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.