesn't even get the courtesy of a lengthy engagement.  In contrast to many similar melodramas, the heroine isn't saved from marriage and the connubial bed by happy fate.  But that's not enough for Phony Percy.  He also carries on a clandestine affair with a chambermaid (whom he kills when she becomes pregnant), flirts outrageously with Laurie's sister when she comes to live with them, and plots to kill Laurie so that he can inherit all of her money.  In a complicated subplot-- one derived from the novel, and so far too involved for this kind of fast-paced potboiler-- Percy also makes an ally of the head of the local asylum, Doctor Fosco, who eventually arranges for Laurie to be condemned as a madwoman.

Though one of the asylum's madwomen wanders around the estate in white clothes (hence the title of the Collins original), she's never believed to be a ghost, even if she does "haunt" Percy briefly.  Whatever the phenomenality of the Collins novel, this film is entirely in a naturalistic universe, and only the killing-by-spike even registers as a "bizarre crime."  Slaughter, never reputed to be a subtle performer, is a little more restrained here than in SWEENEY TODD, though there's never a moment when Phony Percy is anything but a villain gleefully looking forward to his next evil act.



SWEENEY TODD, on the other hand, presents Slaughter in all his hand-rubbing, lip-smacking glory.  In keeping with early versions of 'demon barber" story, Sweeney Todd has no particular deep motive for wanting to kill off his customers with his special barber's-chair, or selling their dead bodies to Mrs. Lovatt, his accomplice in crime, to bake into meat-pies.  He's just in it for the psychopathic love of killing, which is why I would label him a "perilous psycho," even though he's a good deal more businesslike than most of his kind.  Slaughter wrings every ironic nuance out of his catch-phrase, "I'll polish you off," a line he speaks to customers to assure them of his efficiency in his duties-- when of course he really means to finish them off.  His psychotic nature is of the uncanny type, even as his mechanical barber's chair  also qualifies in any uncanny-category, being an "outre device."

Though his accomplice Mrs. Lovatt secretly pines after him, Todd brings about his own doom by aspiring above his class.  He covets Joanna, the daughter of an aristocrat, who's in love with an age-appropriate man named Mark.  Mark leaves for a time to make his fortune, and when he returns to London, Todd tries to kill him.  Mrs. Lovatt, who wants to block Todd's marriage, preserves Mark's life and sets him free-- which leads to a complicated but exciting denouement in which Mark, Joanna and their allies uncover the perfidy of Sweeney Todd.  As in most versions Todd kills Mrs. Lovatt for her betrayal and perishes in his own barber-shop.  As with CRIMES production values are modest but skillful direction and sets make it seem like a more expensive film.



The 1982 SWEENEY TODD I'm reviewing was the filmed version of a musical stage-play composed by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler, which in turn adapted a non-musical production by one Christopher Bond.  This storyline, said to be the first one in which Todd was given a more sympathetic backstory-- one in which he's stalking the judge who condemned him to penal servitude-- was also the one employed in the best-known current version, Tim Burton's 2007 SWEENEY TODD.  Sweeney is a more tormented type of "psycho" here, though actor George Heard invests him with far more humanity than did Tod Slaughter. On the other hand, I didn't like Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett, and preferred the version of the 1936 film, who was more of a dowdy slattern. It's a quality production, but since I don't have anything to say about the stagecraft, I'll content myself with praising Heard and the prop-department's ingenuity in presenting the deadly barber-chair on an open stage.

Monday, March 18, 2013

G.I. JOE—THE MOVIE (1987), JONNY QUEST VS. THE CYBER INSECTS (1997)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1) *fair,* (2) *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological* (2) sociological, psychological*
               

In my review of THE FACE OF FUMANCHU I wrote:
 
The only literary virtue of racist fictions is that they give the writers a motivation to create the most delirious forms of evil they can imagine, and then project them onto the representatives of what has been termed (rather simplistically) “the Other.”
 

In this post I’ll be dealing with two animated films, both of which were spun off from cartoon teleseries properties.  None of the iterations of these properties focused totally upon racial/ethnic myths after the example of Sax Rohmer’s “Fu Manchu” novel series.  Still, I surmise that modern Marxist ideological readings would see objectionable content in both franchises, though for different reasons in each case.
 
 

The history of the G.I. Joe telecartoon franchise is relatively simple.  Though the “G.I. Joe” line of masculine toys (later dubbed “action figures”) dates back to 1964, the property did not beget an animated cartoon until said toy line was reinvented in the 1980s.  In that version “G.I. Joe” became the name of a group of American-based anti-terrorist specialists.  Though the organization maintained the semblance of a hierarchy like that of the U.S. Armed Forces, the individual “Joes” sported names and costumes more comparable to superheroes than to soldiers.  In an earlier era such a group of eccentric adventure-heroes probably would have squared off against Communists or crime syndicates.  But 1980s telecartoons were strongly influenced by the so-called “political correctness” meme.  Thus G.I. Joe’s main opponent was a “terrorist organization” named Cobra, though unlike most real-world terrorists Cobra had no ties to any nation or ethnicity.  Since the Joes included a diverse representation of races, creeds, and colors, they could be safely labeled “American.”  However, to impute any ethnicity or national origin to the villains of Cobra—the fanatical leader Cobra Commander, his weapons-maker Destro, and many others—might have drawn criticism that the show was stigmatizing real peoples by making them the targets of heroic wrath in a kid’s cartoon.

 

G.I. JOE—THE MOVIE breaks slightly with this program.  For the first time in an animated "G.I. Joe" cartoon, it’s stated that the Cobra organization has its origins in a mysterious place called “Cobra-la,” patently a jokey invocation of the famous “Shangri-La” Tibetan paradise of the James Hilton novel LOST HORIZON.  Thematically the weird denizens of Cobra-la have less in common with Hilton’s saintly Tibetans than with Fu Manchu.  Just as the mad Chinese doctor specialized in making weapons out of all manner of bizarre plants and animals, Cobra-la’s people—who are not literally Asian—also produce all manner of weird genetic mutations, most of which are weird man-eating plants, colossal insects, and anything else that suggests a more primitive, and hence more grotesque, civilization.  Early in the story Cobra-la’s ruler “Golobulus” (Burgess Meredith) appears before the leaders of Cobra.  He announces that his people have long been the power behind Cobra, and that they’re taking over thanks to Cobra Commander’s many blunders.  For good measure, Golobulus causes Cobra Commander— formerly a native of Cobra-la—to undergo an evolutionary regression, gradually transforming him into a snake with partial human memories.
 

The Joes only find out about the new players in the game when the Cobra-la agents lead a successful raid on a new Joe super-weapon, an energy-transmitting device.  A new character—name of Lt. Falcon (Don Johnson)— is partly responsible for the raid’s success, having sluffed off his duties to chat up a lady friend, who is in reality a Cobra agent.  Falcon’s failure becomes the “B-story” of the movie, as Falcon—brother to regular character “Duke”—must redeem himself by undergoing intensive retraining.  Fittingly, given that G.I. JOE is a cartoon version of the military, Falcon receives his retraining from “Sergeant Slaughter,” a new character in the JOE universe though he was based on the persona of a popular wrestler of the period, one who dressed up like a boot-camp topkick.  In addition, Falcon’s boot-bunkmates include a guy who dresses like a basetball player and a female martial-artist who does her best fighting with her eyes closed.  At this point, any references to the real world of military behavior begin to seem almost “camp.”

 

Falcon does finally shape up and fly right. Perhaps in dererence to the stature of the movie star voicing him, Falcon gets to be the hero who principally triumphs over Golobulus, although the climax pretty much gives everyone in the populous regular cast the chance to put the slug on a bug, or at least a bug-using evildoer.  Though the regular teleseries was only sporadically inventive, I have to credit the animators on this project with having reached the same delirious heights of inventiveness seen in the Sax Rohmer novels.  Most amusingly, as if to invoke (very indirectly) another “Eastern” enemy, the inhabitants of “Cobra-la” go into battle yelling the name of their country, using the same sort of ululation that some Americans associate with Muslim terrorists.

 

In short, G.I. JOE—THE MOVIE manages to have its cake and eat it too.  The heroes wrap themselves in the vesture of Americanism, though to be sure the JOE ethos celebrates a multicultural America.  Their enemies indirectly suggest the “mysterious East,” but they seem non-ethnic at first glance. Cobra-la itself is one with the bowels of the Earth, prolifically producing monsters as did Greek earth-goddesses like Gaea and Echidna.  The action is always fast and furious; a lot of live-action adventure-films could take a lesson or two from this cartoon.  And though none of the characters possess any depth, the villain Cobra Commander provides some affecting moments.  To avenge his mutation by his masters, he allies himself to the Joe named Roadblock when the latter becomes blinded.  This brings about a strong visual sequence as the snake-man rides the blind Joe’s back, telling him where to go and how to carry vital intelligence back to the good guys.

 

 

  The franchise JONNY QUEST presents a more complicated case, since it went though more iterations.  The original 1964-65 teleseries appeared during what some might call the last “bad old days” of American pulp entertainment, before political correctness took hold in the 1970s.  As I said before, at no time was QUEST specifically about racial concepts as was Fu Manchu.  Rather, QUEST was the embodiment of boys’ adventure fiction.  This meant that the titular hero Jonny and his entourage—father Benton, older companion Race, same-age buddy Hadji and dog Bandit—were forever bouncing around the globe having harrowing exploits in every clime that suggested exotic allure.  Of the four humans in the entourage, only the East Indian boy Hadji was “non-white,” though happily the animators were foresighted enough to make Hadji sound like a real boy rather than exclusively an exotic stereotype.  I don’t know that any societal watchdogs of the period protested when the mostly-white Quest-group had run-ins with marginalized nonwhite peoples in episodes like “Pursuit of the Pohos” or “A Small Matter of Pygmies.”  In that era, the watchdogs were more concerned with the “monkey-see, monkey-do” effects of fictional violence. However, though the original 1960s series remained popular in televised reruns for many years, political correctness made it unlikely for the next two incarnations of the franchise to show new versions of the Quests beating up on pygmies.  The Asian evildoer Doctor Zin, the Quests’ only recurring antagonist— who was essentially the show’s tip of the hat to Fu Manchu—did survive, but as JONNY QUEST VS. THE CYBER INSECTS shows, he did so only in what might considered a “deracinated” form.

 

CYBER, the last telecartoon produced from the QUEST franchise, takes its cue from the previous teleseries from the 1996 reboot-series, noteworthy for introducing a girl-character to the Quest-team: Race Bannon’s teenaged daughter Jessie.  In contrast to the JOE film, both the animation and the story-pacing of CYBER is sluggish and unremarkable, except for one sequence.  The opening of the telemovie shows Jonny and Hadji dashing pell-mell through a thick jungle, chased by numerous hostile-looking  tribesmen, many of whom wear huge masks suggestive of those worn by native African tribes. The boys dodge their pursuers, clamber past the fence of a deserted village, and try to steal a brilliant sapphire from the hands of a giant pagan idol—

 

Then the filmmakers—who seem to have had some notion of recreating the “bad old days” of the original series—pull the rug out from under the viewer.  It’s revealed that the suspenseful chase was not a matter of literal peril, but that the two boys were undergoing a test of manhood in accordance with the culture of the tribesmen.  Despite the quasi-African look of the masks, the natives turn out to be an unspecified tribe of South Americans, and the ritual is taking place under the scrutiny of Jonny’s father Benton and guardian Race.

 

This inversion of old pulp-clich├ęs is not bad in itself.  It’s only bad when it seems forced and obligatory, as I showed earlier in my review of the CONAN THE ADVENTURER cartoon, where a tribe of black African cannibals created by Robert E. Howard are predictably rendered as white guys.  In similar fashion CYBER dispels the boogieman of alleged racism by depicting the tribesmen as predictably wise and beneficent.  However, this is a petty crime next to the film’s rewriting of Jonny Quest, for he fails his trial of manhood due to being an irresponsible hothead. “Classic Jonny” was indeed impulsive, but more often than not, he showed good judgment in perilous situations.

 

Again, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with making the hero a “square peg” that must be hammered into society’s round hole for the greater good.  Lt. Falcon in the aforementioned JOE movie gets some modest mileage out of the trope. But as CYBER chugs along—revealing the insidious Doctor Zin’s plan to conquer the world with the help of giant bio-engineered insects— the script doesn’t have Jonny reach his new understanding of “team spirit” with any insight.  He just keeps making impulsive mistakes until at one point, he finally gets it together.  The other characters—who were also simple but vivid types in the classic version—lack any of their old vivacity, with the script giving none of them any new tweaks or developments.

 

I said that Doctor Zin may have been intentionally “deracinated.”  By that I meant that while his original incarnation is clearly Asian, in CYBER Zin looks like a cadaverous old man, and I'm not sure one would note his Asian heritage if one had never seen the character before.  It occurred to me that it’s a little ironic that in his last (thus far) cartoon appearance, Zin is associated with insect-monsters, much as Fu Manchu was associated with insidious creepy-crawlies like scorpions and centipedes.  However, in contrast to the way G.I. JOE makes occasional references to matters Eastern, there’s no strong evidence that CYBER’s producers had recalled this facet of  “oriental evil,” so it may just be a fortuitous coincidence.


 

The film ends with Jonny and Hadji finally completing their South American trial by fire, insisting once again on the value of cooperation with mind-numbing insistence.  As a last fillip in the direction of political correctness, though nothing has been said about the trial being a guys-only thing, Jonny invites Jessie to share in the triumph, in order to perpetuate warm fuzzies all around.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL (2013)


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


As a film OZ is far from being "powerful," and has no shot at all at being "great."

I have nothing against latter-day talents doing remixes of well-known works, be they famous books like L. Frank Baum's WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ or its best known cinematic adaptation from 1939.  Indeed, the MGM WIZARD is renowned precisely because it skillfully remixes elements of the source novel and adds a cornucopia of new material. That film even changes the phenomenality of Oz itself, which in the Baum novels is a marvelous land that co-exists alongside the real world.  The MGM movie transforms Oz into a projection of Dorothy's consciousness, so that the film fits the "uncanny" manifestation of my "delirious dreams" trope.  Yet even in this delusive form, MGM's Oz loses none of its narrative power.

In contrast, Raimi and his scripters bring nothing new to the table.  OZ tosses together most of the familiar tropes of the 1939 film with no passion or insight.  It also works in a few elements of Baum's novel-series, but these aren't enough to redeem the film's overall predictability.

The central idea of OZ is to provide a more involved backstory for Baum's "Wizard of Oz" character.  Though the film's character shares the name "Oscar Diggs" with Baum's original, as well as a few biographical elements (former traveling carnival magician), Raimi injects a more "adult" take on the character.  To put it simply, this Diggs (James Franco) is a dog.  Wherever the carnival goes, Diggs uses his skills as a magician and other charms to win over countless women.  As OZ is a Disney-affiliated film, Diggs' peccadillos are never made explicit, but it's strongly suggested that his main strategy is to win women by giving them music boxes that he claims are priceless mementoes-- though of course he has dozens of the things.  Yet he's not utterly irredeemable, for he does have One True Love in his life, a woman named Annie (Michelle Williams).  She seeks him out at the carnival to tell him she's received a marriage proposal from a man named John Gale (a "shout-out" to Baum's best-known heroine "Dorothy Gale.") 

Diggs, consumed with a desire to be "a great man" rather than the sort of good fellow who marries and keeps a regular job, declines to commit to Annie.  Moments later, as a Kansas whirlwind looms on the horizon, one of Diggs' deeds catches up with him.  Having never heard the rule about "not shitting where you eat," the carnival's strongman finds that his wife has one of Diggs' music boxes, and comes after Diggs, ready to maim the magician.  Diggs manages to clamber into a hot-air balloon maintained by the carnival, and in no time he's on his way to Oz.

This somewhat more realistic version of a children's character calls to my mind similar developments in Gregory Maguire's 1995 novel WICKED, which rewrote elements of the Baum novel and spawned its own popular stage-musical adaptation, even as Baum's book did.  I don't suggest that the scripters sought to consciously emulate Maguire's novel, but I suspect that they were aware of its general thrust: to rewrite the backstory of the Wicked Witch of the West.  It's therefore not surprising that the first character Diggs encounters is one Theodora (Mila Kunis), who is the selfsame Witch before she becomes "wicked."  Upon encountering the weird stranger and witnessing him perform an act of stage-magic, Theodora tells Diggs that he must be "the Wizard" whose coming will overthrow another witch, one who is guilty of slaying Oz's king.  Diggs, who desperately needs succor in this strange land, allows Theodora to believe him to be her savior.  During their progress to the Emerald City, Diggs also shares some non-specific romantic moment with her-- a dalliance that results in Theodora becoming instantly besotted with him.  The script later encourages the interpretation that this amour fou is founded in Theodora's projections than the result of Diggs' actions. 

On the way, Diggs picks up a comedy-relief ally, a flying monkey named Finley (Zach Braff).  Braff also plays Diggs' backstage assistant back at the carnival, making him one of two Oz inhabitants who resembles someone Diggs knew in his world.  This trope is patently derived from the 1939 film.  It doesn't have any strong resonance here, though, since Oz doesn't seem to be Diggs' dream, but is a real place, as in the Baum novels.  We see a similar rewriting of a dream-fantasy in Tim Burton's take on ALICE IN WONDERLAND.

In the Emerald City Diggs meets Theodora's sister Evanora (Rachel Weicz).  She sets him a familiar task: before he can become Oz's new ruler, he must kill a wicked witch, the same one guilty of killing the old king.  Diggs reluctantly accepts, and he and Finley set out on the Yellow Brick Road.  On their way they add to their company "China Girl", the last survivor of a city of china-glass people decimated by the wicked witch's flying baboons.  The trio do encounter a witch, but it's Glinda the Good Witch, the second character to reflect Diggs' real-world experience, as this Glinda is a dead ringer for Annie (and therefore is also played by MichelleWilliams).  Glinda straightens things out: the real wicked witch is Evanora, who both killed the King of Oz (and Glinda's father) and controls the evil flying apes. Glinda, much like Annie, encourages Diggs to do the right thing and help her mount a defense of the people of Oz against Evanora's tyranny.  Meanwhile, Evanora manages to turn Theodora to the Dark Side by playing on her unbalanced love for Diggs, so that Theodora becomes Sam Raimi's incarnation of the formidable Margaret Hamilton original. 

Given the original Wizard's penchant for trickery, it will come as no surprise that Diggs ends up using trickery to defeat the two evil witches-- though both of them must survive to become the characters Dorothy later encounters.  There are some enjoyable set-pieces here, especially one involving the poppy field, and the climax gives Glinda the chance to avenge her daddy in a vivid magical fight with Evanora. However, on the whole the ending is both pat and predictable.

None of the characters runs any deeper than his or her function in the story, and this is particularly evident with Oscar Diggs.  His lechery doesn't spring from any elements vital to this Raimi rethinking of the Kansas conjurer; it's just the script's method for transforming Theodora and uniting Diggs with a fantasy-world version of his true love.  Glinda/Annie gets the last laugh at the ending, for through her influence Diggs becomes an ego-effacing "good man" rather than the ego-serving "great man" he wanted to be.  But this minor elaboration of sexual politics comes off as a random thought rather than a developed theme.  In addition, the doubling of the villains, which may have been patterned after Lucas' STAR WARS continuity, proves merely distracting, as neither Theodora nor Evanora are charismatic villains in themselves.  They're more like "placeholders" in the greater Oz-continuity.  The actors do the best they can, but most of the time they're reduced to acting out pre-arranged gestures rather than well conceived characters.

The only elements that seem somewhat original are those that the script borrows from Baum's novels.  Baum's china-people were to my knowledge never adapted to film before, and even though OZ only has one of them, China Girl's presence at least mitigates the film's heavy indebtedness to the 1939 WIZARD OF OZ.  And the film's use of stage-magic and technological trickery evokes the American cultural underpinnings of Baum's world, which is notable for having broken with the pre-technological fantasies of the European prose-fantasy tradition.  But on the occasions that Raimi and his scripters hit on a theme correctly, it seems like a stab in the dark thanks to all the tedious in-jokey references to the MGM version.

Lastly, I found the visual look of Oz heavy on pretty colors but not really informed by a good design-sense, in contrast, say, to the Burton ALICE.




Friday, March 15, 2013

FIREFOX (1982)


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


This Cold War spy-drama was adapted from a novel I've not read, by one Craig Thomas, an early innovator in the subgenre of "techno-thrillers." I found the film version pretty much bereft of thrills, as it's directed by star Clint Eastwood with a leaden hand.  For my theory the sole interest of FIREFOX is that it's the closest superstar Eastwood has ever got to what I've called the "superhero idiom."

Unlike the generation of action-stars who followed Eastwood-- principally Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Willis-- Eastwood largely stayed away from "metaphenomenal cinema" once he attained stardom.  Prior to FIREFOX, his best-known metaphenomenal exploit was that of playing the unnamed "jet squadron leader" who destroys the big spider of 1955's TARANTULA. After becoming a star, Eastwood characters sometimes fought psychotic villains, but they were of a naturalistic streak, whether they manifested as stalkers like the female psycho of 1971's PLAY MISTY FOR ME or the master assassin in 1993's IN THE LINE OF FIRE.  HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER presents a mixed bag in that the film suggests that Eastwood's avenging hero may be a ghost returned from death, though apparently this was not the original intention of the script.

The titular Firefox is a revolutionary new Soviet plane gifted with super-technology, in that it can become invisible to radar and can respond to the pilot's direct thought-impulses.  In a plotline better done in the STAR TREK episode "The Enterprise Incident," the Americans send Russian-speaking Air Force veteran Mitchell Gant (Eastwood) into Soviet territory.  Gant masquerades as a Soviet pilot in order to gain access to the Firefox project.  He is aided in this by Soviet dissidents, most notably those of Jewish extraction.  At one point Gant asks one of them if he isn't angry at how the U.S. uses him, knowing that the dissidents involved will probably die.  However, the fellow thinks it's worth it to take a shot at the evil KGB.

The film's emphasis on suspense over action leads me to label it a "drama" rather than an "adventure," even though there's precious little of the sort of personality conflict that usually dominates drama.  Gant has been traumatized by his experiences in Vietnam, symbolized by his regret at having seen an innocent young Vietnamese girl perish. His antipathy for killing-- perhaps intended as a change from hardasses like Dirty Harry-- causes him to miss the chance to kill a Soviet officer named Voskov.  Later, when Gant successfully steals the Firefox, Voskov follows Gant in a second Firefox-prototype.  This results in the film's one moderately strong action-sequence, in which Gant triumphs.  The film certainly intends the narrative to build to this clash, making it a "combative drama."  But there's no real emotional payoff, either in terms of Gant's emnity for Voskov or in terms of his purging his personal demons.

Oddly, in the latter part of the same year, 1982's FIRST BLOOD would introduce to film audiences a much more popular Commie-fighting hero, the redoubtable John Rambo.  Eastwood was certainly pursuing some anti-Communist themes here, but in his quest to keep things relatively realistic, he sapped his storyline of any potential for either high adventure or suspenseful skullduggery.