Friday, August 30, 2013

FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (1963)



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

I said in my review of DOCTOR NO that the source novel, the only Fleming Bond book with marvelous content, anticipated the greater proliferation of that phenomenality in the movie adaptations.  The 1957 novel FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, which preceded Fleming's DOCTOR NO, proved even more prescient, for compared to the other books it makes ample use of gadgets, all of which place both novel and film firmly within the "uncanny" phenomenality. 

Most of the time, Eon's adaptations gave the hero far more specialized gadgets than the relatively down-to-earth Bond would normally carry.  But for some reason, five years before a movie was under way, Fleming gives Bond a suitcase containing a collapsible gun, a tear gas cannister, and a concealed knife.  To be sure, the movie ups this ante, so that Bond's gun is powerful enough to take out a helicopter, and his adversary Red Grant gets his own special gadget: a wristwatch with a wire-garrotte inside.  And though the movie keeps the poisoned knife in Rosa Klebb's shoe, it forbore, for whatever reasons, to include two over-the-top weapons from the novel-- a gun concealed in a telephone and poisoned knitting-needles.  These particular gadgets might fit the world of Maxwell Smart better than that of James Bond.  But then, Fleming's novels are not about a realistic depiction of spycraft: verisimilitude always serves the ends of fantasy in Fleming.

I also mentioned that though the cinematic DOCTOR NO sticks to the general schema of the source novel, the film isn't as strong as the novel because the cinema versions of Bond's main ally and antagonist are much flatter characters.  Strangely, FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE is a stronger film, even though it departs from the source novel's plot far more than the DOCTOR NO film did.  Perhaps it worked to the film's advantage that the primary characters of RUSSIA are less thoroughly developed than those of DOCTOR NO.  Fleming provides assorted details on the backstories of femme fatale Tatiana, master schemer Rosa Klebb, executioner Red Grant, and Bond's rough father-figure Kerim Bey.  But on balance their characters remain stereotypical functions of the story.  Tatiana is nowhere near as vividly drawn as Honeychile Ryder, and Red Grant's mysterious, lunar-influenced murder-impulses cannot compare with Doctor No's father-hatred and barely concealed sadism.

It must be said that the filmmakers, who desired to avoid the Red-baiting of the early Fleming novels and substitute SPECTRE as the villain of choice, could never have adapted the plot of Fleming's RUSSIA.  The novel was Bond's first-- and last-- opportunity to grapple with the Soviet Union, who had functioned as paymasters to such earlier villains as Le Chiffre, Mister Big, and Hugo Drax.  Rosa Klebb, described as a "toad of a woman," is the head of Bond's sometime enemy SMERSH, and her plan to both kill Bond and ruin his reputation is derived from the real-world embarassment the Soviets endured from the well-publicized Khokhlov affair, mentioned several times in the book.  Klebb, whose plan is formulated by passionless chessmaster Kronsteen, arranges for Tatiana Romanova, a minor Soviet functionary, to defect to the West, luring James Bond to her with the promise of "the Spektor," a Russian decoding device.  Tatiana is told only to seduce Bond, but not that both she and Bond are to be killed by Red Grant, a psychotic Irishman working for SMERSH. 

In order to banish the Red-baiting but keep the ties to Russia, the filmic RUSSIA begins by establishing that this Klebb was formerly of SMERSH but deserted her country to serve SPECTRE.  Kronsteen and Grant are both agents of SPECTRE as well, and all three report to a man whose face is not seen-- patently Blofeld of the 1961 novel THUNDERBALL-- but who carries his signature icon: a fluffly white cat.  Tatiana is still a Soviet employee, but Klebb, who knows that her defection has not been made public, arranges to hoax Tatiana into serving the interests of SPECTRE.  But since SPECTRE, a crime-organization, could not be as concerned with damaging the reputation of an English spy as SMERSH had been, Klebb's main goal is to get Bond and Tatiana to steal the Russian decoding device for SPECTRE.  (Understandably, the name of the device is changed to "Lektor.")  The desire to kill and humiliate Bond for his interference with SPECTRE-agent Doctor No is secondary, though only toward the end of the film do viewers learn the specifics of the "humiliation" angle.

Though this Klebb is no longer a Russian agent, Lotte Lenya gives viewers an admirable film-translation of the novel's nasty piece of work.  Tatiana, who is largely a simple stereotype in the novel, is about the same as rendered by Daniela Bianchi, though I appreciate the scriptwriter keeping true to her tendency to use the Russian word "kulturny." This Red Grant is simply an effective killing machine, played with deliberate lack of passion by Robert Shaw; there's nearly no trace of his identity as an Irishman or a psychopath-- which, according to critic Jacqueline Friedman, were one and the same thing in Ian Fleming's mind.  Only once does Shaw disclose a dislike for Bond based in the long quarrels of the English and the Irish.  Kerim Bey remains the closest to his prose-source.  Both novel and film spend a great deal of time parked in Istanbul, the result of a subordinate plot that has little to do with Bond and Tatiana.  But the Istanbal idyll serves, in both works, to communicate a ritual of masculine bonding between between Bond and Kerim Bey, arguably the father that Bond wishes his commander M could be.  In contradistinction with the Bond novels, where M remains formal and unreachable to Bond, the RUSSIA film, for the sake of a quick joke, cites an incident where Bond and M once went out drinking and catting around together-- an event impossible in the novels.  Kerim's death in both media makes the menace of Grant more palpable.

There are some minor changes to the train-sequence that follows the Istanbul section, but the emotinal essence of the sequence is preserved: the shakiness of the romantic relationship between the professional spy and the amateur seductress, imperilled by the remorseless Grant.  The film very greatly improves on the final combat between Bond and Grant, which is suspenseful but not well choreographed in the book.  Following Grant's defeat, the film further ups the action-ante by having Bond and Tatiana pursued by assorted SPECTRE agents, including those in the aforementioned helicopter.

I quite prefer the film's ending to that of the book.  In the book, Bond takes from Grant's body a note that leads him to Grant's intended next destination: a hotel room in Paris, where he was to meet Rosa Klebb.  It makes no real sense to imagine the head of SMERSH making a rendezvous with anyone in Paris, even her top assassin, except to give James Bond the chance to capture her.  In the novel Bond finds Klebb in her room, using a false identity, which is natural enough for a spy.  What seems less comprehensible is that Klebb's room includes a telephone with a gun in it, while she herself is armed with poisoned knitting-needles.  Was she planning to use one of these to execute Grant?  Fleming gives the reader no clue.

In contrast, the film is more sensible: Klebb, informed of Bond's triumph, is instructed to pursue Bond and Tatiana to Venice in order to kill the agent and take the decoder.  Naturally, she can't be allowed to wound Bond with her poisoned shoe-knife as she does in the novel, so the filmmakers' solution-- to have Klebb shot by Tatiana-- not only provides a deserved death for a vile villain but gives Tatiana a chance to choose love over politics.  Of course by the time Bond and Tatiana reach Venice, Bond should have informed his lover that she was almost killed by Klebb's plan, and that Klebb isn't even serving the Soviet side any more.  But the act of choosing still makes good cinema.


Thursday, August 29, 2013

SINBAD AND THE MINOTAUR (2011)



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


The most I can say of the Australian-made fantasy SINBAD AND THE MINOTAUR is that (a) it's an acceptable time-waster, and (b) it's not one of SYFY's endless CGI-idiocies, even though there is a big stupid CGI monster in it.

The basic idea here is, "what if Sinbad the Sailor operated like Indiana Jones?" This Sinbad, played by one Manu Bennett, is primarily a treasure-hunting thief.  He somehow finds out that a magician named al-Jibar possesses a scroll leading to the solid gold head from the long-vanished statue, the Colossus of Rhodes, and he steals it.  Bennett's Sinbad is supposed to be a lovable rogue, whose thievery is excusable because he's stealing from an evil, soul-sucking sorcerer.  While liberating the treasure map he also liberates a princess from al-Jibar's harem, and so the chase is on.  Just as Indiana Jones claimed that he was "making it up as I go along," Sinbad's favorite refrain, whenever one of his crewmen reproaches him for his carelessness, is to say, "Details, details."

There is potential interest in that MINOTAUR, unlike a lot of Sinbad films, makes a token effort at recapitulating real-world archaic history, however badly.  The film opens with a prologue relating the fall of Crete and the rule of King Minos at the hands of the Greeks of the isle of Rhodes, worshippers of the sun-god Helios.  Before he dies Minos bemoans the way the gods have cursed him with a false son, the Minotaur, though the film skirts around the grotesque facts relating to the Minotaur's conception.  It's intimated that there's some sort of ritual cult built around the Minotaur, but Crete is destroyed and the cult apparently faded from the scene.

A thousand years pass, taking us to the time of Sinbad-- though in truth it would be closer to three thousand years to get from the era imputed to King Minos to that of Sinbad's period during the Abbasid Caliphate.  Sinbad tells his skeptical crewmates that Minos' men avenged themselves on the Greeks of Rhodes by destroying the Colossus and stealing its golden head.  The map will supposedly show them how to find this treasure in the labyrinth of Crete, which the sorcerer wants as well.

There are assorted little pleasures, however familiar, in MINOTAUR.  Sinbad and the princess get into the usual "meet-and-fight-cute" mode.  Al-Jibar is nicely played by Steven Grives, familiar to American audiences from his recurring role as an equally vile villain on the teleseries BEASTMASTER. The sorcerer has a servant who acts like a vampire but whom he calls an "al-ghoul," and Sinbad has a pretty lively fight with this undying creature.

On the minus side, Sinbad seems like a dunce, while the crewmen and the princess are nonentities.  There's not only a big scary minotaur, but also a minotaur-cult whose acolytes have horns and other monstrous features.  Are they the result of the sun-god's curse upon Crete, or are they the spawn of the Minotaur after the manner of the creature's own birth?  Who knows?  In a well-written narrative the Minotaur-cult might have been the climax of the movie.  Here it's just more grist to keep the mill turning.

Far from the best, but not the worst.  May be easier to watch if one intones the words, "At least it's not SHARKNADO."

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

THE SON OF KONG (1933)



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

Debuting just nine months after the April release of KING KONG, THE SON OF KONG illustrates why it's so rare for one to find films-- or works in any other medium-- that take on the status of myths.

As I said in my review, the original KONG provides a virtual Rorschach's test to its viewers because everything in it is super-charged with significance, and yet nothing is explicitly related to conscious themes.  SON is just the opposite; the film is to its original as Little Kong is to his father, when Denham observes that the ape is "not a patch off your old man."  Everything in SON seems mechanically thought-out.  That's not to say it doesn't have its pleasures, but it's not mythic.

The film depicts Carl Denham in New York, dodging the many creditors hounding him with bills and/or lawsuits resulting from the late King Kong's rampage.  In conversation Denham claims to be sorry for all the lost lives and property damage, but during most of the picture he seems more sorry for himself; that his big plans to become an entertainment mogul went south.  Later in the film he'll evince some sympathy for Kong's death as well, though one could see this as a narcissistic impulse, since some critics argue that Kong is a "id-double" for Denham; the part of himself he keeps hidden.

Thanks to a chance meeting with Englehorn, the captain of the ill-fated Skull Island voyage, Denham escapes his drab New York reality and returns to the "scene of his crime," the South Seas-- but not for purposes of adventuring.  He and Englehorn scrape by carrying cargo, until Denham repeats another incident from his earlier history: he takes an interest in a young girl.  In contrast to Ann Darrow, whom Denham lures into show business, Hilda is already a performer-- albeit a bad one-- in a show owned by her father. The show also includes trained monkeys, which suggests Denham's next exploit.

Enter an evil-id figure far less prepossessing than Kong: the aptly named "Helstrom," who sold Denham the map to Skull Island but did not take part in the voyage.  Helstrom and Hilda's father are both social drunks, but when they quarrel, Helstrom knocks down the older man and leaves him to die when a fire breaks out.  Hilda is devastated but intends to accuse Helstrom to the local law.  At the same time, with her father dead and the circus destroyed by fire she has no means of support.  When Denham shows her a friendly interest, she gravitates toward him-- a "meet-cute" that might not have taken place but for Helstrom's murderous machinations.

Helstrom needs fast transport to a new port to avoid the local constables, so when he runs into Denham and Englehorn, he tells them a phony story about a great treasure on Skull Island.  Reluctantly the two men resolve to return to the island of prehistoric perils.  Unbeknownst to Denham, Hilda stows away on the ship because she senses Denham's empathy for her, but she doesn't know Helstrom has come aboard the same ship.

The sailors' fears of the dangers of Skull Island are exacerbated by Helstrom, who hopes to become the new captain.  This incident shows the film's propensity for "conscious themes," for though the overall story has nothing to do with the Communist Revolution, the script makes one of the sailors a thoroughgoing Marxist who tosses around words like "bourgeoise."  Strangely, as the mutineers divest themselves of everyone who might be "over" them-- Denham, the captain, Hilda, and Helstrom, the would-be new captain-- they boast that they'll exist in a world "without captains."  In this sequence one may see a small conflict between the world of the entreprenenur, who depends on being able to exploit capitalistic opportunities, and the world of the Marxist, who wants to close down all such avenues.  Given the fate of Daddy Kong, one can't entirely dismiss the Marxist's desire for reform, even though the script pretty much does.

With nowhere else to go, the four refugees pilot their boat to Skull Island, though their first landing is denied them by the natives Denham and Englehorn met on their first voyage.  The natives, just like the denizens of New York, blame the adventurers for the depredations of Kong.  Eventually the boat lands elsewhere on the island, and the foursome began to make their way through the primeval environment.

Denham and Hilda, though not exactly poised to become a romantic couple, are together when they come across-- and save the live of-- the 12-foot-tall albino ape, Little Kong.  There's no real evidence that the young ape is King Kong's heir, nor is their any evidence of how he was conceived.  But by saving Little Kong's life, Denham somewhat feels as if he's evened the score for his acts against the King of Skull Island.  Little Kong becomes bonded to the humans who saved him, which has mixed results.  On one hand, he saves them from at least two monsters; on the other hand, he also imperils them when he curiously destroys Denham's rifle.

The foursome's sojourn on the island only last long enough for Denham to find out that Helstrom's lie was actually the truth: a fabulous treasure does exist in a local temple.  Typically enough, no one in the film even inquires as to whether these treasures might belong to anyone on the island, though in Denham's defense, the idol in the temple doesn't look like anything in the village of the dark-skinned locals.  Once Denham has the treasure-- or part of it-- Skull Island is then conveniently rocked by a mammoth, island-destroying earthquake.  Helstrom dies in the jaws of a diplodocus, while the whole island and its native inhabitants are devoured by the ocean. Hilda and Englehorn manage to get the boat clear of the catastrophe, and Denham is only saved because Little Kong holds him out of the water long enough for his friends in the boat to rescue him.  It's as if the island exists only to render up its treasure to allay Denham's economic woes.  Once that goal is accomplished, the whole island is sucked down into nothingness.  And although Little Kong's death is sad, the extinction of the whole island is sadder.  It's one thing for Denham to sin against King Kong, in trying to exploit him for gain. But it seems a greater crime that the filmic universe of SON OF KONG should expunge King Kong's whole realm, just so that Denham can pay his bills and have his own romance-- if one can even call such a chaste relationship a "romance."

While KING KONG is a combative drama, SON OF KONG is not.  Little Kong does have a couple of enjoyable fights with local beasts in protecting his new friends.  But the narrative does not build to a climactic battle, but to an act of self-sacrifice-- one that, in keeping with the film's beginning, seems all about validating the ego of the main character.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

PERILS OF NYOKA (1942)




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

PERILS OF NYOKA is one of those rare serials in which the scenarios are so fluid that, even though they're just showing gun-battles or mounted pursuits that one has seen a million times before, they seem remarkably fresh.  With many serials, one has to approach their action-setups with bemused tolerance.  But director William Witney-- admittedly working with the highest budget Republic ever gave to a serial-- consistently keeps the action pumping at a high pace.  Characters never walk when they can run, never run when they can leap, and so on.

The film is a technical follow-up to the successful 1941 JUNGLE GIRL, a tolerable but not outstanding serial about Nyoka Meredith (Kay Aldridge), the daughter of a jungle-doctor.  This Nyoka becomes embroiled in stopping treasure-hunters after the villains kill her father, and then conceal the crime by having her father's twin brother-- and Nyoka's uncle-- masquerade as the doctor.  Only toward the end of the serial does this Nyoka learn of her uncle's perfidy.

The new Nyoka is given the surname "Gordon," and her father is not a doctor, but an archaeologist working in North Africa.  It's never entirely clear what project Nyoka and her father are working on exactly, although at the opening of the film several Arabs are working under Nyoka and calling her "sahib."  Nyoka's father has actually gone missing prior to the film's beginning, but Nyoka interrupts her search for him to help a group of beneficent white men trying to locate the Lost Tablets of Hippocrates, which may contain a cure for cancer.

However, evil treasure hunters-- commanded by the exotic "Vultura," a rare female tribe-leader-- learn that the Tablets are the key to a great treasure, and they try not only to hijack the map to the tablets but Nyoka as well.  This is patently a "McGuffin" story, where two opposed groups seesaw back and forth trying to get hold of some precious object, or, in related manner, someone who can help them use the valuable item.

In addition to the febrile action-sequences-- which include Nyoka fighting it out both with male bandits and with the curvaceous Vultura-- the serial's writers create a wide variety of cliffhanger threats with which to imperil Nyoka and her allies, mostly standard leading-man Larry (Clayton Moore) and young, not-overly-comical "comic relief" Red (Billy Benedict).  As is often the case, the depiction of the perils are far more stimulating than the hackneyed ways that the heroes escape from them.  That said, the most original of the perils-- a natural "wind tunnel" capable of snatching up human beings and hurling them to their deaths-- is resolved in a better-than-average manner.

Characterization is minimal, but it isn't missed given the full-bore action here, including a plotline in which Nyoka finds her father, who has lost his memory and somehow become the leader of a tribe of Tuareg warriors-- and who tries to have Nyoka executed. This provides a little psychological interest.  Ben Singer's essay on silent serials, "Child of Commerce! Bastard of Art!," observes that in female-centered serials most plots involves a woman either seeking a lost father or his legacy.  Singer also cited a rare instance in which the father carried out actions inimical to his daughter without knowing her identity.  PERILS OF NYOKA managed to duplicate both paternal positions, beginning with Nyoka trying to find her father, almost being killed by his actions, and then being reconciled to him once he regains his normal memory.

DOCTOR NO (1962)



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


It's interesting that Eon Productions chose to adapt DOCTOR NO as their first James Bond film.  In doing his fifth and six novels in the Bond series, author Ian Fleming repeated the same pattern he'd followed in his first and second entries.  CASINO ROYALE, a fairly realistic novel, ends with Bond debilitated by injury and torture, while in LIVE AND LET DIE he decides to compensate by going after a virtual "supervillain."  The fifth novel FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, also realistic in tone if not content, ends with Bond almost perishing from poison. In DOCTOR NO he takes a "rest cure" and promptly encounters yet another supervillain.

The supervillain angle may have informed Eon's decision to adapt the sixth novel.  While most of the Fleming Bond-oeuvre falls into the domain of "the uncanny," DOCTOR NO is the only novel that barely edges into the category of "the marvelous," by virtue of the mastermind's use of a radio-disruption device with which he confounds American missile systems.  The film, keeping true to the source novel, keeps this sole marvelous element, but as I've noted in other reviews, the Bond films would make increasing use of marvelous devices by both the titular agent and his adversaries. 

In contrast to Eon's jumbled adaptation of LIVE AND LET DIE, the film is remarkably true to the source novel, sticking close to most of Fleming's scenario.  Obviously some things had to change: Quarrel, Bond's Cayman Island ally, was introduced in LIVE AND LET DIE, but for ease of storytelling he becomes a first-time acquaintance in NO.  This Quarrel is also in the employ of American CIA agent Felix Leiter, a familiar Bond-ally also originally introduced in LIVE AND LET DIE, but who did not appear in the novel and whose only role in the film is to inject an American presence for that audience.  But the two most significant characters in the novel, as in the film, are Bond's love-interest Honeychile Ryder and his nemesis, the half-Chinese, half-German Doctor No.

Not surprisingly, while both novel-characters are given far more elaboration than one might expect of an escapist espionage novel, the film reduces them down to basic plot-elements.  In the novel Honeychile is an admirable portrait of a "wild child," a young woman who chooses to live apart from human society, but who naturally falls for Bond's mature charms.  Ursula Andress' physical portrayal of Honeychile remains a visual hallmark of the series, in that the producers have her rise from the sea like Aphrodite-- a necessary change from the novel, where Bond first sees Honeychile lying mostly nude in the sand.  The film's Honey, while not a shrinking violet, is not as intelligent or resourceful as the novel version, who actually frees herself from one of Doctor No's traps and runs into Bond while both are escaping the villain's thugs.  The film's Honey seems more like a transparent sex-fantasy than like a character in her own right.  This matches with Bond's other sexual peccadillos in the movie, one of which involves the agent sleeping with a woman before betraying her to the local officials. 

The cinematic Doctor No also has a certain cachet, thanks to the smooth performance of Joseph Wiseman.  Ironically, the film makes No over into a genuine mad scientist a la Fleming's main influence Fu Manchu. Wiseman's doctor is responsible for maintaining an atomic reactor to power his radio-disruptor, and atomic contamination, not gangland vengeance, is responsible for his artificial hands.  The novel's version is, ironically enough, "no doctor;" he merely takes that title to influence others with his authority.  By the time filming of DOCTOR NO began in January 1962, Fleming had published THUNDERBALL in 1961, which introduced the politically neutral criminal organization SPECTRE.  Allegedly Fleming wished to distance himself from having so many villains tied to Communism. The filmmakers plainly wished to do the same, since this Doctor No identifies as an agent of SPECTRE and claims that his talents were turned down by both the East and the West.  Like the novel version he makes substantial use of a "swamp tank" dressed up like a dragon in order to drive off trespassers, but the film version of the villain lacks the original's sadism.  The novel's doctor seems to have no passion for males or females-- a sexual trait Fleming had already excoriated in his FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE villains-- but Fleming's No displays a subdued fetish for torture.  In its original release the novel received considerable criticism for its depiction of sadism and torture, but the film foregoes this: Eon's Doctor No is all business.  Most of the racial elements of the Fleming novel are nullified as well.

Lacking the novel's detailed characterization, the film's greatest asset is, unsurprisingly, Sean Connery's Bond, who manages to remain charming and empathetic despite his brutal manner.  In an early scene Bond shoots an enemy agent who has made a futile effort to kill Bond with an empty gun, and I've already alluded to 007's sexual betrayal of a female adversary.  This is not to say that the novel's Bond is incapable of such acts, but on the whole he tends to kill only when necessary, and he at least has some reservations about bedding young Honey-- though of course, he does.

One lamentable omission, which could never have been filmed given the movie's budget, is the detailed and logical manner by which Bond escapes No's prison and turns the tables. In the novel this is a grueling endurance-contest in which Bond just barely manages to survive the doctor's torture-gauntlet; in the film he escapes imprisonment with ridiculous ease, making the doctor look rather less than formidable.

The novel is also replete with rich descriptions of its Jamaican locale, which the film only invokes to minor effect.  I've noted in this essay how the villain of LIVE AND LET DIE, Mister Big, is equated with "the beasts of the sea," and the same is true of the novel's Doctor No.  It's certainly not a coincidence that early in the novel Quarrel introduces Bond to a black acquaintance nicknamed "Pus-Feller" because the man was known for having wrestled an octopus.  Late in the novel, part of Bond's long escape-ordeal forces him to duplicate that feat by killing an octopus set to devour the remains of No's victims.  Naturally Eon's Bond fights no octopi.  But strangely enough, the minor character "Pus-Feller" does appear in the first half of the film-- where his name is "explained" by the fact that he once wrestled alligators!




Friday, August 23, 2013

MY LIVING DOLL (1964-65)



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

The above publicity photo is interesting in that it's composed so that one of the stars-- who receive co-equal status in the show's initial credits-- looms over the other one.  In one of the DVD commentaries, it's suggested that Bob Cummings-- an aging star renowed for several movies and one successful TV series-- was uncomfortable in playing a "straight man" to the real star of the show, Rhoda the Robot (Julie Newmar).  For one reason or another, Cummings did not even finish out MY LIVING DOLL's only season of 26 episodes, and for the last six one of the other actors had to assume his character's duties as keeper to a literal-minded, troublemaking robot.

On some occasions actor conflict may enhance a teleseries, as each actor vies for greater exposure.  However, producer Jack Chertok's show-- put together following the ratings success of his MY FAVORITE MARTIAN-- was so poorly conceived that it didn't allow the actors any potential for growth.

I'm not a great fan of MY FAVORITE MARTIAN, as I've usually found its scripts more repetitive than those of my more favored fantasy-sitcoms of the period, BEWITCHED and I DREAM OF JEANNIE.  Still, MARTIAN was well-conceived in one sense.  The show gave actors Bill Bixby and Ray Walston a strong relationship: Walston was the avuncular "Uncle Martin," a super-powered Martian constantly drawn into meddling in the life of the young man who had given him shelter on Earth.  Bixby's character Tim in turn might have been continually flummoxed by his strange visitor from another planet, but the scripts made clear that he enjoyed being the only guy on his block with a bonafide Martian for a roommate.  Over time the scenario evolved enough to communicate a genuine affection between this very odd couple.

One commentary claims prior to Cummings' signing the producers attempted to get Efrem Zimbalist to play psychologist McDonald.  Someone like Zimbalist, whose image suggested stuffiness and reserve, would probably have been a better choice than Cummings, who had become familiar to TV audiences as a womanizer in the 1955-59 series LOVE THAT BOB.  Cummings' McDonald, upon having the custody of the recently constructed Rhoda thrust upon him, never seems even slightly intrigued with the thought processes of a humanoid robot, even though his character is supposed to be a psychologist. 




In early episodes-- at least those of the eleven extant episodes on this DVD collection-- McDonald leers and half-drools at the statuesque assets of Rhoda-- so much so that he apparently doesn't trust himself alone with her, and asks his sister to stay with them as a chaperone.  In extant episodes, she never actually does so, though.  The show's lascivious attitude soon gives way to diffidence, and  McDonald becomes a babysitter saddled with an unpredictable-- and powerful-- infant.  Of the two attitudes, the latter could have been played to better effect than the former, since there wasn't much chance that a 1964 teleseries would have delved into man-robot love after the fashion of BEWITCHED's mortal-witch romance.  But to make the latter approach work, Cummings' McDonald would have to seem like he had some concern as to whether Rhoda learned or did not learn whatever lessons he tried to teach her.  Most of the time, McDonald treats Rhoda like an inconvenient piece of furniture.  Supporting characters, who of course are not in on the big secret, are given a pat story about Rhoda being a niece of McDonald's friend, but neither McDonald's sister nor the guy across the hall who falls for Rhoda generate any strong humor from their interactions with Rhoda.

While it was necessary that Rhoda should at least begin the series as a traditional emotionless robot, the writers weren't necessarily compelled to keep her at a complete status quo.  Yet they did so: Rhoda maintains a deadpan disinterest in the vagaries of human behavior.  Perhaps the writers thought they had to keep the robot inhuman so that "she" would continue to misinterpret situations on a regular basis.  But the decision to give Rhoda no curiosity cut the show off from a wealth of potential comic situations.  To be sure, Newmar does a nice job exploiting her dancer's body by devising comic (and often sensuous) bits of physical behavior for Rhoda.  However, these aren't enough to make up for the lack of good character interaction.

A few of the extant episodes show potential.  Though McDonald isn't as much a womanizer as the character of LOVE THAT BOB, a similar attitude appears when he claims, in the first episode, that Rhoda might be an example of a great new innovation: "a woman who keeps her mouth shut and does what she's told."  But subsequent episodes don't follow up on this "battle of the sexes" potential.  The episode "The Love Machine" is one of the few episodes to pursue this theme, but Rhoda is reduced to a minor part while the main action deals with McDonald badly advising a young man to be masterful with his date.  Naturally the young guy's date walks out on him, uttering the oddball line of dialogue, "I hear they freed the serfs 100 years ago!"  I can well imagine that the writer was actually thinking of the Emanicipation Proclamation-- which really was about 100 years prior to 1964-- but that he changed "slaves" to "serfs" because the matter of American slavery wasn't precisely the subject matter a light fantasy-comedy could assimilate.  Yet even here, one wonders: why even bring in slaves or serfs, when it would have been easier to speak of women getting the right to vote?

Probably the extant episode that makes the best use of Rhoda's talents is "My Robot, the Warden."  This puts McDonald in a subservient position for once, since he foolishly tells Rhoda to keep him confined to their apartment so that he'll finish writing an important article.  Naturally, then, McDonald needs to leave and Rhoda won't let him.  This episode was mildly funny, but alas, most of the stories show the same one-note repetitive quality I find in MY FAVORITE MARTIAN.  I have my doubts that any of the unseen episodes are much better than this selection.

The most I can say for the show is that it's a pleasant curio of  its time. And anything with Julie Newmar is worth at least one look.




WOLVERINE AND THE X-MEN (2009)



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

This one-season Nicktoons series, whose 26 episodes have been collected on a single DVD set, shows some intriguing differences from AVENGERS: EARTH'S MIGHTIEST HEROES, another superhero series also executed by Marvel's animation arm. 

The AVENGERS series. although it did maintain some loose continuing plotlines, generally followed the model set by the Silver Age comic series.  Said series tended to follow what I term "closed arcs," which is to say, multi-issue storylines that generally terminated with some sense of closure.  This isn't to say that there were never any loose plot-threads left dangling, for such did appear both in the comics and in the 2010 cartoon series. 

In contrast, WOLVERINE AND THE X-MEN quite naturally follows the example set by the X-MEN comic throughout its many incarnations: the example of the "open arcs."  X-MEN arcs, at least in comparison with those of Silver Age comics, tended to copy the example of television soap-operas to a far greater extent. Closure was rare, for no sooner did the heroes vanquish one menace than another cropped up in its place.  In following this example, WOLVERINE was true to its origins.

A problem with this approach is soon evidenced: since the animated series doesn't have the same quantity of stories to work with, WOLVERINE soon shows the strain of too many plots spoiling the broth.  The writer's borrow from a wide variety of periods in the X-MEN annals: the plot of the Hellfire Club (rather demurely renamed as "the Inner Circle"), the story of Magneto's Genosha  (pre-catastrophe), and even a swipe from the post-catastrophe period in which Grant Morrison worked.  The overall effect is that the multiple plotlines begin to fight one another instead of enhancing the overall progress of the heroes' journeys.

The idea of making legendary loner-hero Wolverine the leader of the team-- an idea apparently generated more by marketing than creative inspiration-- dominates the first ten or so episodes and then fizzles out, being usurped by other concerns.  It's clear from the writer commentaries that the scripters have a nerdish love of all things Marvel, which makes for a number of "cameo" appearances of obscure characters.  And on occasion it's fun to see them mix things up, like devising a romance between hero Nightcrawler and villain Magneto's daughter the Scarlet Witch, which resembles nothing in the original stories.  But although the dialogue is sharp and the action is above-average, the convoluted plotting makes it difficult to relate to the supposed theme: the needlessness of the conflict between human beings and their mutant relations.  The writers also create false expectations by jamming in too many characters, as when they show Rogue in the first episode, after which she disappears for most of the series.  X-MEN EVOLUTION, which used fewer plots from the comics, nevertheless displayed stronger writing by virtue of keeping to a fixed selection of protagonists.



Thursday, August 22, 2013

PREDATOR (1987), PREDATORS (2010)



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


PREDATOR has proven one of the most fertile franchises to be spawned in part by the Arnold Schwarzenegger boom of the 1980s-- perhaps proving more malleable than the TERMINATOR franchise due to the fact that PREDATOR's concept depended less on Arnold's presence.
There's no question that director John McTiernan and the scriptwriters had some awareness of the "men's adventure" mindset to which they played, not least because it takes place in the wilds of Central America, and because only one female character appears on screen (though there are typical men's jokes about "pussy" in the course of the film).  Arnold's character "Dutch" and his five elite mercenaries are hired by Dutch's old buddy Dillon (Carl Weathers).  Dillon, a former soldier now working with the CIA, wants Dutch's team to extract a missing cabinet minister, captured by jungle-dwelling guerillas when the minister's helicopter went down.  Dutch's early reservations about Dillon's CIA ties are later borne out: Dillon is in fact using Dutch to find out what happened to CIA agents gone missing when they investigated the guerillas' area.  Like many CIA ancestors to Dillon-- notably the quisling advisor from RAMBO II-- Dillon freely lies to the commandos to achieve his organizational ends, thus breaking the code of male loyalty that underlies all such adventure-tales.

Soon enough, the rescue time finds that it has more to worry about than Central American guerillas and untrustworthy agents.  After Dutch's team wins a firefight with guerilla forces and take one prisoner-- a female local named "Anna"-- they find themselves being hunted by a single being possessed of technology able to make him blend in with the surrounding jungle, so that in effect he becomes the jungle, able to attack the commandos at any time and with an array of super-scientific resources.  Slowly the alien Predator-- who is never called by this name in the film-- picks off its human quarries.  Anna, though she's not able to add anything to the formidable firepower of the group, supplies some historical perspective: as the sole person native to the area she tells the commandos of "demons" that have haunted the jungle at certain periods.  Fittingly, the Predators only come looking for game during the hottest times of the year, equating them with the fierce heat of the jungle as well as its visual torments.

McTiernan plays to the "body culture" of the 1980s by displaying many shots of the actors' buff bodies, and the script is just as on-target with regard to the almost masochistic bravado of the "men's adventure" genre.  When during the guerilla-firefight one commando informs another that the latter is bleeding, the wounded man replies, "I ain't got time to bleed." But the Predator ups the ante of the typical "men's adventure" story and confronts the experienced fighters with an enemy that none of them have ever conceived. Most of them acquit themselves reasonably well but only two survive: the star (of course) and the female he protects.  Since Anna's survival isn't strictly necessary to the plot, it might be conjectured that the script keeps her alive for purposes of rewarding the hero as in most stories in this genre: however, Dutch and his friends are kept too busy by their camoflagued foe to even contemplate sex from start to finish.

I rate PREDATOR's mythicity as "fair" because it does a good job of expressing the male-bonding culture while carefully avoiding any elements that might politicize the narrative, even on the cartoonish level of the RAMBO films.  It's possible to see the Predator as a symbol of the "invisible jungle native" who haunted American soldiers in Vietnam, but that would probably be reading the film in too narrow a manner.



PREDATORS, though it's not any more interested in real-world politics than its progenitor, takes a different approach to the idea of "commandos vs. aliens."  Director Nimrod Antal and his scripters reverse the situation of the 1987 film by having a group of Predators abduct selected humans-- all experienced warriors or at least killers-- to an off-planet game reserve.  Just as the original Predator or one of his congeners had come back to Earth many times to hunt, the humans invited to the preserve in this narrative are not the first to be so abducted.  The narrative begins with Black Ops American soldier Royce plunging from some flying vessel at a jungle below him, obliging him to fight to open the parachute with which he's been supplied.  Seven others, all from different parts of Earth and all experienced in killing, also fall to the planet in the same way.  Eventually they come to terms with having been snatched from their world to be the Predators' "most dangerous game," and seek allies against the alien hunters-- first, another alien of a species related to the hunters, and second, another human who has survived in the preserve by going underground.

There's absolutely no appeal to 1980s body culture here: all the characters dress drably and practically, and there are no over-the-top moments about not having time to bleed.  In their place the scriptes offer an almost Nietzschean indictment-- though also an acceptance-- of the lengths to which humans will go to survive.  Royce, the de facto leader, is also a loner who wants no ties, but semi-predictably ends up forming them anyway.  The other victims are not as heroic as those of McTiernan's film and so are not particularly missed when they're picked off.

I give PREDATORS a fair rating for having at least grappled, if only in a superficial way, with the problems inherent in the old saying, "Man is a wolf to man"-- which in this case, may be extended to men of other worlds as well.  Refreshingly, there's no Rod Serling moaning about man's inhumanity, but a need for human connection is acknowledged, though it's always rendered conditional on the fact of survival.  Oh, and the action's pretty good, though at no time do any of the characters or situations manage to capture the "mythic feel" of this movie's period as PREDATOR did for its era.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

THE LONE RANGER (1956), THE GREEN HORNET (1940)




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


Modern comics-mavens like to view Superman and Batman as diametrical opposites, with the former representing bright optimism and the latter dark pessimism.  One could argue that they were preceded in this by two radio-heroes launched by radio producer George Trendle, with the Ranger debuting in 1933 and the Hornet in 1936, just two years before the publication of Superman.

The Ranger, the man who wears a mask but constantly manages to convince righteous people of his honesty, is obviously the more optimistic figure.  The 1956 LONE RANGER film, an attempt to launch the hero and his Indian companion to the big screen as the low-budget teleseries was winding down.  On the whole the series makes a good transition, largely thanks to the good associations of Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels, and to more intense action-scenes.

As in the second and last film of the new cinematic Ranger, the script centers upon the injustices visited upon Native Americans by white men.  In this case, a rapacious rancher named Kilgore (Lyle Bettger) has learned that there's silver beneath the sacred mountain of a local tribe of Indians. In order to gain access to the silver, Kilgore schemes to incite an Indian war, in part by hiring thugs to dress up as Indians and commit crimes.  The Ranger and Tonto must find evidence of Kilgore's evil deeds while simultaneously keeping the more volatile Indians-- particularly a muscular brave named Angry Horse (Michael Ansara)-- from declaring their own war.

The script isn't nearly as nuanced as that of the sequel LOST CITY OF GOLD, and Kilgore is a very flat and uncharismatic villain, one not in the least humanized by the presence of his wife and child.  The fight-scenes are extremely well handled, though.  The Ranger has a one-on-one battle with Angry Horse that easily puts all his TV battles to shame, and toward the climax the hero even sustains a gunshot wound.  Tonto acquits himself just as well: when town bigots try to divest him of his gun simply because he's an "injun," the brave knocks white men left and right for nearly five minutes before he's overpowered.  The Ranger also has an exciting scene rescuing his partner from hanging.  But overall the Ranger remains a strong mediating force between white and red men, suggesting an optimistic outcome for both-- even when moderns know that things didn't turn out so well for the red man.



The Green Hornet, OTOH, doesn't just wear a mask but also creates a criminal persona in order to lure gangsters into his web.  This puts the hero at permanent odds with the authorities, and apparently the hero's willing to suffer these slings and arrows, perhaps having faith in his superior (albeit merely uncanny) technology: the super-fast car "the Black Beauty" and his special knockout-gas gun.  He like the Ranger also has a partner/confidante, his Korean driver Kato, but Kato doesn't get much action in this serial.  In one scene where Kato knocks out a crook, the polite Asian apologizes afterward.  The Hornet, played by hefty Gordon Jones, looks impressive in his frequent brawls with his opponents, all of whom are mundane racketeers with no great distinction.

To be sure, the actual adventures of the Hornet are no more "pessimistic" than were those of early Batman.  However, in this serial the Hornet's origin suggests an emotional tone not unlike the Caped Crusader's survivor-guilt.  In the first episode, newspaper manager Britt Reid-- who is carrying on the newspaper inherited from his father, implicitly still alive but retired-- doesn't listen to advice suggesting that he should investigate racketeer influence at a local mining-operation.  Shortly after this bit of negligence on his part, a mine collapses and kills several miners because racketeers supplied substandard building materials.  Immediately after this, Reid decides to launch a personal crusade against crime as the Green Hornet.

What's interesting is that though the script sets up the potential for the hero to be grief-stricken by his culpability, the serial avoids any direct admission of Britt Reid's guilt.  The Hornet's quest isn't seen in terms of compensation; it's just something any decent man would wish to do. Still, there's a mild similarity in the serial's origin-story to that of a much later arthropod hero, the Amazing Spider-Man-- though the later hero loses a person dear to him due to his negligence, while the nascent Hornet's neglect only costs the lives of men the publisher does not know. Still, it's significant that the Hornet is born out of guilt and a failure to emulate his paternal ideal, as his secretary repeatedly emphasizes to Reid.  The deeper motive is dropped almost as soon as it is raised, just as the adventures of Batman rarely returned to the scene of that character's inner trauma. External action ruled the ethos of the day in adventure-fiction, but it could be said that the Hornet, unlike his more optimistic predecessor the Ranger, suggests the way things would evolve down the superhero road.

I should add that there's one major thematic difference between the origins of the Lone Ranger and of Superman: John Reid is severely wounded by the ambush of his posse of Texas Rangers, while little Kal-L isn't even aware of what's going on when he's rocketed clear of the dying planet Krypton.  However, the upshot of both characters' isolation from their ingroup are de-personalized by the way both become virtual icons.  The Ranger becomes bonded to a Native American and both become a symbol of mythic brotherhood, with Reid's wounding and even his history quickly forgotten.  Superman is bonded to the people of Earth as their angelic protector, and he goes through ten years of adventures before he feels any anguish about Krypton's demise.  The Green Hornet and Batman have their mythic aspects as well, but there's less of a sense that they are myths made flesh; their mundane lives are never entirely obliterated by their heroic roles.

Monday, August 12, 2013

KING KONG (1933)




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

If there's any film that's been analyzed almost as much as the 1960 PSYCHO, it's the 1933 KING KONG.  And since I don't want to repeat the observations of other critics, I'll pass on repeating a lot of familiar thematic statements, some of which prime mover Merian C. Cooper denied during his lifetime.  These statements include such generalities as "King Kong as racial marker," "King Kong as the horrors of sexuality and/or sexual difference," or "King Kong as innocent country-boy devoured by the big city."  All of these have various degrees of application depending on a viewer's own ethos, for Cooper's KONG is the opposite of Hitchcock's PSYCHO in its approach.  Whereas most viewers will agree that there's some intellectual mystery concealed behind the "shower curtain" of Hitchcock, Cooper's KONG, like Cooper himself, seems to deny that it has any meaning beyond being an exciting story.  However, the elements of that story are so intensified, so extravagant in their approach as compared to similar stories-- including 1932's THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME,which shared some of the themes and behind-the-scenes personnel of KONG-- that a film about a giant ape has become a virtual Rorschach test for a great many people.  Kong can be a great number of things to viewers: the Spectre of Blackness Haunting White Europe, Infantilized Sexuality, the Country Mouse-- and yet he's not exclusively any of them.  Even though MOST DANGEROUS GAME shares some of the same structure, a figure like Count Zaroff cannot even touch Kong in terms of symbolic ambivalence.

The one aspect of Kong I can treat with a degree of originality is the mode of the combative, since I myself have originated the theory of that mode. 

I've also recently written here about a difference between two types of works:

Works that are "ego-oriented" center upon one or more of the story's viewpoint characters; this narrative focus makes such characters the "focal presences" of their narratives.

And works that are "affect-oriented" center upon a "focal presence" who is someone or some thing observed by the viewpoint characters.

In the essay EGO, MEET AFFECT, I used two Rider Haggard works as examples.  KING SOLOMON'S MINES, which focuses on adventurer Allan Quatermain and his companions, is an "ego-oriented" work.  Haggard's SHE, which uses some of the same plot-elements and character-types as MINES, focuses on She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed, not the viewpoint characters who observe her majesty.

As it happens, KONG has an antecedent that proves even more influential than MOST DANGEROUS GAME: the 1925 LOST WORLD, on which animator Willis O'Brien perfected his stop-motion wizardry before graduating to KONG.  The original 1912 novel by Conan Doyle is unquestionably an "ego-oriented" work, telling the reader far more about the explorers than the place they explore.  The 1925 film more or less follows the book's example, though it adumbrates some of the strong characterizations of the novel. The film also pays a little more attention than the book to the wonders of the Lost World, particularly to an "ape man" whose principal (and Kong-like) action-- abducting a civilized woman-- does not appear in the Doyle novel.

KONG, however, is definitely "affect-oriented."  Though Denham, Driscoll and Ann Darrow have vital parts to play, they are all supporting roles in Kong's drama.  Kong is the character toward whom everyone else looks, while he himself sees only Ann.  He is, as Denham says, a "god in his world," and he maintains his godhood through his unstinting superiority in combat.  Prior to the great ape's being taken prisoner through human trickery, we see Kong battle and vanquish three prehistoric enemies: a tyrannosaurs, an elasmosaurus, and a pteranodon.  But on an island filled with vicious predators-- so many that one wonders how the local natives have survived, giant wall or not-- it's logical to assume that Kong has had many other such encounters, for all that he seems to be the last of his kind.  One of Kong's most appealing aspects is that though he's not a man, he fights giant beasts just as a man would, punching or wrestling against creatures armed with specialized physical weapons like wings and razor-sharp teeth.

In Kong's world, the men of Denham's party are almost helpless, and Kong massacres the majority of them.  Denham's one technological weapon, a gas-bomb, finally lays Kong low, inspiring Denham to adbuct Kong as Kong abducted Ann-- but for profit, not for love.  To some extent Denham pays for his hubris: Kong can be laid low or killed by human technology, but not-- at least in that era-- bound and put on display.  Even when Kong kills human beings, be they island tribesmen or modern city-dwellers, the ape remains the center of attention.

In many "affect-oriented" works, the viewpoint characters look helplessly on while the "focal presence" of the story works its will, and at best they are only able to slightly alter events.  The aforementioned novel SHE is like this, with the main character accidentally bringing about her own undoing.  Some "affect-oriented" works even offer two focal presences for the price of one, as in Japan's 1962 KING KONG VS. GODZILLA.   The 1933 film takes a more subtle approach: after showing Kong's supremacy in his domain, where he outstrips his prehistoric opponents, it pits him against human technology, the means by which humans sought to equal Nature's gifts to the lower animals.  And Kong, who bested the flying pteranodon, is beaten by the superior fire-power wielded by man's artificial "birds."  Is Kong defeated by beauty alone, or by the (implicitly male) beast in humankind's heart, a beast that female beauty inspires to great acts of valor?



The biplanes are also an insightful touch because the pilots who flew them in World War I became renowned for a knightly code of honor between enemies. In a similar fashion, the entire film is devoted to showing how Kong must be defeated by mankind, and yet how he deserves the respect due a valiant foe. Audiences forget the human beings Kong slaughters and identify with his Herculean feats against the subhuman world of snake, lizard, and bird.  As a fitting ironic touch, the only man who eulogizes Kong in the film is the one who desired to exploit him.  One certainly can't call this love, but it seems that Denham, like the film's audiences, identified with the great ape more than even he expected.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (1961), VALLEY OF THE DRAGONS (1961)



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


I haven't read Jules Verne's MYSTERIOUS ISLAND and haven't read his OFF ON A COMET novel for many years, so I can't review either of the 1961 films adapting these two works with the novel in mind, as I did with Richard Fleischer's 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA.  But whatever the differences of the films from their source material, they do accurately reproduce one of Verne's most important themes: the ideal of brotherhood.  Fleischer's LEAGUES fails to translate the profundity of Captain Nemo's misanthropy, his anger at man's inhumanity to man, and prefers to give audiences a Nemo who is a deep-dyed fanatic. The 1961 sequel to the adventures of the Captain hits closer to the mark, with Herbert Lom's quiet intensity coming closer to Verne's Nemo than James Mason's saturnine hostility.

To be sure, the novel is a sequel to two Verne works, but naturally the film doesn't attempt to bring in plotlines from Verne's IN SEARCH OF THE CASTAWAYS.  The film begins during the American Civil War, with Union soldiers escaping a Confederate prison in an observation ballooon.  The three soldiers-- one of whom is black-- also take along a war correspondent and a Confederate soldier who is able for a time to pilot the balloon.  A storm blows the balloon all the way to an uninhabited island in the Pacific, where, unlike the book, the castaways encounter giant creatures like the giant crab seen above.

Verne's theme of brotherhood receives simple treatment here, as the five men become a rough fraternity, forgetting the conflicts of the Civil War.  The fraternity becomes something like a culture when two women, one young and one middle-aged, are washed ashore from a sunken ship.  There are minute suggestions of the possibility of romance, but not too many, as the emphasis here is on the rigors of survival, the mystery of the giant creatures and the presence of another being, apparently helpful, upon the island.  Toward the end it's disclosed that the third factor explains the second: the castaways' helper is Captain Nemo.  Only he and his ship have survived the debacle of the original LEAGUES (the Disney film being roundly ignored, of course). Having taken refuge on the island, Nemo has conducted experiments with animal gigantism, having some idea about feeding Earth's hungry millions and bringing about brotherhood in that manner. However, the ticking clock of the island's active volcano destroys both Nemo's long-range plans and the castaways' community.

ISLAND makes no attempt to be anything but a good basic all-ages adventure. Nemo's misanthropy is touched upon but not his history with slavery.  We see him torpedo a slaver ship that comes near the island but his rage against them is not personalized.  The black Union soldier Neb is respectable enough, showing no racially motivated characteristics, but he doesn't sustain much interest as a character, and neither do the others.  All of the characters' conflicts are resolved so quickly that one suspects they're merely filler, meant to take up time between their fights with Harryhausen animations.  ISLAND is reasonably exciting, but never rises to the level of the compelling.



VALLEY OF THE DRAGONS, adapted from OFF ON A COMET, isn't exciting, but it's engaging on the level of "good dumb fun."  This Columbia production is much sparser in terms of original effects: many are recycled from ONE MILLION B.C., and the original FX are risible, particularly a puppet-like giant spider.  Whereas the novel deals with a passing comet that drags a number of Earthpeople onto its surface-- a surface already inhabited by dinosaurs and cavepeople from a previous brush with Earth-- in VALLEY only two quarreling men, Denning and Servadac, are sucked up to the comet's surface by its passage.  The two men are in the midst of a duel when the comet grabs them: understandably, their quarrel comes to an end when they must join together for survival.  The growth of their brotherhood spreads to the inhabitants of the comet when Denning and Servadac manage to foment peace between two quarreling tribes of cavepeople.  However, the two heroes are well compensated for their peacemaking efforts, as each of them meets a hot young cave-babe and sets up shop as civilizing forces in Cometville.

Though there's nothing special about the script, writer-director Ed Bernds keeps things hopping and never allows VALLEY to become dull.  That's not to say it generates much excitement, in contrast to MYSTERIOUS ISLAND.  But it's modestly engaging for all that.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

THE TERRORNAUTS (1967)




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


I guess the best thing I can say about this 1967 Amicus SF-outing is that this is what THE LAST STARFIGHTER might look like if filmed for a $1.98 budget.

I'm certainly no snob with regard to low-budget metaphenomenal films, not after all the BOMBA and JUNGLE JIM films that I've reviewed, giving them their due when they succeed despite their budgetary limitations.  TERRORNAUTS, though, doesn't have a decent idea in its empty head.

One review argued that this was one of the first films in which a team of scientists-- whose organization is given the risible name "Star Talk"-- are trying to contact intelligent life through radio communication.  Be that as it may, these Brit characters are paper-thin stereotypes, making it almost impossible to identify with their noble aspirations.  Lead male Joe Burke gets a jot more development than either his two fellow scientists or the two comedy-relief characters who go along for the ride.  As a child Burke had a strange vision of an alien world: a vision brought on a brief exposure to an alien artifact.  Because the artifact is destroyed beyond recovery, Burke can only search the heavens for proof of extraterrestrial intelligence.

Just as Star Talk's funding is about to be yanked away, Burke and his colleagues (one of whom is his girlfriend Sandy) manage to make contact with an interstellar intelligence.  The unknown alien reacts quickly: sending a spaceship that yanks Star Talk's entire building off the Earth and away to a technology-filled asteroid.  (The film derives from a Murray Leinster novel, THE WAILING ASTEROID, which I may have read but remember nothing about.)  While the Earthpeople wander the asteroid, they are subjected to bizarre tests, one of which includes their dealing with a monster (seen above) that is easily one of the most cockamamie cinematic creatures of all time, perhaps even eclipsing the "diving-helmet gorilla" of ROBOT MONSTER.

Suffice to say that the humans pass all the tests, despite getting no help from the comedy-reliefs.  This accomplishment proves that they've capable of rational thought, and they receive presents, such as a ray-gun weapon, as rewards from the automated test-givers.  They soon learn that there had been a living caretaker of the asteroid facility, but he has died, which may explain why they never get a proper briefing on their reason for being here.  Fortunately, they stumble across the answers through various accidents, one of which teleports Sandy to the very planet of which Joe Burke dreamed.  After a violent encounter with some savage natives, the scientists learn that an interstellar space-fleet, which previously caused the destruction of the asteroid's makers (I think), is now headed for Earth.  Burke and his fellows then activate long-dead weapons and manage to blast the interstellar fleet into dust (hence my LAST STARFIGHTER comparison).  Then the Earthpeople manage to teleport back to Earth, where they themselves achieve the status of "aliens" when they land in France rather than England.
I imagine that some viewers may enjoy the catchpenny effects of TERRORNAUTS purely because they are so transparently phony, but I was largely bored because the characters were such tedious ciphers.  I felt sorry for Charles Hawtrey, an excellent comedian from Britain's CARRY ON films.  The other actors merely parroted their lines and went through the motions, but Hawtrey seems to be mildly regretful, as he was thinking, "Give me something funny to do, already!"

IT HAPPENS EVERY SPRING (1949)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*


It's practically guaranteed that any time you see a Classic Hollywood film-title that sounds vaguely risque-- IT STARTED WITH EVE, HER HUSBAND'S AFFAIRS, or the one under consideration here-- it's usually a fake-out.  In this case, though customers may associate "spring" with those things to which "a young man's fancy" turns, this time "it" merely means the baseball season.

Romance is involved, though.  Professor Vernon Simpson (Ray Milland) wants to marry his fiancee Deborah (Jean Peters), but he doesn't make much dough as a university teacher.  Deborah's father, the dean of the college, also frowns on such an impecunious union.  Vernon hopes that he can make his bundle by devising a new chemical that will repel termites from wood. Instead he produces an un-reproducible substance which, when applied to the surface of a baseball, makes it swerve away from a wooden bat.

Vernon, who also happens to be a nut for baseball and the St. Louis Cardinals, gets a brilliant idea: to take a sabbatical from college while the prof joins the Cardinals as their new pitcher.  Every time he  applies his "dipsy-doodle doo" to the ball, he strikes out all batters.  He leads the Cardinals toward imminent victory, much to the amazement of veteran players like his crusty roommate Monk (Paul Douglas).

There are the usual comic complications.  Deborah wonders at Vernon's prolonged absence, and through a typical misunderstanding thinks that the professor has turned to crime (which, in a sense, he has).  Vernon stresses absolute secrecy about his past, for his first consideration is not winning for the Cardinals, but making the money he needs for his marriage.  Near the climax Vernon almost runs out of his special goop, but in one of the film's few funny moments, he finds some of the goop in an unusual place, wins the game, and retires from baseball with all the money he needs.  Neither his fellow players nor the public at large ever knows of Vernon's unique "spin" on pitching, but the dean does learn, and he and Deborah both heartily approve of Vernon rooking the Great Unwashed who devote tons of money to their sports entertainment but almost nothing to higher education.

At this point, this simple, moderately amusing film seems to cribbing its ethics from James Thurber's THE MALE ANIMAL, for it's never suggested that it's in any way immoral to use special skill-enhancing substances to "fix" the game in favor of a particular team.  Indeed, the dean's speech at the end suggests that he thinks this type of cheating is fully justified.  Admittedly, though, a lot of comedies allow weak protagonists to win fights or games against stronger opponents using non-kosher methods, so SPRING is nothing new.  But given that Vernon is a baseball enthusiast, it's surprising that the thought of cheating in a game of skill never crosses his mind.

Today it would be impossible to make a film with SPRING's most impossible premise.  This isn't that someone could cause baseballs to swerve away from bats, but that anyone with a double-identity could become a million-dollar pitcher, avoid the spotlight of publicity, and then return to some bucolic family life without anyone ever finding out about his checkered past.  Even in 1949, I don't imagine anyone believed that tall tale.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962)




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


I didn't have the chance to see KING KONG VS. GODZILLA on the big screen back in the day, but as a sixties kid, I remember thinking that it was a great "battle of titans," marred only by a little too much humor.

And now? I still like the basic idea of VERSUS, partly because the stop-motion masterpiece of the '33 KONG influenced the genesis of the 1954 GODZILLA.  The two creatures also represent very different phases of science fiction.  The 1933 KING KONG is romantic and backward-looking, communicating the charm of a lost prehistoric world.  1954's GODZILLA, for all that it revolves around a mutated dinosaur, is about a present-day apocalypse: an "end of times" in which a giant firebreathing lizard becomes the symbol of post-nuclear terror.

Though VERSUS is the third in the long-running Godzilla series, the script seems closer in tone to that of the 1933 KONG.  Godzilla's only previous battle with a giant creature, "Anguirus" in 1955's GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN, comes about by accident, because both giant prehistoric monsters have been awakened from sleep by nuclear tests. VERSUS is the first time human beings seek to manipulate monsters into fighting one another, a plot-device taken up again and again in Japan's kaiju films, usually with aliens providing some of the manipulation.  Though at no time does VERSUS overtly condemn humans for doing this, there's an occasional hint that Kong is done an injustice by the scheming industrialist who takes him prisoner-- much as Kong is exploited by another capitalist schemer in the 1933 film. 




Further, this Kong-- visually inferior to the original, but not quite as dopey-looking as the one in the otherwise superior KING KONG ESCAPES-- seems more benign than the King of Skull Island.  When a Japanese expedition journeys to remote "Faro Island" in search of a rare berry with soporific properties, it discovers a Kong who is worshipped by the superstitious South Sea Island-types, but doesn't seem to need any virgin sacrifices.  After Kong comes to the natives' rescue by repelling a giant killer octopus, the natives simply sing and dance Kong into slumber as he gets drunk on berry-juice.  So the big ape doesn't really have a dog in the fight between Japan and Godzilla, newly revived as he awakes from the glacier that entombed him at the end of RAIDS. 

Incidentally, I haven't had a chance to re-watch either the 1954 GODZILLA or its sequel in recent months, but I wonder if VERSUS is the first film to posit that the Big G keeps heading back to Japan because it represents his ancestral home.  Something to check out later.

The actual physical contest between ape and lizard, sadly, is not one of the better battles of Japan's kaiju cinema.  It's more noticeable to me as an adult when Godzilla repeatedly aims his atomic breath not at Kong but toward the ground at Kong's feet.  Godzilla's fiery wrath instantly starts fires in the brush; yet on the two occasions when Kong is directly struck by a fire-blast, the big ape simply smoulders a little, patting his chest as if to suggest that he put them any flames before the viewer could see them.

To be sure, Kong himself does feel a little outclassed by Godzilla's radioactive advantage, and does what a real animal would do in those circumstances: he runs away. However, the film gives Kong a hidden advantage, claiming that Kong is made stronger by electricity.  There's no logic behind this claim, but the film does offer a little visual support for the association.  During the natives' Kong-lullaby the thunder keeps crashing, as if the filmmakers were making some connection between the natives' superstitious fear of real thunder and their worship of Kong. When the Japanese army constructs an electric fence around Tokyo, it does manage to turn away Godzilla, but Kong tears through the barrier, drinking up the electricity and then trashing the capital city in Godzilla's place.  Whereas Godzilla barely if ever noticed the activities of the humans he stomped, Kong remains true to form, taking a cute female prisoner.  However, this beauty doesn't bring about the beast's death, but her peril inspires her boyfriend to knock Kong out again, using a combination of berry-juice and an imitation of the South Seas drumming.

The rock-'em, sock-'em ending-- in which Kong is charged up with energy again by a passing thunderstorm-- has a sort of giddy charm, but it's almost entirely on Kong's side: Godzilla, whose previous film had been a box-office disappointment, isn't much more than a standard heavy here. Even in kaiju, it seems you're only as good as your last picture. Contrary to popular mythology, there was no separate ending in which Godzilla won their fight: in all versions Kong simply swims back to Faro Island after having symbolically "killed" Godzilla by wrestling him back into the sea.  However, Wikipedia asserts that the voices of both monsters are heard at the conclusion of the Japanese version, while the American version allows only Kong's roar to be heard.  I certainly wouldn't attribute any deep sociological motives in giving the apparent victory to "American" Kong over "Japanese" Godzilla.  It may well be that the producers favored Kong because they thought he might prove a more financially successful property.  However, only one other Kong-film was finished by Toho, while Godzilla took on renewed mythic propotions thanks to his matchup with the Big K. 



Monday, August 5, 2013

FRIDAY THE 13TH VIII: JASON TAKES MANHATTAN (1989)



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


Though the script for JASON TAKES MANHATTAN is a scattered one, it has some decent psychological moments despite clunky direction and too many characters for its own good.

One of the script's most interesting conceits returns to the "transference of evil" motif that dominated many of the early films, and does so by implicitly rewriting the FRIDAY continuity since the original film.  Fans will recall that Part Two asserted that Jason never actually drowned in Crystal Lake, despite his mother's unshakable conviction that he had perished due to the neglect of the camp's sex-happy counselors.  Parts Two, Three and Four all assert that Jason never drowned: that through some legerdemain he ended up living alone in the woods survivalist-style, worshipping the skull of his dead mother after she's killed in Part One.  Jason stays dead for Part Five and is revived as an undead creature in Parts Six and Seven, but at no time does he actually drown, though he may have experienced the fear of drowning.

Part Eight, instead, assumes that at some point Jason drowned as a small child.  The story begins once again in the locale of Crystal Lake, on a boat manned by two sex-happy students.  In between bouts of lovemaking, the boy tells his girlfriend an adumbrated history of the FRIDAY franchise, mentioning Mrs. Voorhees' rampage as well as claiming that Jason drowned as a child but somehow came back-- though there's no explanation as to how he came back as an adult. Adult Jason is once more on the bottom of Crystal Lake, in the same somnolent state he was in at the end of Part Seven, though of course there's no mention as to how he came to be there.  The boat's anchor drags an electrical cable into contact with the Hockey-Mask Horror, and he arises to kill the two teens.

Instead of looking for new victims on land as he usually does, for some reason Jason's kill-craze takes a nautical turn as he stows away on a cruise-ship bound for New York.  (For some reason the name of the ship is shown to be "Lazarus Panama," though the ship is only going from New Jersey-- the location of the fictional Crystal Lake-- to New York.)  As it happens, the ship holds a bevy of students, all under the aegis of a very unlikeable authoritarian teacher, Charles McCullough.  One of those students is McCullough's orphaned niece Rennie, to whom McCullough is legal guardian due to the death of her parents in a car accident.  Like many other FRIDAY protagonists, Rennie has a traumatic relationship to Jason's iconic history, though Rennie has no memory of her trauma; she only experiences an extreme aversion of water.  Because of this aversion she doesn't want to join her fellow students on the cruise ship, but she forces herself to do so in defiance of her stifling uncle. 

McCullough is a Heavy Father after the fashion of Doctor Crews from Part Seven.  He's so rigidly repulsive that even when he does something relatively moral-- as when he refuses to give a female student a passing grade when she offers to sleep with him-- the viewer still doesn't like him any better.  When the subplot about Rennie's fear of water is disclosed, the Big Reveal is that he threw grade-school Rennie into the waters of Crystal Lake in an attempt to teach her how to swim.  But here too he seems not to care about Rennie's welfare; the suspicion is that he takes these extreme measures-- including mocking her about drowning "like Jason Voorhees"-- because he has a buried desire to sadistically control everyone in his sphere.

The interaction between Rennie and her Heavy Father is a good deal more interesting than Jason's shenanigans aboard the aptly named Lazarus: many horror-fans deem this the worst FRIDAY film due to the many bloodless and unimaginative kills.  (The most interesting shipboard scene is when Rennie drives off Jason by stabbing him in the eye with "Stephen King's pen!") At least a third of the film deals with Jason's shipbound rampage, making one wonder how the ship manages to get to New York while most of the crew is being killed off.  But Rennie, her boyfriend, McCullough and a few others manage to get off the ship in a lifeboat and steer themselves to the Big Apple.  Jason, undeterred  by water under certain circumstances (i.e., whenever the writer so desires), follows them.

Some fans were bothered by the fact that the film heavily advertises Jason's venture into Manhattan but offers only a few piddling set-pieces.  As soon as the escapees arrive in New York, they're immediately held up-- surely the outsider's archetypal notion of New York's burgeoning criminality.  Jason also visits the subway and a deli, and terrifies some gang-bangers by showing them his monstrous face.  These are unimaginative scenarios but I have seen much worse.  There's greater suspense in trying to figure out why Rennie keeps having visions of Jason-as-a-child even as adult Jason keeps chasing her down.  Eventually, shortly before Jason helpfully kills McCullough, Rennie experiences a memory breakthrough.  After her uncle tossed her in the lake, child-Jason materialized in the water and tried to drag young Rennie down to a watery grave.  Young Rennie is rescued by the man who endangered her in the first place, but not until McCullough is killed by Jason does he truly realize that he's tampered with the supernatural. 

As for Rennie, she's "the one who got away," like Chris in Part Three.  The implication-- to the extent that director Rob Hedder's jumbled script holds together at all-- is that child Jason really did drown as established in Part One, but that somehow adult Jason is a manifestation of that spectre.  This is confirmed in the big finale, wherein Jason chases Rennie and her boyfriend down into the New York sewers.  By extreme dumb luck, the sewers are about to be subjected to a "toxic waste" flush, and the protagonists manage to leave Jason behind in the muck.  The toxic muck-- symbolically, the formidable waste-products of renowned pollution-center New York City-- purges the adult spectre of Jason, leaving behind the corpse of young Jason, the boy who drowned.  For good measure, Hedder even gets a little metaphysical, throwing in a quick shot of lightning flashing down from the heavens to zap the Statue of Liberty, as if both God and Lady Liberty finally decided to take a hand in Jason's (temporary) demise. 

MANHATTAN is, without a doubt, a big mess that doesn't deliver the thrills Jason-fans expected.  However, messy though it is, I like particular scenes in it, which is more than I can say for Parts Three and Five. 

FRIDAY THE 13TH PART VII: THE NEW BLOOD (1988)



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


After three films which focused on Tommy Jarvis as a "Final Boy" protagonist, the FRIDAY series finally circles back to the "Final Girl" syndrome with which the series began.  Further, it features one of the few times Jason would encounter a power comparable to his own, making NEW BLOOD one of the few "combative dramas" in the series.  BLOOD has often been dismissed by the summation: "Jason Meets Carrie."

There's considerable potential, both realized and unrealized, in BLOOD's scenario.  Whereas Stephen King's CARRIE is primarily about the conflict of a young girl with other females, both her mother and her high-school peers, telekinetic Final Girl Tina is a "daddy's girl" brought into conflict with one of horror-cinema's foremost "momma's boys."  A flashback, which takes place at Jason's Crystal Lake stomping-grounds, reveals how young Tina's powers burst forth one day when she sees her father strike her mother during a quarrel, and not for the first time.  Young Tina steers a boat out into Crystal Lake while her father harangues her to come back to the dock.  Tina's frustrated aggression lashes forth in a burst of telekinetic power that causes the dock to collapse, drowning her father.  We later learn that his body was never recovered from the lake, which seems more than a little improbable but proves necessary for the climax.

Seven years later, Tina is taken back to the cottage at Crystal Lake by her mother and her psychologist Doctor Crews.  Like Tommy Jarvis, Tina has been in and out of psychiatric institutions that have been unable to cure her trauma.  Crews, a believer in shock therapy, convinces Tina's mother to take Tina back to the scene of her trauma.  Ostensibly this is to give Tina some healing closure, but it later comes out that Crews wants to bring forth her telekinetic powers in full force.  He doesn't seem too worried that he might suffer the fate of Tina's father; apparently he's consumed with the desire to demonstrate her psychic powers to academia, though it's never very clear why he believes that this will lead him to fame and/or fortune.

Tina, whose unresolved feelings for her father are in play, senses a presence within the lake, and thinks that it's her father.  Her psychic powers awaken Jason, chained to the bottom of the lake at the end of Part Six, and he breaks forth, immediately going on a rampage.  Following a pattern cemented in Part Four, Jason menaces two houses: one full of disposable, party-happy teens, and one containing a loose approximation of a typical nuclear family, in which Doctor Crews' authority has taken the form of the Heavy Father.  Eventually both Tina and her mother break free from this authority, but for roughly half the picture Crews convincingly maintains that all of Tina's sightings of a hockey-masked killer are just hallucinations brought on by her guilt-complex. 

Since "Carrie" takes up so much of the narrative, Jason's mythology isn't given much development here, beyond the motif of certain Jason-victims having a trauma that mirrors Jason's own.  I haven't attempted to chronicle the variety of murder-methods used in the FRIDAY films, but BLOOD has one of the weakest selections thus far, apparently in line with a producer's dictum to lessen the bloodiness of the franchise.  This can be seen in the executive decision to adumbrate the best murder-scene in the original film.  In the original release, Jason grabs hold of a sleeping-bag with a helpless victim inside, and bashes it against a tree six times.  In home-video versions, the bash-count is reduced to one smash, which seems a rather silly limitation for a series predicated on extreme violence.  In addition, I'll note that in this film and the next one, Jason has been given more ghoulish makeup during his brief unmasking-scenes. Perhaps this was a natural response to the fact that he'd been under the water for several years, but I suspect that the real reason was to keep selling new forms of ghoulish makeup to the FANGORIA enthusiasts.  That's not entirely a bad thing, since those fans supported the Jason franchise, but I personally just didn't like them.

I suppose one could make a very loose case for viewing BLOOD as an "anti-patriarchy" film.  Tina's father tries to maintain his authority through violence, and is punished for it when Tina unleashes her witchy abilities.  Jason, who is archetypally more of a "son" than a "father," also uses violence, though it's not to establish any sort of authority: merely to satisfy his unquenchable anger against everyone who had a more normal life than he did.  Yet though Jason is repeatedly battered by all the objects Tina hurls against him-- including a fire that destroys the cottage where the original father-violence took place-- he isn't defeated by her psychic powers in a direct sense.  Instead, when during the climax Jason faces off against Tina at the Crystal Lake dock, Tina somehow senses the dead body of her father beneath the lake and calls him forth as a sort of zombie who drags Jason back into the water.  There's no elaboration as to why this stops Jason, though one must assume it works in the same manner as it does in the last film: it forces Jason to re-experience something like his original near-death-by-drowning, so that he again falls into an undead immobility.  One may view this as the "good father" of Tina's memories triumphing over the "bad father" inherent in Jason's masculine violence-- though Jason's violence lasts long enough to kill both Tina's mother and her other "bad father," Crews.

On a minor note Tina also vies with a nasty socialite for the favors of a hunky guy, which plot-thread has a loose resemblance to certain events in CARRIE.  But all of the teen-victims are thoroughly tedious cannon-fodder, so the film gets no mileage out of their psychological and sociological makeup.