Monday, March 31, 2014

X-MEN: THE ANIMATED SERIES (2011)



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

This 12-episode anime was a collaboration between Marvel Entertainment and the Japanese anime studio Madhouse, part of a joint endeavor that also included serials for Wolverine, Blade, and Iron Man.  Wikipedia claims that X-MEN writer Warren Ellis "guided" most of these series, and in one of the promotional commentaries a speaker claims that they were guided by Ellis' version of the X-Men.

I confess to being completely unfamiliar with Ellis' contributions to any X-books. However, most of the plot-arcs in X-MEN are borrowed from the work of other X-writers.

The continuity, in a rare turn from most X-adaptations, begins in the wake of the death of Cyclops' beloved Phoenix, a character associated with the Claremont-Byrne run. The X-Men's first opponents in this series are the "U-Men," human fanatics who seek to gain super-powers by incorporating mutant flesh into themselves, from Grant Morrison's 2001 continuity.  They seek to help a Japanese mutant girl who joins the X-Men and takes the code-name "Armor," a character originated in ASTONISHING X-MEN by Joss Whedon and John Cassaday.  In the heroes' encounter with the U-Men they rescue another Claremont-Byrne creation, the White Queen, who in this iteration is associated not with the comic-book "Hellfire Club" but with"the Inner Circle," which is apparently a legacy from this 2009 American adaptation. One other Hellfire alumnus is also represented as having been a member of the Circle: Mastermind, adapted by Byrne and Claremont from the old 1960s Lee-Kirby character.  And finally, we see another Claremont-Byrne borrowing in that the X-Men end up fighting a super-mutant named Takeo.  This character is freely adapted from the character "Proteus," the son of the X-Men's mentor Professor X, though Takeo's mother is, in the interest of keeping the action in Japan, a Japanese woman.

I have no problem with Ellis using any or all of these materials, given that they are all the property of Marvel Comics. But it does irk me that this was represented as being in tune with the comics-work of Warren Ellis, when so little of it derives from his plot-concepts.

That said, all the usual preachments on the injustice of anti-mutant prejudice are here, neither better nor worse than the usual sociological observations in the comic book series. Cyclops, who only reluctantly leads the heroes due to grieving over his deceased love, gets a little more character-attention than he often does in animated cartoons, but other characters-- Beast, Storm, Wolverine, White Queen-- sometimes prove fairly interchangeable.  I didn't listen to the English-language version, but I rather doubt that the scripters managed to catch the comic potential of either Beast or White Queen, since most of the proceedings unfold with an apocalyptic grimness.  I rated the action-scenes of WOLVERINE AND THE X-MEN as "above average," and in contrast most of the fight-scenes in this Japanese co-production unfold in a welter of bedazzling FX-powers, engendering more confusion than excitement. On the other hand, though this X-MEN mixes in a lot of plot-threads, they all come together at the climax, whereas the WOLVERINE production was all over the place in terms of unity.

It's a pleasant enough series, but by far the greatest pleasure it offers is seeing the X-Men, who are supposed to belong to a myriad of cultures, using phrases that would've fit a Toshiro Mifune samurai-film:

"You must harden your heart against adversity! That is the fate of being-- an X-Man!"


Sunday, March 30, 2014

CAPTAIN KRONOS, VAMPIRE HUNTER (1972)



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

"The name Kronos is Greek for Time,” says Clemens, “and I thought that, if the idea took off, I’d be able to move him through the centuries. A whole series of films. I even had some follow-up stories.”-- interview with Brian Clemens, reprinted in part on the blog SO IT GOES.

As most horror-film fans know, the heroic vampire hunter (Horst Janson) of this 1972 Hammer film never went on to any further cinematic adventures. In KRONOS there's no allusion to any factors that might have allowed the hero to bounce about from time to time.  The audience doesn't know a lot about Kronos' background, but he's not presented as a deep mystery: he has served as a member of an "Imperial Guard" in some unspecified European country, and his mother and sister were vampirized while he was serving in the military. When his female relatives tried to fang him, he was forced to kill them, causing him to swear vengeance on the many species of vampire.  When the film begins he's already teamed up with a vampire-savvy "Van Helsing," the hunchbacked Professor Grost (John Cater), and he acquires a temporary tag-along in Carla (Caroline Munro).  Carla doesn't get much in the way of characterization: she's meant to serve primarily as a stand-in for the audience's viewpoint, slowly initiating her, and the audience, into Kronos' world, and secondarily for some mild sex-scenes between her and the stalwart vampire-killer.

Though there's no suggestion in the film as to how Kronos might have found his way into other time-periods, Clemens does cover his bases with regard to the aforementioned "many species of vampire." Going only on Clemens' IMDB credits, KRONOS would seem to be the first time he published a work dealing with vampires, which had long been a specialty of the Hammer House of Horror.  However, though there's some good story-potential in his notion of different vampire-species, Clemens doesn't develop any ground rules for the species in this outing: one that drains youth from victims rather than blood. Both Kronos and Grost have to learn the rules of this particular species as they go, which Clemens may have intended as a method of intensifying the suspense.  For me at least, it came off more like an attempt to get away from the standard "rules of the vampire" speeches that appear in many other Hammer films.  The trouble with this omission is that without those rules, you lose a lot of the mythopoeic appeal of the vampire figure.

There are some possible myth-aspects to Clemens' youth-suckers. It will come as no surprise that the villains are aristocrats, as are most Hammer bad guys.  But we don't learn many details about the nature of the villains because for most of the narrative, Clemens is playing the "red herring" game. The only real suspects are the members of the mysterious Durward family, but which one is the culprit? The patrician older brother, Paul? The mannishly-dressed sister Sara, who drops weird comments about youth? Surely it can't be their aged and infirm mother, confined to a bed-- or can it?  Since DRACULA  vampires have often been conflated with a corrupt aristocracy, literally bleeding the oppressed lower classes, but though Clemens is working with the same trope as the Hammer DRACULA films, he doesn't get as much mileage out of it.

The "red herring" game was one Clemens frequently played in many of his television-thrillers, but where the game works well with mundane mysteries, the draggy unfolding of the Big Surprise detracts from the suspense in KRONOS. Clemens has commented that Hammer didn't support the project with the sort of money that might have given it more "oomph," but more money wouldn't have improved the poor pacing of Clemens' only directorial effort. Janson is okay as Captain Kronos, but he's given too little characterization to register.  The idea of a swashbuckling vampire hunter isn't developed either, and the script devotes more attention to the reactions of his hunchbacked sidekick.

Kronos' raison d'etre does suggest some of the violent sexuality associated with his Greek namesake.  The Greek Titan, tyrannizing over his children, is slain by his most powerful offspring, Zeus. The heroic Kronos is forced to commit not patricide but matricide and sororicide, though the only "tyrants" involved are the unknown villains who vampirized the hero's relatives.  Oddly, the only time Kronos himself recites this history, he's in the midst of having sex with Carla, and the way he talks about baring the breasts of his mother and sister before killing them should raise a few eyebrows. His slaying of the Durward vampires may be considered a recapitulation of this primal act of murder, but I would have to say that most of the Hammer vampire-films pull it off better.

Still, it would have been interesting to see what Clemens would have done with his serial concept.  Had this film succeeded, perhaps Clemens would have improved on the spotty mythopoesis. 


Thursday, March 27, 2014

DAMNATION ALLEY (1977)



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

I've just reviewed Roger Zelazny's 1969 book DAMNATION ALLEY in this post, prefatory to watching the 1977 adaptation. As many earlier reviewers have mentioned, one of the most interesting aspects of ALLEY is not the movie itself, but the fact that its studio 20th-Century Fox believed that it would be their big SF-hit for the year.  Instead the monster hit turned out to be Lucas' STAR WARS, the sequels to which Lucas would own outright. When ALLEY arrived in theaters in October 1977, its old-fashioned FX alone would have killed its chances at the box office.  The film's poor pace and bland characters certainly didn't help, though.

I find myself speculating as to why the Fox executives had faith in ALLEY, and my best guess is that they thought it might be a big hit not because of the source material-- which was far from a best-seller and which the final script barely evoked-- but because director Jack Smight had just finished two successful mainstream films, 1974's AIRPORT 1975 and 1976's MIDWAY.  Perhaps the executives thought that the appeal of science fiction for contemporary audiences was comparable to that of the then-popular disaster films.  There are some common overlaps between the two at times, but if Smight and his scripters were thinking in "disaster-movie" terms, this was certainly the worst possible approach for DAMNATION ALLEY.

At that time it would have been difficult for a big-budget film to have translated Zelazny's mean-ass hero Hell Tanner into cinematic reality.  So it's not that surprising that the Zelazny hero becomes a bland soldier-boy named Jake Tanner (Jan-Michael Vincent), who is a little bit of a rebel but largely defers to his commanding officer Denton (George Peppard).  But nothing excuses the vacillating plot.  The novel gives the hero an epic task: in order to deliver a needed vaccine to plague-ridden Boston, former Hell's Angel Hell Tanner must cross the perilous "Damnation Alley" in his super-car.  In place of this, the movie's heroes still must cross the Alley, shielded by a mammoth vehicle called "the Landmaster," which is one of the few elements of the film for which some viewers have expressed nostalgia. But since the nuclear cataclysm has only happened two years ago, the motive for the crossing is simply to make contact with the city of Albany, the only place from which Denton and his comrades have received radio signals. This desire to reconnect with representatives of one's lost culture can be dramatically satisfying, as it was in 1959's THE WORLD, THE FLESH, AND THE DEVIL. But Smight and his scripters evoke no pathos from Denton and Tanner's quest.  It all seems rather casual, even when they're fighting killer storms and diseased hillbillies. 

The only part of the film that I liked-- and the only place where Vincent's Jake channels a little bit of Zelazny's Hell-- is a moment where a motorcycle-riding Jake is traversing the desert sands on his way back to his installation, only to be besieged by giant scorpions. The scorpion-FX aren't overly impressive, and the sequence can be critiqued for faking out the audience-- i.e., Jake dumps a real actress off the back of his motorcycle, leaving her to the scorpions, and in a "cheat' unworthy of chapterplay-serials, it's revealed that "she" is really a mannequin. But this was the only place where Jake seems like a proper apocalypse-hero.

As the emphasis in the script is less upon the adventurous striving of the hero, and more upon the suffering of the beleaguered protagonists, I categorize ALLEY as a drama, not an adventure.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

THE NIGHT THE WORLD EXPLODED (1957), THE INCREDIBLE PETRIFIED WORLD (1957)



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


Though Jules Verne's JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH is a good read, and it generated a better-than-average 1959 film adaptation, I don't generally like adventures involving characters blundering around beneath the earth.  In cinematic terms, most of them make for dull viewing, even when they have a superior script, as with 1956's THE MOLE PEOPLE.

That said, Fred F. Sears' rockhound-drama THE NIGHT THE WORLD EXPLODED is an appealing enough melodrama, which debuted in US theaters on a double-bill with what I deem Sears' best film, THE GIANT CLAW.  Brilliant seismologist David Conway comes up with a machine that can predict earthquakes while in collaboration with fellow scientist Doctor Morton and comely lab-assistant Laura Hutchinson-- usually called "Hutch," for short. Conway detects an earthquake-threat and tries to warn the governor, who isn't convinced by the verdict of an untested device.  Conway, Morton and Hutch, seeking out the source of the quake-tremors, ferret out the existence of a explosive new element, "Element 112," which tends to expand with such rapidity that it causes explosions. Soon Conway and company discover that unless all sources of the element are neutralized, eventually 112 will imperil the entirety of the planet Earth.

To put things bluntly, there's not a lot of exciting action as the scientists seek answers, though on occasion Element 112 keeps things lively by blowing someone up.  However, the script skillfully emulates the standard cosmological motifs of 1950s SF-cinema, noting that the places where 112 is the greatest threat are those locales where man has plundered the earth of its bounties, thus weakening the earth's crust. One might call NIGHT a mineral-oriented version of the "nature's revenge" theme usually exemplified in the 1950s by giant ants, spiders, and of course, outer-space gooney-birds.  Given that scripters Jack Natteford and Luci Ward spent most of their careers writing western films-- though Ward has a couple of minor metaphenomenal credits-- the team does a better-than-average job of evoking the 1950s "awe in the face of nature" theme.

They also do fairly well with another standard theme of 1950s SF-films: the theme of "woman's place in the brave new science-world." Early in the film Hutch, a scientist only through by virtue of associating with pedigreed researchers, is not as strong a figure as the actual female scientists seen in films like IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA.  She's principally motivated by the attractions of home and hearth, for early in the film Hutch tells Morton that she plans to quit the project and marry her boyfriend-- one never seen in the film, and clearly second choice to her real love, the oblivious Doctor Conway. Morton counsels Hutch to cool her heels and wait for the love-thunderbolt to strike Conway.  As it happens the impending doom of Earth comes along just in time to cause Hutch to table her decision.  Naturally over time Conway does realize his affection for Hutch, and even buys her perfume at one point.  However, feminists will not rate NIGHT highly, given that there's a scene in which the scientific group goes spelunking, and Hutch becomes frozen with terror on a rope-ladder.  One may argue that Conway's response is motivated by "tough love" of a sort, though it does so by humiliating Hutch for her womanly qualities:

Wouldn't you know a woman would pull a stunt like this? You're all scientists until there's the slightest bit of danger, then you fold up! Want your mommy and daddy?

That said, Hutch does "man up" and make the descent, allowing her to continue helping the project, if only in terms of moral support.  Eventually the rockhounds save the earth and turn their attentions to concerns of biology.  But though Hutch chooses motherhood over science, her will to work alongside the traditionally male science-types should not be passed over.  If NIGHT isn't as strong in this department as some 1950s SF-flicks, it beats others by a mile-- particularly THE INCREDIBLE PETRIFIED WORLD.



PETRIFIED actually starts out in terrain closer to Verne's 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, as a four-person crew seeks to test a diving-bell in the depths of the ocean.  The cables holding the diving-bell snap, but the crew-- two oceanographers (one male, one female), a scuba-diver and a female reporter-- don't plunge to the briny bottom of the sea.  They end up on a subsea shelf, and upon exiting the diving-bell, they encounter a series of air-filled caverns.  They learn that the caverns lead to a dead volcano, but their attempt to find a way out is complicated by a big lizard-- possibly intended to be a monitor-- and a half-mad castaway who has been marooned in the caverns for fourteen years.

Director Jerry Warren later became famous for his tedious SF-outings, and PETRIFIED is definitely one of his worst.  The four actors trundle around the subterranean sets, while above-ground the designer of the bell (John Carradine) muses philosophically about the failure of his invention, never seeming particularly mournful about the supposed deaths of his collaborators.  The only attempt at drama in John W. Steiner's pokey script is that reporter Dale (Phyllis Coates) gets a "dear Jane" letter before making the descent. Thus, despite the peril to her life during their adventure, Dale spends most of her time being bitchy to the expedition's other female, Lauri.  Apparently Lauri raises Dale's hackles because Lauri has some romantic future in her life, but Lauri refuses to be baited. As if to punish Dale for her nasty feminine jabs, the bedraggled castaway takes a shine to her and proposes that they do away with the others and life together as man and wife. Dale's punishment for Not Being a Nurturing Female is interrupted by a volcanic eruption, which kills the castaway and sets the expedition-members on the road to their escape.

The only slight merit of this film-- which is technically a work of "the uncanny," since a cavern with trapped oxygen in it is hardly "marvelous" in nature-- are Dale's rants about not having a man in her life, which may say more about the film's authors than about the status of women in 1950s SF-films.





Monday, March 24, 2014

TARZAN'S REVENGE (1938)



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


TARZAN'S REVENGE-- which really doesn't center on the ape-man taking "revenge" on anyone-- is said to be "based on a novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs." I suspect that this was producer Sol Lesser's roundabout way of adapting elements from both the first Tarzan novel and from MGM's far more successful launching of its Tarzan-franchise, 1932's TARZAN THE APE MAN.

Like the classic MGM film, a great deal of the film centers on the reactions of the heroine to the fantastic persona of Tarzan; like the Burroughs book, the heroine comes to Africa with members of her family.  Before we meet heroine Eleanor (played by swimming-medalist Eleanor Holm), we meet her nasty fiancĂ©e Nevin.  Though Eleanor's father has come to Africa to take live captive animals back to an American zoo, Nevin can't resist taking pot-shots at any animal that comes in his gunsights.  When the audience also learns that Nevin was picked-out by Eleanor's Boston-Brahmin mother, this in itself is enough to condemn Nevin as a no-good.

Eleanor has more in common with her father: both of them are curious about the exotic world of Africa.  While traveling aboard a cruise-ship, Eleanor's curiosity is aroused by another passenger: a wealthy Arabian chieftain named "Ben Ali Bey." When she presumes to look in on Bey's cabin, the Arab sees and admires her.  He pays her court by sending her jewels, proving the old adage that "when you look at the jungle, sometimes the jungle looks back at you." Bey seals his status as a villain when he thrashes a clumsy porter in Eleanor's presence; she responds by swiping his cane and whacking him with it. This seals her fate: Bey arranges with a dissolute guide to have the zoo-expedition guided toward Bey's jungle-bailiwick.

The first half of the film is more concerned, though, with showing what a rotter Nevin is: not only does he continue shooting animals, he's weak and cowardly as well. Instead of helping Eleanor when she gets trapped in a mud-hole, he runs off to get the porters to do the heavy lifting.  This of course sets things up so that Tarzan, the "real man's ape-man" is primed to come down and rescue Eleanor-- though no one in the expedition believes her story of a mysterious near-naked rescuer and his pet chimp.  Though the chimp is never called "Cheetah," this one's comic relief is no less tedious than that of the MGM ape.

Tarzan also rescues Eleanor when she falls afoul of a lioness, whom Tarzan spares because the animal was only seeking its cubs.  Finally Tarzan finally performs his "jungle seducer" function and abducts Eleanor from her group.  In contrast to the strong erotic vibe of the first couple of MGM Tarzans, this production downplays the romance angle, though the ape-man and his quasi-Jane do indulge in a little healthy swimming together.  When Eleanor's worried father and the rest of the expedition find her again, she memorably says, "At first I was frightened, but after that I really believe I began to enjoy myself!"

In the rather dull climax, Bey makes his move and abducts Eleanor for real, intending to make her part of his harem. Tarzan rescues her and hurls some of the pursuing black natives into the mouths of hungry crocodiles. Eleanor throws over Nevin for Tarzan, and the disgruntled fellow tries to pot-shot Tarzan. The ape-man roughs him up, and Eleanor remains in the jungle while her family goes back to America with their captive animals (something the MGM Tarzan probably would not countenance).

REVENGE is a good basic Tarzan film that boasts an attractive heroine and some decent commentary on Nevin's slaughter-happy tendencies.  Its biggest problem is the actor playing Tarzan. Like Eleanor Holm, Glenn Morris made his mark as a champion swimmer.  But he lacked charisma, even the rough sort of personality seen in Johnny Weismuller's initial outing, so it's not surprising that Lesser, who made many more Tarzans, never called upon Morris again.








ATTACK OF THE KILLER TOMATOES (1978), NO. ONE OF THE SECRET SERVICE (1977)



PHENOMENALITY: (1) *marvelous,* (2) *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*


Two surprising things I gleaned from re-watching ATTACK OF THE KILLER TOMATOES were that while the film wasn't very funny, (1) it did have a few moments that made me smile, and (2) none of those moments centered on the tomatoes.

Of course it's the eminently quotable title, not any of the film's gags, that made it a cult film despite widespread critical contempt, as well as a franchise with three sequels, a TV cartoon and a pending remake. While a lot of the supposed funny business is as boring as hell, I had to admire the tenacity of filmmaker John DeBello, who assumed five separate hats: director, producer, co-writer, editor and musician.  There's also a small degree of sociological commentary, mostly in the form of post-Watergate jabs at a dopey president who tries to defeat the Killer Tomatoes with public relations campaigns.

I've only seen the first sequel and the cartoon show, which I remember being slightly better than the original work.  But on balance the most significant thing about this SF-horror parody may be its schtick of killing a monster with awful-sounding music, a trope picked up to better effect in 1996's MARS ATTACKS!



As bad as TOMATOES is, Lindsay Shonteff's NO. ONE OF THE SECRET SERVICE is far worse; a bland, predictable spoof of the superspy genre.  Shonteff is perhaps best known for directing 1967's THE MILLION EYES OF SUMURU, which was at best serviceable-- which is more than one can say of SERVICE.

One unusual facet of SERVICE is that though hero "Charles Bind" (Nicky Henson) is a Bond-doppleganger in most respects-- flirting with his boss's "Moneypenny" and taking advantage of every somewhat comely female to cross his path--  the villain of the piece is not the standard evil mastermind one finds in such spoofs as SPY HARD.  Arthur Loveday (Richard Todd) is a rich gamesman who hires the assassins of the criminal group KRASH to kill other rich people.  Why?  Well, he says he hates rich people, and though he does mention off-handedly having started out in the lower classes, the script by Howard Craig (who has no other imdb credits) doesn't try to psychoanalyze Loveday.  Loveday might have been more at home in an AVENGERS episode than in a Bond spoof, in that the AVENGERS teleseries took for granted that it existed in a "carnival mirror" version of the real England, complete with arch comments on British class structure.

Shonteff and Craig don't try for "arch," though: their goal is dopey slapstick all the way. Bind and his lady-spy assistant Anna begin to investigate Loveday, but Loveday doesn't even bother trying to conceal his plans to assassinate whoever he pleases.  Instead of having Loveday arrested and charged, Bind and Anna follow him onto a cruise ship, where both of them are repeatedly targeted by largely incompetent assassins.  Some of the assassination-methods are mundane, but a couple of them rate as "bizarre crimes" in the uncanny vein. One example of this type is a female assassin who chats up Bind and tries to bite him to death with dimestore vampire-fangs. Bind's unforgivably awful jokey comeback? "Fangs for the memories."

Just as Loveday doesn't spend any of his riches on death-rays or giant octopi, Bind's superspy arsenal is so impoverished that his armorer's initial must have been "C" for cheap-ass. His home is outfitted with a bulletproof glass wall that appears just when he needs it most, and there's a detachable machine gun in his car.  Perhaps most of the funds in SERVICE's kitty went to hire an assortment of well-known Brit actors, including Geoffrey Keen, Sue Lloyd, and Jon Pertwee.

I have to add that the film even fails at the task of offering the male viewer the sort of "ogle-fest" one gets from, say, SUMURU and many other superspy flicks, both comic and serious.  Some of the female stars are fairly comely, but sometimes SERVICE seems to go out of its way to undercut this aspect, as when Bind is attacked by a tough kung-fu female, only to find out during the fight that "she" is really a convert from the other side of the gender-tracks.

Of the two films only SERVICE qualifies as a combative comedy.

Friday, March 14, 2014

STARGATE (1994)



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


I've never understood the huge appeal of STARGATE, either the original film version or the various teleseries incarnations.  I make one minor exception: the animated series STARGATE:INFINITY-- perhaps the only iteration *without* a significant fan-following. The cartoon series, while nothing special, outdid the original film in featuring characters who were reasonably consistent.

I imagine that the principal appeal of the Devlin-Emmerich film-- the team's second success after their collaboration on UNIVERSAL SOLDIER-- was the "ancient astronauts" theme, combined with some of the same military boosterism seen in SOLDIER. I noted in my review of the earlier film that its script "papered over any political undercurrents," and this is doubly so of STARGATE.

The tone of the opening scenes, though, sell the "ancient astronauts" theme in monolithic tones that recall Richard Donner's approach to SUPERMAN, though without the psychological symbolism or the adroit comedy relief.  Three establishing scenes take the viewer, in swift succession, from the founding of Egyptian civilization in 8,000 BC by an extradimensional alien, the location of the Stargate artifact in the 1920s by modern humans, and the activation of the gate in the 1990s by an American military complex.

Clearly the script, written by both men and directed by Emmerich, intends to over-awe the audience with its evocation of the monuments of the past, as well as continually repeating its blaring David Arnold score over and over throughout the narrative.  But though the character of linguistics expert Daniel Jackson is responsible for figuring out the means to open the gate, Jackson is never more than a nerdy everyman; his passion for Egypt and its language is portrayed as a given, not rooted in a character. The film's other main character is hardline air force colonel Jack O'Neil, but the audience similarly knows nothing about his character or his devotion to the military.  He receives one overly-obvious "tragic" trope: O'Neil's young son accidentally killed himself by playing with a loaded gun, possibly one owned by his father.  This kindles a suicidal urge in O'Neil.  His assignment to journey through the activated Stargate fortuitously gives him a chance to choose between dying on his sword or rejoining the legion of the living.  That O'Neil ends up forming a paternal bond with a young boy on an alien world should signal which option he finally selects.

It's never made clear why the American air force wants O'Neil, Jackson and a reconnaissance team to pass through the Stargate.  No one voices anything similar to STAR TREK's high-minded injunctions about "boldly going" out to explore the unknown, nor does anyone claim that there's any specific goal the military wishes to obtain through exploration, as we see in 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH.  A Marxist would assume that the authorities are out to expand their hierarchy into new territories, though this isn't entirely borne out.  Unknown to Jackson and O'Neil's fellow soldiers, O'Neil carries a bomb with him in case the team learns that the other world holds danger for his world, he's supposed to send the rest of his team back to Earth and destroy the gate-- and himself-- to stave off alien invasion. It's not every day one comes across a SF-expedition characterized by both expansionism and conservative xenophobia!

O'Neil's team encounters first humanoid natives, who turn out to be descendants of Earth-people.  The entity responsible for their enslavement on the alien world is an alien being worshipped under the name of Egypt's sun-god, Ra.  In the film's most interesting development of the standard "alien astronaut" scenario-- one executed many times in STAR TREK and DOCTOR WHO, as well as perhaps hundreds of SF-pulps-- the alien no longer occupies his original form, but inhabits the body of a mortal who sought Ra out back in dynastic times.  This may be a displaced science-fiction version of the trope of the devil-worshipper who invokes the devil to join with his own flesh.  But like Jackson and O'Neil, neither the alien nor the person he inhabits is more than a visual trope.  Since Ra is played by the androgynous-looking actor Jaye Davidson, who made his cinematic fame two years previous in 1992's THE CRYING GAME, Devlin and Emmerich may have been seeking to subtly stigmatize this visual androgyny to make Ra seem suitably "alien."

If the film's main appeal is its monolithic models, its second greatest asset are the action-sequences, though in comparison with the cutting-edge FX of STAR WARS they're merely adequate. But then the focus of STARGATE is never adventurous in nature, but is rather dramatic.  The narrative emphasizes the "winning of hearts and minds" as O'Neil and his cohorts eventually persuade Ra's slave-population to rebel against the tyranny of its pseudo-Egyptian ruler.  In America at least, this aspect may have validated the film for viewers, given that Judeo-Christian religion has repeatedly stressed the mythic appeal of "evil Egyptian tyrants" vs. "nobly suffering Jewish slaves."  This may be an even better explanation of the film's popularity, given that of its two major characters one is a zero and the other is a dick.

Because I see no heroic dimensions to either O'Neil and Jackson, who are caught up in an alien rebellion largely to preserve their own interests, I consider them to be demiheroes, in contrast to comparable heroes like Captain Kirk and the Doctor.








Tuesday, March 11, 2014

THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1973), SINBAD AND THE EYE OF THE TIGER (1977)




PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *metaphysical, sociological*

For a long time, the temporal order of the three Charles Schneer-Ray Harryhausen films was the same as their order of merit: first 1958's SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, followed by 1973's GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD and then 1977's SINBAD AND THE EYE OF THE TIGER.

But now that I've recently screened the latter two back-to-back, I'm less sure as to which should rank #2.

On specific aspects of these films, some of my opinions remain unchanged.  None of the Sinbads in these three films have any history in common-- that is, each story starts over from "0" and makes no attempt at connecting with one another, but all three heroes are portrayed use the same adventurous archetype.  Kerwin Matthews of SEVENTH VOYAGE, who begins the story as an adventurer committed to marry a princess, gives the best performance, followed by John Philip Law of GOLDEN, who plays the hero with a wry air of fatalism and ends up affianced to a former slave girl.  In TIGER Patrick Wayne's Sinbad, once more in love with a princess, gives a performance as wooden as his ship's deck, though to be sure the script gives him little to work with.

The Harryhausen SPFX follow a similar path.  Though I get a stronger feeling of "movie magic" from SEVENTH than from GOLDEN, the latter's wonders-- the six-armed Kali statue and the cyclopean centaur-- are just as admirable as the cyclops-satyr and the dragon from the former film.  In comparison, the designs for TIGER's monsters-- the titular saber-toothed tiger, the Minaton (Minotaur-Automaton?)-- are less inspired, and suffer, as Harryhausen himself said, from being "rushed."

 All three stories are stories deal with a group of heroes seeking some prize or treasure that a villain or villains also seek, although SEVENTH deals with a villain who forces the heroes to take him to his goal and so forces them to seek the prize in self-defense.  GOLDEN's plot deals with two ships in search of a fabulous fountain of riches, which gives the film a considerable resemblance to Stevenson's TREASURE ISLAND.  TIGER follows a similar structure, though the heroes have to seek two separate goals: first, seeking out a scholar to guide them, and second, taking his advice on seeking out the fabled land of Hyperborea.  All three films sport magicians who attempt to gain power through a trope one might call "the assault on royalty:" Princess Parisa is shrunk to doll-like proportions by Sokurah, the Grand Vizier of Marabia is disfigured by Koura, and Prince Kassim is turned into a baboon by Zenobia.  In all three films the defeat of the magicians returns the figures of royalty to normal status and so insures that they will be able to rule well.  Of the three, only the Grand Vizier-- who is the only link to proper temporal power following Koura's destruction of a royal house-- receives his rulership without being "born to the purple."

In the departments of writing and directing, however, I may not have given TIGER its due.  When Harryhausen's creatures aren't on screen during GOLDEN, the visual set-ups credited to Gordon Hessler are often static and uninvolving.  In contrast, TIGER's director Sam Wanamaker shows a great facility with close-ups, and perhaps Wanamaker may have appreciated them since he himself was an actor.  Thanks to such expressive close-ups, I found myself far more intrigued by the characters' difficulties, despite the fact that all the actors were giving very broad portraits of unalloyed good and evil.

I don't know the method by which Harryhausen would lay down the essentials of his SPFX-spectacles. so that a professional writer could then arrange them into a screenplay.  That said, Brian Clemens' script is often lazy and uninspired.  Many of the purely human scenes-- Sinbad setting Marianna free from servitude, or the sailors' teasing of their new shipmate Haroun-- fall flat despite having a lot of character potential.



In contrast, though writer Beverley Cross wasn't working with material as resonant as he did in 1963's JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS and 1981's CLASH OF THE TITANS, he gives his simple characters a great more diversity, with the exception of Sinbad, who is like Perseus of TITANS something of a thickwit.  Cross gets a great deal of character mileage out of the way various characters react to Kassim's status as a baboon.  This status even ends up working to the benefit of the heroes, when the ape-ified prince is able to enlist the help of another "ape-man," a horned troglodyte predictably nicknamed "Trog." The rather boring "A-story" of the love between Sinbad and Princess Farah is superseded by the "B-story" of a blossoming relationship between Kassim and Dione, daughter of the scholar Melanthius.  Amusingly, their relationship is initially more like beast and keeper, a la 1949's MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, but enough tenderness develops that it carries over when Kassim recovers his human status.  Trog also has a certain Kong-like effectiveness missing in the rest of the monsters. Finally, though the evil witch Zenobia is a routine Morgan Le Fay type, seeking to overthrow the rightful rulers in order to put her son Rafi on the throne, the witch and her son at least have different skill-sets: Rafi is the master of mechanics who builds the Minaton, while Zenobia brings it to life with her magic-- one of TIGER's most mythic scenes.


I should note that a number of motifs from GOLDEN VOYAGE seem derived from 1940's THE THIEF OF BAGDAD-- the use of eye-motifs, a multi-armed idol, a bunch of savage green natives.  However, GOLDEN doesn't use any of these to any great effect.  But then, THIEF is one of the greatest magical fantasy-films of all time, so it's no stain on Harryhausen's career not to have reached those heights.

I suppose, though, that the performance of the villain shifts the weight back toward GOLDEN.  Tom Baker's Koura is simply a lot more fulsomely evil than Margaret Whiting's Zenobia, though Baker does get somewhat better dialogue.  GOLDEN may even have had greater influence on pop culture, since reputedly Baker's perf led to his indelible role as "Doctor Who," while the most influence TIGER has had is a possible contribution to one of ROCKY's themesongs.

Friday, March 7, 2014

THE GIANT BEHEMOTH (1959)



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


1959's BEHEMOTH--THE SEA MONSTER, as the film was originally titled, was Eugene Lourie's return (albeit as co-director with Douglas Hickox) to the giant-monster genre he helped birth in America, THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS.

In my review of BEAST, I noted that its script strenuously avoided placing any bad light on the nuclear technology developed in the United States. Perhaps because BEHEMOTH was initiated by an English production company, the film opens by stating the dangers of nuclear-waste pollution, resulting in schools of dead fish being washed up on English shores.  As if to make this more adversarial viewpoint go down more smoothly in the States, this marine peril is forecast by two leading scientists: Karnes, a young American, and Bickford, an older Englishman. The film even starts with a warning note, as the film's narrator shows men in radiation suits walking eerily through a nuclear test-site.

Religious motifs are worked into the story at an early point: the titular behemoth comes ashore in Cornwall with all the dead fish, and kills a Cornish fisherman with its radiation.  Before the man dies he gives the beast its name, drawing on the Bible. Interestingly, at his funeral the officiating priest invokes the topic of the Biblical Behemoth in connection with Job. It may be worth remembering that in the Book of Job that "upright man" is arbitrarily cursed by God.  This is not a point that the priest dwells upon, but it is one relevant to the notion of nuclear devastation as a figurative "wrath of God."
Like BEAST and many films of similar stripe, BEHEMOTH avoids showing the monster in its earliest sequences.

There are some aspects of the film's narrative that suggest that Lourie or other filmmakers had screened GODZILLA, and that in response they sought to make the Behemoth more mythic in an European sense-- and not only because of the Biblical references.  The monster "paleosaurus," unlike the 20,000 fathoms-fiend, has been mutated by the atomic bomb that woke him, so that where he once possessed only a simple biological ability to discharge electric shocks, now he can emit energy-waves laced with radiation. The image isn't as dramatic as Godzilla's fire-breath, but the extra power means that the Behemoth is able to put up a pretty good fight against the armies of menwhen it invades London, thus making this a "combative drama."  The creature even has a contest with a group of electrical towers (see above), a scene which somewhat resembling Godzilla's original contention with an electrical barrier.  But even saying all this, once the Behemoth begins its rampage it loses most of the mythic resonances suggested by the early parts of the film. It soon becomes, unlike Godzilla, just a big quarrelsome animal.  Even Karnes and Bickford, critical of the consequences of nuclear brinksmanship, just want to see the big beast snuffed.

Only BEHEMOTH's conclusion returns to the tone of the opening moments.  Unlike the basically optimistic endings of most American big-monster flicks, BEHEMOTH ends with the warning that the whole beastly process may begin all over again-- possibly yet another story-trope cadged from the monsterpiece known as GODZILLA.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

CHRONICLE (2012)



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


SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

I  believe I have a pretty good idea as to why dozens of online reviews choose to refer to CHRONICLE as a "superhero" film. Indeed, I rather admire the cleverness of one review-title that calls it "the world's first found-footage superhero film."

But it isn't a superhero film, because CHRONICLE has no heroes as such in it.

On my literary-theory blog I've argued extensively as to what factors make a central character a "hero," but rather than quoting myself ad infinitum I'll just cite a dictionary-definition to which I subscribe for the word:

HERO: a man of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his brave deeds and noble qualities-- Dictionary.com.

Of the half-dozen online dictionaries I checked, most cited something similar as their primary definition.  It's true that there are other definitions, such as one in which "heroes" are simply the principal characters of stories-- but I don't really think this is what most people have in mind when they use the word "superhero."

 Though I enjoyed CHRONICLE, Max Landis' script is fairly simple in comparison to, say, Shyamalan's 2000 film UNBREAKABLE.  Though the performances and FX are affecting, the plot lends itself to simple summary:


In the city of Seattle three high-school guys-- social outcast Andrew, his diffident cousin Matt, and big-man-on-campus Steve-- encounter a strange artifact.  The object's radiation unleashes in them a wild array of telekinetic powers.  They take great glee in experimenting with their powers while keeping them secret from their classmates and adult society. Inevitably, one of them, outcast Andrew, goes too far, lashing out first at people who have bullied or even just annoyed him.  In a rage Andrew kills Steve. Matt vacillates about what to do as Andrew grows more and more violent and capricious. Finally, when Andrew goes berserk in the middle of downtown Seattle, Matt finally uses his powers publicly to try to rein Andrew in. Finally Matt kills his insane cousin and uses his own power to escape the authorities to far-off Tibet.

CHRONICLE is justly famous for its climax, an extensive fight-scene in which Matt and Andrew smash through windows and generally wreck Seattle.  Similar scenes appear in many inarguable superhero films, from 1980's SUPERMAN II to 2011's GREEN LANTERN.  However, they also appear in films like this one:




It's because of films like WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS that I formulated my theory of the "combative mode." There are many films that can include two powerful entities smashing their way through a cityscape while they fight, but no one suggests that GARGANTUAS-- which focuses on the destructive enmity between two colossal monster-brothers-- is a superhero film. 

It may be that the "origin story" is one that also points audiences toward the tropes of the superhero story.  But origin stories are common in most metaphenomenal narratives, such as the 1959 sci-fi film 4D MAN. In my review I noted how the main characters' sibling rivalry manifested in monstrous consequences:


What we have, then, is the story of the Prodigal Brother, retold so that when the Prodigal comes back to the fold he manages to steal the Loyal Brother's girlfriend and poison his mind so that Loyal Brother goes on a killing spree.




The underlying structure of CHRONICLE is not that of "heroes vs. villains," which is the dominant structuring trope of superhero narratives.  Rather, that structure is far closer to that of "monster vs. monster" as seen in WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS.  Alternately, one might choose to view only the psychotic Andrew as a true "monster" who parallels Scott Nelson of 4D MAN, while the more grounded character Matt-- a far more empowered version of the "Tony" character of the 1959 film-- fulfills another function.  I have termed this function the "demihero," which in most instances connotes a character who is capable of "brave deeds" but who usually fights as a last resort.  To repeat my opening argument, I don't think that this is the connotation of either a "superhero" or any more naturalistic version of a "hero" in the primary sense, where "courage and ability" are linked to "noble qualities."


Andrew doesn't need to be debated as much: structurally, he is a "monster" after the same fashion of dozens of other mutated human beings like the 4D Man. CHRONICLE's principal difference from the standard "super-humanoid" narrative is that in such works the monster's nemesis-- say, the narrator Utterson from Stevenson's JEKYLL AND HYDE-- does not share center-stage with the monster.  In CHRONICLE, despite the un-monsterish looks of Andrew and Matt, they do share center stage as much as the good monster and the bad monster from GARGANTUAS.  Though my quick summary doesn't mention it, Andrew and Matt are meant to play off one another rather than just being monster and nemesis.  Matt is relatively well adapted to his environment, though the script makes clear that he's far from perfect.  Andrew, in contrast, is the textbook example of "the road not taken:" saddled with a drunken father and an ailing mother, he's an accident waiting to happen.  Max Landis' script is stronger on setting up melodramatic situations than on the internal dynamics of the characters.  The closest Landis gets to invoking that deeper level is that at one point Andrew becomes leery of what the power is doing to him, and he plays with the idea of flying to Tibet in search of "peace." Matt discourages him, trying to help him adapt to high-school life, but in the long run this proves a huge mistake. At the end Matt atones for the mistake by seeking out Tibet himself, though since he's exposed himself to the world as a "miracle teen," his motive isn't purely about lighting a symbolic candle to his cousin.

In closing I'll say that Landis and director Josh Trank do bring more humanity to the improbable subgenre of the "found-footage" film than I've witnessed in works like 2008's CLOVERFIELD and 2011's SUPER 8.








Saturday, March 1, 2014

DEADLIER THAN THE MALE (1967), SOME GIRLS DO (1969)



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




These films featured a Bond-style updating of the 1920 toughguy-hero Bulldog Drummond, DEADLIER THAN THE MALE is one of the few eminently watchable 1960s imitations of the James Bond series.  In contrast, the second and only sequel, SOME GIRLS DO, is so tedious that one can hardly believe it emanated from essentially the same team of producer, director, writers, et al.


DEADLIER rates a "fair" rating not because its script is any more nuanced than the second film's, but because it centers upon the "femme formidable" aspect of the cinematic Bond-series.  It's axiomatic that the Bond film-series emphasizes the hero's playboy adventures far more than the book-series does. However, as a result of the cinema's greater emphasis on spectacular violence, some female characters, notably Pussy Galore of GOLDFINGER, are far more "empowered" than they are in prose.  Though the male hero remains the center of the audience's attention, many of the films play up the role of women as heroines or villainesses whose activities contradict their reputation as "the weaker sex."


Where films like GOLDFINGER and THUNDERBALL offered the femme formidable as a kind of attractive side-dish, in both of these films the curvaceous killers come close to overshadowing central hero Drummond.  Granted, the lady assassins also report to a male mastermind, Carl Peterson.  But unlike the villain of the Drummond books from whom the character takes his name, the films' main villain is even more colorless than the main hero.  At least 1960s Drummond gets a few quips almost worthy of the best Bond-lines.

Perhaps director Ralph Thomas and his collaborators wanted to steer clear of the Bondfilms' sociopolitical arena, for this Drummond is not a spy but an insurance investigator.  His adversary Peterson is a non-political game-player who sends his lady assassins hither and yon to assassinate anyone who gets in the way of his business-oriented plans for world domination.  Drummond's main purpose is to investigate the deaths for his insurance company, and he doesn't even carry a gun unless he takes it from one of his foes.

Without a doubt the strongest scenes in DEADLIER are those in which Peterson's malicious molls-- Irma (Elke Sommer) and Penelope (Sylva Koscina) go hunting for human-- and exclusively male-- prey. Peterson has a few other beauties working for him at his sanctum, but Irma and Penelope are the only ones who go about executing well-constructed scenes of sadistic murder. Some of these scenes include the use of such uncanny weapons as (1) cigars that shoot bullets when lit and (2) a poison that paralyzes its victim, but leaves him conscious as Irma and Penelope toss him from the roof of a skyscraper.


Did the scripters construct such scenes with any awareness of sadism as such?  That's hard to say, but there seems to be some slight awareness of the psychological appeal of sadomasochism. Following a scene in which Penelope binds and tortures Drummond's young nephew for information, Drummond rescues his nephew with the quip, "I never knew you were into this sort of thing."


Overall production values are good, the pace is brisk, and Richard Johnson makes a dashing albeit flatly characterized hero. The most amusing character-scene involves the nephew's girlfriend making a none-too-subtle play for "older man" Drummond, and the hero finds himself fleeing her youthful attentions, for reasons that are never specified.








Wikipedia asserts that the film was meant to serve as a de facto pilot for a Drummond teleseries, which never came to be.  Perhaps it's just as well, for two years later SOME GIRLS DO showed what happened when Thomas and Co were no longer bothering to put their best feet forward.


Again Peterson, who survives the destruction of his HQ in the first film (but is played by a new actor), sends forth beauteous hitwomen, but though two of the women, Helga and Pandora, are the "featured slayers," other women in the villain's harem/army are seen commiting murders as well. Unfortunately, most of them are desultory and forgettable.  Characteristic of the poorly imagined death-scenes include (1) Helga and Pandora giving their victim's car a tow in their own auto, and end up hurling the guy and his car off a cliff, and (2) Pandora killing a guy with an "infrasonic" camera.  The latter scene is particularly egregious in that the budget allowed for no FX, so all we see is the actress pointing the boxlike camera at her target, whereupon the actor screams and falls down.  I wouldn't be a good myth-critic if I didn't observe that Pandora and her camera are probably meant to provide a loose parallel to the Pandora of myth and her box-- which in turn is probably a silly and labored sexual pun.  If so, the game is hardly worth the candle.


In addition to the sonic camera, some or all of the girls are now equipped with "artificial brains" that make them into de facto robots, but the script doesn't do much of anything with this notion, except occasionally have the girls short-circuit or do silly slapstick things. The girls are as beautiful as those of the first film, but they aren't given anything empowering, or even just fun, to do. Heroic Drummond-- this time saddled with two comic sidekicks-- doesn't get as many good lines.  For all I know the production costs may have been the same as the first film, but if so the filmmakers didn't know what to do with the money this time.  The only thing SOME GIRLS DO has going for it is a moderately memorable theme song.