Monday, December 11, 2017

THE STRANGER (1973)





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


If MST2K hadn't picked up this flop pilot and given it their spoof-treatment under the title STRANDED IN SPACE, I don't know if even diehard SF-nerds like myself would remember it.
In essence, it looks as if the credited writer-- one Gerald Sanford-- simply watched the 1969 film JOURNEY TO THE FAR SIDE OF THE SUN and recycled it into a potential series-concept. American astronaut Neil Stryker, along with two other companions, goes into orbit, but somehow he and his friends end up on "Terra," a near-duplicate of the planet Earth, but existing on the opposite side of the sun, where astronomers can't see it-- and also, supposedly never notice its effects on the solar system's integrity.

Stryker-- listlessly played by familiar TV-face Glenn Corbett-- soon tips to the fact that even though Terra looks almost exactly like Southern California, there are subtle differences, like the fact that most people are left-handed rather than right-handed. More tellingly for the potential of future plotlines, all of Terra-- or maybe just North America-- is controlled by an Orwellian government, "The Perfect Order," which somehow took over the world thirty-five years ago and brainwashed most of the populace into believing the Order to being beneficent. Stryker doesn't want a revolution, he just wants to go back to his world, but he has to dodge the Order's murderous agents, led by a taciturn Cameron Mitchell. Had some executive been foolish enough to greenlight this for a series, presumably most episodes would have dealt with the astronaut alternately fighting the Order and trying to find some way to the right Earth.

Since the script gives the actors only minimal emotions to express, it's not surprising that none of them do more than "phone it in." Director Lee Katzin, like scripter Sanford, spent almost his whole career in TV, though he did helm one Robert Aldrich production, the mediocre WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO AUNT ALICE?





Thursday, December 7, 2017

WITCHVILLE (2010), HELLHOUNDS (2009)



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


Though SYFY's notorious giant-beast films have almost always been a waste of time, on occasion some of their low-budget fantasy-adventures have their moments.

WITCHVILLE is for the most part an adequate time-killer. In a vague medieval world, Malachi. the only son of the realm's king, is called back to assume the crown when his father passes. No sooner does he return than he's informed that the realm's crops have been devastated by an evil witch, the Red Queen, and her skull-masked soldiers. Strangely, neither Malachi nor his soldiers seem to believe that real witches even exist, but a local witch-hunter, Heinrich, proves that even an innocent-looking grandmother happens to be a pawn of the Queen.

Despite the fact that Malachi and his people know where the Queen's village is, he doesn't take the realm's army to wipe the place off the map, but naturally decides to attack her with a small handful of men and the magic-making witch-hunter. They pick up a few extra hands on the way when Malachi enlists to his quest some thieves who try to rob the expedition. On their way they're repeatedly attacked by the Queen's magic-wielding soldiers, led by her red-cowled daughter Josefa. Frankly, the design of Josefa's costume and the performance of actress Myanna Buring in the role is WITCHVILLE'S only real asset.

Malachi is a thoroughly bland character, and so, even though there's a big dramatic revelation as to his family history it has little impact. The action-scenes are adequate but unexceptional.



HELLHOUNDS also shows its paltry budget, but the direction-- by former kid actor Rick Shroder-- is considerably better, and the script shows some awareness of the archaic culture-- that of pagan Greece-- where the action takes place.

Greek warrior Kleitos is scheduled to marry his betrothed, Demetria. However, some unknown killer steals Demetria's soul and sends it down into Hades, the Greek afterlife. Kleitos and a small group of his fellow warriors actually brave Hades with the goal of reuniting Demetria's soul with her comatose body.

In many respects, HELLHOUNDS and WITCHVILLE follow the same basic template. However, one saving grace of HELLHOUNDS' script is that, although the warriors initially have no weapons capable of harming the denizens of Hades, they figure out that, since everything in the afterlife is created by the death-god, poison taken from one of Hades' monsters can be used against other guardians, like the titular Hounds of Hell.

Though a Canadian production, HELLHOUNDS was filmed in Romania, which may have helped it acquire a little more of an "old world" look.

Monday, December 4, 2017

MURDER BY DECREE (1979)



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

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

Just to get my phenomenological concerns out of the way, MURDER BY DECREE is predominantly a film of the uncanny. As I've done with a very few other entries here, I've denoted what I've elsewhere called the "centric phenomenality" first, while adding that there is an "eccentric phenomenality" that barely impacts on the narrative. In this film, the one element of marvelous phenomenality is that of a psychic who gives the hero some clues regarding the identity of Jack the Ripper. The psychic's abilities are presented as irrefutable, so they don't fit the model of the "ambivalent powers" that I've discussed in such films as 2004's RENEGADE. Yet the story certainly isn't primarily about this particular marvel, so that I judge that the element is eccentric in nature.

Another set of comparisons, perhaps more germane to detective-film fans, is that MURDER BY DECREE is the second major film to pit Sherlock Holmes against the Ripper, following in the footsteps of 1965's A STUDY IN TERROR. DECREE shares some of STUDY's concerns, which I summarized thusly:

Hill’s film uses the menace of the Ripper murders for the purpose of societal critique.  Throughout STUDY the fate of the prostitutes menaced by  “Saucy Jack” indicts the callousness of British society, an indictment with which the conservative Doyle might not have agreed.  Holmes is placed in the position of striving to both save the marginalized poor and to keep the government, whatever its faults, from falling into chaos.

It's certainly possible that someone involved with the later film, directed by Bob Clark not long after his seminal slasher-film BLACK CHRISTMAS, saw STUDY and decided to attempt the same theme with a bigger budget. (DECREE's budget was $5 million, while STUDY's was more like $200,000. At the same time, the official source for DECREE is a Holmes-less nonfiction book, THE RIPPER FILE, so a lot of the similarities may be attributed to popular speculations about the identity of "Saucy Jack." Still, it's interesting that actors Anthony Quayle and Frank Finlay appear in both movies, with Finlay even portraying Inspector Lestrade in both.

The greatest difference between the two films is that whereas STUDY's Jack is a genuine "perilous psycho" whose psychotic activities are covered up by representatives of the British government. In DECREE, there really is no "Mad Jack," but rather two relatively sane murderers killing English prostitutes in apparently ritualistic patterns. All of their efforts are devoted to throwing off suspicion about their real purpose: to conceal the past indiscretions of a real-life aristocrat. (False names are used for the conspirators, though originally they too were based on actual personages.)

Though director Clark had been associated only with low-budget films, the production has an "A-list" look all the way, particularly in its casting of Holmes and Watson with top-decker actors Christopher Plummer and James Mason. Their chemistry provides the film's best moments, particularly in little moments, like Holmes' impatience with seeing Watson try to pick a single pea off his food-plate without squashing it. However, for a Ripper film there are relatively few "spooky" moments, and gore is more implied than seen. Clark shows a few scenes in which the Ripper commits murders without showing his face, so that he seems in line with the killers of both giallo flicks and slashers. However, when Clark does let his "fake Ripper" be seen, the actor doesn't inspire fear or even convey the sense of being a tough customer. He and Holmes have a running battle near the conclusion of the film, but it's nowhere near as spirited a fight as the one in STUDY IN TERROR. On top of that, the fight is concluded when the fake Ripper gets caught in a fishing-net and somehow gets strangled in its coils.

Clearly director and writer chose to avoid the "thriller" aspect of STUDY IN TERROR, placing more emphasis upon the drama of Holmes' conflict as he learns that many of his country's high officials are implicated in the sordid case. Since even the presence of the fictional Holmes couldn't be allowed to contradict the established history of the Ripper, in which the killer is never publicly identitifed, Holmes is obliged to keep the solution of the mystery secret. John Hopkins' script demonstrates an admirable acquaintance with the political concerns of the time-- 1887's "Bloody Sunday" is referenced-- and the degradation of the English prostitutes is conveyed no less ably than in the 1965 film. Indeed, the dominant myth of DECREE, as with STUDY, is that of women's misuse by the male-centered culture-- though I tend to think the women in STUDY are given a bit more fleshing-out.

The Ripper murders are of course "bizarre crimes," and though there's no real psycho here, there are killers posing as a madman, which means that the film uses a "phantasmal figuration" trope not unlike that of THE CAT AND THE CANARY.



Saturday, December 2, 2017

ZETA ONE (1969)



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


I suppose it might seem anile to speak of a dopey sexploitation film like ZETA ONE-- also known under such names as ALIEN WOMEN and THE LOVE FACTOR-- in terms of any sociological ramifications. And in truth, ZETA doesn't have any of the oddball charms I found in, say, a similar breast-obsessed flick like INVASION OF THE STAR CREATURES. ZETA's main sources of interest are twofold: (1) it represents a specific type of sexploitation typical of Great Britain in the "swinging sixties," and (2) it's a rare example of a sex-comedy where the women are at once empowered and disempowered.

It's hard to tell if ZETA expresses any personal fetishes on the part of its one-shot director-- who reportedly gave Tigon Studios an incomprehensible potpourri of footage-- or the unbilled raconteurs who stepped in to film additional scenes that made the flick slightly more coherent. The inspiration for the film stemmed from a British sex-picture magazine in which models posed naked or semi-naked in sci-fi outfits. The magazine may have been a response to the influence of the Barbarella comic book, but it's awfully hard to picture writer-director Michael Cort having opened any kind of a book.

Though there are some piddling references to the James Bond spy-craze-- mostly in a frame-sequence involving an agent named "James Word" (Robin Hawdon) -- the film's strongest trope is that of "aliens abduct humans for sexual purposes," seen in British movies as far back as 1954's DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS. Usually, the aliens are deficient in one gender and are making up the deficit with Earthpeople of said gender. Here, the alien "Angvians" (a jumble for "vaginas") are,  for reasons not well explained. abducting Earth-women to take back to a planet full of other women. Earth-agencies seem only dimly aware of this incursion, and play no role in contending with the "alien women." Instead, the extraterrestrial enchantresses get opposition from an evil group of Earthmen, led by a mastermind named Bourdon (James Robertson Justice). Bourdon, having somehow learned of the Angvians' existence, wants to reverse the abduction-project and start capturing alien girls for exploitation on Earth.

Predictably, the movie has no intent to do anything with this "battle of the sexes" except to put a lot of semi-nude women on display, and if ZETA does nothing else, it does assemble an admirable list of British starlets, including Yutte Stensgaard, Anna Gael, Brigitte Skay, and Valerie Leon-- three of whom, for no appreciable reason, sport the names of the Greek Moirae: Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. Equally nonsensical is the name of the Angvians' leader, Zeta, played by a covered-up Dawn Addams, who easily turns in the most mechanical performance. Addams doesn't have many scenes, but she plays them all the same, with a forced cheery air that probably reflected her relief at not having to parade around half-naked like the younger actresses.

The plot is merely a farrago of scenes in which the agent of one side gets captured by the other side, interspersed with dull explanatory scenes-- one of which even makes a game of strip-poker tedious. The film's only memorable sequence transpires at the conclusion. Bourdon, having captured one of the Angvians, assembles his men to hunt her like an animal in the forest. A troop of warrior-women, all in pasties and bikini-bottoms, descends to fight Bourdon's men (the villain himself inexplicably disappears from the story, probably due to actor Justice walking off the set). Though the Angvians have been seen performing some very mediocre martial arts back on their own world, the warrior-women defeat the evil exploiters of womankind by pointing their fingers and zapping them into unconsciousness with invisible beams.  Then, with the villains defeated, the Angvians belatedly decide that it might be nice to have a stud around the house, so they invite James Word to join them on Angvia for endless hetero romps. This, far more than showing the hot actresses semi-nude, is a more disempowering message. At least when agents like Derek Flint and Matt Helm end their adventures getting oodles of quim, it's because they-- unlike the worthless Word-- have actually DONE something to merit the hero's reward.




Monday, November 27, 2017

JUSTICE LEAGUE (2017)



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


Last year I wrote of BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE:

For me scenes of head-scratching confusion probably outnumbered scenes of wonder and awe. And yet, the mere fact that the production chose to steal from the best, from Miller’s definitive Batman work, suggests that the new Warner-DC Universe might be able to formulate a superhero universe with its own unique tonality, rather than doing what a lot of DC comic books did to poor effect—simply copying the Marvel method of doing things.
I can't say that JUSTICE LEAGUE succeeds in putting across "a superhero universe with its own unique tonality," at least not to the extent that BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN differs in tone from the dominant formula of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Possibly LEAGUE would have maintained the same tone as its predecessor had director Zack Snyder completed the film as he conceived it, although I think it would have been no less filled with "scenes of head-scratching confusion" than BVS, to say nothing of being, like BVS, considerably longer than the 120 minutes of the finished LEAGUE. Some fans have made much of the compromised vision of Snyder's original concept, citing narrative discord between Snyder's scenes and those re-shot or created from whole cloth by pinch-hitting co-director Joss Whedon.

I assume that most of the resemblances between LEAGUE and 2012's AVENGERS-- also directed by Whedon, as well as a film that cemented the mainstream reputation of the MCU-- came about prior to the enlistment of Whedon's services. Whedon came in to substitute for Snyder when the latter left the production in response to a personal tragedy, and so I have to assume that the biggest similarity between the two films-- that both films feature involved scenes of superheroes kicking the asses of alien invaders-- had an analogous plot-function. Both AVENGERS and LEAGUE are primarily concerned with the interaction of an ensemble of heroes, in response to an outside threat. However, AVENGERS shows the heroes being brought together by a prime mover, Tom Hiddleston's charmingly malevolent Loki, who only unleashes an alien horde toward the film's end. In contrast, LEAGUE chooses to open the film with the first probes of an impending alien invasion. The ensuing film concerns the heroes-- Batman, the Flash, Wonder Woman, Aquaman and Cyborg-- assembling in order to forestall the incursion. In what seems like a throwback to the MacGuffins of 20th-century serials, lead villain Steppenwolf can only initiate his invasion if he gets access to three complementary objects called "Mother Boxes," arcane devices borrowed, like Steppenwolf, from the mythos of Jack Kirby's "New Gods" concept. When the five superheroes learn that Superman's death was a factor that encouraged Steppenwolf to launch his invasion, Batman-- driven in part by guilt at his part in Superman's death-- conceives of resurrecting the Man of Steel.

To get the "villain problem" out of the way, Steppenwolf is no Loki. He was a minor, short-lived character in Kirby's universe, and the version concocted by scripters Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon has even less depth. Steppenwolf seems like a video-game villain, with no existence save to punch heroes or be punched by them. Even his role as a leader of his minions-- "parademons," insect-men who are either natives from Steppenwolf's unnamed planet or transformed Earth-people-- has no resonance. Though Zack Snyder shares no credit in the script, it's possible that Steppenwolf was modeled on the director's execution of General Zod in MAN OF STEEL as a pitiless conqueror. Unfortunately, this makes Steppenwolf utterly boring, and his one-dimensional snarlings detract from every scene in which the character appears.

However, LEAGUE also emulates one of AVENGERS' better points: the interaction of the ensemble. Again, it's impossible, without further research, to know how much of this was Snyder, putting aside his cumbersome meditations on The Nature of Power in order to bring forth a group of heroes who play off one another in both comedic and dramatic ways, a la the MCU Avengers. Given Whedon's reputation for writing funny lines, I imagine that his participation made LEAGUE a much richer film in terms of humor than a "pure" Snyder work would have been. For that reason, I, unlike the earlier mentioned fans, think that the collaboration of Snyder and Whedon resulted in a better balance of talents than either could have accomplished alone. Given the serial-like nature of the movie's plot, there's no point in addressing it further, but it serves quite well to give the viewer a series of enjoyable dramatic and comedic moments, which include:

*Batman getting testy with Wonder Woman over his plan to resurrect Superman, in which he manages to bring up her lost love Steve Trevor, prompting the Amazon to lose her customary cool.

*Superman resurrected with only partial memories, resulting in him battling the other heroes, including a fine moment in which he catches sight of Flash in super-speed mode even as he's fighting the others.

*The promise, in a coda, that a future LEAGUE film will bring about what no live-action superhero film has yet accomplished-- a face-off between a team of superheroes and an "injustice gang" of super-villains.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe, which began at a point when the company had optioned their most popular franchises, chose a "bottom-up" approach to constructing the universe, introducing-- or, in the Hulk's case, "re-introducing"-- most of the future Avengers in individual films in order to build up their appeal. DC Comics, a division of corporate entity Warner Brothers, had no problems relating to optioned characters, but Warner's cinematic arm apparently had no faith in any properties except Batman and Superman, resulting in a "top-down" approach. Wonder Woman, arguably the third most recognizable DC hero, only earned her own film after appearing in one devoted to both the Dark Knight and the Kryptonian crusader, and it appears that Warners wanted to follow the same game-plan by introducing both Aquaman and Cyborg in association with LEAGUE, with at least an AQUAMAN film set for release in December 2018. As I write this, LEAGUE has not been remarkably successful, so there's no guarantee that there will be another film in the series, with or without an Injustice Gang. But despite various minor weaknesses, I was refreshed to see a live-action superhero film that wasn't plagued by truck-sized plot-holes. It's also one that attempts, with whatever success, to get beyond the "grim and gritty" motifs of earlier Batman and Superman films, and which might, in time, to lead to films that better represent the imaginative scope of the DC Universe.




Thursday, November 16, 2017

THOR: RAGNAROK (2017)



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


Don't call this film a "Twilight of the Gods;" it's more like a "twilight of the THOR franchise."

Thor's brother Loki may be adopted, but it's the God of Thunder who has always been the "red-headed step-child" in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as I pointed out in my reviews of THOR and THOR: THE DARK WORLD. I explicitly stated that I didn't hold the movie-makers to the high standards of Lee and Kirby (not the hierarchy one usually encounters in film / comics comparisons, but one I find valid). But RAGNAROK makes clear that. whereas the film-makers made some effort to formulate movie-mythologies for Iron Man and Captain America, the only effort they could make for the thunder-god was the effort it took to milk a cash-cow.

I went into RAGNAROK with cautious optimism. Though I'd read no full reviews, I'd heard good comments on the film's humor, and whatever the failings of the MCU, humor has usually been one of its strong points. But in this film, the comic elements become so overbearing as to usurp those of adventure. Moreover, whereas most MCU films have had some sense that "less is more," RAGNAROK merely proves that "more is too much."

The tone is quickly set by an opening "teaser-sequence." As part of an espionage mission, Thor lets himself get caught in the realm of the fire-demon Surtur, In comics Surtur has sometimes assumed the role of a "Big Bad," but here he's very close to being a "throwaway villain," like Batroc in WINTER SOLDIER, and only Surtur's role at the climax of RAGNAROK makes him slightly more of a significant presence. The teaser owes its basic concept to a similar sequence in 2012's AVENGERS, wherein the Black Widow lets herself be captured as a means of interrogating her captors, But the RAGNAROK script ruins any potential suspense with its over-reliance on goofiness, which quality scarcely ever lets up for the remainder of the movie. The teaser is capped by an "almost failed rescue" caused by an inattentive contact man, which goes back to RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and which has certainly gotten long in the tooth these days.

Chris Hemsworth's "surfer dude" version of Thor is the only virtue of this dull sequence, but it's telling that as soon as he gets back to Asgard, the script wastes no time bringing him back into contact with his shifty brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston). It's hard to blame the scripters much on this score, since the Hemsworth-Hiddleston chemistry remains solid. An earlier plot-thread, in which Loki bundled Odin off to Earth in order to take over Asgard, is disposed of by having the brothers seek out their lost parent on Earth, though this simple plot-action is needlessly extended with a time-wasting guest-appearance of Doctor Strange. No sooner do Thor and Loki find Odin than, tempus fugit, Odin reveals that he's about to die. The writers and director rush through this revelation as quickly as possible in order to announce that Odin's death will unleash a new menace on the cosmos.

In Norse mythology and in Marvel's THOR comics, Hela is called a "goddess of death" because she reigns over a domain of deceased souls. RAGNAROK's Hela ( a slumming Cate Blanchett) is sometimes called a "death-goddess," but this seems to be a synonym for "Badass Who Kills a Lot of People." Hela is Odin's first offspring, and it's loosely established that long before Thor or Loki existed, she helped Odin conquer the Nine Worlds. At some point Odin became sick of all the bloody killing-- a development that serves only to bring him into line with the original depiction of the ruler in the first film-- but Hela wanted to keep on killing, just because she liked it so much. So he exiled her, and somehow kept everyone else in Immortal Asgard from remembering her existence. However, once Odin dies, Hela pops up and tries to kill both of her brothers, since they're rivals for the rulership of Asgard. Hela's attack results indirectly in the two gods getting flung elsewhere. The evil goddess goes on to easily bend Asgard to her will, and to create an army of zombie warriors.

Thor and Loki both end up on the planet Skaar, whose other name in Marvel continuity is "Planet Hulk." Skaar is an entirely stereotypical "gladiator world," which exists for no reason but to pit alien fighters against one another. Loki gets separated from the thunder god, which is to Loki's benefit, since for the next twenty minutes Thor gets captured and subdued by the high-tech of a cynical warrior-woman, who in turn sells Thor to Skaar's nutty ruler, the grandstanding Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum, reprising his usual quirky character-type). Before Thor goes into battle against his first opponent, the hero learns that the woman who sold him is a Valkyrie of Asgsard-- indeed, she's a take on Marvel's "Valkyrie" character, though I don't think the script ever gives her a formal name. It also comes out that she, unlike the rest of Asgard, remembers Hela because she was the only surviving member of a force that sought to master Hela. (Why did the Valkyries need to fight Hela at all, if Odin had the power to exile her? Who knows?) In any case, she's a shallow, badly conceived and poorly acted character.

Inevitably, Thor comes to grips with the Grandmaster's champion, the Incredible Hulk, whose appearance on Skaar was set up at the end of the second AVENGERS movie. The battle of the two titans is one of the film's best aspects, and their subsequent dialogue might have proved a lot funnier had it nor been preceded by tons of juvenile pratfalls. The film spins its wheels for another thirty minutes trying to figure out how Thor can get back to Asgard in the company of Hulk, Loki and Valkyrie when none of them want to leave Skaar. An earlier film might have had the hero inspire the others with his tenacity and courage. Perhaps the political climate presumably wouldn't allow Thor to "mansplain" things to the recalcitrant warrior-woman.  Finally, the hero-team makes it back to Asgard, where they find that they can't oppose Hela-- who is belatedly said to draw her energy from Asgard somehow-- so the only way to triumph is to bring about "Ragnarok." The script makes a minimal effort to give this development "deep meaning," by emphasizing the necessity of Thor saving his people rather than his realm. However, given the MCU's rash tendency to annihilate prominent mainstays of Marvel continuity-- most chimerically, the destruction of SHIELD in WINTER SOLDIER-- I suspect the film-makers merely wanted a big scene to cap what looks like the last of the THOR films.

I saw the film with an audience that laughed at all the jokes, so I'm in a distinct minority regarding my "less is more" conviction. I imagine that actor Hemsworth liked the emphasis on comedy, since he'd probably like to get other roles than that of thunder-god, and I wish him well on that. But for me the main virtue of THOR RAGNAROK is that it exposed viewers to the superlative designs of Jack Kirby for both Hela and the minor character of The Executioner-- even if neither character was anything special.

THE SCORPION KING (2002)



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


As I observed in my review of 2001's THE MUMMY RETURNS, the idea of the "Scorpion King" franchise evolved from producers' generally successful attempt to mold wrestler Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson into a movie star. Johnson never again essayed the role of Mathayus, a Conan-like swordsman, though the character made three more appearances in DTV formats. This hero, who is a hideous monster in his one MUMMY movie, had a happier life in ancient times. He supposedly existed on a fantasy-Earth predating the rise of known history, although, as with Robert E. Howard's land of Hyboria, the hero's world sports place-names like "Gomorrah" and "Akkad."

I bestowed mild praise on MUMMY RETURNS because in it writer-director Stephen Sommers abandoned any attempt to make his "phony baloney" version of Egypt line up with the real thing. Sommers, one of the writers on KING, followed the same formula here, seeking to make a Conan for the 2000s. Naturally, the makers of the MUMMY series weren't able to pull off any of the deeper resonance found in Howard's prose, or even in the 1982 film. But then, it's unlikely that anyone even thought of doing anything but making a "fun barbarian" picture. Given that most post-Conan barbarian-films have proved dire, the producers did succeed in injecting a sense of loony fun into this genre-entry, aided by a much bigger budget this time round.

Mathayus is a thoroughly formulaic character, in that he starts out as an unprincipled master assassin but easily makes the switch to selfless hero with only a little guidance from his leading-lady, an oracle named Cassandra (Kelly Hu). Like most such heroes, he attracts allies to his banner without half trying, though he does have to fight one Balthasar (Michael Clarke Duncan) in order to earn that warrior's respect. Johnson brings a lot of verve to the character, though, and that makes up for lack of depth. The film's only Campbellian function is sociological, in that the plot depends on a clash of bizarre cultures.



VISIONS OF MURDER (1993), EYES OF TERROR (1994)





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

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

These two TV-films-- made about a year apart, and with no creative personnel in common except for star Barbara Eden as a "psychic psychologist"-- are pedestrian in execution, though the first film boasts some interesting potential.

Over the years I've seen quite a few films in which some character, often a female, acquires or discovers psychic powers. These abilities prove onerous in that the character becomes embroiled in solving some dastardly crime.  VISIONS takes an interesting tack in that psychologist Jesse Newman (Eden) doesn't have the usual generalized powers, but a ability to tune in on a specific person to whom, unbeknownst to Jesse, she's actually related. A parapsychologist calls this "interpersonal resonance," and it makes for a good restriction on the usual psychic tropes.

The script labors mightily to make Jesse into a worthy heroine, a self-sacrificing professional who becomes too deeply invested in the problems of her patients. This martyr complex is grounded in the fact that she and her then-husband Hal-- now her ex, as well as a cop-- lost their only offspring sixteen years ago in childbirth. It later turns out that the daughter was actually abducted and sold to a black-market adoption agency, and that she's the reason Jesse starts having psychic flashes of peril to young Kimberly and her adoptive mother, at the hands of Kimberly's adoptive father (the reliable Terry O'Quinn, striving to find something to do with his underwritten part).

In fact, VISIONS is the very definition of a "star movie," in that no character in the story has anything interesting to do except  the protagonist. The same thing applies to the sequel EYES OF TERROR, altered in syndication to VISIONS OF TERROR. Since the first script shot its bolt by making Jesse's abilities dependent on her daughter, the second film decides to invest her with the skill of psychometry, the ability to glean psychic visions by touching objects. Despite this enhancement of Jesse's abilities, her most impressive feat herein is that of doping out a special code that leads her and the police to a cop-killer. The ex-husband is jettisoned and the daughter is played by new actress Missy Crider, who gets a little more development this time out. In fact, she possesses minor judo skills that enable her to fight the villain better than her mom can.

Some actors, no matter how technically proficient, never have it in them to attempt serious drama, just as many never conquer the realm of comedy. Barbara Eden, indelibly associated with the role of Jeannie from her best-known teleseries, never disappointed this viewer whenever she worked in any other light-comedy vehicle. No matter how bad the vehicle, her comic timing and insouciance always persuaded. In contrast, Eden doing dead-serious roles always seems earnest but never heartfelt, and these two meager telefilms prove no exception. (Note: she's nominally more serious in her character for SEVEN FACES OF DOCTOR LAO, but it's still dominantly a comedy, and thus her talents still fit that particular mold better than any of her attempts at "straight" drama.) 

Thursday, November 9, 2017

IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE (1958)


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


According to IMDB, IT! appeared in American theaters in the same month as CURSE OF THE FACELESS MAN.   Of that film I wrote:

Of director Edward L. Cahn's two collaborations with SF-writer Jerome Bixby. CURSE OF THE FACELESS MAN is the more mythically resonant movie, even though the other film probably gets the most press, often deemed as little more than : IT! THE TERROR THAT INSPIRED 'ALIEN!'I
It's often hypothesized that Bixby's script took some influence from A.E. Van Vogt's 1939 short story "Black Destroyer." In that tale, a spaceship from Earth lands on an alien world where all of the once-intelligent inhabitants have reverted to a "criminal state."  One of the creatures manages to get aboard the ship by seeming to be an unintelligent animal, but the alien exposes himself by his natural tendency to drain other organisms of their phosphorous content. The predator kills several of the spacemen but they eventually exterminate him and promise to do the same to his race.

Such a borrowing may be possible. But, given that Bixby's monster hails from the planet Mars-- albeit Mars in a "futuristic 1973," wherein Earth has conquered space-- it's also possible that both Bixby and Van Vogt borrowed from a more august source: H.G. Wells' WAR OF THE WORLDS. In that novel, Wells specifies that his monstrous aliens are a debased species of humanoid that have evolved into their tentacled forms over eons. Further, when they come to Earth, they sustain themselves by draining blood from humans-- a vampiric ability which was a logical antecedent to more specific examples of alien feeding-habits. For that matter, the 1951 film THE THING-- which is an influence named by Bixby in fan-interviews-- also includes the bloodsucking motif, though the alien is not a member of a barbaric race.

Bixby's setup of the Mars-Earth encounter begins with a military mystery. An opening narration by the main character describes Mars as a place "alive with something we came to know only as Death." Back on Earth, an official of the space-force then delivers exposition to a press-conference, detailing how Earth's first expedition to Mars ended in chaos, because one of the men apparently killed all of his crewmates once the ship landed. He adds that soon a second expedition will bring back the accused murderer for court martial.

The scene shifts to Mars, where the second expedition, made up of seven men and two women, lands and takes custody of Edward Carruthers, sole survivor of the first mission. Carruthers is also the only character with a little backstory, in that he is, within this fictional universe, the first man to be launched into space. Bixby's script doesn't exploit this potential, though, sticking with the basics. Carruthers protests that a Martian monster killed the other astronauts. Everyone believes that, because the ship couldn't take off again, Carruthers simply killed his crewmates so that he'd have sole access to the rations. There's even some apparent corroboration when the expedition's commander finds a human skull with a bullet hole in it, though Carruthers has a plausible explanation for this mishap.

Fortunately for Cartuthers' reputation, the same superstrong Martian who killed the other Earthmen stows away aboard the second ship, and begins preying on the crewmen for their precious bodily fluids. The vindication doesn't help Carruthers much, though, because the alien is invulnerable to bullets, gas grenades, and electricity. It's also intelligent, and at one point uses one of the crewmen as a "Judas goat" to draw forth more prey.

Limited though the spaceship set is, director Chan makes use of many inventive visuals in order to keep up maximum tension, and the creature's design is ferocious enough to overcome the inherent problems of a "man in a monster suit" peril. The film's greatest deficit is that all of the characters, including Carruthers, are generally dull, despite Bixby's introduction of mundane small-talk. Most of the time, the characters are in too much physical danger to make characterization an issue. But it's almost painful when Bixby tosses in a trite romantic subplot, wherein young female astronaut switches her affections from the mission-commander to Carruthers. The method for killing the monster is moderately inventive-- asphyxiating the Martian by venting the ship's air-- but it did make me wonder why the gas grenades didn't have any effect on him earlier.

Just so  the audience doesn't forget the earlier "Mars=Death" equivalence at the beginning, it gets repeated in the film's last line as well.




Saturday, November 4, 2017

ONE BODY TOO MANY (1944), HAUNTED HOUSE (1940)



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


ONE BODY TOO MANY is one of a handful of programmers designed to test Jack ("Tin Man") Haley's potential as a lead comic actor. BODY is probably the only one of his comedies that anyone remembers today, but it's because of his supporting co-stars, the inimitable Bela Lugosi. Bela doesn't have a lot to do, as this is another of his "red herring" roles, but the script does provide him with one worthwhile running gag. That's more than most such roles afforded the actor. For good measure, he also gets a scene in which he loftily puts down Haley's character, a frazzled insurance salesman pulled into solving a mystery.

Like many such "old dark house" programmers, this was revolves around the death of a rich patriarch, and what his heirs do to compete for his legacy. The mystery isn't memorable, but at least the film fits well into my "weird families" motif. After the patriarch's death, the heirs have to stick around the mansion while arrangements are made for the late man to buried in a glass coffin so that he can be turned to "look at" the stars at night. The rest of the dead man's family aren't especially weird, and even Lugosi's red-herring isn't as creepy as usual. Watch it for Bela and forget the rest.



HAUNTED HOUSE, as a few IMDB reviewers have pointed out, has no haunted house in it, nor is it metaphenomenal in any way. It's a mild story in which two teenagers in an Andy Hardy sort of town-- a copy body and the niece of a newspaper's editor-- set out to find a murderer. The courts have condemned a nice old man known to the copy boy, so the young man doesn't believe he's guilty, and the niece agrees with him because she likes the copy boy. Not surprisingly, the teens show up their elders.

There is a tiny justification of the title in one scene-- shown above-- wherein the two teens explore the house of the murder victim at night. They half-convince themselves that the house is "haunted" by the victim's ghost, though there's no evidence for this whatsoever. So this is a naturalistic "phantasmal figuration" of the sort I've examined in my review of HAUNTED RANCH.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

SCOOBY DOO AND THE GOBLIN KING (2008)



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

I won't say that the basic idea of the DTV movie SCOOBY DOO AND THE GOBLIN KING is anything special. The worlds of fantasy-film are overflowing with dozens of quest-tales in which protagonists both meek and mighty have to cross into the realm of evil faerie-people to get hold of some arcane object that imperils both the good faerie-people and the mortal world. In that respect, GOBLIN KING is no worse than other run-of-the-mill outings.

Wikipedia notes that this one was one of the few DTV films at the time in which the supernatural was treated "straight" in a Scooby movie, but that observation ignores that different TV shows fluctuated on this subject as well, as seen in the 1985 THIRTEEN GHOSTS OF SCOOBY DOO.

The humor in GOBLIN KING is a little better this time out. This may be because only Shaggy and Scooby are enlisted for the quest of stealing the Goblin King's sceptre before it can fall into the hands of an evil mortal magician. The others-- Fred, Daphne and Velma-- have no mystery to solve and are consequently sidelined. The most interesting thing to happen to them is that, very briefly, the villain transforms them into classic Halloween monsters. I'm not saying that there isn't the usual lame pratfall humor, but at one point both Shaggy and Scooby dress up in drag to infiltrate the goblins' domain. I suspect the animators were referencing the tradition of Bugs Bunny, since the normally cowardly Great Dane even plants a big sloppy kiss on the face of the Goblin King, very much in the Bugs tradition.

Perhaps the video's oddest touch is that while it acknowledges that most of the Scooby Gang's villains have been "outed" as clever villains posing as monsters, Shaggy and Scooby also encounter a bunch of specters in the otherworld who are dead ringers for their old villains. Wikipedia cites most of them, but does not comment on the dead-on imitation of Disney's "Headless Horseman" that might've invited litigation had Disney noticed. The late Lauren Bacall has one of her last voice-roles herein.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

MOON IN SCORPIO (1987)



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*


There's a good reason why "sailboat thrillers" never became an established genre. Despite one or two exceptions to the rule, like 1989's DEAD CALM, most of the time it's impossible to do much of anything in the restricted space of a relatively small sea-craft out in the wastes of the ocean.

To complicate things further, director Gary Graver claimed that this seaborne slasher was originally intended to revolve around a supernatural menace. Allegedly the film's producer converted the writer's original story into a slasher-film, and juggled the editing in a manner that made the story confusing. I have no problem crediting this, but even so, it doesn't seem like either Graver or writer Robert Aiken gave the producer much to work with. This is no disappointment regarding Aiken, a small-time actor who'd only scripted one other film (another of Graver's directorial efforts). But Graver sometimes was able to enhance the poor scripts of other films with dynamic cinematography.

MOON IN SCORPIO is another "in media res" film. The Coast Guard comes across a drifting sailboat on which five of the six known occupants are missing or dead. Only one remains to tell the tale: frenetic Linda (Britt Ekland), and the rest of the film is composed of her flashbacks to the horrific incident, occasionally interrupted by talking-head scenes between Linda and a psychiatrist.

Given Graver's story about the producer's interference, I'm not surprised that the identity of the psycho-killer-- a "mystery monster" who escapes an asylum and somehow gets in good with one of the boat's guests-- never makes much sense. But it's evident that the script also devotes no more than cursory interest in the other five characters, although in theory it ought to be their psychological conflicts that heighten the tension once they're all stuck with each other at sea.

I won't say that the bad script of MOON IN SCORPIO is any sort of missed opportunity, but there is a little potential in the opening set-up. Linda has just married Vietnam veteran Allen (John Philip Law), and she knows he's close with two other surviving veterans, Burt and Mark. Yet she doesn't expect Allen to accept an invitation to spend their honeymoon on a sailboat with the two guys and their respective girlfriends. Some chaotic flashback scenes of the three soldiers in Vietnam-- apparently not part of Linda's own flashback-- establish that they committed some mutual sin in Vietnam, a sin which was originally going to unleash a supernatural menace. Even with the monster excised, this plot could have been used to make clearer that the trio's bond stems out of shared guilt, and that this guilt, as well as Allen's general experiences in war, make it difficult for Allen to re-acclimatize to civilian life. But the three men and the three women are all zeros in the personality department, and so even this minor potential goes to waste.


Tuesday, October 24, 2017

GOLDENEYE (1995)



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

To get the phenomenology issues out of the way first, there's so much high-tech in GOLDENEYE that I leaned toward considering it to be within the marvelous domain. However, so far as I know, all of the science presented in the film-- EMP weapons, cyber-assaults on banking websites-- were entirely within the realm of possibility in 1995. In addition to one or two James Bond gadgets, such as an exploding pen, the film also sustains an uncanny "outre skill" in the unique assassination-method used by Bond's above-seen secondary opponent, Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen).

Before getting further into the subject of the film's villains, I should focus on the hero. This was the first and best of Pierce Brosnan's four Bond films, and Brosnan does his finest job of coordinating the aspects of toughness and charm that made Connery so appealing in the role. Sole credited writer Michael France never wrote a Bond film before or after this one, and, given that he didn't do terribly well in his later superhero films, such as the 2005 FANTASTIC FOUR, France must have been all but channeling the dry wit of earlier Bond authors, when he scripts "new-classic" Bond lines like "No more foreplay" and "She always did enjoy a good squeeze."

The cyber-terrorist plotline isn't profound but it does its job efficiently, aided in part by the comic performance of Alan Cumming as a master hacker. Since this was the first Bond film to appear following the end of the Soviet Union, I thought the script missed the mark by not having the cyber-attack-- one oriented on destroying Great Britain's economy-- orchestrated by some old Socialist hard-liner, seeking to bring about the fall of capitalist society. Instead, France goes with an Old Friend Bent on Revenge, and the actor playing said villain doesn't have much to work with.

GOLDENEYE is also one of the few Bond films wherein the secondary villain is far more interesting than the main foe, not least because of the former character's name, a clear tip of the hat to Fleming's "Pussy Galore." France's script doesn't give any background to Xenia Onatopp, but director Martin Freeman makes her the embodiment of what might be called a kissing-cousin to that of the "toothed vagina:" i.e., the "crushing vagina." For reasons never revealed, Xenia has tremendous strength in her legs, so that she can crush a man's ribs to jelly while masochistically enjoying any pain her victim wreaks upon her in trying to get free. Freeman's mise-en-scene between Bond and Xenia in a Russian bathhouse is easily the film's best single scene, and probably has been the one most used as a highlight-clip.

The script is clearly influenced by third-wave feminism, though I suspect that this was camouflage on the part of France and Freeeman. In contrast to way filmmakers of the 1980s handled Bond, the first film of the 1990s is marked by lines of extreme political correctness. I didn't mind the film recasting Bond's superior M as a female, but M's lines to Bond, calling him a "sexist, misogynist dinosaur" and a "relic of the Cold War," are tiresomely agenda-driven. Later, the 'good girl" Natalya rants against "boys and their toys" and condemns Bond's womanizing, as does a minor character near the film's opening. Fortunately, politicization doesn't totally emasculate the Bond mythos, not least because Brosnan's Bond successfully seduces the two younger women. It's possible that the filmmakers were using these lines purely with an eye to publicity, seeking to "rebrand" the appeal of Bond for the 1990s. At the same time, one can't overlook that all these third-wave gestures might be cancelled out by the persona of Xenia Onatopp. Not only does she represent a specifically feminine form of power gone bad, she even dies in a situation that resembles the "V" of her own leg-lock.

Monday, October 23, 2017

SIMON SEZ (1999)



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


The only interesting point about SIMON SEZ is that so many people who watched it complained about a lack of plot-- and yet, certainly many of the same people in 1999 who stayed away from Dennis Rodman's second (and so far, last) starring film probably contributed to one of the summer's big successes, THE MUMMY. Neither film has a plot worth mentioning, but if anything, SIMON SEZ makes clear from the get-go that it's nothing but sub-James Bond adventure. It's a lot like the B-films churned out for the DTV market, but with more money spent on it, but its lack of pretension puts it slightly ahead of Rodman's other star-turn, 1997's DOUBLE TEAM.

The story is just another among thousands on the theme of "two factions seek the same McGuffin," in this case, a disc containing specs for constructing a super-weapon. Rodman's character Simon (no last name) is an Interpol agent dragged into a kidnapping case by a former Langley classmate, Nick (a manic Dane Cook, trying to sell himself as the next Jim Carrey). There's lots of shooting-scenes, martial arts scenes, and crazy car-driving scenes, all fulfilling the basic quota for the mindless action-film. Simon, despite his trademark face-jewelry, is the only halfway serious character in the film, while everyone else-- his two aides (dressed like Franciscan monks for some damn reason), the capering villain, and the villain's clown-garbed henchmen-- seems to be competing with Cook to be the nuttiest of the nutty. The villain, for instance, wants to use the super-weapon to blow up the Eiffel Tower simply because he's tired of looking at it.

It's by no means a good film, but I've seen worse films that were overly impressed with their own cleverness. The super-ray-thing definitely edged the film into the domain of the marvelous, though there are other metaphenomenal tropes, in addition to the bad guy's unexplained desire to have his henchmen dress like refugees from A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. Rodman's tech guys also create a mechanical spy-bee, and his car comes equipped with a parasailing parachute.





Friday, October 20, 2017

GAS-S-S-S (1970)



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

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

GAS-S-S-S, a movie with an absurdly long alternate title that I'm not going to type, was the third-to-last film officially directed by Roger Corman. Going by remarks cited on Wikipedia, Corman blamed the failure of GAS-S-S-S at the box office on AIP's cuts and marketing strategy. Thereafter he largely abandoned directing and continued as a film producer because he found that job easier. He defended the "intellectual" content of GAS-S-S-S-S even though he admitted he might have kept keep the film's concepts too well hidden under its humorous content.

The title of GAS-S-S-S is also the source of its only metaphenomenal content. By accident the U.S. military unleashes a poison gas that slays only people over the age 25. Presumably it affects the whole world, though the movie only focuses on a handful of young Americans trying to sort out their place in the new scheme of things. As is often the case with post-disaster films, the characters don't have to deal with piles and piles of dead bodies; it's more as if the gas has simply erased the older generations from existence. The film's focal characters are a romantic couple, male Coel and female Cilia. Their names are so similar that I suspect writer George Armitage was indicating some shared nature, perhaps thinking they had a shared "celestial" (derived from Latin "caelum") nature. Coel and Cilia jaunt about the country, meeting absurdities like golf-playing bikers and a crazed football team. They even run into a man who seems to be a reborn Edgar Allan Poe, riding a motorcycle with a black-clad babe behind him. "Poe" warns that the younger generation is doomed to make the same mistakes as the older one. Even God is a running character, intruding to comment on the action, and apparently bringing back a small coterie of dead people near the film's end. It's an almost plotless "road movie," and despite a number of violent altercations-- including one or two rapes-- the film ends on a note of affirmation, predicting that the young people will defy the odds and forge a more positive world.

GAS-S-S-S's alleged humor usually falls flat. The only joke that works fairly well is one in which a bunch of young guys duel one another with imaginary guns, as if they were kids playing cowboy games, and as they fire at each other, they yell out the names of famous western actors, ending the duel with the portentous name of John Wayne. This seems aimed at liberal-minded kids who rejected the ethos of the American western, but scripter Armitage didn't have the first idea as to how to extend this concept through the rest of the film. Coel and Cilia, along with a few friends they pick up along the way, also encounter other hostile, male-centered societies, like the crazy football team. Yet there's no clear indictment of male privilege. If anything, the aforementioned rape-scenes loosely validate male privilege. In one of the scenes, the girl being abducted yells that one victim yells that she wishes she's taken karate lessons instead of needlepoint, or something like that. In an even stranger scene, a gang of rapists are defeated by a victim who enjoys her assault so much, and so often, that she leaves them all exhausted, and for good measure lectures them on the greater sexual capacities of women. Even in 1970, it's awfully hard to imagine any women in the audience being amused by this jape.

Corman, born in 1926, became an independent film director in 1954. Although he didn't make films with explicit teen appeal until 1957, when he directed both CARNIVAL ROCK and ROCK ALL NIGHT, much of his product became associated, rightly or wrongly, with the teen-centered drive-ins of the decade. Throughout the rest of his career, Corman often catered to what might be loosely termed "the youth market," and even though he was in his early thirties when he produced his first rock-and-roll films, I hypothesize that he took some pride in his ability to suss out what young audiences wanted. Often this came down to the formula called "blood, beasts and breasts," which would also suggest a greater focus on young male, rather than female, viewers. I certainly am not faulting Corman for being a commercial filmmaker, or even for making films that tended to appeal mostly to guys. But his reputed tendency to have loose scripts even during filming, and to inject gratuitous sex-and-violence scenes in haphazard fashion, goes a lot toward explaining why GAS-S-S-S turns out so poorly.

Despite the presence of a comical Creator, there's no sense that Corman and Armitage had any sense of the metaphysical implications of an apocalypse. Thus the only Campbellian function I cite is that of the sociological, as the film is defined almost entirely by a notion of young people wishing that they could remake the world if only all those old people were out of the way.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

IRON MAN (2008), IRON MAN 2 (2010)



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


It's almost ten years since the original IRON MAN movie came out. Though it's far from the perfect superhero movie, I've decided to give a "good" mythicity rating in part because it proved as important to its genre in the 2000s as the Tim Burton BATMAN was in the 1990s. Had Marvel Studios not re-acquired the rights to the character in 2006 and made this film, it's entirely possible that the superhero boom of the early 2000s would have dwindled once the big studios ran through the A-list names like X-Men and Spider-Man. Marvel Studios, having a more intimate investment in the genre, used IRON MAN as a linchpin for introducing the mainstream audience to the pleasures of a superheroic shared universe.

Director Jon Favreau is probably correct in crediting some of the first movie's appeal in its "independent film" approach. In contrast to many of the earlier superhero flicks, IRON MAN pays a great deal of attention to establishing character interactions, giving the actors a lot of material in which to invest themselves, as opposed to emoting in front of a green-screen. Back on my first viewing, I was impressed with the film's updating of Iron Man's origin, as well as the central character's shift away from munitions manufacturing. And yet, now I find myself giving the writers less credit in those departments. For instance, the comic-book origin was strong material to start with. In contrast, it's amazing that the scripters made such a silk purse out of the sow's-ear known as the "Obadiah Stane" arc from an early 1980s run of the IRON MAN comic. It was in these issues that writer Denny O'Neil contrived to give Tony Stark a new competitor who took over his business, one who had very loose ties to Stark's late father. The original arc was tedious and superficial, but it seems to have been integral to the movie-script's interpretation of the Tony Stark character in terms of his "daddy issues."

Those paternal conflicts also play into Stark's early willingness to churn out weapons for the military while making excuses about how his technological advances save other lives. Given that Robert Downey Jr. was in his forties when he essayed the character, that factor makes it difficult to credence Tony Stark being naive about the ways of politics and the manufacture of weapons. Still, one may choose to view Stark as an example of "delayed adulthood," which may be one reason he resonated with Millennials, as against the "jet-set industrialist" model on which Stan Lee based the comic-book Stark. Further, whereas Lee probably meant no irony in having Stark injured while selling his munitions-- after all, in the comic-book origin, the munitions-maker is wounded by a primitive Asian trap-- whereas the scripters of the movie clearly wanted Stark to reap the consequences of his own "death merchant" acts, even if villain Obadiah Stane is directly responsible for the munitions falling into enemy hands.

Downey's irreverent but lovable scapegrace is given greater depth by his two primary supporting characters, secretary Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and military buddy James Rhodes (Terence Howard). Though they're both functioning adults, clearly they can't help enjoying Stark's antics, and so the viewer finds said antics harmless as well. IRON MAN of course cannot escape the deeper sociopolitics of the munitions industry, so in this context it's enough that he does come to see "the bigger stick" as a morally bankrupt course of action. In its place, naturally enough, is the superhero's solution of direct personal action, while his negative image and "bad father" Stane validates Stark's decision by showing his willingness to exploit technology at the cost of humanity.



IRON MAN 2, however, proves somewhat less balanced than the debut film. With the bad father out of the way, the script must substitute an excuse for Stark to spiral into self-indulgence again. It's been stated that the script was indirectly influenced by a well-received story-arc from the comic book, in which Stark became an alcoholic as the result of work-pressures. Favteau's scripters only touched on alcoholic visual motifs, but chose to situate these in terms of an almost manic-depressive concept of Stark, oscillating between moods of invincibility-- seen in the opening scenes where Stark celebrates himself through the medium of a science expo-- and moods of extreme depression. The depression comes about logically enough, as Stark tries to come to terms with the fact that the very device that keeps his heart beating is also slowly poisoning him.

Though alcoholism is not the direct cause, Stark-- who has publicly confessed his identity as Iron Man, and who refuses the military access to his armor-- begins acting like a manic drunk, even when in armor. This plot-line culminates in emnity between Stark and his two major support-characters, which leads to major violence when Rhodes dons a duplicate set or armor, takes the name "War Machine," and battles Iron Man in an attempt to bring him under control. This is one of the few areas in which IRON MAN 2 exceeds the original, since the battle of the armored titans here is far better choreographed than the one in the 2008 film. Of course, by film's end Rhodes and Potts are both on Stark's side again, and the key to the industrialist's reformation lies, ironically enough, in his making contact with his late father, who never seemed to appreciate Stark in life.

Downey provides, if anything, an even more nuanced version of the quirky Stark persona than he did in the first film. However, "for every bit of good there's a little bit of bad," and in this case it's a badly chosen villain. Whiplash, a minor villain from the comics, is pressed into service as a "big bad," a conniving Russian whose father's fortunes were ruined by his interaction with Stark's father. Perhaps Favreau and company might have sold viewers on this character, had they been consistent about pitching him as a master planner from the first. However, they introduce him by having him attack Stark in public, like a hundred other vengeance-seeking villains-- and once that's happened, it's hard to credit such a reckless figure as being the great manipulator seen in the rest of the film. I should add that the script also takes one of Iron Man's better 1970s villains, a master-planner type named Justin Hammer, and downgrades him into a pawn of Whiplash.

Sadly, bad judgments regarding the Armored Avenger's villains extended into IRON MAN 3, to date the last and least of the series. But at least the first film stands as one of the more substantive superhero films, even if there seems little potential for any more solo films with the character in the near future.


Friday, October 13, 2017

TARZANA THE WILD GIRL (1969)



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


I still remember seeing this film advertised back in The Day, but I never saw it in the theaters. Something Weird preserved it, and I finally saw it via a Youtube download, confirming my suspicion that it would have been a stone bore in a theater, despite the copious upper-body nudity of the title character (played by one Femi Benussi).

Jungle girls tend to fall into two broad (so to speak) categories: the tough babes and the innocent sylphs. The Italian film-industry tended to make the latter, like the slightly earlier LUANA, though I did wonder if the filmmakers would lean more toward the former pattern, since they'd bothered to rip off the name of the seminal "tough jungle hero." However, such was not the case.

TARZANA is an absolutely by-the-numbers exercise in "jungle rot." A little white girl, the offspring of an English lord, is lost in the African jungle. Fifteen years later, the lord hears reports of a mysterious white girl living in the wilds, and suspects that it may be his lost daughter. Thus he funds an expedition to go looking for the mystery lady.

Often expeditions of white adventurers encounter a lot of opposition from both wild animals and hostile native tribes. TARZANA doesn't bother even coming up to the meager level of LUANA's entertainments, as the former depends a lot of stock footage. Thus the film hardly finds time for any battles between the expedition and the local wildlife. What passes for conflict is that, while some of the adventurers sincerely want to bring Tarzana back to civilization and her grandfather, others want to capture the wild girl for exhibition and profit.

Like Luana, Tarzana never speaks, and so it's never clear as to how she survived in the jungle sans help from local natives. She also seems to have acquired some influence over some of the usual animals-- monkeys, elephants-- and though she shows no talent for fighting, she does at one point send some elephants around to stomp the adventurers' camp. Had this scene been the climax of the film, I might have judged it a combative adventure. However, the end-sequence is mostly about two of the good people managing to approach Tarzana-- despite her having been hit with a trank-date by bad guys-- and to remind her of her forgotten past by showing the girl a doll she once owned. It's a paltry form of drama, but said climax, as well as the movie's endless small talk, pushes this one more toward the mythos of the drama.

Benussi's nudity has some appeal, but the film's main interest for me is that I wondered how it was ever exhibited in America, given that the "Tarzan" trademark has been aggressively protected by the heirs of Edgar Rice Burroughs. 

Thursday, October 12, 2017

KUNG FU: EPISODES 19-23 (1974)



PHENOMENALITY: (1) *marvelous,* (2,4) *naturalistic,* (3) *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: (1,2, 4) *fair,* (2) *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, metaphysical, sociological, cosmologicaL*


Up to this point, Caine has only encountered other Chinese martial artists who were either out to kill him for a bounty or who, like Captain Lee of "The Way of Violence Has No Mind," gained Shaolin skills without actually attending the temple. The titular character in "The Passion of Chen Yi" is a fellow priest whom Caine knew during his own temple-service, and there was a bond between them more of animosity than of fellowship.

Nevertheless, Chen Yi is for some reason on Caine's mind at the start of "Passion," to the extent that Caine seeks out an old Chinese man for advice. In the episode's only marvelous touch, the elder informs Caine of exactly where Chen Yi can be found, relying on what the old fellow calls "emanations."

Once Caine arrives at the town where Chen Yi last resided, he learns that the former Shaolin priest has been sentenced to hang for murder in the next few days. Caine remembers that Chen Yi was an arrogant priest, and that he maneuvered Caine into a fight-- which Caine lost-- so that Caine would serve as his go-between, taking messages to an outside mistress. The Shaolin masters find out about Chen Yi's duplicity before Cains becomes enmeshed in the other priest's transgressions, and thus Chen Yi is turned out. But evidently the matter preyed on Caine as an unresolved conflict, and since Caine does not believe that any Shaolin would commit gratuitous murder, he decides to investigate. Having been told that Chen Yi is in the local prison and that no visitor can see him, Caine simply goes through the motions of holding up the local bank-- naturally, without wielding a gun or even harsh words-- and gets himself sentenced to the same prison.

Chen Yi (Soon Teck-Oh) is surprised to see Caine, but he maintains that he committed the murder and is willing to hang for it. Caine then uses his superior skills to escape prison and to continue his investigation. This leads him to Chen Yi's ex-girlfriend Louise and her (perhaps) crippled sister Rita. It's no great revelation to disclose that the girls killed the murder victim and that Chen Y, has chosen to accept death in her place, believing that Louise loves him, when she and Rita really just want a patsy. Caine returns to prison and challenges Chen Yi to a martial arts battle, designed to force the innocent man to leave prison and find out the truth for himself. This time Caine bests the man who beat him earlier, and Chen Yi learns the unhappy truth that his sensuality has once more betrayed him. It's a strong dramatic episode, although the wrap-up is a little too glib about how easily Chen Yi's murder conviction is overturned and the real culprits are condemned in his place.



"Arrogant Dragon" emphasizes drama less than adventure, in Caine's second encounter with the Tong society. The Shaolin seeks another generic Western town, questing after the family of businessman Wu Chang and his daughter Kem. For some reason the script is unusually coy about Caine's purpose, but it's eventually revealed that the priest befriended another Chinese man while working on a railroad. That man perished in a railroad accident, leaving Caine to carry the news to Kem, by whom Kem has conceived an unborn child.

This part of the story was perhaps de-emphasized in order to give more screen time to Wu Chang's situation. Though apparently a respectable businessman, he's actually a member of the local Tong. However, upon learning that his daughter was pregnant, he made plans to desert his post and return to China. One of Wu Chang's rivals finds out and exposes the recalcitrant businessman. Caine intervenes, initially willing to fight the Tong's huge executioner for Wu Chang's freedom. In a rare development, Caine uses Oriental chemistry to avoid a fight-- resorting to an aconite potion to fake Wu Chang's death. But the ploy fails, to the good fortune of viewers, who get to see the hero use his skills on the almost invincible executioner.



I don't remember that I found "The Nature of Evil" to be one of the series' better episodes back in The Day, but now I find it a superior mytholpoeic effort. As the title suggests, it's a meditation on the meaning of evil in the world of KUNG FU. Not surprisingly, the mythos of the series runs counter to Judeo-Chrisitian traditions of simply expelling evil. In the episode's only flashback, Young Caine expatiates to Master Po his impressions of the evil in his own soul, and Po replies that beneficial emotions like pride and joy are impossible without their opposites. The wise man can only confront evil, and choose.

Caine is catching a ride with a wagon-master when he suddenly receives what seems (much more loosely than the psychic episode in "Passion") an impulse to desert his present course and take off in a tangential direction. He's told that the only thing in that direction is a no-account town by the name of Nineveh. Unable to explain his impulse, Caine still seeks out the town with the Biblical name.

Like the Biblical city, this one also has a prophetic figure who has come to excoriate the evil in the community. But the blind preacher Serenity Johnson, last seen in "Dark Angel," has come not to reform the town, but to seek out a particular devil hiding there. Caine soon learns that Serenity's former comrade Sunny Jim was viciously murdered by a hold--up man described as having "skin colored like wax" and "looking like he was hanged, but the hanging didn't take."



For the benefit of the townspeople who are sheltering the evildoer-- albeit only out of fear-- Serenity poses as a fortune-teller, complete with Tarot cards. Serenity's earlier experience as a conman makes it likely that his drawing of convenient cards like "The Devil" and "The Hanged Man" is mere trickery, but the criminal himself-- never given any name, and billed in IMDB as "The Hanged Man"-- seems to have uncanny resources.

For instance, Serenity isn't the only one seeking the criminal; there's also a bounty-hunter named Bascomb. However, because Bascomb is motivated only by money, the Hanged Man subverts him by directing him to a more valuable target: a certain fugitive Shaolin. How the villain gets hold of Caine's wanted poster is not explained, thus furthering the idea that he is in a metaphorical sense the incarnation of the evil in all men, and thus has access to all their dark deeds.

Caine bests the bounty hunter easily enough, and is finally given guidance to his quarry by a young woman who has been in bondage-- not entirely unwilling-- to the evildoer. The Hanged Man-- played with a purposefully stolid lack of affect by Morgan Woodward-- reveals that he only killed Sunny Jim because killing helps the villain forget the pain of his own near-execution. Fittingly, for a villain who is symbolically the risen dead, he battles Caine in the town's soap-factory, and suffers a second death by both "fire" and "water" when the villain plunges into a boiling soap-vat.

"The Nature of Evil" would have made a good closing episode for the season, but for whatever reason, the producers chose to conclude with a two-part episode-- #22 and #23, both titled "The Cenotaph."



This episode is focused on two forms of unconventional romance. In the series' longest "flashback sequence" to date. the viewer sees Adolescent Caine experience his first love-affair. Circumstances force him to protect Mayli Ho (Nancy Kwan), one of the emperor's concubines, from a bandit-leader. The bandit is not much of a threat, but he forces the priest and the concubine to remain in each other's company long enough that they fall for one another. Naturally, in due time they conclude that their social stations are too far apart for them to live together. This part of the story is adequate, notable for featuring Nancy Kwan at the height of her short-lived stardom.

The contemporary story forces Caine to become the frequently-bemused protector of a wild-bearded mountain man, McBurney. The man hijacks a reinforced stagecoach not for profit, but so that he can use it to transport a huge wooden box. What's in the box? McBurney claims it's his wife, but he can't  keep straight whether she's alive or not. Caine is not the only one curious as to the box's contents: so are a couple of ratty thieves, the U.S, cavalry, and a bunch of Indians who may or may not be related to the person in the box. There's an involved backstory about McBurney's relationship to his wife and the circumstances of her (alleged) death. It's a moderately amusing episode if one is in the mood for broad comedy, but it doesn't jibe very well with the overall tone of the season. It feels like the star and the producers just decided to have fun instead of projecting their usual portentousness.



Wednesday, October 11, 2017

KUNG FU: EPISODES 16-18 (1974)



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


The episode-title "In Uncertain Bondage" recalls Somerset Maugham's famous book-title, OF HUMAN BONDAGE. Maugham's idea of bondage, however, involved a form of romantic enthrallment, while the TV show is more concerned with the way people naturally bond with one another when social strictures are set aside.

Once again a stagecoach serves as a medium to link the wandering priest with the destinies of tormented people in the Old West. This stage contains a rich young Southern woman Dora Burnham and her entourage: Tait, a former Southern officer set to guard her on her way to see a doctor for her weak heart, and Jenny and Seth, both former slaves who grew up with Dora but who now work as paid servants. Dora has a heart episode when Caine is present, and he uses Eastern medicine to help her through it. The Shaolin 's good deed is rewarded with captivity, for Dora's three companions have conspired to hold her for a ransom from her wealthy father. (How any Southerner held to any wealth following the Civil War is any viewer's guess.) The kidnappers abduct Caine as well, since they want to keep Dora alive to write a ransom note.

However, Dora, full of Southern pride and scandalized that her own maid betrayed her, won't write the note. Tait has the solution, for their hideout happens to be adjacent to a dank, dry well. He drops both Dora and Caine into the well and waits for Dora to surrender, counting on Caine to keep her well enough to suffer in the cold well.

Once Dora is alone with Caine, it's clear that she expects him to be her servant, due to the difference in their social stations. Caine does serve her, but not for that reason. His flashbacks make clear that he once experienced a reversal of his usual expectations, when Master Kan volunteered to switch places with him and become servant to his student. This "teaching moment" brought Caine an understanding of the need to provide service not because of stations, but out of empathy. Dora then gets her own lesson in empathy when Caine falls ill. Dora must tend him simply because he's a human being in distress, and she writes the ransom note to save Caine was well. Caine doesn't become too sick to fulfill his role of hero, though. After Tait gets his ransom note, he plans to kill both Dora and Caine once he gets the money. In the tradition of an officer, he tries to slay Caine with a saber, and Caine naturally manages to outfight him with nothing more than a convenient stick.

Jenny and Seth are supporting characters, and as such are not explored in depth. However, it's refreshing that Jenny rejects categorically Dora's expectation that she owes the highborn woman any loyalty just because she's been obliged to serve Dora, both as slave and paid servant. When Jenny protests Tait's decision to kill Jenny's former mistress, Jenny protests not out of some jejune sentimentality toward her former mistress, but simply because Jenny has a distaste for killing.

The metaphors present in the title "Night of the Owls, Day of the Doves" prove more than a little strained. Once again Caine stumbles across a dead man who has left behind his will, and the priest dutifully delivers the document to its destination. The will assigns valuable property to a group of "soiled doves," as the script calls them, simply because the ladies ran the dead man's favorite cathouse. However, there's a local bigwig who wants to acquire the property without paying much for it, and he happens, for obscure reasons, to run a group of vigilantes who dress up in Klan-like robes, but with "owlish" motifs.

The script for "Owls," having offered the contrast between virtuous harlots and respectable gentlemen with secret vices, does almost nothing with it. The ladies are thrilled with their windfall, except for one Chinese girl, Cinnamon, who nurses some animosity toward Shaolin priests. Though Caine becomes unusually absorbed in the problems of almost everyone he encounters, he doesn't seem to want to help the prostitutes fight off the vigilantes. Then Cinnamon reveals that the reason she's a prostitute is that she was sold to a Chinese cathouse so that her brother could buy his way into a Shaolin temple. This is apparently enough for Caine to rouse himself and put paid to the Owls in short order.

"Crossties" is another political opus. Caine is stuck in the middle between a railroad company, policed by ruthless Pinkerton detectives, and a group of farmers displaced by the railroad, who have launched a series of destructive raids on the trains. The farmers, led by a man named Youngblood, are presented as entirely sympathetic, while the Pinkertons, led by the fanatical Edwards, have become so repressive that even the railroad professes doubts about their methods. (Harrison Ford has a small role as the railroad's representative, offering the possibility of amnesty for the farmers.) Edwards-- whom Youngblood tags as a man who "don't care about dyin'"-- seeks to destroy the farmers before this can happen, and that means destroying Caine as well. While Edwards is a lackluster villain, he does manage to force Caine to take a beating from his henchmen by threatening an innocent. The fight between Caine and the Pinkertons includes a scene in which Caine, after thrashing about six men, breaks through a barn door shut with a bar across it, another of his more superhuman feats.