Wednesday, May 25, 2011



The best line in this Hammer take on history's mesmeric madman appears early in the film, when wild country-monk Rasputin justifies his immoral activities to one of his churchly superiors:

When I go to confession I don't offer God small sins, petty squabbles, jealousies... I offer him sins worth forgiving!

I would have loved to have seen a Rasputin who fulfilled this narcissistic credo, one who honestly believed in the religiosity of drinking and whoring because it gave God sins weighty enough to be worth forgiving. However, this line seems to exist only to allow the viewer to get over the conundrum as to how this Russian priest could be so thoroughly devoted to acts of ungodliness, which the film proceeds to chronicle in lavish detail. There's no intention to "psychologize" Rasputin or any other character, which may be fortunate, but I still had the feeling that all the characters in MAD MONK were merely going through the paces given them by director Don Sharp and Anthony Hinds. (Later Hinds' script for 1970's TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA would also dally with Sadean sinfulness, with better results.)

Prior to this review, only my analysis of 1941's KING OF THE ZOMBIES dealt with a case where my category "enthralling hypnotism and stage magic" applied to a film where a hypnotist or magician was the film's *focal presence,* the fictional presence around which the story revolves. Hypnotism is merely a minor effect in 1957's HOLD THAT HYPNOTIST and 1985's JOURNEY OF THE DOOMED, and a hypnotist is the major opponent for Charlie Chan in 1944's BLACK MAGIC. But RASPUTIN is closer than ZOMBIES to the classical "evil hypnotist" story immortalized by Svengali et al. Indeed, RASPUTIN is so much about the mad monk who held the fate of Czarist Russia in his hands that Christopher Lee's take on the character is really the only facet of the film that truly shines. Lee takes full advantage of his own gaunt features by bulging out his eyes when he's either performing his miraculous healing-cures or putting pathetic victims like Barbara Shelley under his aegis. It's a strong performance, but the other characters are so blandly scripted that they don't seem worthy to be in the same film with Lee's Rasputin, much less that some of them actually manage to kill him in the end. Regardless of how the film was conceived, RASPUTIN feels like a one-actor show, in which everyone else is just there to make Lee look good.

In another type of film, one could picture Rasputin's healing arts to verge into the category of "the marvelous." Here, though the film does not suggest how Rasputin's cures work (much less how he executes them, given his domineering attitude), but the default explanation seems to be that the monk's hypnotic abilities simply "jump-start" his subjects into healing themselves. Something similar may underlie how Rasputin throws off the initial efforts of his enemies to kill him with poison and stabbings, though he does prove merely mortal in the end. One Hammer producer commented that if Hammer had faithfully represented the entirety of those efforts-- that is, showing Rasputin survive death as many times as he purportedly did in real life-- the effect then would have been inescapeably comic. In this case, less was definitely more.

I should note that as with the phenomenon of hypnosis itself, the historical figure of Rasputin is one that can bivalent: "uncanny" in one work, and merely "atypical" in another work. I haven't rescreened 1932's RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS in many years, but though it too ends with Rasputin's assassins striving with might and main to execute their target, I tend to think the 1932 film would be merely "atypical" in its phenomenality.

Friday, May 13, 2011

THOR (2011) (spoilers)

PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, metaphysical*

I’m writing this review two weeks after the profitable opening of Marvel Studios' adaptation of the THOR comic book. As with Iron Man, Thor is one of those perennial features which, outside the bubble of comics-fandom, hasn’t been a name with which to conjure. But the cinematic THOR propels the character to a new level of widespread recognition, as did the first IRON MAN film, by tapping into the pre-summer blockbuster anticipation. To be sure, this isn’t the sole reason that THOR THE MOVIE is doing well, for it does present an attractive if mixed-bag package. But good points aside, the thunder-god film doesn’t earn its new fame quite as honestly as did the armored avenger.

In my reviews I generally try to explore whatever literary myth underlies a given work. THOR, however, is a “movie of many parts,” in which the different aspects, good and bad, mitigate against the film’s having any sound structure. Thus, I’m reduced to the old bullet-point approach. Readers who already saw and enjoyed the film--which seems the dominant response--may prefer just to stick with the good points.


The actors, without a doubt, are THOR’s greatest asset. Chris Hemsworth makes a fine Thor for the slimmed-down, post-Schwarzenegger generation of heroes. The romance between his “god-brought-down-to-earth” and lady scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) is easily the strongest element of the movie. Despite pedestrian dialogue Anthony Hopkins and Idris Elba put across the gravitas of powerful gods, and Tom Hiddleston puts emotional depth into villainous Loki--too often portrayed as a road-company Shakespearean schemer, even by creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby-- though the script makes his motivations murky at best. In contrast to the “serious” gods, the film does an admirable job translating Thor’s buddy-deities, who all have good presence even when they’re not given much to do. Non-fans will probably be puzzled to hear the three guy-warriors--Hogun, Fandral and Volstaag--refer to themselves as “the Warriors Three” even though they’re never seen apart from their unofficial fourth member, tough warrior-woman Sif. In the comic Sif became Thor’s inamorata after Lee and Kirby phased out their version of Jane Foster, but naturally this film allows for no romantic sparks between Sif and the thunder-god.

The costumes are excellent, even if the filmmakers ditch Thor’s iconic helmet for most of the film, probably because it would have been a hassle to deal with in fight-scenes. Loki and Heimdall are particular standouts.

Of the three big fight-scenes, two of them-- Thor and his buddies battling a stunning version of The Destroyer, and Thor versus Loki--are very good. Only the opening salvo, in which Thor and his allies fight a gang of CGI frost-giants, disappoints, as it follows the current trend toward hyperkinetic fast-cuts that (intentionally?) make the action hard to follow.

Finally, two of the strongest plot-elements are derived from the Lee-Kirby comic. Loki’s villainy in the film stems from the insecurity of learning that he’s an adoptive son, which plot-point riffs on a TALES OF ASGARD story in which Odin adopts the son of a slain enemy. And though Odin’s reason for exiling Thor to Earth is very different from the one given by the comic book in the seminal THOR #159, the purpose is still that of imparting humility to an arrogant warrior-god.

However, mentioning the matter of war-gods brings me to the first item of the BAD STUFF.

I don’t expect the cinematic THOR to be a perfect translation of the comic book, any more than the comic accurately adapted the complexities of Norse mythology. Yet no matter how freeform the Lee-Kirby comic book was, the creators always understood the elemental appeal of the Thor myth: the pageantry and sacral violence of a warrior ethic. Movie-THOR clumsily rewrites this key value into a nancy-boy renunciation of the glories of violence. I have only contempt for critics who analyze films as if they were direct allegories of current events. Yet, when Odin dresses down Thor for hauling ass on the frost-giants, I heard in the tedious dialogue some scriptwriter’s fantasy of George H.W. Bush reaming out Dubya for his martial misadventures.

The film pretty much craps on the “high-fantasy” aspects of the Thor comic. The Asgard of Lee and Kirby is a pop-culture mélange where magical menaces are often repelled by weapons that look like Tolkienized versions of howitzers. But even with intrusions of SF-imagery, Lee and Kirby’s Asgard is an endless vista of wonders, and thus fits Tolkien’s chief criterion for a good secondary world: “enchantment.” The Asgard of Kenneth Branagh and his writers is a dreary SF-rationalization of mythology. True, when “science fantasy” does its semi-rational versions of archaic mythology, such stories have their own aesthetic and can’t be judged on precisely the same terms as pure fantasies. But THOR’s visualizations of the only two otherworldly realms of the film--Asgard and Jotunheim--are so bland, so devoid of wonder or even functional design, that I found myself waxing nostalgic for 1987’s MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE.

I said earlier that the character of Loki takes on greater solidity thanks to the film’s adaptation of the “adopted evil son” motif from the comic book. However, in the comics-story the adoption takes place because Odin has slain Loki’s natural father Laufey. But the film bollixes up this plot-thread. In the film’s past, Odin finds baby Loki and believes at the time that the kid's parents are dead. But by present time both he and the audience know that Laufey is quite alive, as he’s the film’s secondary villain. One never knows at what point Odin makes this discovery, but once the audience learns it, Odin’s action of keeping Loki ignorant of his heritage begins to look less like beneficence and more like child-stealing. Loki’s “adoption” also parallels the Agardians’ theft of a mysterious “casket” from their frosty foes, which is some sort of power-source that the Jotuns want back, but this plot-device only exists to set up initial hostilities and fades out of the narrative quickly. At the eleventh hour of the film, in order to give viewers an FX-heavy finale, Loki suddenly unleashes a world-sundering menace that the film never sets up properly. Given how much effort the writers lavish on building the Thor-Jane relationship, it would have been nice if one didn’t get the feeling that they thought they could jerk the other characters around like so many chess-pieces.

Finally, I understand that the rationalization of the Thor-cosmos is an expedient way to get around whatever narrative difficulties the filmmakers had with making the Asgardians “real gods.” Aside from heading off protests from repressive religious forces, the SF-motif emanicipates (word-play intentional) the plot from the idea that these gods must be exclusively Caucasian Nordics. Thus Asgard can be multicultural, with a black Heimdall and an Asian Hogun. (In fairness, Jack Kirby did impart a vague Mongolian design to his Hogun). Yet this nod to multi-culti creates a logical problem. If the Asgardians are extradimensional aliens who enjoyed some independent existence before Earthpeople started worshipping them as gods, why have they become subsumed by Nordic culture? Prose science fantasies usually hypothesize that some advanced culture, whose representatives came to Earth sporting such names as “Apollo” or “Osiris,” come to Earth and that Earthmen copy both their mythology and their archaic culture from the alien gods. But THOR doesn’t veer into that Von Daniken-esque territory, though that may have been the intention. There’s just one scene of archaic Earth-times, in which invading frost-giants attack Earth and the gods come to humanity’s rescue. The implication I got from the scene was that the Scandinavians bestowed Nordic names on the aliens. If my memory’s accurate, then why do the multi-culti aliens keep exclusively Nordic names, instead of having a host of mythological identities? Did no one but the Scandinavians encounter these alien gods?

It’s clear to me that the original comics-idea—that the Nordic gods, whatever their origins, simply existed in some fairy-tale world—is less difficult to put across both logically and aesthetically. I’m aware that the cinematic THOR is also compromised by a grand scheme that will unite Thor and other Marvel heroes in a live-action AVENGERS movie, but I don’t think Asgard had to be purged of all of its wonderment just so that Thor wouldn’t (theoretically) outshine his more mundane colleagues. I didn’t expect Branagh’s alien gods to speak King James English, but a little grandeur in the language department would have gone a long way, as against Thor talking like a well-spoken yuppie with an extreme-sports jones.

I don’t know if other comics-fans yearned to see a cinematic THOR that translated the power and exoticism of the Lee-Kirby Asgard, which would have been fit to stand alongside the best magical fantasies of the cinema. Maybe most fans are just pleased that this Thor doesn’t look like a doofus, as did his previous live-action iteration in 1988’s THE INCREDIBLE HULK RETURNS. But when I see such potential wasted, I’d rather watch a popcorn film—again, like the aforementioned He-Man film-- that never had any potential from the get-go.
Parting thought: the 3-D version sucks. Two dimensions are enough for this two-dimensional flick.

Friday, May 6, 2011


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1) *fair,* (2) *poor*

Here's the simplest way to describe the appeal of the original HOODWINKED, First creators Cory and Todd Edwards took the basic structure of the typical 1990s Disney cartoon-feature, with its focus on a young protagonist given to singing plaintive "I want" songs at the opening. Then the creators overlaid this basic structure with a variety of narrative devices on loan from Quentin Tarantino-- fragmented narrative, heavy pop-culture referentiality, and an eclectic musical score. This Quentinizing of a "tired old tale" took a few more chances than other recent fairy-tale spoofs, such as SHREK, and did well at the 2005 box-office.

Now the classic folktale of "Little Red Riding Hood" was a favorite target for spoofery in the Golden Age of Theater Animation. Still, though the first HOODWINKED is as strong as the best Disneys in terms of verbal jokes and sight-gags, its real appeal was, like the Disneys, its ability to put across a simple but elemental emotional conflict alongside all the japery. Scholars like Bettleheim have speculated that the original folktale was meant to serve as an admonition young girls received from their mothers about the dangers of strange wolves in the woods. The Edwardses don't aim to get quite that profound, but I doubt it's coincidence that the central conflict of HOODWINKED is between young Red, the film's preteen protagonist, and Granny Puckett. But the Edwardses invert the folktale's lesson-giving structure. Instead of Little Red learning the perils, both to her and her granny, of messing with wolves, this Red, who yearns for a more fulfilling life than delivering goodies for the Puckett Bakery, finds out that her granny is secretly living the "extreme" life Red years for, and keeps it secret from Red for no clear reason. A probable model for this conflict may be that of Ariel and Triton in LITTLE MERMAID, where the young heroine again chafes under the heavy hand of an adult perceptor, only to bond later against a more deep-dyed villain.

The real villain of HOODWINKED, incidentally, is not handled in the Disney manner, but is hidden in plain sight along the lines of an animated Keyzer Soze. Because the film keeps the villain (SPOILERS-- the bunny did it) out of the main narrative, the script is free to focus on more hijinks with the various heroes. The Wolf (a crusading reporter instead of a hungry/lusty assailant) and his squirrel-buddy Twitchy are the "B-team" to Red and Granny's "A-team," but the two teams don't really interact in any meaningful way, which doesn't hurt HOODWINKED but does present a problem for the sequel. Other characters, such as Kirk, "the Woodsman", Japheth the Goat and Nicky Flippers (a fun in-joke derived from cinematic sleuth Nick Charles), are really just there to funnel jokes, and vary from annoying to admirable.

Having come to a rousing conclusion (though strangely, lacking a concluding song as good as the ones given Red and Japheth), HOODWINKED ends with a very unsubtle set-up for a sequel, implying that Nicky is going to corral most of these lone wolves (excepting Kirk the Woodsman-- wise choice to leave him out) and get them to work with him in a secret organization that makes sure all fairytales have happy endings. And it's this problematic idea that HOODWINKED TOO, scripted by pretty much the same people but with a new director, has to build from.

The problem inherent in this idea is that while being fairy-tale enforcement agents sounds great for the A-team, the script has to dance around the fact that it makes little sense for Wolf and Twitchy. What we have in TOO is a pale rendering of your basic "buddy action-comedy." It's not infrequent in such stories to have some super-competent enforcement-agent obliged to join forces with a character who's at best a noob and at worst a total screwup. But, even granting a lot of leeway to the motivations of cartoon animals, Wolf and Twitchy simply aren't believeable doing the crimefighting thing of their own conscious volition, rather than being, as in the first film, forced into it by circumstance.

This is particularly tough to sell because, the conflict between Red and Granny having been settled, for TOO the Edwardses opt to generate a bland "conflict" between the super-tough but unsubtle Red and the tricky but maladroit Wolf. The scenes of them carping at each other for imagined offenses are painfully dull, usually only relieved by some comic business by Twitchy.

The villains are weaker, too. Whereas the first film set up the revelation of "the last bunny you'd expect," the sequel gives away the game about halfway through the narrative. This might not be a bad thing if the Real Villains had any presence, but neither they nor their Bungling Assistant Who Later Turns Good are anything to write home about. The bad guys even turn colossal at the end, as if to signal that the writers were again cribbing from LITTLE MERMAID-- but this time, in a bad way. Fortunately, the filmmakers give us a guest appearance of the Boingo Bunny, though the bad bunny's character naturally puts the lesser fiends to shame.

There are a lot of good jokes and sight-gags (though no songs) in TOO, so it's not entirely a waste of time. And it's at least funnier than any of the SHREK sequels. But TOO won't be making very many lists of "movies where the sequels were better than the originals."