Tuesday, November 26, 2013

THOR: THE DARK WORLD (2013)



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

I suppose that in terms of plot coherence THOR: THE DARK WORLD (hence just DARK WORLD) isn't really any better than the 2011 THOR, which I castigated for its murky motivations and political correctness.  But DARK WORLD is a far more entertaining film than its predecessor if one doesn't obsess over the plot-points.  Further, DARK WORLD comes much closer to emulating the look of the great fantasy-films.  I mean, the central palace in Asgard still looks like nothing more than a gigantic pipe organ...




...but at least there are enough scenes set in Asgard that the place looks like something people might *live* in.  The design of Asgard is nothing special, and looks derivative from the Peter Jackson LORD OF THE RINGS films, but it communicated a good fantasy-vibe nonetheless.  The costumes, which I also praised in the first film, remain a strong point.  But the film's greatest improvement is to impart a Norse *ethos* to Thor's home, so that it seems a credible place for heavily-armed warriors-- including Thor and Loki's war-maiden mother Frigga-- might disport themselves.

I have not re-read the Walt Simonson comics-epic on which DARK WORLD is very roughly based.  Simonson's storyline introduced the "dark elf" Malekith, who sought to bring about an apocalyptic catastrophe, just as his cinematic counterpart does. However, I recall Simonson's Malekith as a malevolent master schemer, almost as entertaining as perennial Thor-villain Loki. DARK WORLD's Malekith is in comparison a one-note figure.  The script throws in a few portentous phrases about how Malekith hails from the unformed chaos-world that preceded the existing cosmos of the "Nine Worlds," and this chaos that Malekith wishes to bring back is presumably the "dark world" of the title.  But a few dimestore myth-quotations, probably culled from some familiar translated work like the "Elder Edda," are not enough to make Malekith a memorable villain.  The audience gets that he's pissed to have the world of light succeed the world of darkness, and that's about it.  Christopher Eccleston attempts to give Malekith a frosty, malefic attitude, but it's clear that the scriptwriters weren't interesting in the character as anything but a plot-device.

But this time there's a good reason for this bit of negligence: that of placing the relationship of noble Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and conniving Loki (Tom Hiddleston) on center-stage.  DARK WORLD begins a year or more after the events of THE AVENGERS, during which time Thor and his warrior-companions have been traveling through the Nine Realms, subduing what one assumes are unjustified rebellions against Asgard's authority.  Loki has been locked away in a high-tech prison, given succor only by his adoptive mother Frigga, though he professes not to need her attentions.  Meanwhile a new threat appears on Earth: a super-weapon called "the Aether" which the Dark Elves created to hurl "cosmos" back into "chaos."  A prefatory opening establishes that during a war between the Dark Elves and the Asgardians-- the latter party led by the father of Odin-- the Asgardians wrest the device from their foes.  Somehow the device ends up on Earth, and in 2013 starts emitting various freaky phenomena, like creating anti-gravity and dimensional portals.  This leads super-scientist/Thor-girlfriend Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), her intern Darcy (Kat Dennings) and her intern's intern to investigate the site of the weird stuff, not long before Thor himself shows up.  In addition to some romantic tensions between Thor and Jane-- the guy did leave without explanation for over a year-- Jane is possessed by the Aether, a power that will destroy her even if it isn't used to destroy the universe. 

Whereas Thor was the "duck out of water" in the first film, Jane then gets that honor in DARK WORLD, since Thor must take her to Asgard for possible treatment.  This prompts the Dark Elves to attack Asgard to regain the Aether.  Following the repulsion of the first assault,, Odin digs in his heels, defying Malekith to strike again.  Thor enlists Loki to spirit Jane out of Asgard in order to seek out Malekith.  The gambit is partly successful in that Malekith removes the Aether from Jane, but Thor and Loki are unable to prevent the Dark Elf and his goon squad from departing with their treasure.  Loki pays-- or appears to pay-- the ultimate price for helping his brother, while Malekith is poised to oblierate the universe once "the stars are right," as the cliche goes.  The last quarter of the film is dominated by Earth-based action, as Thor goes it almost alone against Malekith's forces. He's aided only by Jane and her friends, who have whipped up some ill-defined portal-manipulating gizmos, whose use adds to the frenetic action of the climax.  Inevitably the apocalypse is postponed and all is right with the world-- apart from the hearkenings of the next few plot-developments of other Marvel movies, not only for another THOR but also for the forthcoming GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY flick.

This quick summary does nothing to convey the film's best asset: its humor.  Without the character-based jokes-- stronger here than in the first film because there's some history to play with-- the fast-paced action might have worn me out.  Kat Dennings' Darcy, who barely had two quips worth rubbing together in the first film, gets the lion's share of the funny lines, probably a consequence of the fame she gained from her CBS sitcom TWO BROKE GIRLS, which enjoyed breakout success in the fall after the original THOR's debut.  But other characters get a fair share.  Hiddleston's witty, charming Loki has his expected moments, but even the sobersided Thor gets in a few shots.  In contrast to my feelings towards the stodgy original, I find myself looking forward to at least one more episode in the Thor saga.

Monday, November 25, 2013

GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN (1955)



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


I suppose I could have waited to review GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN until I got my hands on the DVD set that shows the original Japanese version of RAIDS as well as the Americanized version, as I did with the original 1954 film.  However, critical consensus seems to be that RAIDS was a quickie sequel executed by a lesser talent at Toho Studios, while one of the men most associated with GODZILLA's breakout success, director Ishiro Honda, was assigned to some other project.  For that reason, and because I was impatient to compare the sequel to the original-- even in a somewhat compromised form-- I decided to simply review the American version here.

I found that though the absence of Honda and a sufficient budget made a sizeable difference in the essentials of RAIDS, there are interesting points of continuity between the first two iterations of Godzilla.  Despite the necessity of creating a "new Godzilla" after the old one was skeletonized, the script for RAIDS remains generally consistent with the concept of the first film, possibly because at least one of GODZILLA's credited writers, Takeo Murata, contributed to the RAIDS script.  And of course effects artist Eiji Tsuburaya's work is largely uncompromised in the Americanized film, which is more than one can say of the original film's musical score.  Perhaps the best way to describe the difference between the two films is to say that while GODZILLA was a response to and amplification of the content and themes in 1953's BEAST FROM 20.000 FATHOMS, RAIDS is more of a response to 1933's KING KONG.


In my review of KING KONG I observed:

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.

To be sure, the film begins very differently from KING KONG, centering not on a band of explorers looking for exotic animals to film, but on two "fish spotters," Tsukioka and Kobayashi, whose job is to track the movements of tuna schools at sea.  Mechanical failure causes Kobayashi to land his plane on a remote island, and Tsukioka lands there as well to render aid.  No sooner have the men come together than they see two titanic creatures battling on the island.  These are another Godzilla-- dubbed "Gigantis" in the American version-- and Anguirus, a new beast based roughly on the authentic prehistoric creature, the Ankylosaurus.  The two pilots flee for their lives, becoming the heralds of the warring titans to humanity.

The broad implication of the American film is that these two creatures have been awakened from centuries-long hibernation by atomic testing, just as in the case of GODZILLA.  What seems less obvious is the question as to why the reborn creatures are fighting.  In 1933's KING KONG, Kong fights with various monsters who are seeking to eat Ann Darrow.  With what we are given, one can only assume that the new Godzilla and Angurius had been competitors for territory in ancient times, and that upon being revived, they simply renew some earlier battle as if there had been no interruption.

The contending monsters plummet into the sea, causing them to become separated, though both of them proceed roughly in the direction of the city of Osaka on the Japanese island Honshu.  Doctor Yamane from the first film appears briefly to recap the history of the first Godzilla's rampage, as well as the fact that the weapon that slew him is no longer available.  There is a curious attempt in this film to equate both monsters with a primeval "fiery past" of the Earth's history, an equivalence which will become providential at the film's conclusion.

Strangely, as if to mirror similar scenes in the first film, we see residents of Osaka celebrating the fact that the monsters haven't attacked long before they should credibly believe themselves safe. Perhaps the scripter and director wanted to conjure once more with the image of Godzilla as an ancestral dragon sent to chastise modern Japan.  Godzilla finds his way to the shores near Osaka, but the military-- once again treating Godzilla as if he were an enemy invader-- distracts him by shooting flares toward the ocean.  However, an incident involving convicts escaping their imprisonment brings about a large fire, so that Godzilla returns to Osaka, roughly about the same time Anguirus arrives.

One immense benefit of the battle between the two creatures is that their conflict distracts from the audience's expectations of seeing Osaka ravaged as Tokyo was in the first film.  That said, their conflict also has some of the same ego-boosting effect seen in KING KONG: when Godzilla triumphs over the formidable Anguirus, he proves that he is "top lizard" much as Kong did in defeating various dinosaurs.  Thus Anguirus is in some sense a stand-in for Osaka: their extended-- and exciting-- wrestling match takes the place of a more expensive general destruction of the city.  Though this maneuver may have had its roots in economics, the "monster duel" would become one of the central tropes of the Godzilla franchise, becoming far more important than the trope was in the original KONG or in most of its recapitulations.

The army expends its usual might against Godzilla, to no effect, though the Big G does proceed back out to sea, ending up on an island covered with ice.  To solve the dilemna of his presence, the film happily avoids bringing in yet another miracle-working scientist.  Instead, Tsukioka's somewhat comical pal Kobayashi nobly sacrifices his life divebombing Godzilla kamikaze-style.  Kobayashi's heroic act gives Tsukioka an inspiration: if the army shells the icy cliffs surrounding Godzilla, they can bury him in ice.  The military follows Tsukioka's plan, and Godzilla is duly entombed.  In addition to duplicating the natural processes that plunged both Godzilla and Anguirus into hibernaiton, there may be some sense that "fire monster" Godzilla has an antipathy to the cold and loses power in its vicinity. 

The human characters in this film are somewhat one-dimensional and are in no way as compelling as Serizawa, his fiancee and his young competitor from the first film, though I presume that RAIDS' characters were somewhat better presented in the Japanese original.  Interestingly, though RAIDS' box office was so disappointing that the studio did not make another Godzilla film until 1962, that film followed the template of RAIDS far more than the original GODZILLA as well, in that it centered around another "monster duel," albeit one brought about by meddling humans.  This was of course KING KONG VS. GODZILLA, whose popularity revolutionized the Godzilla franchise.  It might be said, then, that GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN offered a more practical pattern for imitation than the original, by its singular nature, could have.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

SLIGHTLY GREATER DOWNSIZING

A little over a year ago, I downsized my frequency of reviews down from "one for each day of the month" (which started in Oct 2011) to "one for each weekday of each month."  Since I feel that I've covered a lot of the essential ground I needed to cover to explicate my Ten Tropes, and the movie-blog takes away from a lot of other things I'd like to do, my new minimum will be no less than three reviews for each full five-day week on the calendar of a given month.

I may end up doing more than twelve reviews at any given time, but starting this month twelve will be my current minimum blog-rate.

DESPICABLE ME (2010)



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


My second viewing of DESPICABLE ME was much like the first.  It's a film with some good bits of business, layered into a pleasantly predictabe storyline.  Hollywood has produced any number of similar films in which a rogue does something beneficent with a selfish end in mind, and ends up being converted to good by the simple act of being forced to act good. 

DESPICABLE's main interest is that it presents an alternate world derived from the superhero idiom: one in which there exist some unspecified number of super-villains, but no superheroes.  Following the opening stunt-- in which the world is horrified to learn that the Great Pyramid of Giza has been stolen-- a newsman wonders "which of the world's villains" is responsible.  We only see two, however: Felonious Gru, the needle-nosed, stocky-shaped "me" of the title, and his enemy, the young whippersnapper Vector.  Both establish that this is a world of purely comic villainy: one where villains exist in a state of what Veblen called "conspicuous consumption." After it's revealed that Vector is responsible for stealing the Pyramid, Gru determines that he wants to top his rival by shrinking and stealing the Moon itself.  It's never clear about how either supercrook could profit from these bizarre deeds, but their actions are very much in keeping with the attitudes of certain comic-book villains-- the Joker in particular-- who often indulge in stealing absurd objects less for profit than for the sheer thrill of defying the law.  Here the forces of law and order are barely even seen; DESPICABLE's world is an arena in which two ludicrous lawbreakers cross swords-- or ray-guns, as the case may be.

In order to recover a vital weapon from Vector-- one that Vector heisted during Gru's original heist of the object-- Gru adopts three adorable little girls.  He uses the girls as catspaws to infiltrate Vector's sanctum, accomplishes his mission, and then-- can't seem to figure out how to get rid of the rambunctious trio.  Refreshingly, the three girls are reasonably well characterized so as to keep them from being overly sentimental in their growing attachment to their new "daddy," whom they're not initially too crazy about either.  But the expected filial bond takes place nonetheless, not least because Gru nurses some frustrated familial feelings as a result of an indifferent-- but still comedic-- mother-from-hell.

There's never a direct combat between Gru and Vector, for throughout the flick they fight one another largely through the use of super-weapons-- though Gru has a nice moment toward the end, personally invading Vector's fortress single-handed and quashing its many threats.  His motive by that time is no longer the satisfaction of his ego but his concern for the safety of the girls, whom Vector has kidnapped.  This in turn leads to a Big Climax in which Gru rescues his adoptive daughters from Vector's ship, all while Vector has lost control of the situation because the shrunken Moon has begun to assume its former size.  Still, I regard this as a "combative comedy" because the outcome-- in which Gru re-acquires his daughters and puts the moon back into place-- takes place because of his decisive actions in pursuing Vector's ship.  Still, Gru's success and Vector's humiliation take place because of their ongoing opposition, so it's the outcome is the result of that combative stance.  In this DESPICABLE resembles a number of other combative comedies I've reviewed here, such as
1991's HOOK and 2012's DARK SHADOWS, where fate more than the central hero strikes the final humiliating blow against the antagonist.



Monday, November 18, 2013

ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE (1969)



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

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS


Though some critics consider Fleming's OHMSS one of his best novels, in my re-reading I found that it suffered from weak pacing and motivations.  The novel is famous as the one in which James Bond marries for the first and only time, but he weds neurotic Tracy di Vicenzo, one of Fleming's least interesting heroines.

OHMSS also presents the return of Blofeld after his introduction in THUNDERBALL, but it's hard to top a crime as daring as heisting atomic bombs.  This time Blofeld poses as a phony European count and takes up residence in a castle in the Swiss Alps.  He creates for himself the reputation of a great allergy doctor, and he invites several allergy-afflicted Englishwomen to his lair on the pretence of curing them.  His real intent is to program them subliminally so that they will carry bacterial agents back to England-- sort of like a cross between a beauty pageant and the Trojan Horse (no pun intended)-- and infect England's agriculture and livestock industries.  Bond presumes that Blofeld is funded by the Russians, though this is never verified.  Bond is placed on Blofeld's trail by the father of Tracy, Marc-Ange, head of the Corsican equivalent of the Mafia, and 007's only way into the villain's fortress is to pose as an expert on heraldry.  It seems criminal mastermind Blofeld is bitten by the snob-bug, desiring to have an English firm authenticate his phony nobility. Fleming never makes this transition convincing, but he does have some fun with the pretensions of commoners. However, that bit of fun doesn't compensate for the novel's padding with too much information on the science of heraldry.  Bond infiltrates the citadel, learns the evildoer's plans and escapes in the novel's most exciting sequence.  Then, unable to attack Blofeld with conventional forces, Bond gets the help of Marc-Ange in attacking and destroying the Swiss castle.  In the end Bond marries Tracy, but she's killed when vengeful Blofeld makes a machine-gun attack on Bond.

The novel fits well into the uncanny phenomenality thanks to Blofeld's programming techniques, probably owing to then-current beliefs about subliminal programming as expressed in Vance Packard's 1957 book THE HIDDEN PERSUADERS-- not least because 007 actually uses the term "hidden persuader"in the text.

The cinematic OHMSS follows the book very closely, aside from inserting many more fight-scenes-- something Fleming's books rarely emphasize.  Of course OHMSS is famed as the first non-Connery Bond-film, and star George Lazenby has maintained a strong reputation even though he never repeated the role.  Given that Lazenby was not a professional actor, he comes off quite well, though one must credit the producers for helping to mold him into a quasi-Connery to keep the fans happy.  Co-star Diana Rigg infuses the character of Tracy with much more cleverness and strength than the prose character possesses, and in deference to her history from THE AVENGERS, she too gets an extended fight-scene.  Telly Savalas essays my least favorite Blofeld, but his portrayal has its strengths, not the least that he is a much more physical antagonist for Bond.  This proves to be in keeping with the Blofeld who ends up sword-fighting Bond in the novel YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE.

The movie also manages to trump the thrills of Bond's novel-escape with a tour de force of skiing-stunts, improving on Fleming by handicapping Bond with but a single ski.  Later both Bond and Tracy experience a second ski-attack, which serves to get Tracy captured by Blofeld's forces.  This has the additional result of making the attack on the castle more involving.  In one of Rigg's best scenes Tracy manages to keep Blofeld at bay by flattering him with poetry, at least until the climactic attack.  Because the script builds up her character considerably, her death is similarly more affecting than in the novel.

Blofeld's scheme differs only in minor details.  Instead of inviting only English girls for his Trojan Horse treatment, Blofeld brings in young women from many countries.  This change allowed the producers to put the beauties of many nations on display, making for greater international publicity to boot.  No mention of Russian assistance is made, and as a consequence Blofeld isn't out to decimate England right away.  Rather, in a variation of his THUNDERBALL routine, he plans to blackmail the world to keep its resources safe.  This doesn't entirely track, especially since he does so after Bond escapes his clutches and could theoretically warn border-guards about the Trojan babes.  Blofeld gets a mano-a-mano battle with Bond while the two struggle atop a bobsled, which is certainly more exciting than the villain simply slipping away during the attack.

One-time Bondfilm director Peter Hunt-- who had been an editor on all five films previous-- handles the interpersonal scenes quite well.  However, according to one interview Hunt sought to play down some of the more outre aspects of the 007 world.  Thus there are no added gimmicks in the film, and the "hidden persuaders" are the only metaphenomenal aspects of the film, just as they are in the novel.  At times Hunt's passion for realism renders some scenes clunky or overly distanced, lacking the escapist glamor for which the franchise had become known.


Friday, November 15, 2013

UNIVERSAL SOLDIER (1992)



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


I would be the last to narrowly define films in terms of their sociopolitical content, and I despise the sort of cant-filled reviews that ignore the kinetic appeal of films to emphasize such content.

That said, in my re-viewing of UNIVERSAL SOLDIER I couldn't help but notice how thoroughly the script papered over any political undercurrents here, given that the protagonist and his antagonist are both survivors of the Vietnam War.  The political nature of that conflict does exert a shaping influence over this hard-hitting action-flick, if only in that the villain can be read as "Bad Soldier Whose Lack of Discipline Leads to Slaughter" while the hero suggests "Good Soldier Who Could Never Be Responsible for Atrocities."

Admittedly, SOLDIER is not about the lives of real soldiers, much less the particulars of Vietnam.  The film's principal concern is that of resuscitating two diametically opposed warriors from the past and pitting them against one another as back-from-the-dead super-soldiers.  Still, there is a mythic juxtaposition here between the hero, who only wants to return home a la John Rambo and forget his part in the armed conflict, and the villain, who has become entirely obsessed with war. 

The shadow of real-life military war criminal William Calley hangs heavy upon the "origin" of these two Universal Soldiers, a.k.a. "Unisols."  While serving in Vietnam, private Luc Devereaux (Jean-Claude Van Damme) is shocked when his commanding sergeant Andrew Scott (Dolph Lundgren) goes berserk and slaughters not only local Vietnamese but many of his own unit.  It's not clear why Scott-- who has formed an extreme persecution complex, regarding all those around him as traitors-- doesn't immediately shoot Devereaux when he sees him, except that the script needs to depict what a crazy he is.  When the sergeant orders the private to kill a prisoner, the result is a standoff in which both men are killed-- temporarily.

However, a rogue government operation takes possession of the bodies.  Almost twenty years later the two soldiers have been restored to life, so that their training can be combined with chemicals that enhance their strength and healing abilities.  The ramrod of the operation (Ed O'Ross) plans to use their "super-soldiers" in future conflicts, if the scientists can just solve the problem that the two walking-dead warriors must be continually cooled down to avoid burnout.

However, old memories die hard.  During a combat-situation Scott once more goes out of control, and Devereaux's attempt to stop him triggers some partial memories of his real identity.  A lady reporter spirits the good warrior away from the military.  The army's pursuit of Devereaux is hampered when Scott uses his enhanced abilities to take over the operation.

Though the memories of both Unisols remains hazy, Van Damme's character is largely benign, fighting back only when threatened.  Lundgren's Scott gets the best lines, as he dwells in the fantasy that he's still fighting the war.  His standout scene-- in terms of drama-- is one in which he and his fellow Unisols lay siege to a supermarket and haraunge the confused citizens who, as far as Scott is concerned, merely sat out the war while he and his men did the fighting.

Van Damme's clumsy attempts to rediscover his part are never very affecting, both because of Van Damme's limited acting abilities and the script's shortcomings.  Then again, dramatic tension is not the movie's purpose.  The middle of the film merely marks time in order to set up the expected combat at the conclusion.  And in this SOLDIER does not disappoint.  Though Lundgren does not attempt sophisticated martial arts moves, he pits his sheer size and brutality against Van Damme's high-kicking arts, making for one of the more intense one-on-one battles of the 1990s.

Again, the sociological themes in SOLDIER are just a backdrop to the Big Fight, so it's not fair to assail them for their spotty development.  Still, the mere fact that the filmmakers evoked Vietnam-- rather than some banana-republic conflict-- shows that they were aware that even twenty years later, the Vietnam War had considerable power to call up old ghosts.


THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953)



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

"This is such a strange feeling, I feel as though I'm leaving a world of untold tomorrows for a world of countless yesterdays."-- Professor Elson, about to take a permanent vacation from both work and life.

Given that I recently reviewed the two versions of GODZILLA, I wanted to return to 1953's BEAST FROM 20.000 FATHOMS, the film that allegedly inspired the Japanese work.  BEAST remains justly famed as the first American film to deal with a prehistoric creature dredged out of hibernation by an A-bomb test. 

Some critics have assailed the Americanized GODZILLA for supposedly eliding the original film's nuclear message.  However, the adjusted film still communicates the perils of atomic testing.  That's more than BEAST does.  Only at the very beginning does one character, viewpoint figure Professor Nesbitt, express reservations about the atomic project he's working on for the US military, but no one else does.  While Nesbitt and his military liaison Evans are waiting to see the results of their current bomb test in the wilds of the Arctic, Nesbitt's assistant Ritchie cliams that when he initiates a test like this, he feels like he's writing "the first chapter of a new Genesis."  Nesbitt, a rather dour European scientist with an accent (the actor was Swiss), remarks that he just hopes that they won't be writing the last chapter of "the old one."  But neither Ritchie nor the all-business Colonel Evans see any evil portent in their latest experiment, and on the whole the film seems to side with the notion of modern progress against all other considerations, much like the next giant-monster flick for which Ray Harryhausen did the effects, IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA.

The first third of the film recalls the ambivalence of the psychological thriller: while exploring the aftermath of the bomb, both Ritchie and Nesbitt see the Beast.  Ritchie dies in an avalanche caused by the Beast, and none of the level-headed military men believe Nesbitt's wild tale.  Eventually, while he's recovering back in the States, the frustrated scientist is given new hope when he hears about sea-monster attacks on two separate ships.  This leads Nesbitt to seek help from a renowned paleontologist, Professor Elson.  Elson isn't particularly helpful-- he's more concerned with the prospect of taking a vacation for the first time in thirty years-- but his pretty assistant Lee encourages Elson to give Nesbitt, and one of his seafaring witnesses, a fair hearing.

No sooner has Elson agreed to lend his help to Nesbitt than the Beast is sighted at sea again.  Elson volunteers to investigate in a diving bell, and he perishes when the Beast attacks.  In short order the creature invades New York, apparently still hungry from his long sleep, and causes considerable chaos.  When the army manages to wound the Beast, its blood unleashes a deadly disease, making it impossible for the military to do anything to puncture the Beast's skin without releasing the contagion.  Eventually Nesbitt joins his scientific knowledge to the military's martial abilities, and the Beast is killed by sending a radioactive missile into its neck wound.  It dies in the midst of a human amusement park.

The dramatic qualities seen in 1955's IT are much more marginal here.  Nesbitt's frustration over being the Witness No One Believes is underplayed. Assistant Lee is clearly attracted to Nesbitt, and seeks him out even after Elson's initial rejection, but Nesbitt barely remembers her when they meet for the second time.  Romance, so big a part of the IT film, is barely an element here; even Lee's admiring relationship with the professor gets a little more attention.  Lee might also be considered a predecessor to the "female scientific professional" figure common in 1950s creature-features, but though she professes to have a "faith" in science she doesn't make any substantive contributions in that arena. The film boasts a few other iterations of the "tomorrow vs. yesterday" leitmotif seen in Elson's quote above, but they aren't well developed.

Both the film and the original story from which this was adapted were born in part of Harryhausen and Ray Bradbury's love of dinosaurs.  This seems strange to me, for the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is far from the most impressive monster of this inventive decade.  Indeed, four years later Harryhausen's "Ymir" in 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH presents a reptilian colossus with considerably more moxie.  The Beast's disease-bearing blood is introduced to keep the army from blowing the monster to bits at the earliest opportunity, and though this development presents a valid enough problem in the suspense department, the contrivance takes away from the Beast's formidability.

Oddly, in one scene a psychiatrist, seeking to discourage Nesbitt by mentioning other fabulous monsters, cites the "Loch Lomond monster," rather than the better known creature of Loch Ness, first reported in 1933.  He also cites the "green snakes of Ireland," which I can only assume is a murky reference to the legend of the Irish saint Patrick, credited with having driven all the snakes out of Old Eire.  Did one of the writers toy with the idea that the defeat of the Beast suggested the same sort of exorcism of the beastly and the primal?  The world will probably never know (or care).

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

GRIZZLY (1976), DAY OF THE ANIMALS (1977)



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


For every successful film, there are often at least three knockoffs. Usually they don't prosper particularly well, but GRIZZLY is one of the few that did so.  Appearing the year after the major success of Spielberg's JAWS, GRIZZLY-- sometimes released to TV under the name "CLAWS"-- racked up a respectable box office and proved to be the highest grossing effort by genre director William Girdler.

Sad to say, GRIZZLY isn't even a good knockoff, probably because it follows the JAWS template so religiously. There's a massive animal-- here, a fifteen-foot tall bear-- that wanders around a national park, going out its way to kill human beings who are not its normal prey.  There's a park ranger (Christopher George) who's out of his depth in dealing with such a creature, drawn from the Roy Scheider JAWS character.  He seeks help from an expert, a naturalist played by Richard Jaeckel, a dead ringer for the Richard Dreyfuss character.  What Girdler and his writers miss, of course, was the strong element of male bonding between the original ensemble.  George and Jaeckel are capable stars, better than one gets in most JAWS knockoffs, but they can't give any personality to their flat, one-dimensional characters.

The only interesting aspect of GRIZZLY is the fact that the titular bear-menace is not an "astounding animal" in the sense that I used the term for the original JAWS movies.  If it were just a modern-day bear with an uncanny propensity for slaughter, then GRIZZLY would fit into the domain of the uncanny.  However, because of one line in which the naturalist claims that the killer grizzly is actually an unexplained survival of a thought-to-be-extinct Pleistocene species, GRIZZLY falls into the realm of the marvelous.



DAY OF THE ANIMALS was Girdler's loose follow-up to GRIZZLY in that it was yet another outdoors flick, and once again starred George and Jaeckel, as well as adding several other well-known actors.  This time humans are menaced by several animal species-- predacious birds, a mountain lion, wolves and a non-prehistoric killer grizzly.  Here it's not the animals that are marvelous.  Rather, it's the thing that brings about their human-killing madness: a solar flare whose baleful radiation is no longer screened out by the ozone layer, thanks to humanity's ecological abuses. 

While ANIMALS is first and foremost a wild thriller, the script is consistent in its ecological mini-theme.  The principal characters in danger are a group of hikers on a ramble through a park, led by guides played by Christopher George and Michael Ansara.  Ansara's character is, like many played by the Syrian-born actor, a Native American, and he's inevitably the target of mockery from the group's Racist Butthead, a corporate bigshot named Jenson (Leslie Nielsen).  The theme here may have been that whereas Native Americans were once in touch with the land, while fascist white people just can't see what they've done to the environment.  However, Girdler never lets this thematic potential slow up the action, though to be sure it's pretty clumsily staged action in many cases.

Jenson does defy convention in one respect: instead of being your typical sluggish fat-cat, he's a ripped corporate raider who flouts his own civilized brand of toughness. Jenson never gets into a fight with either of the heroes, but when the animals start attacking, Jenson has enough magnetic charisma to persuade some of the hikers to leave the guides' party, and naturally manages to lead them all into crisis, not to mention temptation.

Few of the characters, heroic or pathetic, are very interesting, so I didn't pay much attention to their fates. Jenson alone is the standout character, for he apparently goes mad from the solar radiation just like the animals.  After leading his loyal allies astray, he decides he ought to take the privileges of the "alpha male" and rape one of the women.  As he does so, a thunderstorm breaks out and a lightning bolt narrowly misses Jenson.  The not-so-fat cat then goes into a religious rant, claiming that he doesn't respect the God of the Bible:

Melville's God, that's the God I believe in! You see what you want you take. You take it! And I am going to do just that!

I can't be certain, but I suspect that this was Girdler invoking a key passage from Melville's MOBY DICK, in which Ahab professes his belief in a fiery god roughly compared to the divinity of the "Parsees," at least as Melville understood said divinity:
Oh, thou clear spirit, of thy fire thou
madest me, and like a true child of fire, I breathe it back to thee.

Then, before Jenson can do the deed, a new agent of God-- or maybe of offended nature-- comes on the scene: the aforementioned grizzly. While the other hikers run away, nutzoid Jenson tries to fight the bear, and that ends his brief blasphemous career.

Unfortunately, once Jenson is dead, the film has nowhere to go, except to show more victims either being picked off or finding temporary safety.  In the end the solar-flare effect wears off and the maddened animals are exterminated by the authorities.

One last comment: I've seen a lot of reviews mock Leslie Nielsen for being "hammy."  I concede that it's almost impossible to see Nielsen as a serious actor after his post-AIRPLANE comedy-roles.  But though I'm not claiming that Nielsen's perfomance as Jenson is a classic to last the ages, it's not merely "hammy," either.  I think Nielsen took an over-the-top role and brought as much conviction to it as anyone could.  That, at least, is not my definition of a "ham actor."



Tuesday, November 12, 2013

CODE OF SILENCE (1985)



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


Memory's a strange thing.  I hadn't watched this routine Chuck Norris vehicle in thirty years, but had a dim memory that it was an adequate action-opus, with the odd touch that at one point Norris' city-cop hero makes use of an automated crook-catching vehicle to help him take down some gangsters.  When I rewatched it, I found it a complete waste of time, even though the director Andrew Davis went on to do high-powered adventure-flicks like 1993's THE FUGITIVE.

Norris, playing a routine maverick-cop named Cusack, attempts to save an innocent young woman, daughter of a known mobster, from being killed in a gang war.  The gangsters' motivations are singularly opaque, and one can only figure out that Henry Silva's character is the main villain because he stands around gloating over the latest rub-outs.  I don't expect a lot of motivation from the hero of a Chuck Norris vehicle, but the karate-expert gives one of his worst performances here, apparently trying to put across Clint Eastwood's signature affectless attitude.  When Norris shoots for this attitude, the actor merely looks dispeptic.  Norris' performance in SILENT RAGE is no classic either, but at least it doesn't seem to be a rank imitation of someone else.

It's extremely unlikely that any modern city would be foolish enough to turn law enforcement over to a robotic vehicle-- one equipped with machine guns, no less. Probability aside, I had to decide whether this particular manifestation of a robot could be considered "marvelous" in any way.  It's instructive, though, that Cusack isn't able to use the robot for very long: it assaults a bunch of thugs with its machine guns for a few minutes, and then shuts off, having completed its demonstration cycle.  Because of this, I decided that at best this film's robot has been portrayed as being within the sphere of modern, non-marvelous technology, such as I described in one of my ARCHIVE essays:

Only one type of robot might be acceptable to this [naturalistic] standard: one that has already been constructed for use in current scientific laboratories, like the ones seen in the essay FIVE REAL ROBOTS THAT OUTPERFORM HUMANITY.  



Sunday, November 10, 2013

GOJIRA (1954), GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS! (1956)



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


The two-disc Criterion collection of both the original GOJIRA and the English-language remake gave me my first opportunity to screen the Japanese original and to compare it to the more familiar version, the version that was largely the one translated and distributed to other countries.  In addition, both discs contain cultural commentary from noted "Godzilla scholar" David Kalat, providing perspective on the virtues of both movies.

Of the two, the 1954 film is superior in terms of dramatic power, though the drama may not be fully evident without a grounding in the fundamentals of Japanese culture. GOJIRA begins with the covert romance between leading-man Ogata (a salvage-expert in this film, promoted to "marine officer" in GODZILLA) and leading-lady Emiko, daughter of a paleontologist, Dr. Yamane, who's been called upon to investigate the mysteries of Godzilla's nature. Yamane, though a vanguard of modern scientific thinking, has helped arrange a marriage between Emiko and Yamane's colleague, the saturnine Doctor Serizawa.  Unfortunately, Emiko regards Serizawa as little more than a respected brother.  The American version cuts some of the material that establishes that Serizawa definitely does not think of Emiko as a sibling-- for instance, Serizawa's appearance at dockside when Yamane and the two lovers are about to depart Japan for Odo Island.  The American version also loses much of the intense torment of Emiko's character, particularly evident in the scenes where she breaks her promise to Serizawa, her intended husband, in order to tell her lover about the fateful Oxygen Destroyer.

However, if GODZILLA lacks the intense dramatic values of GOJIRA, it does gain a different narrative power from the unifying presence of Raymond Burr's reporter Martin.  Because he is the primary viewpoint character from the beginning to the end of GODZILLA, Martin is the reason the Japanese drama becomes more accessible to non-Japanese viewers.  Martin begins the film as a blithe, easygoing fellow, clearly at home with traveling in many lands, and by the conclusion of the film's extended flashback he's a man who's looked upon the Apocalypse.  Burr's horror-stricken Martin is a perfect stand-in for all those watching the film from a non-Japanese perspective. The Godzilla-spawned horrors of Japan-- clearly analogous to the real-life nuclear devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki-- thus become horrors that are accessible to all viewers.

Though it's routine to see Godzilla as a symbol of nuclear power gone awry, it struck me that Japanese culture might have spawned something like Godzilla had the Manhattan Project failed to produce its deadly fruit.  At the conclusion of Godzilla's final and most devastating assault on Tokyo, he's finally driven away by fighter-jets-- in my opinion, not because their strafing-fire hurts him any more than the electricity and tank-shells he's shrugged off, but because the aerial bombardment confuses him, causing him to seek cover in the ocean.  At this point, some of the survivors ashore cheer at the temporary victory of "their boys," and as I watched that scene it struck me that Godzilla is also the demon of the Japanese defeat, incarnate in the form of an ancestral dragon/dinosaur.

Many before me have proposed this alternate WWII-scenario: had the U.S. not developed workable atomic bombs, and had Japan continued to refuse to surrender, the U.S. and their allies would have invaded with aerial and naval forces, perhaps wreaking on Japan a more general devastation than the targeted destruction of two Japanese cities.  I don't repeat this scenario with an eye to making any apologia for the Nuclear Age.  But as I watched Godzilla being driven away by the jets, I thought, "In a realistic war-film, that might have been jets driving away an attacking destroyer or the like."  And of course, in this alternate-world scenario, that victory would have been equally temporary; Japan would eventually have been forced to surrender, but only after incalculable carnage, albeit carnage brought about through more conventional military means.

In the real world, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were unwilling scapegoats for the rest of Japan; those two cities suffered the worst destruction modern science could concoct.  The rest of Japan was largely spared that particular consequence of war.  Despite post-war censorship in Japan about the consequences of the bombings, did any Japanese experience a sense of "survivors' guilt?"  The sense that some of their countrymen had hideously perished, so that others could enjoy a return to prosperity and plenty?  If so, the appearance of Godzilla might have carried the resonance of a doom that had merely been deferred for a while, a doom that was now catching up with them.  The GODZILLA film in particular is explicit about warning that Godzilla will not stop with Tokyo, that all of Japan will soon be the victim of the great beast.

Of course, in the world with the Bomb, the Japanese did still have the threat of the Bomb hanging over them, thanks to the continuing arms race between the U.S. and Russia. But the metaphor of Godzilla exceeds the limits of atomic fear, and extends to the many anxieties about modernity.  Ishiro Honda's original film is far more explicit about the tensions between Japanese tradition and all the aspects of modernity, from Japan's early 20th-century modernization-- which played a key role in the nation's military ambitions-- to the new wave of postwar modernization under the occupation.  When GODZILLA tosses out the notion that the natives of Odo Island speak of a monster called Godzilla, the assertion carries no depth: it's like a pithy quote from National Geographic.  In Honda's film, one of the village elders explicitly aligns the apocalyptic beast with the traditions of the past, and tells a lippy woman that he'll summon up Godzilla to eat up such "cows."  In a scene following the monster's revelatory appearance, a government official counseling discretion is shouted down by yet another mouthy female.  Emiko is in some ways very traditional-- when her father enters his house she respectfully bows before him and removes his jacket for him.  But the crux of the drama revolves around her decision to reveal Serizawa's secret.  Without her, Serizawa might have remained paralyzed by guilt-ridden indecision.  Certainly Ogata lacks the moxie to make a difference, either: in his only attempt to declare his intentions to Emiko's father, he bollixes up the attempt by getting on the old man's bad side.  Without Emiko's quiet heroism, perhaps this Godzilla would have run rampant over all of Japan before moving on to new prey.

Though the American versions sports some very good lines invoking the mystery of Godzilla-- I particularly like Martin calling destroyed Tokyo "a smoldering memorial to the unknown"-- GOJIRA invokes the unknown much better, particularly in positing Godzilla as a liminal creature, one evolved midway between the dinosaurs of the sea and the dinos of the land.  I particularly like Yamane's mid-film allusion to other "caves" where more beasts like Godzilla may lurk, thus setting up the film's final line:

"But if we continue conducting nuclear tests... it's possible that another Godzilla might appear somewhere in the world again."

Though other Godzillas did come to life and continue to rampage, none of them did so with the transcendent power of this one.  There are flaws-- particularly the inadequacy of the aerosol spray initially used for the Big G's atomic breath. But both the original and the Americanized version deserve credit for spawning one of the few serial myths originated purely by the cinema.









Friday, November 1, 2013

THE PERILS OF PAULINE (1967)



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological, psychological*


This will not be a full-fledged review, but simply a few notes on one of the sixties' more notorious bombs.  This 1967 flick, allegedly intended to be a television-film but released to theaters as well, is listed as having some SF-elements, such as "suspended animation," in John Stanley's CREATURE FEATURES guide.  I happened to discover that roughly eight-tenths of the film had been downloaded onto YouTube.  So even though a full review isn't possible, I think I got the gist of what this peculiar recasting of the classic silent serial had to offer in terms of metaphenomena, to wit:

(1) Pauline's beau George gets frozen in a block of ice and is defrosted with no ill effects.  This is probably the "suspended animation" of which Stanley speaks.  I file this one under "freakish flesh," since George's survival seems to be merely a lucky fluke brought about by his own physical nature.

(2) As the photo above should suggest, virginal Pauline is menaced by many illegitimate suitors throughout the film.  The ape in the photo is only the second such anthropoid to have Kong-like desires on the maiden; she also encounters one in the jungle.  There's nothing particularly uncanny about either beast.  However, Pauline does also encounter a tribe of "white pygmies" (one of whom is played by Billy Barty).  This by itself qualifies PAULINE for my "exotic lands and customs" trope.  In addition, the pygmies tell the beleaguered heroine that they have a potion that can shrink not just her head, but her whole body down to their size.  Presumably the intent is to make it possible for her to marry one (or all?) of them.  But the film never actually shows anyone being shrunk, so I file it under the trope of "illusionism." 

(3) Lastly, through a series of inane events Pauline briefly goes into space alongside a horny cosmonaut.  In my system space-travel in itself doesn't edge a film into the metaphenomenal, and the trip itself, ridiculous though its premise is, seems mundane enough.  Or maybe it's all a dream, since Pauline is cast into the depths of space when she won't come across, but the YouTube version doesn't show how she returns to Earth.

This film, credited to one writer (supposedly basing his script on the original serial) and two directors, may be the most slapdash 1960s flick that boasted a repertoire of familiar Hollywood faces-- Pat Boone, Terry-Thomas, Kurt Kaznar, Edward Everett Horton, and Vito Scotti.  It's certainly a fine contender for "worst film of the decade," in part because the records of some-- though not all-- of the filmmakers show them to have been reasonably competent journeymen.  Though co-director Joshua Shelley had little to show on his resume in 1967, Herbert B. Leonard at least had a solid career. He served as production manager on some of the last serials-- including the last-released serial of the 1950s, BLAZING THE OVERLAND TRAIL-- and later produced somewhat tonier adult entertainments like ROUTE 66 and THE NAKED CITY.  One might incline to cite the Peter Principle to explain why PAULINE went so wrong.  Yet four years later, Leonard's final directorial credit appeared on the Robert Mitchum drama GOING HOME-- a film which had flaws but did not show a total lack of directing ability. 

So the guilty "Peter" here may be some executive who decided to propel minor actress Pam Austin-- then mostly known for a series of car commercials-- into a starring role.  One wonders if an actress with a proven talent for playing wide-eyed innocents-- say, Barbara Eden-- might have salvaged something from the terminally dopey role of Pauline.  But neither Eden nor anyone else could have saved the film.  From the opening it's clear that the filmmakers' only strategy is to dish out a lot of slapstick routines, but without showing an iota of good timing or inventiveness.  Pat Boone's a little more in touch than Austin with the task of playing a clueless innocent, though, and the film's only good-- if bizarre-- line takes place when a doctor warns Pauline not to go near George:

"Don't touch him!  He's full of vicious African organisms!"

It would be interesting to do a general analysis of the peculiar nostalgia that cropped up in the 1960s for the silent era, and for the serials spawned in that period, even though serials themselves had lasted  throughout the sound era, ending in the mid-1950s due to the competition of television. Inevitably one thinks first of the revival of the character of the Batman, first in 1965's AN EVENING WITH BATMAN AND ROBIN-- a re-edited version of the 1943 BATMAN serial-- as well as the 1966-68 teleseries, with its clear chapterplay orientation.  But it should be noted that television cartoons were first to regularly plunder the cinematic serials for their handling of fast-paced thrills, as seen in 1957's RUFF AND REDDY, 1959'S ROCKY AND HIS FRIENDS, 1960's Q.T. HUSH, and 1964's UNDERDOG.