Tuesday, February 25, 2014

THE HOBBIT (1977), THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG (2013)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1) *poor,* (2) *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *metaphysical*


I gave the first part of Peter Jackson's "Hobbit trilogy" a cautiously favorable review, but that was partly with the caveat that I had not read the novel in some time.  Now that I have re-read Tolkien's famous work, I still like the first part of Jackson's trilogy, even admitting that it hypes up the action-setups to absurd, videogame-intensive levels.

Rankin & Bass' 1977 telefilm adaptation of the novel suffers from a set of sins opposite to Jackson's: it tends to underplay all the violent content of Tolkien's book, and to make protagonist Bilbo Baggins so fusty and retiring that one can hardly believe that he agrees to leave his comfy home for a grand quest. 

It's inevitable that even Tolkien's short book would suffer, no matter who did it, from being cut down to a film of 77 minutes.  There's no great loss in the film's eliding of such book-sections as the encounter of Bilbo's party with the bear-man Beorn, or the shortened battle of four armies at the conclusion.  Still, some elisions hurt the continuity of the narrative.

In the HOBBIT book, Bilbo and his dwarf-companions are captured by flesh-eating trolls during the night.  Gandalf is nearby, and he delays the trolls' cannibalistic plans by throwing his voice so that the trolls fight one another, and fail to notice when the sun comes up and transforms them all to stone. In the Rankin & Bass version, Gandalf doesn't intervene in the dilemma with the trolls; they simply don't notice the sun coming up until it petrifies them. I suggest that the producers of the telefilm could have sacrificed one of their mediocre songs, just to give integrity to the resolution of the troll-conflict. 

The overall art-style, possibly influenced by the popular Hildebrandt Brothers Tolkien-illustrations of the 1970s, is like Bilbo far too fusty for my taste, and violent encounters-- the killing of the Goblin King, Bilbo's assaults on the giant spiders of Mirkwood-- are handled by resorting to dissolves to avoid showing bloodshed.  However, two scenes are superior to their overwrought rendition in Jackson's DESOLATION OF SMAUG.  First, the scene in which the wolf-riding trolls "tree" Bilbo and his allies, as well as their rescue by Gandalf's eagle-buddies, is well composed and well scored with Rankin & Bass's version of Tolkien's "Fifteen Birds" lyrics. Second, despite the limitations of the animation, the telefilm gives life to the scene in which Bilbo penetrates the mountain treasure-room of Smaug and bandies words with the great dtagon. The gravelly voice of Richard Boone makes for a far better dragon than the overrated work of Benedict Cumberbatch, and the scene is only hurt by the conceit of having Smaug's gaze represented by "searchlights" emanating from his eyes.

The level of violence here is kept strictly to the functional level, so that in my system it can only be judged as a subcombative adventure.




There's certainly no lack of spectacular violence in  DESOLATION OF SMAUG.  In fact, though some of the sequences are entertaining enough, the bloody duels and flying arrows often overwhelm many of the adventure-tropes of the original book.  I for one was particularly irritated by the barrel-riding sequence, which has a simple charm in the book, but in Jackson's version must be interrupted by a baffling barrage of missiles and bloodlettings.

In this section Jackson's attempt to force the HOBBIT narrative to take on the grandeur of the RINGS trilogy seems far more forced than in the first installment.  Though Ian McKellen's Gandalf illuminates every scene he's in with fantastic gravitas, the same cannot be said of the tedious "super-goblins who pursue the Bilbo party hither and yon.  Jackson's script also expands the role of the elves, and goes so far as to promote a romance between an elf-princess and one of the taller, more manlier dwarves in Bilbo's group.  But Jackson fails to give any of the elves the pomp and circumstance that they attain in the director's adaptation of the RINGS.

The scene between Bilbo and Smaug is even more poorly paced than the barrel-riding scene, and makes no sense in that Bilbo takes off his invisibility ring for no comprehensible reason.  Because blockbuster films need a major combative conflict at the climax-- even when the film is part two of a trilogy-- Jackson manufactures a long sequence where the dwarves reactivate the long dormant machines within the mountain's fastness and give Smaug some headaches before he flies away, though he is fated to be killed by other forces.

In addition to McKellen, Martin Freeman still provides yeoman service in the role of Bilbo, but the rest of the actors execute their roles with a bland lack of inspiration.  I note in passing that despite Jackson's greater violence-quotient, he doesn't get much more mileage out of Tolkien's Mirkwood spider-slaying adventure than did the Rankin & Bass version.





Monday, February 24, 2014

THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991), EYE OF THE BEHOLDER (1999)



PHENOMENALITY: (1) *uncanny,* (3) *naturalistic*
MYTHICITY: (1) *good,* (2) *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological*

In this essay from August 2012 I examined three "perilous psycho" in order to show how they aligned themselves with either the phenomenality of "the uncanny" or that of "the naturalistic." This essay follows the same pattern, but with an additional touch in regard to filial relationships. Both films examined here deal with a trope in which "too little attention" can be as bad as "too much attention." Parenthetically I'll also add that both films are based on books that I have not read.

I noted in my review of 1973's THE CREEPING FLESH that the tormented doctor of that film wished to keep his daughter from being as lubricious as her mother had been.  Thus, even though the character is the opposite of a father who violates his daughter's sexuality, the CREEPING FLESH scientist traumatizes his daughter through withholding a normal level of affection; a trauma manifested through the doctor's use of a "Jekyll and Hyde" potion. SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and EYE OF THE BEHOLDER references this paternal pattern in differing degrees.

Because SILENCE was a phenomenally successful film, winning the top five Oscar categories for 1991 films, it has been psychologically analyzed in great detail. Ted Tally's script, which appears to follow the Thomas Harris novel closely, seems tailored for such close analysis, given its artful exploitation of psychological motifs. For instance, it's certainly no coincidence that when psycho-villain Hannibal Lecter arranges a victim's guts so that they seem like wings spread out from his body, this image mirrors the "death's-head moth" that appears elsewhere in the film. At times, indeed, SILENCE may be a little overly composed, thumbing the tub for feminist psychological interpretations of male-female "difference."

One paternal pattern has not garnered much comment to my knowledge: the one that gives the film its name.  During Lecter's intense grilling of heroine Clarice Starling in one of their "quid pro quo" sessions, Lecter forces Starling to talk about the childhood trauma that led her to become a FBI agent. When Starling reveals that she was orphaned at an early age and sent to live with a relative on a farm, Lecter suspects that some trauma ensued at the hands of a "bad father." He does so in part because most audience members are likely to jump to that Freudian conclusion as soon as the story sets up an atypical foster-child situation. Instead, Starling's trauma stems from a non-sexual form of violence, in that she witnesses the fate of some lambs in the farm's slaughterhouse. The child tries and fails to save one of the lambs, thus imbuing her with a savior complex. The "adoptive father" in this case does not treat Starling badly, but he becomes the symbol of the world's voracious nature, in that his lamb-slaughtering is a form of violence that the adult world accepts without question.  Starling cannot oppose this form of violence, but she can as an adult seek out illegal forms of violence, like the ravages of serial killer "Buffalo Bob."

This proves interesting, though, because Lecter and Starling, despite their adversarial roles, develop a relationship roughly comparable to teacher and student-- one which resonates, however slightly, with that of the relationship of father and daughter.  I cannot speak to any events that transpire in later installments of either the book-series or the film-series, but if one regards that relationship hermetically-- within the corpus of that one film alone-- then Lecter presents a rough parallel to Starling's male relative.  True, the male relative merely killed for reasons of commerce and survival, while Lecter kills-- and eats-- victims because he enjoys it. But Lecter nevertheless provides clues that lead Starling to her quarry, and so her successful killing of Buffalo Bob almost amounts to her winning the prize at the FBI's "school fair."  I should note, too, that where Buffalo Bob represents the image of the psycho as creepy, aberrant, and out of touch with his own needs, Lecter is a model of paternal rectitude: intellectual and composed even when he kills people.

ADDENDA, 2/2016: Now that I've finally read the novel on which the film is based, I want to note that two of the film's standout visual scenes don't occur in the novel. I mentioned above the scene in which Lecter kills a guard and then spreads out his guts like insect-wings, and another visual moment that remains memorable appears at the climax, when Jame Gubb dons his "woman-suit" before attacking Starling. Neither event takes place in the novel, for the criminals in the respective scenes are focused on accomplishing their ends, not providing strong visual stimuli. I'm not criticizing the film for intensifying the horror in these scenes, but it's true that neither action is credible, and Lecter really has no business co-opting the "death's head moth" motif used by his fellow psycho Gumm.





EYE OF THE BEHOLDER, however, never manages to choreograph the "pas de deux" between British intelligence agent Wilson (given the overly transparent nickname "the Eye") and Joanna, the addled serial killer he ends up following.

Whereas SILENCE's Starling suffers from a savior complex, agent Wilson is the embodiment of the disembodied male: he lives through his computers and his surveillance equipment.  In the film's opening sections we learn that because of his inability to relate to other humans, his wife left him and took away their little girl Lucy.  Yet Wilson does not show a lack of affect, even though some of the supporting characters talk as if he has little or none. While he performs his errands for British intelligence, he fantasizes that Lucy is still with him, running around making fun of the people he surveils.  This is a naturalistic version of the "fallacious figments" trope given that Wilson is always conscious that the little girl is not real.

Wilson's ogre-like boss sends the agent to watch over the boss' son, suspected of embezzlement. Like many a Hitchcock hero before him-- and Hitchcock-like motifs are all over the place in EYE-- Wilson blunders onto a violent murder-scene in the midst of a routine assignment. He witnesses the son meet with a sexily-garbed female blackmailer at an apartment, and before Wilson knows it, the woman kills her victim. Initially Wilson tries to apprehend her, climbing up to the balcony of the apartment-- significantly breaking his camera, the distanced "eye" through which he sees the world. But Wilson overhears the distraught psycho-killer screaming to herself, "Merry Christmas, DADDY!" This revelation of the sexy killer's daddy issues inspires Wilson to start following her around, trying to learn more about her rather than helping the police capture her.  Her name, incidentally, is "Joanna Eris," and the surname is an overly transparent evocation of the Greek goddess Eris, best known as the being who incites the Trojan War by hurling the Apple of Discord.

Though director Stephan Elliott's visuals recall Hitchcock, he and his scripters blunt any of the transgressive potential of the setup. Again and again the diegesis implies that Wilson is only working out his paternal guilt by watching over Joanna in her wanderings.  He learns eventually that she was victimized not by a violent father but an absent one: a man who deserted his little daughter at Christmas-time.  She was later put in the custody of a girls' school, where an implicitly lesbian headmistress may have created Joanna's extreme misogyny.  Wilson becomes protective toward Joanna, not least because some of the men she kills are predators. One of them, Leonard, comes close to turning the tables on the male-murdering Joanna and raping her, and one may speculate that this character stands in for the sexual stimulus that the audience expects to see in Wilson, especially since he first sees her in a "flagrante delicto" situation combining both sex and violence.

Since director Elliott came out as gay in 2012, I wondered if this might have contributed to his lack of interest in Wilson's presumably hetero nature.  It seems strange to me that a director who seems to be imitating Hitchcock so assiduously-- assuming that he was conscious of so doing-- would not play to the ambivalence of Wilson's conscious paternal motivations and subconscious sexual temptations.  But it's equally possible that the book is at fault in this respect.  Casting is also a problem: Wilson is played by an actor three years younger than the actress playing the character upon who he fixates.  This makes it very difficult not to expect a sexual dimension to their relationship, and when the film doesn't deliver this, it seems to be a cop-out.  It's also worth mentioning two other elements culled from Freud 101: that Joanna briefly marries a blind (read: "castrated") older man, a character who dies because of Wilson's meddling in Joanna's life, and that Wilson's "heavy father" boss dies near the end of the film, albeit by natural causes. But in the end what most sinks the film is that Wilson and Joanna are not sympathetic characters, and I doubt that the audience in 1999-- which largely stayed away from EYE-- had any idea why they should relate to either of these characters. 

Sunday, February 16, 2014

EPIC MOVIE (2007)



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




I had only two reasons for re-watching this dismal film.  One was because, in this review of SPY HARD, I mentioned that the early Friedberg-Seltzer film was at least a little more focused than the later crop from the 2000s-- so I thought I ought to provide an example of the latter badness.  Second, I wanted to determine whether or not the film was focused enough on the element of combat-- however farcical-- to qualify as a "combative comedy."


Having learned that EPIC MOVIE does qualify in both ways, there's not much more to say about it. Like most movies from the comedy-team, it shovels out pop-culture reference without rhyme or reason.  The writers have no idea as to how to satirize the appeal of works like the Narnia books of C.S. Lewis or Dan Brown's DA VINCI CODE; they just pile on as many dumb sex-jokes and scatology as they can come up with.


The only two minor sources of appeal in EPIC MOVIE are (1) Jennifer Coolidge makes a decent comic villainess, even when she has nothing to work with, and (2) if you don't like Lewis' smug lion-god Aslan from either books or movies, you may get some satisfaction from seeing him killed off and NOT resurrected.

Friday, February 14, 2014

FIRST MEN IN THE MOON (1964)




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



I reread H.G. Wells' 1901 novel FIRST MEN IN THE MOON about two years ago, but I found it far less riveting than his "big three"-- TIME MACHINE, INVISIBLE MAN, and WAR OF THE WORLDS.  Even THE FOOD OF THE GODS, the distant ancestor of the "giant menace" films that have come to characterize 1950's SF-cinema, displays a better range of characters and situations. Wells' novel seems dull and fusty, largely because the two lunar-nauts, scientist Cavor and entrepreneur Bedford, strike me as sketchily conceived.  Wells' attention seems to be focused wholly on the subterranean civilization of the Selenites, but even they failed to capture my imagination as much as did the Martians, the Eloi and the Morlocks.

The 1964 film-- the best-known cinematic adaptation of Wells' novel, and another collaboration of producer Charles Schneer and FX-master Ray Harryhausen-- is another story.  While it's far from being a great film for its genre, the film humanizes Cavor and Bedford, and does so in large part because, like so many commercial SF-adaptations, it chooses to bring a woman into the mix.

From the early days of cinema onward it's been de rigeur for filmmakers to insert female characters into narratives that originally had none.  Sometimes this alteration is obvious and awkward.  But in MOON the injection of the character Kate, fiancée to Bedford, proves a distinct improvement.

A female lead's inclusion is also significant in two other Schneer-Harryhausen collaborations that preceded MOON: 1958's THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD and 1960's THE THREE WORLDS OF GULLIVER.  The female lead in SINBAD provides some modest help to the main hero, but in GULLIVER she's used for much the same purpose as in MOON: to make practical comments on the wild voyages conceived by impractical men.

This "Greek chorus" strategy does more than just given female film-goers someone to identify with, though this may well have been the prime consideration.  GULLIVER isn't entirely successful in its theme of sorting out the quarrel of the titular character and his fiancée, but the film does make a valid attempt to see the sides of both masculine and feminine priorities, and MOON's scripter Nigel Kneale pursues similar goals.

The film begins with a framing-device in which a "modern" moon-flight of the 1960s finds evidence on the 1890s lunar flight of Bedford and Cavor, and the bulk of the film is then narrated by the eighty-ish Bedford. as he describes their adventure.  This story begins, as does the novel, by showing that viewpoint character Bedford is an unsuccessful entrepreneur who has racked up many debts.  He flees to an isolated house in the English countryside, hoping to make money by writing a successful play.  He never writes the play, because he meets his neighbor Cavor, learns  of the oddball scientist's concoction of an anti-gravity substance, and realizes that "Cavorite" can bring him great fortune if he can manage it correctly. Wells may have been making a satirical comment on the commercialization of science for financial benefits.  The film doesn't emphasize this theme.  But through MOON's introduction of Bedford's fiancée Kate-- whose Boston roots may have been a strategy to further "Americanize" this British SF-tale-- the script does comment upon Bedford's folly and rashness.  Bedford displays this character flaw when he inveigles Kate into signing her name to an invalid contract involving his estate-- which has been claimed by creditors-- thus involving Kate in some dodgy legal business.  Despite her anger when she finds out that he duped her, Kate still supports the voyage to some extent, and is the only one practical enough to insist that they take a means of defense, an elephant-gun, which turns out to be instrumental in the males' battle with the Selenites.  Kate shows her own rashness later, as she intrudes on the two men when they plan to take flight in their Cavorite-coated sphere.  They're forced to take her along so that she won't be killed in the takeoff.

To be sure, once Cavor's sphere reaches the moon, there isn't much for Kate to do in the story, since the lunar-nauts only brought two space-suits in which they can explore the moon.  She stays behind in the sphere while they explore the moon.  The men plunge through the lunar surface and end up in the chambers of the Selenites, where an artificial atmosphere is maintained by the buglike humanoids.  Cavor, like so many SF-film scientists, is willing to risk life and limb to make contact with an alien life-form, while Bedford wants nothing but to get away from a potential threat.  Bedford's animus to the Selenites is justified.  The super-organized moon-dwellers-- who place members of their species in stasis when they have no function to perform-- view the chaos of Earth's warring with government with trepidation, and intimate that they may do away with the threat.  In the end Bedford reveals the Selenites' hostile aspects to Cavor-- "This isn't an audience; you're on trial!"-- and tries to get the scientist back to the sphere so that all three of them can escape. While Bedford and Kate do manage to activate the sphere and flee back to Earth, Cavor voluntarily stays behind, still wanting to reason with the new life-form.  Though Cavor is frequently played as a British eccentric throughout the film, he takes on a dignity here that the other two protagonists never aspire to. 

In the Wells novel's ending, it's suggested that Cavor may still be alive on the moon with the Selenites, who cut off all future contact with the dangerous masses of Earth.  Kneale, possibly making a wishful-thinking comment on the fate of the Selenites' quasi-Communist society, takes a different route, one partly borrowed from Wells' WAR OF THE WORLDS.  The framing-device ends as Bedford's story does, returning us to the 1960s.  Aged Bedford and his listeners watch on television as the current astronauts come across the underground galleries of the Selenites, and find them empty of life.  Though one character speculates that the Selenites may have emigrated to parts unknown, Bedford believes that the moon-dwellers have been expunged by the germs Cavor carried, given that Cavor had a nasty cold at the time of the flight. 

Returning to the theme of male-female relations, I find it significant that although the notion of "military preparedness" appears in many Ray Harryhausen films, regardless of the producers or directors involved, it's only the "giant monster" films of 1953-1957 that display a theme of relentless hostility to the metaphenomenal entity.  A rhedosaur, a giant octopus, a Venusian humanoid-- all of these are impediments to America's military might, and they are all destroyed without the slightest regret.  In addition, though the male and female leads are allies in destroying the outsider, the male leads often act prickly toward the female leads, as if their femaleness was a threat on some level as well.

The films that Schneer and Harryhausen made from 1958 on, for the duration of their contract with Columbia Studios, show the two genders interacting more maturely, complementing one another even in the midst of quarreling. Not all the female characters are as interesting as Kate of FIRST MEN IN THE MOON; Medea of JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS proves woefully underwritten.  But for whatever reason-- possibly the producer feeling like the "giant monster" schtick would soon become played out-- the Schneer-Harryhausen team did invest more efforts in adapting works that had greater cultural repute, as I argued in my review of JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS.  

Unfortunately most of them were not box-office successes, so that FIRST MEN IN THE MOON was the last film the team made for their Columbia contract.  But even though MOON is not the team's best achievement, it's one of the few adaptations of a classic SF work that is at least as good as the original novel.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH (1957)



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


As all monster-film fans know, FX-genius Ray Harryhausen was inspired to enter his profession by his viewings of 1933's KING KONG.  His enthusiasm for the art of stop-motion later led to his collaboration with KONG's prime mover Willis O'Brien on 1949's MIGHTY JOE YOUNG.  In the decade of the 1950s Harryhausen's star rose alongside the prominence of science fiction films, as he made his name with giant monster-films like THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS  and  IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA, as well as the alien-invasion flick EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS.  20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH is his last giant-monster film of the 1950s.  With one exception-- 1969's THE VALLEY OF GWANGI-- all of Harryhausen's completed works in later decades situated his stop-motion horrors in otherworldly scenarios-- either those of science fiction, fantasy, or that strange generic breed, the "caveman-and-dinosaur" film.

Did Harryhausen ever want to make a monster that audiences loved as they loved Willis O'Brien's KING KONG? It may be that he was too respectful of O'Brien's accomplishment to wish to copy it directly, or even to do a knockoff, as O'Brien essentially did with both THE SON OF KONG and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG.  20 MILLION, unlike the previous two giant-monster movies, features a monster with a roughly humanoid appearance. Arguably 20 MILLION had more potential to evoke KONG-like emotions than a giant dinosaur or a giant octopus.  The creature, whom Harryhausen dubbed the "Ymir" though it's never given a name in the film, displays a good range of expression in addition to its humanoid appearance, and I mentioned in my review of BEAST that I found Ymir possessed  superior "moxie."  Yet the script for 20 MILLION, one accepted by both Harryhausen and producer Charles Schneer, makes almost no attempts to mine the Ymir's Kong-like potential.  Thus it's possible that Harryhausen primarily cared about the Ymir as a technical, not a dramatic, challenge. 

The title refers to the origins of the monster on the planet Venus. It's possible that the title may also be a shout-out to Harryhausen's first giant-monster flick, as well as a reference to the roughly similar titled of Jules Verne's most famous book, 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA.  This reference becomes explicit at the film's opening, for when a manned rocket returns to Earth from its Venus mission and plummets into the sea, one military character remarks that the vessel is now "20,000 leagues under the sea"-- presumably a measure of depth, rather than the distance-connotation of Verne's title. A brief introduction links man's mastery of space-travel and atomic science, even though 20 MILLION has nothing whatever to do with the usual tropes of "atomic bomb cinema"-- unless you count the fact that the film takes place in a postwar world dominated by America because the U.S. was first to master the atom. Possibly the scripters tossed out the atomic-power reference to make it credible to 1957 audiences that the US government would soon be able to send rockets to Venus just as rapidly as the atom had been split.

Some Sicilian fishermen witness the splashdown and rescue two members of the Venus expedition.  Of the two, the older astronaut perishes of a Venusian disease that has already slain the other members of the expedition.  Only young leading-man astronaut Bob Calder survives, apparently having avoided contamination on the flight back-- though both he and the attending doctor take absolutely no precautions to avoid contact with the dying astronaut.  The doctor-- also, as in many 1950s films, the leading man's love-interest-- is actually a doctor-in-training: one Marisa Leonardo, the American granddaughter of a local Italian medical man.  Sparks fly between Calder and Marisa the same way they did between the leads of IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA, but their dialogue is less memorable and the leads lack charisma.

A third survivor of the flight is the egg of the Ymir, encased in a glass cylinder by the astronauts.  The cylinder is cast out of the rocket during its fall and is found by a relentlessly cute little Italian boy, Pepe.  The boy, a devout lover of all things American, sells the container to Doctor Leonardo so that Pepe can purchase a cowboy hat.  The other Italian characters are generally deferential to the American military, except at one point where an Italian policeman puts his people's survival ahead of American interests. From this film one would never know that the two countries had been opponents during a world war.

Leonardo opens the container and finds a jelly-like substance that he leaves sitting out on a table (some scientist!).  Shortly later, he and his granddaughter discover that the "egg" has hatched into a small reptilian humanoid.  They put the creature in a cage, but Ymir shows a distressing tendency to grow at a rapid rate.  Unlike Kong, Ymir shows no interest in Marisa or any other human female, though he does terrify Marisa by his very appearance. He also grabs her arm once, though his action seems to be nothing but a reflex, associated with his attempts to escape confinement. 

The Venusian beast gets loose and goes on the rampage, looking for food on this alien world.  Calder strives to keep local Italian cops from shooting the monster-- not because he cares anything about the creature's welfare, but because its Venusian metabolism may hold clues that will help Earthmen survive on Venus.  Various conversations by military men establish that the U.S. wants to take advantage of Venus' mineral resources-- so that the military ethic comes down to little more than good old Lebensraum under a science-fictional heading.

Calder reveals that these creatures don't grow so big in their native habitat, meaning that its rapid growth is purely a reaction to Earth's atmosphere.  He also reveals that they can be kayoed by doses of electricity.  Since bullets don't harm the creature, Calder arranges for the Ymir to be captured in an electrical net. The army arranges to hold Ymir captive at Rome's zoological gardens.  They do succeed in keeping Ymir prisoner long enough to learn at least some of its biological secrets, which is perhaps designed to make the average viewer feel like the coming destruction is worth the candle.

A trope from KING KONG is repeated when reporters are allowed to enter the laboratory where Ymir is held prisoner, subject to continued electric shocks to keep him docile. In contrast to KONG, where the reporters actively cause Kong's rampage with their flash-bulbs, these members of the Fourth Estate do nothing to enrage Ymir: the monster is simply freed when one of the mechanisms holding him fails. Free again, the giant reptile-man pounds his way through the nearest wall and finds himself confronted by a zoo-elephant.  Harryhausen's animation establishes clearly that Ymir tries to avoid fighting the Earth-creature, but for whatever reason the elephant ignores his human handler and insists on giving battle.  At the time the resultant fight provided a high-water mark in the combination of real-world photography with stop-motion effects, though arguably Harryhausen would surpass this film with his works in the magical fantasy genre.

Ymir wins his battle with the elephant-- Venus One, Earth Zero-- and runs around Rome, terrorizing and killing (mostly by accident) Roman citizens.  Calder himself takes the field, briefly knocking down the alien by slamming into it with a car. The film concludes as Ymir takes a Kong-like stand atop the Coliseum and is finally killed by bombardments from the U.S. military.  In another departure from the example of KONG, the film's last words pronounce not sympathy for the dead monster, but for the sufferings of his opponents, as one scientist asks, "Why is it always, always so costly for Man to move from the present to the future?" The same sentiment is expressed in BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, but 20 MILLION doesn't even have one character who expresses ambivalence to the overall theme of postwar Manifest Destiny.

In my review of KING KONG I asserted that Kong's three battles with primitive predators on Skull Island served the purpose of enhancing his reputation for "kingship," and thus increasing the tragic feeling that results when mankind's superior weaponry slays the mighty ape.  But though none of KONG's characters precisely eulogize Kong, at least Carl Denham has a dim intuition of the issues at stake. In contrast, no one in 20 MILLION has the slightest moral qualm about having snatched the creature from its natural habitat, brought it to Earth to study, and ending up by killing it once it served its purpose as a research-specimen.  Additionally, despite the Ymir's quasi-humanoid appearance,  no one wonders whether or not the creature may have any degree of intelligence. Calder and his associates speak of it as "the animal" or "the thing," and the animation of the Ymir validates their view, since the creature's only emotions are those of hunger and anger.  Still, with BEAST's rhedosaurus and IT's octopus, there was good reason to presume that they were "just animals."  I usually hate to invoke sociological readings with a Marxist flavor, but even I must admit that the Earthmen's assumption of Ymir's animal nature seems awfully convenient given their imperialistic project.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

THE TOMB (1986), CYCLONE (1987)



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


What interests me most about the films of Fred Olen Ray is the way they illustrate the fine line between enjoyable trash and time-wasting trash.

The only Ray film I've reviewed up to this point is 1994's INNER SANCTUM II, which was unquestionably the latter trash-type.  1986's TOMB falls into the same category.

Ray's filmmaking method in THE TOMB is the same as most if not all of his other films. He assembles a cast of jobbing actors, with many repeat appearances by favored figures like Robert Quarry and Cameron Mitchell and puts them through their paces in a cookie-cutter genre-story that almost never stands up to serious examination.  In the case of THE TOMB, the original cookie-sheet was labeled "Indiana Jones," with a few borrowings from assorted "Egyptian evil" films. 

In a back-lot version of Egypt, a "tomb raider" named Banning uncovers the tomb of ancient Egyptian sorceress Nefratis (Michelle Bauer), only to find that the blood-drinking worshipper of evil is revived by his intrusion on her tomb.  Banning escapes, and Nefratis goes around killing people to keep herself alive until such time as she can take on a new body, which she decides will be the daughter of an Egyptologist named Phillips (Cameron Mitchell) .  For a time Banning is enslaved to Nefratis after she implants a magical scarab in his body, apparently in order to conjure up audience-memories of the heart-ripping scene in INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM.  All of Nefratis' murders are just as derivative and unimaginative, and Bauer has no screen presence beyond her obvious physical attributes.

Now, it's obvious that in the right mood someone could watch THE TOMB and enjoy it in a "so bad it's good" mood. But it doesn't hold a candle to films that really earn their reputation for absurdity, like the immortal PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE-- which THE TOMB has the effrontery to swipe from.



Now, when I watch Ray's CYCLONE from about a year later, I'm aware that the director uses the exact same procedure that he did in THE TOMB. Yet CYCLONE was reasonably entertaining, as long as I kept my expectations low.  Where lies the difference?

A better star does help, to be sure.  Lead actress Heather Thomas came to this project following the conclusion of her most well-known role-- tough girl "Jody Banks" on the teleseries THE FALL GUY-- which meant that she certainly possessed more "TV-Q" than Michelle Bauer ever did. While not an exceptional actress, Thomas projects a basic credibility in her underwritten role.  She plays Teri Marshall, tough girlfriend of a guy working on a super-motorcycle called "Cyclone." When her boyfriend is killed Teri has to protect her dead lover's secret against a coterie of low-level spies. 

The humor is just as tortured and Wood-esque as anything in THE TOMB, though the appearance of aged Bowery Boy Huntz Hall provides a little amusement in itself.  But perhaps because Thomas might have proven to be a bigger draw because of her modest celebrity, Ray and his crew do work a little harder on the FX and fight-choregraphy.  Compared to the best that Hollywood can offer, the various car-and-motorcycle stunts are nothing special, but they are watchable.  The Cyclone doesn't seem like a super-weapon anyone would be willing to kill for, and in truth one of the plot's more moronic points is that the spies kill off the maker of the super-weapon rather than kidnapping him to learn the weapon's location.

The fight-choreography is about the same: nothing that would cause Jet Li to turn green with envy, but Thomas looks authoritative doing her stunts, particularly a big fistfight with a female agent who betrays her trust.  In reality CYCLONE didn't make Heather Thomas into a new straight-to-video action-goddess, but as a film it's probably no better or worse than those that bolstered the reputations of Sybil Danning and Cynthia Rothrock.  So though it's just as much a cookie-cutter flick as THE TOMB, at least CYCLONE has a touch more seasoning.



Monday, February 10, 2014

THE WORLD'S GREATEST ATHLETE (1973), THE STRONGEST MAN IN THE WORLD (1975)



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


I saw THE WORLD'S GREATEST ATHLETE  many years ago but barely remembered it. Then I recently came across a reference to the film in the context of its titular character "Nanu," mentioning that the protagonist was patterned along the lines of Tarzan. So I decided to check out the film and see how much if at all it conformed to the uncanny phenomenality of the Tarzan films I've analyzed here.

As it turns out, ATHLETE turns out to use the "outré outfits skills and devices" trope all right, but in a thoroughly naturalistic fashion.  There's nothing unnatural about the unfortunately named Nanu, though this comedy turns out to be marvelous overall, because Nanu's main opponent, if one can call him that, is an African witch doctor who commands real magic.

The story commences in America, where Coach Archer (John Amos) and his dimwit assistant Milo (Tim Conway) continually fail to win any games for Merrivale College either in baseball, football, or basketball.  Depressed by these constant failures, Archer takes a vacation to the African realm of Zambia, telling Milo-- whom he brings along-- that he wants to explore his "roots."  (Curiously, this movie appeared in theaters three years prior to the publication of the famous Alex Haley book ROOTS.) But no sooner do Archer and Milo begin their tour of Zambia than they come across a young physical marvel named Nanu. They eventually trick him into returning with them to America to be Merrivale's new sports-star.

I should note that Tarzan is politically suspect for some readers, given that he seems to validate Euro-American imperialism in being a "white god" who can overpower the natives of Black Africa by his superior strength and agility, plus the occasional invocation of rampaging elephants.  Whatever validity this argument may have is in my mind mitigated by the unreality of Tarzan's "raised-by-apes" scenario.  However, ATHLETE puts aside the uncanny trope of the physical phenomenon raised by wild animals.  Though "white jungle guy" Nanu runs faster than a cheetah and swings through the trees on a vine, he is the child of deceased missionaries and was raised not by animals but by the people of his Zambian tribe.  Therefore his abilities are only those of a natural athlete, even if he does emulate other aspects of the Tarzan-legend-- i.e., he pals around with an imported tiger in place of Tarzan's lion-buddy, and he eventually acquires an American girlfriend named-- ah, you can guess what she's named. 

By concocting a less fantastic origin for Nanu, ATHLETE's script avoids some of the dodginess of the premise of a black American, Archer, going to Africa to pursue his roots and coming back to America with a white kid as his protege.  Some have argued that the superior athleticism of Tarzan is a marker of his racial superior to African natives.  But even if this verdict was true for Tarzan, Nanu is raised just like any other member of his tribe, and just happens to emerge as a great athlete.  Archer, in a way, has stepped into the role of the "white fortune hunter" who trespasses on African natives in order to rob or exploit them-- thus putting Jan-Michael Vincent's Nanu in the position of the exploited native.  To be sure, Archer is essentially a nice guy who only wants what any coach wants-- a winning protégé-- and tells his "white lie" (heh) only in his pursuit of athletic excellence, not to make humongous profits from his pupil.  When Nanu finds out that Archer tricked him, Nanu is offended, but the two of them finally make peace.  It's a pretty simplistic comedy, so the script doesn't attempt to foster any deep emotions between coach and student.  But given that the writers didn't do that well with the comic action, it's probably better than they didn't try for drama on top of that.

The marvelous content is supplied by Nanu's tribal godfather Gazenga (Raymond St. Jacques).  At one point he works a spell on doofus Milo, who seems to shrink to the height of three inches, all so that Tim Conway gets his chance to essay some Lilliputian slapstick.  Gazenga tells Milo that he hasn't really shrunk, that it's all in his mind.  This seems like a curious reservation, since several other times in the film Gazenga's magic-- referred to as "voodoo"-- is seen flinging people and things around, with no Mandrake-the-Magician caveats appended.  Gazenga resists the jungle-film characterization of the witch doctor in that he proves witty and highly educated. However, none of that helps him, any more than any other character, from the general lameness of the jokes.  At one point Gazenga-- having regretted his early decision to let his godson go to America-- comes to the States with the intention of bringing Nanu back to Africa.  He's greeted by a Merrivale official who expresses genuine happiness to meet "a real witch doctor."  It would have been easy for the script to make this sound snarky, but the line seems sincere-- so it's just puzzling when Gazenga sticks a bone in his nostrils, as if to mock the official for racism.  Possibly the writer meant it to be filmed one way and the director sabotaged it. Gazenga ends up as a nominal "villain," using his magic to make Nanu fail in the climactic competition, but he too ends up being reconciled.

The film's negotiations of sociological racial-makers are more interesting than the film itself.  Amos and Vincent have the best moments, as they try to imbue their simple roles with authority.  The closest the film gets to authenticity, though, is when Archer encourages Nanu to enter a big track meet with the ambition of winning all the events-- a feat that the original "world's greatest athlete," Native American Jim Thorpe, attempted but failed to execute.  Interestingly, though Nanu succeeds where Thorpe failed, he never internalizes the competitiveness of the American ethos.




ATHLETE isn't funny, but at least it's not boring. STRONGEST MAN IN THE WORLD is the last of Disney's "college comedies" featuring Kurt Russell as Dexter Riley, a college kid who is a magnet to weird scientific phenomena.  I haven't seen the first two in this series in many years, but decided to check out the last in the series-- THE STRONGEST MAN IN THE WORLD-- as a possible contrast to ATHLETE.

I remember the first two films in the series as being silly but at least lively.  Riley and his fellow clean-cut collegiate buddies would perform some experiment, and it would have some bizarre side-effect.  Older persons in authority would then goggle at Dexter's amazing new powers-- a computer-mind in the first film, invisibility in the second-- and then seek to profit thereby.  The two sides of this exploitation were represented in all three films by "dumb but benign authority," incarnated by Dean Higgins (Joe Flynn), and by "ruthless criminal authority," personified by crime-boss A.J. Arno (Cesar Romero).  The former authority was set up to be "accidentally" flummoxed by the teens' goofy adventures, while the latter was a genuine threat and could be attacked in self-defense, albeit only with slapstick devices.

My memory of the first two Dexter films is that they included a good basic mix of age-representation, with Russell and his "clean teens" balanced against the "elder statesmen" portrayed by well-known faces like Romero and Flynn.  STRONGEST, however, lacks this balance.  Though Russell is top billed, he and his teen buddies have little to do, with all the major comic scenes allotted to the older generation.  STRONGEST includes not only Flynn, Romero, and William Schallert-- the benign professor of the first film-- but also Eve Arden, Dick Van Patten, Harold Gould, Richard Bakalyan, Benson Fong, and James Gregory.  I like all of these performers, and I can hardly object to Joe Flynn getting a lot of screen time since STRONGEST was his last film.  But when the teen-heroes are nearly squeezed out of the story, I find myself wondering what was going on behind the cameras.

Not that it matters a lot.  STRONGEST is one of Disney's weakest comedies, showing actors like Silvers and Flynn to poor effect as they stand around trying to inject life in a pokey script.  Cesar Romero, who made a fine comic villain thanks to his dapper, cultured manner, ends up teaming with Bakalyan for a bit of scaffold-slapstick unworthy of the Three Stooges. 

Sunday, February 2, 2014

BLAKE OF SCOTLAND YARD (1937), THE BLACK WIDOW (1947)



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


These two serials, filmed about ten years apart, make only occasional use of their marvelous elements, and like most of their breed, are largely about good guys running around trying to keep some secret or weapon out of the hands of bad guys.

BLAKE OF SCOTLAND YARD  is a remake, with considerable alterations, of a lost 1927 silent serial.  Both were directed by Robert F. Hill of SHADOW OF CHINATOWN fame, and both, though shot in America, were set in Great Britain, though the 1937 film seems to include more American characters.  Like CHINATOWN this serial is rather stodgy in the action department, and on top of that there's barely any music to set BLAKE's mood.  There's none of the well choreographed action seen in the celebrated Republic serials, but in a way that occasionally makes the action less predictable.  BLAKE must be the only serial in which two of the heroes fend off a gang of henchmen by throwing metal plates at them!

The marvelous element here is a death-ray, invented by Jerry Sheehan (Ralph Byrd of DICK TRACY fame).  In contrast to most serials produced during or after the official beginning of WWII, where some new invention is zealously guarded as a bulwark of American security, Sheehan wants to give the ray away to the United Nations, in the belief that the existence of such a fearful weapon will discourage the act of war.  This naivete is the serial's most charming sociological aspect, though it's also of interest that the character of the title is an older, retired Scotland Yard detective, Sir James Blake (silent star Henry Rawlinson).  Serials were often a venue where former stars ended up in their golden years, but usually not in starring roles.  Despite his age, Blake holds his own in brawls alongside Byrd's Sheehan.  The other two principal heroes, Blake's adult niece Hope and grade-school-age nephew Bobby, aren't combat-types but manage to give good accounts of themselves anyway, and Hope is a rare example of a female scientist during this period of American films.  Bobby is one of the few sources of decent humor, constantly upsetting his staid British uncle with his use of American slang.

Perhaps fittingly, the villain seems entirely apolitical: the mysterious Scorpion doesn't work for any foreign power, but merely wants the ray for his own uses.  Unfortunately, for some reason the filmmakers came up with a take on the "mysterious costumed mastermind" that is risible today and probably raised some eyebrows in 1937.  Though the Scorpion wears a face-mask to conceal his identity, he also wears a black cloak that he constantly holds over his face with his arm-- which, for good measure, has a faux scorpion-claw over it.  I can't help but suspect that the filmmakers had some notion of sending up the "clutching hand" type of villain that dates back to silent days.

I can't honestly say that BLAKE OF SCOTLAND YARD is an above-average serial.  However, it's an interesting curiosity, and I applaud the Serial Squadron's restoration of this rarely seen work.



In contrast, 1947's BLACK WIDOW is well known among serial buffs. In contrast to the apolitical Scorpion, the titular "Black Widow" (Carol Forman) is the agent of an unnamed Asian power.  Under the guise of a fortune-teller named Madame Sombra,  heads a spy ring devoted to ferreting out American military secrets, and defers only to her father, a fellow dressed like a Middle Eastern potentate.  For some reason Republic became enamored of a device in which a villain repetitively sat in a chair or throne which somehow transformed or teleported him.  In WIDOW the Widow's hideout includes a teleportation-throne by which the villainess' father teleports himself from his Asian home, purely to deliver some instructions or observations that could have been delivered via radio.  The teleport-device is the only marvelous device used in the serial, and seems like it could be much more effectively transformed into a weapon than Sombra's other main device: a chair with a mechanical spider that pokes out and injects poison into its victims.

Whereas one might expect Sombra to be opposed by a federal agent or the like, somehow her opponent winds up being a detective novel-author, one Steve Colt (Bruce Edwards) and a lady reporter-tagalong (Virginia Lindley).  But Republic serials are never long on ratiocinative elements, and most of the time Colt and his female ally merely stumble across the villains in the act of doing things, thus rendering Colt's supposed detecting-abilities nugatory.  It doesn't help that actor Edwards is a bit of a stiff, though Lindley holds up her end, constantly teasing him about his fictional detective-writing.

Still, Forman's Black Widow is the central character here.  She has no depth or personal traits, but Forman plays her as a serenely confident Dragon Lady, and thus dominates every scene in which she appears.  The fight-scenes are decent if a bit programmatic.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

DOWNSIZING AGAIN

Hmm, just two months ago I changed to reviewing three films per full week each month.  Yet even that is keeping me away from some of my other projects.

Starting with February I'm going to be looser about how many films I review per week.  I'll shoot for at least two, though there may be times when I get caught up on a project as with the recent NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET reviews.  But my FANTASY FANE blog is wilting away for lack of attention, and I really need to devote more time to it.  I said at the start of this blog that I knew it was entering an arena amply crowded with hundreds of other film-review blogs.  My main purpose was to use films to work out aspects of my lit-crit theory-- and while there will always be further aspects to explore, they'll just have to wait awhile.

Possibly I may alternate "loose" months with "tight" month this year as time permits.