Monday, January 13, 2020

KING DINOSAUR (1955)




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


If the incredibly mediocre KING DINOSAUR boasts any distinction, it's as the first directorial credit for Bert ("Mr. B.I.G.") Gordon. Given that Gordon got somewhat better over the years-- maybe in part because he didn't again work with one of the credited co-scripters, Tom Gries-- maybe one could think of DINOSAUR as the director's version of the crappy comedy-club, where the aspiring comedian can perform without anyone of consequence seeing him get all the "bad" out of his system. (Not that Gordon got rid of all his badness, but still...)

As it happens, DINOSAUR also boasts a "last" distinction. It was filmed under the aegis of Lippert Pictures, a cheapie company that didn't touch any fantasy-content in the forties except for jungle-adventures like QUEEN OF THE AMAZONS. Then Lippert brought out ROCKETSHIP X-M in a quickie attempt to benefit from advance publicity on George Pal's DESTINATION MOON. For a few more years, the company tossed out a few more low-budget sci-fi flicks, with DINOSAUR concluding that trend slightly before the company apparently dissolved. DINOSAUR, in addition to emulating some aspects of ROCKETSHIP X-M, may also have been intended to mooch off an upcoming release, or rather re-release-- that is, *if * the producers knew that RKO's famed KING KONG was scheduled to return to theaters the next year. As all monster-philiacs know well, KONG's re-release in 1952 had already enjoyed box office returns impressive enough to spark the whole "giant monster" craze of the fifties, beginning with 1953's  BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS.

The name of the film certainly evokes the title of the film with the big ape, and in a very loose sense, DINOSAUR emulates KONG's theme of conflict between the modern world and a prehistoric milieu. But the supposed "original story" by producer Al Zimbalist chose to shift the setting from an obscure Earth-island to a planet in outer space-- though the main action does take place on an island on said world. The planet, nicknamed "Nova," conveniently looks like an Earth-bound wilderness, even down to having a human-friendly atmosphere.

Four astronauts-- two males (Ralph and Richard) and two females (Nora and Patricia)-- journey to the newly discovered planet, allegedly with the aim of just scoping things out. Nothing is said about colonizing the world, though that was the dominant mentality of the period. Still, one might almost believe that the four scientists are really interested in pure research, except that the Gordon-Gries-Zimbalist script has zero interest in keeping up the illusion of scientific exploration, not even on the level of Zimbalist's 1953 production CAT WOMEN OF THE MOON. Indeed, the script goes out of its way to dismiss scientific concerns. At one point one of the guys wonders what time it is, and though a lady scientist points out that they don't yet know what the "cycle" here is, the fellow pronounces that he thinks it's about three in the afternoon.

The four explorers aren't really there to analyze the world, but to walk around a lot, goggle at an assortment of beasts, and for each of the two couples to have a little romantic interaction. The four of them are just as deficient in interesting psychology as they are in scientific regimen, and again, even CAT WOMEN does it better. All four are so poorly concocted that I tend to consider the planet itself as the star of the show.

Despite the film's title, there's no particular monster that dominates DINOSAUR. To be sure, Ralph-- or maybe Richard?-- claims that the giant iguana menacing the group is actually a T-Rex, which he dubs "King Dinosaur." This rear-projected behemoth does get more screen time than a giant rear-projected gecko, a giant rear-projected bee, and a normal-sized kinkajou whom the scientists claim to be a "lemur." But the alleged monarch is not really lord of his domain, though he and the gecko are juxtaposed to suggest that they have a big fight a la Kong's battles for prehistoric supremacy. It's the whole domain that the nugatory characters are opposed to, as is shown by the denouement. These supposed scientists, rather than being intrigued at Nova's potential for research, decide that they're grossed out by all these primitive displays of violence, and so they blow up the whole world with a handy atom bomb. To be sure, this slightly resembles the way Ernest Schoedsack returned to Skull Island just to destroy it in SON OF KONG. But I think Gordon and company were probably more influenced by the attitude of military arrogance I pointed out in BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, which is all about killing the primitive whenever it challenges modern life in any way.



Saturday, January 11, 2020

AEON FLUX: THE COMPLETE ANIMATED COLLECTION (2005)



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


Of all the mythoi to employ the combative mode, that of the "irony" is the least common. Of the hundreds of films or teleseries collections I've reviewed here since the blog's genesis, AEON FLUX THE COLLECTION is only the sixteenth combative irony.

In my review of the 2005 live-action adaptation of the cartoon, I mentioned that I hadn't seen the cartoons in some time and thus wasn't sure whether they hewed closer to irony or to adventure, although the live-action film was pretty solidly aligned with the latter. However, the summation I wrote of the Aeon Flux cosmos remains accurate:

The original “Aeon Flux” cartoons, produced in the 1990s by Peter Chung for MTV’s “Liquid Television,” became popular with viewers chiefly through their feel of enigmatic unpredictability. The scantily garbed Aeon, an inhabitant of a far-future civilization, engaged in assorted obscure missions, sometimes including assassination, against the forces of city-ruler Trevor Goodchild, sort of a futuristic Nero, albeit rendered with more irony.  On occasion Aeon was “killed,” but came to life by the next episode.


I should note here that only in the first series of "Aeon" cartoons-- ranging from 2-minute to 5-minute episodes-- did the heroine repeatedly perish. Since these shorts were scored but almost totally lacked dialogue, this facet of the heroine's history went unexplained. Then AEON FLUX became a half-hour standalone cartoon show with full dialogue, during which season the possibility of Aeon's having clones was bandied about slightly. However, creator Peter Chung's entire approach to the genre of that SF-genre one might call "future revolution stories" remained consistently elliptical and evasive even when the presence of dialogue gave Chung more opportunity for exposition.

The ten episodes of the half-hour series continually place the leather-clad Aeon in some peculiar situation, toss off a modicum of explanation, and then follow the heroine about in her vaguely defined missions, usually against the forces commanded by Trevor Goodchild. As in many revolutionary stories, villain Goodchild is identified with repressive government, while hero Aeon is lined up, at least in theory, with the forces of liberation. However, Chung may also have borrowed from ironic forms of the espionage genre, since the two sides are often morally ambiguous. Goodchild is often shown to be a scientist in the Frankenstein tradition, seeking to extend the power of humankind to explore new vistas of technology, while Aeon Flux urges caution and restraint. Further contributing to their ambiguity is their past history as lovers, a history that remains in play. Even in the midst of their conflicts, Aeon and Goodchild are occasionally given to embracing and fondling one another. In keeping with the MTV audience of the time, everything in the animated universe has a quasi-sexual vibe, but the sense of the erotic almost always is attended by elements of frustration.

For instance, in one episode Aeon becomes implicated in killing a female enemy agent, and then becomes interested in the dead agent's boyfriend. She pulls the fellow out of trouble, and the two of them sustain a sort of Bogey-and-Bacall badinage during their doomed relationship.

AEON: "Why would I be interested in hurting you?"
GUY (apparently regarding her leather attire): "You look as though you might."
AEON: "You look as though you might enjoy it."

But though couples in this cosmos can get off, no one can get a happy ending, and the short-run series ends on the same ironic tone of non-consummation as when it started.

Parenthetically, in a commentary track Chung addresses the matter of Aeon's skimpy attire. He never says outright that he designed the heroine's clothing to attract "the male gaze," nor does he mention whether or not he received any complaints about Aeon's leathers during the series. He does, however, aver that he avoided giving her many clothes because, in an animated project, the attempt to delineate garments often interferes with what he considered a more important value: that of capturing the expressivity of the human form, in keeping with the priorities of classical art. His explanation is certainly better than most of the lame defenses most artists make for depicting the unclothed female form, and though it may only be a partial truth-- like many of the truths one encounters in an irony-drenched world-- the truth-value has a conditional reality at the very least.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

SHAZAM! (2019), THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE (2017)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: (1) *adventure,* (2) *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*


Both of these films embrace nerd-culture so totally that even I, an avowed pop-culture apologist, got a little tired of the constant references.

From the marketing of SHAZAM!, with not a few references to the 1988 movie BIG, it was plain that the filmmakers were going for lots of comedy, with just enough "serious" scenes to please audiences who wanted the thrills of adventure. SHAZAM! has enough FX to make its city-slamming scenes reasonably appealing, though the average viewer has probably seen it all before.

It goes without saying that exigent circumstances prevented a faithful adaptation of Fawcett's CAPTAIN MARVEL comic book, not least because Marvel Comics presumably holds the trademark on the name. Though it's not illegal for DC to use the name for the character, Warner Brothers probably opted to use the name "Shazam" for the hero so that they could promote the current version of the character with no blowback from the MCU. This does have one major narrative consequence for the film, in that now the hero can't tell the populace his superhero name without transforming back into his mortal ID Billy Batson. The film tries to make the best of the awkward situation by bestowing many goofy names on the Hero Who Dare Not Speak His Name, such as the Crimson Cyclone and Captain Sparklefingers. However, that joke gets old pretty fast.

This version of Billy, rather than being a lone orphan, is swiftly lumbered with a family of five other foster kids. Four of them are zeroes personality-wise, including a young lady named Mary, who will possibly be revealed as Billy's long-lost biological sister. The fifth kid, Freddy Freeman, is a boy Billy's age, making it possible for the two of them to bond as foster brothers, even though Billy doesn't share Freddy's love of superheroic lore. But Freddy, though he gets the best lines in the film, exists merely to be Billy's sounding board when the latter has his inevitable encounter with an ancient wizard who bestows on Billy "the power of Shazam."

Naturally, "Shazam" has a rival for that power. The original hero's perpetual arch-foe was a wizened little mad scientist named Doctor Sivana, but, in keeping with some later comics-lore, this time Sivana is a frustrated dude who as a child got passed over when the wizard briefly considered Sivana for Shazam-hood. The rejected candidate, now an adult, figures out how to plunder the underground sanctum of the now dead wizard and to gain super-powers from demons contained therein, the Seven Deadly Sins.

I can certainly imagine many worse adaptations of the original Captain Marvel, and SHAZAM! is modestly entertaining, though pretty predictable. The only scene that struck me as having some of That Old Fawcett Magic was one in which Shazam manages to channel his powers into his five foster siblings-- but I confess it only has such an appeal because it's a "reference" to the way the original hero created his "Marvel Family" of Mary Marvel (sister Mary) and Captain Marvel Jr (Freddy Freeman). The sociological myth of SHAZAM is an overblown lecture on the importance of family ties, particularly when the family is conceived as a signal to diversity.




LEGO BATMAN also depends on a similar sociological lecture, but this time it's tied to the filmmakers' perception of Batman's imagined psychology. Here, instead of being an avenger obsessed with righting the unfairness of the world, he's Richie Rich As Superhero. Yes, there's a touch of the original Bat-trauma, which has caused him to shun almost all contacts with the outside world, save for his faithful butler/surrogate dad Alfred. But the trauma simply unleashes the Bat-Id, moving the crusader to pursue ever bigger and more ostentatious methods of crimefighting. He's Veblen's conspicuous consumption wrapped in a cape.

It's kind of fun to see a Batman who hasn't yet become saddled with Robin, and who won't even acknowledge Joker as his foremost villain-- which moves the Clown Prince to go looking for a new level of evil. He releases various famous non-DC villains from the Phantom Zone, and Batman's only way of thwarting all of these evils is to forge the bonds of family with New Robin, New Batgirl, and even his previous roster of rogues.

Again, most of the jokes in LEGO become repetitive pretty quickly. However, I must admit an affection for one that involves DOCTOR WHO's Daleks, which ends with Joker advising the audience to "ask your nerd friends" about them.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

ALITA BATTLE ANGEL (2019)



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

Since ALITA BATTLE ANGEL is one of the most faithful adaptations of a comics-property in history, I may as well lay out the manga's backstory by re-using an earlier writeup I did for a particular ALITA arc, IRON MAIDEN:

Yukito Kishiro’s world is dominated by an aerial city named Tiphares (named for the central sephiroth of the Kaballah’s “Tree of Life”), a city linked to the Earth’s surface by a long shaft and assorted cables. Yet for the first two arcs the reader does not see how life is lived by the citizens of the clouds. Rather, Kishiro focuses on the lives of the ground-bound humans whose domain, “the Scrapyard,” coalesces around the aerial shaft. The reader’s first image of this environment is that of a mammoth junkyard, reinforcing the idea that the people, too, are castoffs from legitimate society. Earthbound commerce centers around Tiphares as well. The only businesses Kishiro shows are METROPOLIS-style factories, whose main function is to process food and other commodities and send the goods up to the sky-city via the central shaft. The inhabitants of the Scrapyard, however, live a hand-to-mouth existence, and many of their bodies have become modified through grafting or through the addition of cyborg parts—which seems to debase rather than enhance most of them.

Much of the story of ALITA derives from the first origin-arc, IRON MAIDEN and the subsequent arc KILLING ANGEL. Future arcs dealt with the young cyborg's eventual journey to the forbidden cloud-city Tiphares, but ALITA can only suggest this potential. As scripted by James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis, Alita's early years in the Scrapyard serve to infuse her with two major motivations: to discover the original nature of her metal body's programming, and to avenge the death of her first love Hugo, and the script succeeds in making the familiar bildungsroman seem fresh, even if the film must by its nature end with its saga incomplete.

Though Robert Rodriguez does yeoman work bringing Kishiro's cyberpunk world to life, the pleasures of the Scrapyard and its piecemeal inhabitants takes second place to the characterization of Alita-- which is all the more remarkable, since the heroine's on-screen presence is that of a visual effect. Still, facial capture technology has come a long way since THE POLAR EXPRESS, with the result that real-life actress Rosa Salazar is able to convey a wealth of emotions through her CGI persona.

I can quibble at a few of Rodriguez's elisions. In contrast to the original manga, Alita's first love Hugo (Keean Johnson) never quite "comes alive," and some of the finer points of Kishiro's characterization are lost in translation. In contrast, Christoph Waltz provides able support as Alita's mentor Doctor Ido, who not only installs her brain in an unpredictable new body but also introduces her to the perils of the Scrapyard.

But ALITA is not primarily a drama, but an eye-popping adventure-tale, and Rodriguez does not disappoint here either. In fact, I prefer Rodriguez's combination of adventure and drama far over that of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where much of the emotionality seems superficial and manipulative.

Rodriguez had a previous outing in adapating comics-properties, with the two SIN CITY films, and as I note in my review, the second film didn't turn out nearly as well as the first. However, those works were derived from an anthology concept. Thus Rodriguez, having a strong model to draw from in the manga-series, would seem to have a fool-proof series in the making.