Thursday, September 23, 2021

BATMAN UNLIMITED: MONSTER MAYHEM (2015)

 








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

The first DTV in the "Batman Unlimited" series was so bad that there was no place the series could go but up-- though I wouldn't have been surprised had the sequel remained at the same level of mediocrity-- especially since both first and second efforts come from the same writer and the same director.

For whatever reason, the decision to give MAYHEM a Halloween theme provides more interesting moments than the "animal theme" of the first opus. True, of the five villains in the story, only one is a true "monster," the hulking Solomon Grundy. But the other four-- Joker, Clayface, Scarecrow and Silver Banshee-- all have some macabre aspects of one sort or another. Heath Corson's script probably derives from other Joker-stories in which the Monarch of Mirth held all Gotham City hostage in some way or other. But it's moderately original that this time the villain hijacks all the digitally-operated tech in the city via a "laughing virus," which makes a fair extrapolation from his more famous "Joker venom." This emphasis on technology allows Corson to incorporate guest-star Cyborg into the story in a logical manner. 


In fact, Joker's tech-plot and the often bumptious activities of his four allies overshadow most of the Bat-teammates in this series. Green Arrow, Nightwing, and Red Robin are almost interchangeable in the story, except for a sequence in which Nightwing has to overcome his artificially induced fears of the Scarecrow. Although all of the toy-related modifications of the heroes' costumes are ugly, Batman comes off a little better than the others. To be sure, the mythic joust between Batman and Joker can sustain many mediocre Bat-tales, and the DTV's best moment takes place in a digital universe where Bats and Joker take each other with MATRIX-stratagems. 

Of all the voicework, Troy Baker's Joker proves the most enjoyable, even with the caveat that he's closely following in the large footprints of Mark Hamill's work in BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES. 









Wednesday, September 22, 2021

SPIES STRIKE SILENTLY (1966)

 






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


Before watching this 1966 Italian-Spanish Eurospy thriller-- whose literal name in Spanish is more like "spies kill silently"-- I noticed that it was directed and co-written by Mario Caiano, who performed the same duties on one of my favorite giallos, 1972's THE EYE IN THE LABYRINTH.  I don't think this knowledge prejudiced me to give SPIES special favor. Yet some might think it significant that it's the first Eurospy whose mythicity I've rated above the level of "fair."

I was rather impressed by the way SPIES begins; not with the spy-hero getting his latest assignment or villains ripping off some complex. Instead, following a colorful theme-opening (replete with checkerboard-patterns seen in other parts of the narrative proper), we see a peaceful conversation in Beirut between two pretty girls and an older man with the name of Doctor Rashid (a peculiar name, since the rle is played by Andrea Bosic, who doesn't look the least bit like a Middle Easterner). They chitchat for a while. mentioning that Rashid is a scientist-- and then we get the introduction of the main hero, Mike Drum (Lang Jeffries). Some mysterious murders have been committed, and one of the victims was the daughter of a vital scientist. So Drum investigates-- and almost immediately, someone starts shooting at him.

Aside from the chitchat, most Eurospies proceed similarly, as if the spy-hero was a military commando who was empowered to seek out and destroy the enemies of his country. While SPIES does have that element as well, it really does feel more like a thriller emphasizing the uncertainty of the spy business. Drum's intelligence contacts in Beirut aren't thrilled to be working with an American agent; they think he's going to believe himself to be James Bond. In due time Drum proves that he's got the stuff, and although he does eventually cross paths with both of the sexy women from the opening sequence, Drum doesn't really seduce them in the approved Sean Connery style. Moreover, as in more realistic espionage tales, there's at least some concern that one's allies may turn into enemies at the drop of a hat.

Like both the book and movie DOCTOR NO, SPIES starts out looking like a mundane adventure-tale, only to ratchet up into wild metaphenomenal fantasy in the second half. Probably no one will be surprised that the urbane Doctor Rashid is a scientific mastermind seeking to use a special device to control people's minds. But some may be surprised when the villain actually does succeed in taking control of the hero's mind and sending him on a mission of murder, which mission is only foiled by the hero's dumb luck. While under this hypnosis Drum is seen marching along with dark glasses on his eyes, making him seem more like an automaton. Rashid gets a florid villain's speech in which he reveals a Nietzchean ambition to control all the little people:  "I look upon mankind from a superior level." Rashid isn't given any real background, but he shares Doctor No's Napoleon-complex, eventually comparing himself to "Prometheus Unbound." In the big climax, he shows off a ray-device that can not only overrule human wills but also has a double function as a disintegrator-- which pretty much telegraphs the script's intention to have someone get disintegrated.

Caiano's control of colorful backgrounds is quite impressive given what must have been a humble budget. The film's only flaw is that none of the action-sequences are first-rate, though the final struggle between Drum and Rashid evokes a few memories of the battle between Bond and Goldfinger in the Fleming book.





Monday, September 20, 2021

WAR OF THE PLANETS (1966)


 




PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological. sociological*


WAR OF THE PLANETS was the second of Italian director Antonio Margheriti's "Gamma One" tetralogy. I happened to see the first flick in the series first, THE WILD WILD PLANET (which justified that title), and next to that brain-damaged bit of space opera, WAR seemed rather routine and chintzy.

On re-viewing WAR, though, I find it holds some appeal different from that of the first film. The story concerns how the crew of the futuristic space station Alpha Two is menaced by energy-aliens known as "diaphanoids." (An alternate title for the film is THE DEADLY DIAPHANOIDS.) The aliens are easily the most underwhelming aspect of the film, for they're always represented by nothing more than green swirls of smoke. 

However, Margheriti's depiction of life on the space station is much more lively and appealing than that of a lot of SF-films of the time. The main characters are Commander Mike Halstead (Tony Russel) and his girlfriend, communications officer Connie (Lisa Gastoni), but their respective ranks get in the way. In their first scene together, she objects to him expecting her to tamp down her feelings despite the military hierarchy to which both belong. I wouldn't go so far as to say Margheriti or his writers were attempting to make a philosophical point as such, but the script does keep coming back to the conflict between individuality and authority-- seen at its most tyrannical in the menace of the insubstantial Diaphanoids. By chance, the filmmakers touched on a conflict which would appear throughout Gene Roddenberry's seminal STAR TREK series, which debuted on American TV the same year.

The evil cloud-aliens start possessing human beings, which makes it much easier for them to communicate through their pawns. One of these characters, Captain Dubois, actually seems to struggle against the possession, communicating more than a little sense of what it means to have one's will subsumed. Thus, when Halstead eventually finds a means to expel the possessors, there's a little more emotional context to the victory than one sees in, say, THE GREEN SLIME.

Similarly, though the relationship between Halstead and Connie is fairly sexist, at least it doesn't feel SLIME-y by having the main hero get rid of his romantic competition to win the girl, as SLIME did. So WAR OF THE PLANETS is at least a modestly pleasing thriller, but nothing more.


GODZILLA FINAL WARS (2004)


 






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


Whatever its flaws, GODZILLA FINAL WARS does a better job summing up the "Millennium" cycle of Godzilla films that GODZILLA VS. DESTROYAH did for the "Heisei" series. At least in the former flick, the Big G goes out on top.

Ryuhei Kitamura directs his only Godzilla film with a fast-paced style reminiscent of such music-video-and-commercial directors as the American McG. The script for FINAL is generally better than your average music video, but the pace is so rushed and heedless that the potential for even basic characterization of the human characters get kicked to the curb. To his credit, Kitamura provides lots of kaiju eye-candy to take the place of drama, which one may justify on the grounds that most of the time the "human bits" in Godzilla films mostly serve to provide a sense of contrast to the battling behemoths.

Kitamura also makes clear from the outset that these "wars" are a tribute to all the "monster mash" elements of the Showa era. The opening asserts that in this world all the countries of the world have reached some sort of accord as the result of their constant battles with giant monsters (some of which appear only in old film-clips). This slightly futuristic setting is more or less a riff on DESTROY ALL MONSTERS, as is Kitamura's opening gambit: to have various countries other than Japan-- the U.S., Australia, France and China. The one monster who's out of the picture is Godzilla, who was entombed in ice by Captain Gordon (mixed wrestling champion Don Frye), who used a super-submarine to consign the Big G to his frozen prison. The submarine, "the Gotengo," is a shout-out to the one in ATRAGON, while the monsters on the loose include such sixties favorites as Rodan, Manda, Ebirah, Kumonga, the Kamacuras, Minilla, Anguirus, and (eventually) a version of King Ghidorah. Kitamura also works in the less celebrated critters of later eras, such as King Caesar, Hedorah, Zilla (a renamed version of America's 1998 GODZILLA), and Gigan. Further, Gordon belongs to a standard "Earth Defense Force"-- also a standard element of kaiju films-- but FINAL's defenders include a bunch of black-clad "mutants "(all Japanese) who don't demonstrate powers so much MATRIX-style martial arts, and these mutants seem like a cross between the X-Men and one of the many *sentai* teleserials that channeled elements of Japanese kaiju films.

Gigan gets an upgrade from his jejune beginnings in GODZILLA ON MONSTER ISLAND. In that film, he was just a big kaiju stooge to his alien masters. Here, he was sent to Earth 12,000 years before the film's present by an alien group, the Xielens, to conquer Earth, but the monster was defeated by a prehistoric incarnation of Mothra. Gigan's body remained submerged in the sea until discovered by the Earth Defense Force, and a cute lady biologist determines that there is a special genetic marker, "M-base," in the body of the dead monster. This genetic marker also appears in the bodies of the Matrixy-mutants, including the only one we get to know, Shinichi Ozaki. But does this strange discovery have anything to do with the sudden upsurge in monster activity?

Then the Xielens show up on Earth, but they present themselves as having come to be of service to mankind (as opposed to serving man, heh heh). The aliens somehow banish the monsters, and sign an accord with the humans to help them against a yet greater threat, an asteroid that may hit the Earth (and nostalgically named after the offending celestial body in GORATH). However, Ozaki, the lady biologist and a few others are given some inside info by the Faerie-Handlers of Mothra, who tell Ozaki that he's bonded to the evil of Gigan but that he still possesses the freedom of choice. They even give Ozaki a talisman to help him, though this item disappears from the story until needed at the climax.

The name of the Xielens is indebted to the alien villains of Planet X from MONSTER ZERO, and the FINAL script underscores by giving us a main villain who quixotically dubs himself "X." X takes less time than his predecessors to reveal his real plot: like the Planet X'ers, he and his people have engineered the upsurge in the monsters. The monsters are controlled through the M-base-- which X also plans to use to control mutant defenders, including Ozaki-- and the impending approach of Gorath is part of a really overcomplicated plan to bring a new version of Gigan and a new version of King Ghidorah to Earth as well. (The latter is apparently dubbed "Keizer Ghidorah" to distinguish him from the original, though the script had no problems rebooting Gigan's origin-- possibly because few people care any more than I as to the original.)

Once the Xielens have control of both the monsters and many of the mutants, the remaining good guys have only one resort: to revive Godzilla, who for some hard-to-believe reason cannot be controlled through the M-base. Once Gordon releases the Big G, he stomps off to Japan and begins the first of his "final wars" with various monsters, most of which are more like tussles. (I did like the one where Godzilla swings Kumonga around on his own webbing.) Godzilla does defeat one version of Gigan with ridiculous ease, but when Gorath arrives, the asteroid births both a second, tougher version of Gigan and the aforementioned Ghidorah. Godzilla gets a rough time from these two, and even some last-ditch help from Mothra doesn't make much difference. Ozaki, who is briefly suborned by X, manages to make his "choice" and send Godzilla enough power to revive the big lizard. Meanwhile, Ozaki has a big Matrix-fight with X and kicks his ass-- though the fight never sustains any emotional interest because Ozaki is so thinly drawn. (He doesn't even get a romantic arc with the lady biologist, though their opening scenes imply that they like each other.)

The FX are strong and produced with traditional "suitmation" techniques to the best of my knowledge, and Godzilla gets to be the consummate badass. He even menaces the good-guy humans at the end, but they're saved by the compassionate Minilla. And while this ending almost sounds like a "puppies and rainbows" conclusion, the script undermines that tendency by giving Ozaki the last word, as he states that this is just "the beginning of a new war." I wish that the whole script had followed something like this insight; that the release of the chaos of Godzilla isn't going to make everything safe, and that at some point in the future, monsters and humans are going to battle again, and that there will be no "final war."

Friday, September 17, 2021

HERCULES THE AVENGER (1965)

 





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


Most cut-and-paste films-- that is, flicks that employ large quantities of footage from earlier movies-- are just examples of studios saving money by churning out used goods. I'm sure that saving money was the first consideration of the Italian producers of HERCULES THE AVENGER, which pads its running time with copious scenes from two 1961 Herc-flicks, HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD and HERCULES AND THE CAPTIVE WOMEN. Since bodybuilder Reg Park played the indomitable Greek hero in both of these earlier films, the filmmakers only had to provide a handful of new scenes with Park and with other actors to flesh out the new narrative, which borrows heavily from HAUNTED WORLD and lightly from CAPTIVE WOMEN. 

All that said, AVENGER provides an interesting take on the storyline of HAUNTED WORLD. One plot-line is completely new: Leda, Queen of Syracuse, has lost her king-husband Cadmus, and a group of rival monarchs insist that she should marry one of them now. Leda, like Penelope before her, desires no such alliance, and she journeys to Thebes to succor help from the famed strongman.

Hercules, though, has his own problems. Not long after mentioning to his wife Deianira that he lives under the curse of the earth-goddess Gaia because the hero slew her child the Hydra, the couple's stripling son Xanthus is attacked by a lion, implicitly by the will of Gaia. Xanthus is brought back to the palace in Thebes, but though he has survived the wounds of the lion's claws, the young man has gone insane because Gaia has drawn his soul into the underworld. Hercules is informed that even his heavenly father cannot overrule the curse of the earth-goddess, and so he must journey into the death-realm to free his son's soul. This is in many ways a more affecting situation than the original from HAUNTED WORLD, in which Hercules seeks a token from the death-domain to save the memory of Deianira, who's not his wife or even his intended. 

HAUNTED WORLD also boasted a take on the Greek "exchange of prisoners" trope, in that Persephone, daughter of the death-god, returns to the world of the living with Hercules and his buddies, but must eventually return to the underworld. AVENGER's take on this trope is to introduce Anteaus, son of Gaia. While Hercules descends into Gaia's domain to save Xanthus, the goddess sends her son-- who's strong, but not as strong as Hercules-- up to the mortal world to assume Hercules' name. One might think a proper vengeance would have Gaia send Antaeus after the helpless Deianira. However, for some reason Anteaus ends up lending his support to Leda, tossing out all of her would-be bridegrooms. However, Antaeus quickly becomes the cure that's worse than the disease, and he brings great suffering upon Syracuse. 

As a result of Hercules' labors in the death-realm, he liberates the spirit of Xanthus, who regains his sanity. But when Hercules returns to the mortal world, he learns that Antaeus has usurped his good name. An oracle helpfully informs the hero that all the good people have deserted Syracuse, which is now a "nest of vipers"-- and so ripe for a Sodom-and-Gomorrah fate (even though Queen Leda is essentially innocent of wrongdoing). With Zeus's help Syracuse perishes in flames, while Hercules gets a final duke-it-out scene with his evil impostor. This battle echoes the encounter of the two characters in antiquity, where Hercules triumphs when he's able to keep the earth-mother's son from touching ground. 

All in all, this is a good little action-melodrama, as well as being a good deal more inventive than most of the duller all-original efforts.



JUNGLE DRUMS OF AFRICA (1953)


 





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


I first saw this 12-part serial in a condensed TV-form, where it was given the awkward title of "U-238 and the Witch Doctor." But though it's not a very euphonious sounding title, it's more accurate than the original, since "jungle drums" play no real role in the story. 

DRUMS was one of the last Republic serials, and though a number of other serials from the studio cobbled together earlier footage to save money, this one uses only a handful of brief scenes from other films. The conflict is predicated on the good-hearted mission of two Americans from a uranium processing company who want an African tribe's permission to dig for the radioactive mineral. The quest for uranium barely influences the plot as such; instead, it's simply the bone over which two sets of dogs fight. On the good guy side, there's American agents Alan King (Clayton Moore) and Bert Hadley (Johnny Spencer), as well as a white female doctor who ministers to the tribe, Carol Bryant (Phyllis Coates, who would play a jungle-heroine two years later in the same studio's PANTHER GIRL OF THE KONGO, one of the very serials which did employ a lot of old footage). One other good guy has a minor influence on the plot, the tribe's chief Dounga, who favors the Americans because he himself was educated at an American college-- but despite this promising touch, Douanga does very little). On the side of the bad guys are a handful of unmemorable white traders who want to harvest the uranium for a foreign power, and the witch doctor of the alternate title. The latter, Naganto by name, is pissed off because all of his tribesmen give their business to the white doctor, so that Naganto can't sell his phony magical cures. (He's played skillfully by Roy Glenn, immortalized as the Black Dad in GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER.) 

Most of the serial consists of the bad guys trying to get rid of the American agents, either in running gun-battles or with involved traps. The diabolical devices include a spear-launcher set to fire when a rope is pulled and a "hypnotic drug" that causes a hulking warrior to attack the two Americans without cause. More interesting is the serial's replay (with almost no old footage) of the wind-tunnel menace from 1942's PERILS OF NYOKA. The seesaw battles finally come to a head and the villains are defeated, so that beneficent American technology can continue bringing light to the Dark Continent, or something like that. 

Though DRUMS is pedestrian in concept, the charm of the three good guys and the wily Naganto make this chapterplay an adequate time-killer. In contrast to some other jungle-serials, the heroine here is pretty gutsy, often seeming less like a lady doctor than like a sharp-shooting jungle guide.



HERCULES AND THE CAPTIVE WOMEN (1961)

 







PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical*

This film, whose Italian title was "Hercules and the Conquest of Atlantis," was cut for American release, and I imagine that this was the version I saw on the DVD pack WARRIORS. What I've heard about the cuts don't sound like they made a lot of difference to the narrative, which is a slow and often incoherent follow-up to the first two raucous Steve Reeves films.

Italian director Vittorio Cattafavi, who's listed as one of the writers of CAPTIVE, opted for a very slow buildup to the latest adventure of the son of Zeus. In contrast to the previous two films and almost all other films with "Hercules" in the title, this time the hero has settled down somewhat, being married to Princess Deianeira, probably the best-known of the Greek champion's lady loves. This Hercules also has a teenaged son named Hylas. This proves an odd choice of names, since in the Hercules canon the name is only used for a young companion of the hero in the ARGONAUTICA. In the Greek epic, Hylas, who may or may not be the hero's lover, suffers death, and Hercules is so broken up by the youth's fate that he deserts the Argo's voyage. In CAPTIVE, Hylas is just a young guy yearning for adventure, trying to persuade his old man to desert the family hearth and go looking for trouble.

Some vague presentiments of danger cause King Androcles of Thebes to mount an investigative expedition. The king wants Hercules, Hercules doesn't want to go, so Androcles, with the help of Hylas, drugs the hero and takes him onto the voyage. Strangely, the demigod just takes his abduction in stride, reminding one of the somewhat lazy Steve Reeves characterization in HERCULES UNCHAINED.

The ship gets wrecked at sea, and Hercules is separated from the crew, including Hylas and Androcles. He finds his way to a remote island, and beholds a woman who seems to be merged with a big rock on the beach. (This young women, name of Ismene, is the only "captive woman" in the film.) When Hercules seeks to free the woman, he's attacked by a shapechanging magican named Proteus. It's a pretty good battle, as Proteus attacks the hero in forms like a lion, a hawk and a man-sized bipedal dinosaur, and even some budgetary problems (when Hercules hurls the lion away, it turns into a lion rug) don't ruin the scene. When Proteus is slain, Ismene is released from the rock-- and unfortunately, the film enters tedium.

Hercules takes Ismene to her home on the island, which is apparently either Atlantis or a colony thereof. The city is ruled by Antinea (Fay Spain), who takes her name from the imperious queen of the 1919 novel ATLANTIDA. Antinea welcomes the return of her daughter Ismene, but it eventually comes out that Antinea and her counselors sent the young woman to Proteus as a sacrifice. They believe that their city is doomed to be destroyed if Ismene is not sacrificed-- but this will be difficult now that Hercules is hanging around. 

Hercules mooches around, somehow convinced that he ought to be able to find Androcles and Hylas on the island-- and in fact, Antinea does have Androcles squirreled away for some reason. Hylas is wandering around free, though, and at some point in the film-- I no longer remember details-- he crosses paths with Ismene and they starts cooing love songs. Since this Hercules was married, that may be why the hero doesn't get to romance the younger woman, though he is ceaselessly pursued by her mother. 

The aforementioned "vague presentiments of danger" bear fruit when it's revealed that Antinea possessed a magical stone, "the Blood of Uranus," which is vaguely connected to the Father of the Titans, one of whom was the father of Zeus and many other Olympians. Antinea is currently experimenting on her own people with the stone's magic, and though some citizens get turn into semi-deformed wretches, others become super-strong warriors. (They're mostly seen in helmets, but in one scene they take off their headgear and are revealed to look just like Antinea's main counselor-- which might have made more sense in the Italian original.) Antinea plans to use these super-soldiers to conquer the entire world, and of course Hercules, Hylas, Androcles and Ismene unite to stop her. Given the prophecy of Atlantis's destruction, any viewer can probably guess how Antinea's scheme works out.

Despite a few decent action scenes, CAPTIVE is weakly plotted and the characters are flat. giving the actors little to work with. I've seen a few sources claim that the plot draws upon Pierre Benoit's prose novel ATLANTIDA.  I have not read the book myself, but I've read summaries and seen one film adaptation, and the name of the queen is pretty much the only similarity. CAPTIVE's plot seems more indebted to the Cassopeia-Andromeda storyline from the Perseus cycle of stories, in which a queen mother, intentionally or otherwise, sets up her nubile daughter to be sacrificed. This could have yielded some good psychological drama even in a sword-and-sandal picture, but Cottafavi blows any such potential, and what's left is just a middling peplum adventure with a few good scenes.