Saturday, March 31, 2012

XXX (2002), XXX: STATE OF THE UNION (2005)

PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

Most films in the “superspy” subgenre lie beneath the colossal shadow of the James Bond books and films.  This means that like those sources, latecomers have the same ambivalence as to their phenomenal qualities.  Sometimes they seem to take place entirely within a naturalistic world, and sometimes in one that includes just a few uncanny aspects.  And sometimes the superspy’s world possesses outright marvelous aspects, though these are usually confined to specific super-weapons, like Bond’s invisible car in DIE ANOTHER DIE.

Because a few of the weapons in the two-film XXX series qualify for the “marvelous” category, both films fall into that category as well.  However, the general approach of the films is closest to a naturalistic spy-series like the Bourne films, so that the presence of marvelous gadgets in the narratives is somewhat marginalized and treated with a almost condescending irony.

The ideology of the XXX films probably made this necessary in the minds of the scripters.  Whereas Bond would receive his weapons as the largesse of his government employer, both of the characters who portray a spy with the “XXX” codename—Xander Cage (Vin Diesel) in the first, Damian Stone (Ice Cube) in the second—effect an adversarial “Stick It to the Man” attitude toward the government.  Yet at the same time, once each rebel is drafted to fight the Good Fight for the government, both times by supervising NSA agent Gibbons (Samuel Jackson), their actions must be framed in terms of the patriotic protection of the very government they tend to defy.

To be sure, these are both big, loud action-films wherein the details of the plots only lead the hero from one violent encounter to another, so neither film pursues any ideology very deeply.  Of the two, the second is perhaps a little more complex than the first, simply because it must attempt to frame a Black American protagonist within the demands of the superspy subgenre.

The first XXX film stars the Caucasian actor Diesel as Xander Cage, a civilian “extreme sports” devotee constantly at odds with the law.  The NSA drafts him to serve as an undercover agent in a “Russian Mafia”-type operation involving—what else?—extreme sports.  As is often the case when rebels are called upon to serve their countries, the hero has more in common with the villain than with his superiors.  Xander Cage clearly identifies with the gang-leader’s desire to run roughshod over societal mores, and is more than a little taken with the Resident Babe in the gang (Asia Argento).  In due time, though, Cage finds out that the villain has an apocalyptic scheme to unleash a super-virus that will abolish the oppressions of government, and of course, this is a little too “extreme” for the hero.  There’s a great deal of screaming metal and wild stunts, though surprisingly no major mano-a-mano fights.  Diesel’s character is paper-thin but he manages to project a fair attitude of laid-back cool.  The conclusion includes Diesel trying to counter the villain’s machinations with the use of a very Bondian super-car, chock full of flamethrowers and ejection seats, and finding that the car is absolutely useless for his needs.

The second XXX film casts aside the “extreme sports” theme of the first film and forms its defiant ethic out of the Black American hip-hop culture, well symbolized by the fact that the film’s first image of the hero shows him in prison clothes and in handcuffs.  The character of Stone manages to combine elements of rebellion and patriotism in that in civilian life he was an experienced car thief, yet he joined the US Navy and got put in prison for defying an irresponsible superior officer.  And though the NSA breaks Stone out of jail to thwart yet another major plot against the government, the secret organization is much reduced in potency as many of their agents have been assassinated.  Indeed, an offhand comment mentions that Xander Cage is one of them, though strangely enough, one of the villain’s henchmen bears an uncanny resemblance to Vin Diesel.  The plot this time involves not a threat from without but from within: a Machiavellian military officer is attempting to take over the government.  Stone agrees to fight against this plot not because he esteems the corrupt (read: white) government, but because, as he explicitly tells one of his homies, it will be worse for his people—that is, not blacks in general but his fellow car-jackers-- if the bad guy takes over.

One can’t take too seriously the ethics of a film that endorses criminality as long as it’s against “the Man,” but the second XXX is at least more interesting to read than the first because of all the racially-oriented sociological tropes.  Stone scoffs at Bond-style gadgets, but his film borrows one significant trope from both Bond films: giving the hero both a Good Girl and a Bad Girl.  In common with black action-films of the 1970s, the Good Girl is of course a “sister,” while the Bad One is not only white but blonde.  To be sure, in the 1970s films the black hero would enjoy both women, but the ideological ground has shifted, so that Stone never bags the blonde, though Samuel Jackson’s Gibbons does get the privilege of blowing away the Bad White Girl.  And though Stone takes great pleasure intimidating the white gadget-maker from the first film, the film does give him one standup white guy as an ally who isn’t subjected to the usual humiliation.  The film’s biggest liability is the star: where Vin Diesel was lightweight but charming, Ice Cube can’t project anything but a supercilious surliness, and his lack of presence is painfully clear in the scenes with Jackson, who out-acts the Cube even when Jackson’s merely standing around in silence.


Thursday, March 29, 2012


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological, metaphysical*

COLOR OF MAGIC, a two-part telefilm adaptation of two of Terry Pratchett's Discworld books, has received some slags for its deviations from the source material.  I've never read anything by Pratchett, but I liked this reasonably well.  My biggest complaint is that it's like a lot of British comedy-fantasy: COLOR fills a lot of time noodling around with parodies of "straight" tropes of science fiction and fantasy, giving the whole film an extremely episodic flavor.

The best summation for COLOR may be that it's the old story of the cynical native faced with the ebullient tourist.  Rincewind (David Jason) is an incompetent old wizard who at film's beginning is tossed out of Unseen University because he's been with them for forty years without getting any better.  Through assorted circumstances Rincewind becomes hooked up with an "alien" who wants to see the sights of Discworld.  Twoflower (Sean Astin) is a fellow who dresses something like an Earthman, but apparently hails from a place where the locals have recourse to such miracles as ambulatory luggage that follows you around during your tours.  Twoflower is also very generous with his money, which decides the impecunious wizard to become the alien's guide.  However, Rincewind is a coward who has no intention of guiding Twoflower near any of the perilous sights the tourist wishes to view.  Fortunately for him, though he's incompetent at magic he does possess a degree of invulernability to harm, which works out well since Twoflower continually leads his guide into greater and greater danger from dragons, a sacrificial cult, and a barbarian swordswoman.

At the same time, two other plotlines involve (a) a wizard named Trymon (Tim Curry) who wishes to become head of the University but can only do so by tapping the special power Rincewind possesses, and (b) a group of seers who want to learn the gender of the giant turtle on whose back Discworld resides.  Despite the episodic quality of the long and winding narrative, these additional plotlines do come together reasonably well, though again, I cannot vouch for their fidelity to the novels.

The glue that holds the episodes together is the reluctant alliance of Rincewind and Twoflower.  Though only at the conclusion does Rincewind evince some affection for the tourist-- which Twoflower reciprocates-- it's clear that the bitter old wizard stays with the tourist because he envies his ability to see the world through new eyes.  Admittedly, Rincewind does remark that Twoflower would rather have a picture of something incredible (as with a great-looking sequence of new world-turtles being spawned in outer space) rather than just looking at it.  But it's clear that the essence of the comedy lies in their mismatched pairing.

Sets and effects look expensive for a TV-movie, and the acting's usually good, though some of the more minor characters (like the barbarian girl Herrena) have too little time to develop their characters in the film, whatever they may have signified in the novels.  Many of the lines are quotably cute if not particularly deep, so I'll wrap up with Rincewind's characterization of Twoflower:

"Let's just say that if complete and utter chaos was lightning, he'd be the sort to stand on a hilltop in a thunderstorm wearing wet copper armour and shouting 'All gods are bastards'."


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychololgical*

Though plodding and overlong, writer-director Sandy Collora's HUNTER PREY is a moderately interesting attempt to do something akin to a science-fictional version of SLEUTH.

Like the 1972 film of the Anthony Shaffer play, PREY is essentially a two-character story even though a few other characters figure tangentially into the action.  On a bleak desert planet, a group of alien commandos (in Boba Fett-looking armor) crashland with their prisoner, Orin Jericho, the last living Earthman.  Jericho, who reviles the aliens for having killed off his people, escapes and picks off his opponents until squaring off with the one survivor, his opponent Centauri 7.  Centauri 7 and Jericho fight, but when Jericho loses, he taunts Centauri with the hint that even in death his people will be able to avenge themselves upon Centauri's people.

Following that revelation, the story then becomes a waiting-game rather than the usual thriller or action-adventure.  Can Jericho escape, and if he does so, does he possess some means of initiating Earth's vengeance?  Can Centauri thwart him, or does he feel guilty for his people's crimes of genocide? 

Though PREY held my attention reasonably well, and looks great for its limitations (shot in 17 days in the Mexican desert), I can't help feeling that Collora's execution of this "duel of wits" is a little bland.  I wouldn't necessarily advocate something as fervid as the TWILIGHT ZONE's more over-the-top dramatics, but Jericho and Centauri don't exist beyond being representatives of their respective races, resulting in a rather flat schematic feel to the film.

On a minor note, the only actor in the film has much of a rep is BUCK ROGERS star Erin Grey, who provides only the voice of Centauri's computer, functioning largely just to give the alien someone besides Jericho with whom to talk.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

BLACK FOREST has very nearly the same sort of pedestrian failings as an earlier Syfy-allied venture into mythical worlds: ODYSSEUS VOYAGE TO THE UNDERWORLD.

The only good thing about FOREST in comparison to ODYSSEUS-- or, to stay more within the bailiwick of FOREST's subject matter, ABC's ONCE UPON A TIME teleseries-- is that at least FOREST pretty much sticks with the established lore of that topic.  Whereas ODYSSEUS tossed in oddball Christian-seeming myths into a pagan Greek cosmos, and TIME regularly conflates real fairy tales and modern versions of same like PINOCCHIO and WONDERLAND, at least FOREST references only genuine fairy tales: Snow White and her dwarves, trolls living under bridges, etc.

Still, with the exception of one scene, FOREST does nothing interesting with its medley of folktale-retellings.  As with too many SYFY films to count, the action centers upon a motley crew of strangers forced into one another's company during some outre situation.  In this case the thoroughly uninteresting victims get lost in a fairytale version of Germany's Black Forest.  A doctor named Anderson becomes the de facto leader of the group, as well as the focal character in that he's given a Haunted Past, in that he's a widower. This becomes slightly important when the group-- searching for a couple's baby stolen by faerie creatures-- is befriended by Karin, a mysterious young woman who resembles Doc Anderson's dead wife.  Eventually it comes out that Karin is a mortal woman who, like the vanished infant, was stolen by the faeries as a child.  She looks like the doc's dead wife because she projects an appealing "glamor" upon herself, resulting in the accidental resemblance. Because Karin was never rescued, she became in essence one of the fae, which is the evil "fae-te" that the protagonists must prevent for the lost child.

Child-stealing is such a visceral plot-device that it's hard to get it wrong, but the direction and scripting of FOREST is tedious and predictable. It's interesting that this was the first narrative film completed by the scriptwriter, whose other credits are all on documentaries.  Perhaps that fits, since the plot-threads unroll with a sort of documentarian plodding.

Only one scene brightens the boring moments of routine anguish and pallid fight-scenes.  This scene occurs when the infant's mother runs alone through the forest and encounters an evil witch (who's actually a stand-in for the main villain, played by the film's only name-actor, Ben Cross).  The witch shows her a tree from whose branches hang an assortment of baby-cribs, from one of which the infant can be heard crying, and then challenges the mother to find her child.  This scene is the only one in the film that captures some of the perverse quality of genuine folktales.  For that alone FOREST stands a little bit taller than most Syfy Channel ventures into mythic domains.

But only a very little bit.

Monday, March 26, 2012


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, sociological*

One reason that I chose to head my review with a famous one-panel cartoon by Charles Addams was because the first Paramount ADDAMS film uses it for the opening sequence, translating the cartoon in pitch-perfect live-action terms.  Both the cartoon and its treatment by director Barry Sonnenfeld speak volumes as to how this film and its sequel succeed in finding so much fun in unadulterated sadism.

Sonnefeld's technique is indeed capsulized by the cartoon: because Addams doesn't show the carolers actually deluged in boiling oil for their unwelcome sentiments, the threat remains distant and the scene remains funny.  Some of this light-hearted attitude toward pain and death was translated into the 1960s ADDAMS FAMILY teleseries, but on the whole the series concentrated on showing the freaky Addamses as carnival-mirror images of the American nuclear family.  It was sometimes intimated that some if not all Addamses relished a few turns on the torture-rack, but often their behavior was fairly "normal" compared to that of the cartoon characters.  Possibly the most visibly "sadistic" character was one created for the series: Morticia's sister Ophelia, who had the habit of judo-flipping any male who allowed her to lay hands on him.  To be sure, Ophelia was something of an "innocent sadist" in that she never seemed to notice the havoc she'd wrought.

Sonnenfeld's films, fortunately, were allowed to paint with a broader brush.  FAMILY starts out by introducing a "family tragedy" hanging over the heads of the macabre but contented Addamses: Gomez's brother Fester has long been missing, the result of a quarrel over a woman prior to Gomez's marriage to Morticia.  This plotline slightly resembles the plot of the 1977 TV-movie HALLOWEEN WITH THE ADDAMS FAMILY-- where Gomez's brother was once a rival for Morticia-- though the substitution of Fester for this brother essentially re-arranges the Addams Family tree, inasmuch as Fester was originally Morticia's uncle.  In any case, the Dickensian "lost relation" trope serves FAMILY quite well, as a gang of crooks assemble to deceive the Family with a ringer-- all unaware that their ringer is the real Fester, suffering from a loss of memory.

Keeping in tune with the opening boiling-oil scene, most of the Addamses are flagrantly, almost carelessly violent in their actions or at least references to past actions.  Morticia (Angelica Huston) is one of the few never seen to lift a violent hand to anyone, though she croons a memorable tagline: "Don't torture yourself Gomez.  That's my job."  Gomez (Raul Julia) and Fester (Christopher Lloyd) greet each other by trying to judo-flip one another, while Wednesday (Christina Ricci) and Pugsley (Jimmy Workman), shown as essentially amicable in the teleseries, become virtual incarnations of sibling rivalry, laying deadly traps and devices to kill each other. How they avoid being actually killed remains a mystery in Sonnenfeld's world, as there are no indications that any of the Addamses are literally supernatural, aside from side-characters like Cousin Itt and Thing.  Most of these miraculous survivals I tend to view in the DDAFF category, in that the audience isn't supposed to take the apparent violations of causality any more seriously than the antics of a Roadrunner-Coyote short.

The Dickensian theme gets further exploitation when the villains manage to turn the Addamses out of their sumptuously sinister house while attempting to ferret out the Addams treasure.  This section is a little weak-- the Addams are never at their best outside of their own macabre cosmos-- but the climax, with virile Gomez coming to Morticia's rescue, is still good fun.

ADDAMS FAMILY VALUES actually improves on the first film in giving the Addamses a more worthy opponent: Debbie Jellinsky (Joan Cusack), a black-widow murderess who sets her sights on marrying the eternally clueless Fester in order to kill him and reap the Addams fortune.  Ironically, this threat to the family's unity is able to enter their domain thanks to the fractiousness of Wednesday and Pugsley toward the new Addams child Pubert; their constant attempts to kill Pubert (all played for broad "this won't really happen" laughs) make it necessary for their slightly more practical parents to bring in a nanny.  Wednesday is the only Addams smart enough to see through Jellinsky's facade, but Jellinsky neutralizes her and her brother by sending them off to a relentlessly cheerful day-camp.  However, after assorted adventures in which the macabre duo torment or are tormented by their day-campers, once more the Addams cavalry arrives in time to save Fester from a death worse than fate.

Leifmotifs of sadistic psychology play throughout both films, though only VALUES extends the Addams mindset into a critique of societal norms.  The kids' encounter with the day-camp ends by making the forced fun of the camp seem far more grotesque than the Addams' brand of ghoulishness. Nothing conveys this better than the scene in which the eternally solemn Wednesday forces herself to give the campers a big toothy smile, so alien to her being that even the happy-campers are repelled.  By comparison her attempts to eletrocute her brother seem more "normal," in that they are at least honest expressions of hostility.

The cast, as so many others have remarked, is superb, with standout performances from Julia, Huston, Lloyd, and Ricci.  Some characters, such as Lurch and Grandmama, aren't given very much to do, but this seems to be the inevitable downside to adapting a serial work into a feature-film format.

As noted above the presence of nonhuman creatures like Thing and Itt, as well as a few other gimmicks, do propel the film into a marvelous phenomenality, though arguably the Addams Family may have taken some inspiration from a "weird family" in the uncanny mode: the brood from 1932's OLD DARK HOUSE, which I hope to get reviewed here some fine day.


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
I'm not sure why I've never warmed to the various BEN 10 franchises.  The basic premise is strong: Ben Tennyson, a young boy who's fairly self-involved but essentially good-hearted, gets ahold of an alien "watch" with which he can transform into various super-powered aliens, in whose forms he battles assorted supervillains and alien menaces.  Voicework is good, storylines are reasonably intelligent, and considering the usual financial limitations of television animation, the battles of heroes and villains are well choreographed, certainly better in a technical sense than the TV cartoon-superheroes I grew up with, like SPACE GHOST.
However, there's a certain sameness about all of the episodes and their TV-movie spinoffs.  The franchise improves somewhat when the central characters are advanced to their teen years in the BEN 10: ALIEN FORCE iteration, and Ben gains two super-powered partners in his cousin Gwen (who, to be sure, displayed such powers irregularly as a kid in the first series) and hunky former villain Kevin E. Leven.  Still, even these episodes suffer from one major problem: the titular character is just not that interesting.  Even Space Ghost, who had no origin and effectively came from nowhere, remained interesting just by virtue of having a certain heroic *gravitas.*   Because Ben Tennyson starts out as a somewhat bratty kid, a lot of episodes revolve around him learning a lesson even in the midst of his superhero endeavors, and the pattern's still followed in his teenaged series to some extent.  But Ben himself is never that compelling.  His moments of selfishness rarely if ever have strong consequences, so I suppose I always feel that he's got it too easy.  Even Space Ghost had an episode where he was willing to go into exile for losing a contest, until he found out said contest had been rigged.
The two BEN 10 movies I recently screened both focus on the character in his kid-phase.  SECRET OF THE OMNITRIX was indeed conceived as a rough finale for the first series, though it did leave enough doors open so that the producers could launch the teenaged version the following year. 
SECRET's plot follows a basic "ticking clock" format: following a battle, Ben discovers that his superhero-watch, "the Omnitrix" has begun a self-destruct program capable of unleashing near-universal destruction.  A crystalline-alien ally named Tetrax, introduced in the series proper, joins Ben in an outer space odyssey (with cousin Gwen as a stowaway) to locate Azmuth, reclusive inventor of the Omnitrix, so that he can disarm the deadly device.  At the same time  recurring villain Vilgax hunts Ben and Tetrax, planning on acquiring the Omnitrix for his own evil designs.
The script allows for a small degree of characterization amid all the action.  Ben and Tetrax meet Myaxx, who collaborated with Azmuth on the Omnitrix project, but who feels she wasn't given adequate credit for her labors.  When the heroes do meet Azmuth at last, he's not immediately motivated to help them in that he's become embittered that his great invention wasn't used as anything but a super-weapon.  One wonders how much altruism was in the scientist's heart when he equipped the super-watch with a program capable of annihilating whole planets.  But here too the opposition to the heroes' quest is overcome rather easily: after Ben, Tetrax and Gwen repel an assault by Vilgax, Azmuth changes his mind and puts his seal of approval on Ben's continuing alien-hero activities.
BEN 10: DESTROY ALL ALIENS appears to be a nostaglic reboot of the series, though Wikipedia mentions that it's not considered to be "in canon."  The script repeats some of the basic tropes of SECRET, especially in that Ben is pulled into another alien-menace story by the crystalman Tetrax.  At the same time, Ben's super-watch is again on the fritz, though this time it's the result of magical meddling by Ben's fractious cousin Gwen.  A pair of new alien threats manifest as well, while again Ben and Tetrax seek maintenance-help from the testy Azmuth, but this time Ben is treated as more of a bratty kid, in that he sneaks out of his parents' house while grounded in order to go superheroing.  One of the alien menaces turns out to have had familial problems as well, which ends up reminding the truculent Ben of The Importance of Family.  Some of the alien-fights are reasonably well done, but the computer animation is overly glossy and unattractive, while the plot lacks a strong dramatic center.  Like SECRET, DESTROY concludes with a reference to the character's open-ended and therefore unending adventures.
I'll probably watch them.  But I'll also probably continue to think SPACE GHOST was way better.

Friday, March 23, 2012


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: (1) *comedy* (2) adventure
The two pictures I'm reviewing here are linked only in that they were, in the respective times, pretty much aimed at the contemporaneous teen audiences.
I've never thought William Asher's "beach party" films ever deserved all the bad raps they received from critics, but I don't know if I'd make the same claim for AIP's attempt to do a couple of films along the same pattern, but not directed by Asher: PAJAMA PARTY and a subsequent film I'll review later, GHOST IN THE INVISIBLE BIKINI.  Both films were directed by longtime TV-guy Don Weis and written (or co-written) by Louis Heyward, whose writing credits are something less than stellar.  Without making any great claims for the Asher films, they have better comic timing and generally better acting than PAJAMA PARTY.  PARTY looks like one of those films where the actors are just marking time as they speak their lines, or, for that matter, sing an assortment of depressingly boring songs.
PARTY is sort of an alternate-world version of the Asherverse.  The comic biker-gang of "the Rats," starring Harvey Lembeck's "Erich von Zipper," seem to be the same characters, as does one character billed as "Candy," though this bikini-babe doesn't floor anyone with vibrations from her chassis.  But Annette Funicello, Don Rickles and Jody McCrea all play differently named characters, while Frankie Avalon makes a quick joke-cameo.
The lameness of the humor is capsulized by the name "Gogo," given to a Martian youth (Tommy Kirk) who's bent sent to Earth to scout it for possible invasion.  Gogo happens to show up near the home of wealthy eccentric Wendy (Elsa Lanchester, the film's only salute to a "monster actor").  Wendy has a connection to the beach-going teens in that one of them, McCrea's "Big Lunk," is her nephew.  At the same time Gogo arrives, a small group of crooks-- including Jesse White and Buster Keaton-- is attempting to find out where in the house Aunt Wendy keeps her cash.  Gogo becomes enchanted with Earth-girl Connie (Funicello), while Von Zipper enters the plot when he falls for Helga, the female member of the crooks. 
There's not a lot to critique here.  All the plots involving the crooks hunting for the money are tedious, even those that give icon Buster Keaton a featured role.  There are a lot of sexy girls shaking their tushes, but the script's use of double-entendre is predictable.  There's the usual fight at the end between the beach-teens and the bikers, but aside from one or two cute bits the fight's nowhere as amusing as those from the Asher films.  Gogo proves to Connie that he's a Martian by waving his magic wand and making people and things fly around.  That's all there is, there ain't no more.
PAJAMA PARTY has one advantage over 2006's ALEX RIDER: the former's supposed to be absurd.
ALEX RIDER appears to be the only film based on a series of popular spy-books by Anthony Horwitz.  Whatever the strengths of the books, RIDER evidently didn't transalte them efficaciously to the big screen, even though Horowitz is credited with the screenplay.  Coming long after the boom of "teen/kid spy films" like the SPY KIDS series (beginning in 2001) and the AGENT CODY BANKS series (in 2003).
RIDER resembles the earlier films in that it essentially puts the hero (Alex Pettyfer) in a "Bond-lite" universe.  In such a world the hero encounters all the improbable super-organizations and is given assorted super-gadgets with which to fight them, but the world of cinema-Bond is made comic by the fact that the hero is a youngster.
But though the humor in the Cody Banks and Spy Kids films isn't incredibly sophisticated, at least those films manage to build artfully on the comic discontinuity.
The story's biggest problem is taking Alex Rider's travails too seriously, rather than keeping the material as light as it deserves to be.  For the first half of the picture the script takes its sweet time getting Alex on course to join a super-agency and avenge the death of his superspy uncle.  Improbably, Alex had no idea his uncle was a spy even though the uncle had him trained in rigorous martial arts (though Alex only does one kickass fight-scene in the movie).  
Once Alex has been put on the trail of the villain who killed his uncle (Mickey Rourke, the best thing in the film), the story picks up a little.  But Horowitz's script tries to stick pretty close to reality, though there are just enough super-gadgets here (like a fountain-pen that can hypnotize people) to propel it into the category of "the marvelous."  But neither Alex, his protective "nanny" (Alicia Silverstone), nor the inevitable "romantic interest" ever incite much interest.
Oddly, this is the second time I found the performance of lead Alex Pettyfer less compelling than one of the support-characters, since in I AM NUMBER FOUR I rather wished the story had revolved around the character of "Number Six."      


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

“They used to say that a good spy is a pure spy, inside and out…”—John Huston as M, CASINO ROYALE.    

According to Val Guest’s commentary on MGM's DVD release of CASINO ROYALE, after he and four other directors had given producer Charles Feldman what he seemed to ask for—a totally madcap take on the James Bond films—Feldman belatedly decided that the film needed some sort of continuity.  Guest consented to build some sort of continuity-thread using Ursula Andress and David Niven, but clearly Niven’s character—“the original James Bond”—is the one that gives the disjointed film any semblance of organization. 

Patently there’s no point of making any comparison between this film and the 1954 Ian Fleming book; Feldman and his people were unable to use anything more than the title and a few incidental names (Orson Welles plays a barely relevant version of LeChiffre, the Soviet paymaster from the book).  But it’s impossible to imagine agent-turned-producer Feldman making a straight adaptation anyway: his CASINO derives entirely from the Bond of the movies, with the cruel licentiousness of cinema-Bond viewed through the lens of a polymorphous PLAYBOY perversity.

To be sure, the early scenes of the film do play off one aspect of the books.  In Fleming, a loose son-father relationship obtains between Bond and his commander M, with Bond as an unchaste Perceval sowing wild oats wherever he goes, while Arthurian M can only sit back and dream of his younger days. 

Niven’s Sir James Bond, however, is an older man, a retired spy with a far-flung reputation for celibacy, which state is motivated (to the extent that any motivation exists in this farrago) by the fact that he had to sacrifice his one true love, the historical Mata Hari, to the firing-squad.  Nevertheless, because some mysterious mastermind has been picking off the spies of various agencies, Sir James’ former commander M (John Huston) and three other spy-chieftains journey to the retired spy’s home.  They find the grounds overrun with male and female lions, which has a certain symbolic resonance, in that the male lion is the “playboy” of the feline world, allowing copious lionesses to bring him his meals in exchange for “servicing.” One spy-chief comments that it’s an “Eden,” but one “without an Eve.” Sir James wants nothing to do with the intrigues of the “joke-shop spies” (a reference to the movies’ proliferation of spy-gadgets), and he resents MI-5 for having dispensed his name and 007-number to a “sex maniac,” though he himself displays an odd stammer in early scenes (sex repression?)  The spy-chiefs are unable to persuade Sir James to return out of loyalty, but quixotically they manage to do so by blowing up his house.  M is seen in the foreground as the house goes up, getting his toupee blown off by the impact—

And then, with no explanation whatever, M’s apparently dead.  Sir James respectively conveys his last remains—the toupee—to his widow at the very Scottish McTarry castle.  But somehow the normal occupants of the castle, including M’s widow, have either been kidnapped or detoured, for now everyone in the castle is a spy of the power that’s been offing spies.  The enemy spies, later identified as the pawns of a SMERSH leader named “Doctor Noah,” aren’t primarily motivated to kill Bond.  The spy impersonating McTarry’s widow (Deborah Kerr) admits that their first mission is to seduce him and destroy his celibate reputation.

To this end, the castle is filled with nubile young beauties, ostensibly the daughters of M.  Thus the fantasy of Fleming’s Bond—a horny young goat surrounded by young hotties—is replaced by a horny old goat’s fantasy: an old fellow surrounded by even more young hotties.  The castle sequence is stuffed with far too many Scots jokes, but at least interesting when “Lady McTarry” claims that Sir James is honor-bound to lie with her following the “laird’s” demise: accidentally or intentionally, this reproduces a familiar trope from medieval fantasies, wherein a chaste knight, accepting the hospitality of a lord’s castle, must resist temptation from the lord’s wife.

After Sir James escapes the tantalizing trap of the castle, he takes command at MI-5 headquarters.  He meets and immediately kisses the secretary Miss Moneypenny, who turns out to be the daughter of the original.  Apparently the Moneypenny in this world was not the vaguely maternal figure who’s “married” to M in the books and the official Bondfilms, but a woman of young Sir James’ age, with whom he had less than official relations.  “Your mother did some of her best work at night,” he quips to Moneypenny II.

Once he’s in command of MI-5, Sir James’ stammer disappears, and he spreads his celibacy ethic like wildfire.  He determines that since Doctor Noah is making so much use of seductive female spies, he’ll train all available spies to resist feminine temptation.  Further, though he still resents having had his name bandied about by unworthy followers, he decides that he’ll confuse the enemy (and the audience) by having all agents, even the female ones, designated as “James Bond 007.”  Thus, when the plot veers off and begins following other characters, played by Ursula Andress, Daliah Lavi and Peter Sellars—there’s at least a piddling connection to the film’s early scenes.  A side-plot introduces the only other “James Bond” with a legit claim to the name— Sir James’ nephew Jimmy Bond (Woody Allen).

From there the film continues to unravel into increasingly senseless and “madcap” scenes.  The plot-thread only becomes a little more comprehensible when Sir James is brought back into the mix.  He decides he needs a new female agent to infiltrate one of the SMERSH operations, and seeks to enlist his daughter by the late Mata Hari, “Mata Bond” (Joanna Pettet).  Mata Bond spends the whole film dressed up like a Hindu dancer, and further enhances the old-goatish nature of the film by making a mild pass at her long-absent father: “If you weren’t my dad I think I could fancy you.”  Sir James returns the compliment by saying that she’s got more “ammunition” than her own mother.  Suffice to say that Mata does infiltrate the operation, where she meets two of her mother’s old cohorts.  One of the film’s better slapstick fights concludes this sequence.

Shortly thereafter the film farts around with a near-encounter between Peter Sellers’ version of Bond and Orson Welles’ LeChiffre.  Because the two stars disliked one another, the director of the sequence shot their scenes separately, so that Sellers and Welles never truly occupy the screen together.  Oddly, though the film couldn’t do any scene from the book, the last LeChiffre-Bond scene in the film does reference the book-scene in which villain LeChiffre tortures Bond with an attack on Bond’s genitals.  The disorganized scene ends with both Sellers-Bond and LeChiffre being killed.

Finally, following the capture of Mata Bond, the plot whirls back to Sir James, who, in the company of Miss Moneypenny, penetrates the super-scientific hideout of Doctor Noah beneath Casino Royale.  He’s revealed to be the long-unseen Jimmy Bond.  Did he want his uncle’s reputation for celibacy destroyed because he felt so inferior to Sir James?  It’s pointless to ask, since the film never brings the matter up again.  Jimmy does have a Noah-like plan to deluge the world with a super-bacillus that will “make all women beautiful and destroy all men over four-foot-six.”  In other words, Jimmy, like a lot of James Bond movie-viewers, wants the fantasy of endless sexual gratification without working for it.  One of the objects of his lust avenges herself by slipping Jimmy an explosive pill, and he walks through the film, his hiccups leading up to an atomic explosion.  At this point the film loses all coherence, as Casino Royale is invaded by a cavalry coming to Sir James’ rescue, resulting in a chaotic fight-scene and an atomic explosion that kills everyone.  However, all of them (except Jimmy) go to heaven, so it's all good.

Aside from whatever “continuity threads” Guest injected, the two elements that keep CASINO from falling apart are (1) the near-constant parade of comely women, and (2) the jaunty score by Burt Bacharach.  Given that there really is no plot as such, it’s a little surprising that Feldman’s writers and directors injected, probably by accident, some fairly strong symbolic elements into the manic mix.  But perhaps that’s the sort of thing that happens when old goats get the chance to feed on fresh “grass.”


Wednesday, March 21, 2012


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

Though the only thing KILLERS is likely to kill is one's interest in 1950s SF-films, the film (directed by W. Lee Wilder, brother of the better-known Billy Wilder) does boast what many bad films do not: a paranoiac scenario that, with better writing and direction, could have been quite gripping.
KILLERS is certainly among the first commercial films to deal with the 1950s "flying saucer" craze, and may be the first to focus on a hero whom a later era would dub an "alien abductee."  Nuclear physicist Doctor Martin (Peter Graves) begins the film in a jet plane, flying above the site of an atom bomb test in Nevada.  The bomb goes off successfully, but the plane disappears.  Later it's found crashed, but there's no trace of Martin's body in the wreckage. 
A day or so later, Martin turns up, shambling toward the army base in charge of the test.  He has a strange surgical wound on his chest but no memory of anything that happened to him.  After an astonishingly short debriefing, Martin's allowed to go back to work.  He promptly steals files from the base and drives off to a remote cavernous location outside town.  A policeman overtakes him, but Martin beats him down and drives away once more, with police and army in hot pursuit.  Martin cracks up his car, and while he's recovering in custody, the army doctor gives him truth serum. 
Martin spins a wild tale about having been captured by aliens living within the caverns, who have been tapping the nuclear energies of mankind's atomic experiments.  The aliens' long-range goal is to use the energy to breed huge monsters which they plan to unleash upon mankind, so that the aliens can then inherit the planet.  But for the time being they need an inside man to garner info on future nuclear tests, so they cull Martin from the wreckage, bring him back to life with their superior technology, and hypnotize him to use as their agent.  Martin, no longer brainwashed, wants the army to atom-bomb the aliens' hideout, but no one in authority believes Martin.  Fortunately Martin remembers enough about the aliens' technological setup that he realizes that he can destroy them by seeking out the local power station and temporarily shutting off the power.  He escapes his captors, forces his way into the station, and successfully destroys the invaders in an atom-bomb-like holocaust.
As I said, this bare summation suggests a strong degree of paranoia.  In an issue of the film-magazine DELIRIOUS, Steven R. Johnson pointed out that Martin spends almost the whole film being interrogated by someone for something, or having technicians mess with his head in some manner.  Martin does have a wife, but she's a negligible character.  Her only good moment takes place shortly after Martin's return from the dead, when an investigator hilariously asks the wife if she thinks her husband has been having an affair.

Unfortunately, neither the scriptwriter nor the director exploits the possible paranoiac qualities of Martin's dilemna.  They seem to have been concerned with simply getting the film done as cheaply and expediently as possible, which in part explains KILLERS' heavy usage of stock footage, particularly for the Attack of the Rear-Projected Monsters (giant lizards, roaches, etc.)  The producers neglect even the most basic requirements for verisimilitude, particularly with respect to the aliens' plot to use Martin as their spy.  Perhaps one can blink at the notion that they expect him to be swiftly returned to his duties after a mysterious disappearance and memory-loss.  But on top of that, Martin has this conspicuous surgical wound resembling an inverted cross-- dimly suggesting the Satanic, though no other strong Christian motifs occur in the film.  At the very least Martin's army superiors should have suspected that he'd been operated on by enemy spies.  Yet, despite the film's tacit endorsement of American nuclear brinkmanship, nothing in the film directly references America's worldly enemies, though of course the aliens may stand in for the Communist menace to some extent.

The closest the film comes to such a reference is the opening, when some footage of a radar station is accompanied by a reference to radar as "eyes that never sleep." This is one of KILLERS' few strong poetic motifs, for in addition to Martin's constant interrogation, much of the film concerns the horror of being beneath the constant scrutiny of others.  Wilder throws in numerous shots of people's faces looking directly into the camera, and hence filling the screen with their concerned scrutiny.  Others ocular occurences include an early shot of a doctor looking down at Martin with an eye-like reflector, a scene in Martin's car where he beholds an illusion of "floating eyes," and the viewscreen through which one of the aliens hypnotizes Martin during the long flashback.

And then of course there are the aliens themselves, who are essentially humanoid except for their huge bug-eyes.  The alien leader explains their oversized eyeballs in terms of their reason for seeking to usurp Earth: the aliens' own sun had "dimmed" so much that their eyeballs have evolved to compensate for the lessened light.  The leader mentions that his people have also conquered other planets in their own system, but they need a new system, and Earth is the only habitable planet.  Despite their advanced technology-- most of which comes down to pseudo-scientific gobbledygook-- there's a certain irony that their method of creating apocalyptic monsters depends on tapping the "electron volts" from humanity's atomic technology.  This is the closest the film gets to critiquing the consequences of nuclear power, implying, as many other 1950s films will, that the growth of technology begets monsters.

What's most puzzling about KILLERS is its prescience.  Given that Martin encounters a virtual menagerie of giant critters down in the aliens' caverns, one might think the film occured long after 1950s screens had been filled with all manner of giant beasts.  But KILLERS, debuting in the US in January 1954, precedes two of the best-known "atomic mutation" films of the same year: THEM! and GOJIRA.  Only THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, coming out in 1953, provides a clear cinematic precursor, though it's possible that the scriptwriter took some inspiration from prose science fiction for his motley monster-crew.

Finally, I must admit that better scripting and direction wouldn't have been enough to save the film.  The actors are uniformly dull, and I suspect that they aren't entirely the victims of their lines.  Peter Graves as Martin is the best of an uninspired lot, but even when he's doing supposedly exciting things-- running from cops, taking a power-plant worker hostage-- he shows little conviction.  He never possesses the gravitas of a nuclear physicist; presumably the script merely designated him as such so that there would be a small degree of believability to the way he speedily deduces the aliens' weak spot.

KILLERS, in conclusion, is a film more fun to think about than to watch.

Monday, March 19, 2012


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

SEASON OF THE WITCH has one strike against it as soon as one reads its title.  A modern-era Donovan song simply doesn't convey much about the content about an adventure involving 14th-century knights and their quest to deliver an allegedly possessed girl to a secluded abbey for de-demonizing.

Direction by Dominique Sena is no better or worse than his SWORDFISH or his previous film with star Nicholas Cage, GONE IN 60 SECONDS.  The central problem is Bragi Schut's script, which tries to posit the travails of two knights, Behmen (Cage) and Felson (Ron Perlman), as they try to deal with the way their faithful services have been abused by a domineering church.  Behmen is sincerely sick of war, and encourages Felson to desert the Crusades, but this brings them into conflict with their own people.  As it happens the Church needs a couple of good men to risk their lives in a special mission.  They suspect that a nameless girl (Clair Foy) has been possessed by a demon, but the only way to exorcise her is to transport her to a particular abbey, where a sacred book contains the needed spell of exorcism.

The script includes some potentially strong elements, but fails to exploit them to their utmost.  Cage's Behmen sometimes conveys strong conflict between his desire to serve the abstract good of his church, and his realization that the church uses the military for ignominous goals-- particularly in the torturing and execution of women accused of witchcraft.  His partner Felson is more cynical, but follows Behmen's lead out of loyalty.  However, both men tacitly believe that there are such things as witches and demons whom the church must oppose, and the film essentially endorses this point of view by making it clear, in an introductory sequence, that demons are a real presence in this world.

Schut and Sena might have realized more dramatic tension without this sequence.  Had viewers seen only the grueling wagon-ride to the abbey, they would have been obliged to make up their own minds: is the girl prisoner really possessed, or is she the victim of primitive superstition?  In the concluding scenes the filmmakers somewhat manage to have their cake and eat it too, but the sociological motifs of the film-- arguing the mistreatment of women in European medieval society-- seem at odds with the sloppy metaphysics.  The demon-- and yes, there is one-- has insinuated himself into this trek in order to destroy the sacred book, thus arguing that the Christian Church has the straight goods on how to destroy demons, if not the right to persecute every woman who croons over a cookpot. 

A more skillful film than SEASON might have been able to combine the critique of "inner horror"-- the evil that men do-- with "outer horror," a more abstract form of evil not confined to human beings.  But all one can say of this film is that there are some good battles and decent CGI.  The rest is wasted potential.

UTOPIA (1951)

PHENOMENALITY: *naturalistic*

My only reason for writing about the last Laurel and Hardy film here is because the film gets mentioned in some compendia of fantasy-films, notably John Stanley's CREATURES FEATURES guides.

However, the film really has no fantasy-elements, not even those I would categorize as "uncanny."  The most I can say is that because it revolves around Stan and Ollie building a new country on an atoll newly-risen from the sea, it does loosely fit the intent of the "exotic lands and customs" trope.  Still, in all ways both the atoll and its inhabitants are entirely naturalistic and mundane in their presentation.

One of the more curious plot-aspects of UTOPIA is that it starts with Stan and Ollie journeying to a real island, which they've inherited along with a yacht that can take them to it.  (They also inherit some money, but government taxation empties their pockets before they can touch so much a dollar.)  But instead of reaching that island, they-- along with various other societal castoffs-- get stranded upon the atoll.  The essential idea here was that because the atoll was new land, it was the only place the script could put forth its one idea: that of the two eternal bumblers attempting to form their own country.  The best joke to arise from these muddled goings-on is that of the five people who make the atoll their home-- Stan, Ollie, a cook, a stowaway and a girl fleeing her fiancee-- all four except Stan elect themselves to offices, leaving Stan to be "the people."

Naturally the pacific state of affairs can't last.  Uranium is discovered on the atoll.  Possibly this is a "science fictional" element that also causes Stanley and others to include UTOPIA in their fantasy-film lists, but if so, I think such a reason has even less justification than any "exotic lands" trope.  In any case, get-rich-quick types flock to the island, and "the Boys" can't do anything about it, because their Utopia has no laws (and, parenthetically, no taxation).  After they gallantly come to the defense of their female friend, they get their skulls clonked by the usual L&H bully, who then decides to take over the atoll and hang the previous owners.

After assorted skirmishes, the Boys and their allies escape.  Their three friends go back to their regular lives for the most part, while S & O finally reach their inherited island-- only to find the hand of the Tax Man is once again a long one. 

As many others have observed, this French-Italian outing isn't very funny, though I'm no test of it as I'm one of those rare viewers who just doesn't get much out of Laurel and Hardy.  I acknowledge that they had something special, but it doesn't reach me.  I will say that the constant animadversions on the evils of taxation are a little amusing, and definitely different from most of what the Boys had been doing in Hollywood.  Allegedly Laurel, who was in ill health during the film's production (as was Hardy), encouraged some re-working of the original script, but it seems there was only so much he could do with the proverbial sow's ear.

Friday, March 16, 2012


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

In my review of the Disney cartoon-film HOME ON THE RANGE I wrote:

"HOME ON THE RANGE is the first film I've reviewed here which is "marvelous" in one restricted manner: its heroes are animals who resemble their real-world counterparts in every way except that they can think just like human beings, and can carry on fluent conversations in humanspeak with other animals though never with humans."

Disney's THREE LIVES OF THOMASINA, however, is even more restricted: its only manifestation of a marvelous nature is that only the film's titular animal, housecat Thomasina, is presented as being able to frame its thoughts in human terms, though she never speaks to any other creatures and none of them seem to possess such sentience.  Thomasina's capacity for human cognition proves most noteworthy when the feline, having supposedly lost one of her nine lives, travels to a "cat heaven" ruled by the Egyptian goddess Bast, and receives dispensation to go back and live on Earth again.

However, there's no real support in the plot for the idea that the cat has come back to life, even in the jokey sense of the "nine lives" folklore.  More on that later.

Like many of the children's tales adapted by the Walt Disney Company, the film (co-scripted by Paul Gallico, who wrote the source book), has a fair degree of psychological realism.  It begins in a small Scottish town, where veterinarian Andrew McDhui (Patrick McGoohan) lives with his little daughter Mary, their housekeeper, and Mary's beloved cat Thomasina.  Though McDhui loves his daughter, his loss of his wife five years previous has hardened his heart toward the animals for which he's supposed to care.  Among the town gossips McDhui acquires the reputation of an animal-hater who's quick to put beloved pets to sleep if he can't help them.

McDhui's ruthlessness-- rooted more in severe practicality than in cruelty-- comes to a head when Thomasina is injured.  His daughter brings the cat to her father, pleading for him to save the animal.  But McDhui is preoccupied with another case, and he makes the snap decision that the animal's wound has become infected with tetanus, making the creature a danger to other animals.  McDhui orders a subordinate to put Thomasina to sleep, not realizing the depth of his little girl's attachment to that particular cat.  McDhui assumes that one cat is as good as another, but he finds out differently when Mary refuses to interact with her father, declaring him dead to her.

There isn't a lot of overt psycho-speak here, though the town priest does suggest that McDhui may have subconsciously been jealous of Mary's affection for the cat.  Arguably Thomasina has become something of a subtitute for the mother Mary has lost, while McDhui has reacted to his wife's loss by closing off all emotions, which may be the real reason Mary declares him dead.

Thomasina does, to be sure, appear to be dead for several hours at least, and even remains inert when Mary and her kid-friends bury him. Still, it's possible the subordinate simply didn't give the feline enough ether. A young woman named Lori (for Lorelei?) discovers that Thomasina is still alive, so Lori nurses the cat back to health at her secluded cottage.  The townspeople entertain the notion that Lori's a witch, but she only possesses a high degree of empathy for animals, taking all manner of wild creatures into her home for care.  This empathy is naturally the ability McDhui has lost, so when the plot manages to throw the two of them together, she awakens him to greater caring for the world.  Thomasina, however, does not remember either McDhui or Mary as the cat has lost its memory, and spends several days with Lori, which comprises the feline's "second life."

However, Thomasina has a spurt of memory that causes her to seek out her old home.  Mary sees her and chases her in the rain, not catching the cat but nearly catching pneumonia.  While McDhui suffers at his daughter's affliction, he's given a chance to redeem himself by the appearance of a set of villains: a gypsy circus playing near the town.  Mary's kid-friends witness the circus-peformers abusing their animals, and call upon McDhui for help.  McDhui, confronted with the end-result of his own emotional sterility, gets into a brawl with the circus-people (for a studio that so embodied the notion of the "G-rating," Disney could always be counted on for good fight-scenes).  Following a fire that destroys the circus and symbolically purges its cruetly, Thomasina (still back at Lori's cottage) suddenly remembers everything and returns home for its "third life" in a classic tearjerker conclusion.  The film ends with McDhui marrying Lori and Mary reunited with Thomasina, so that even though the majority of the film has been dramatic in structure, the ending at least smacks of the structure of comedy, where a good wedding is just what's needed to banish the forces of evil.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, sociological*

It must have been a real head-scratcher for writer Paul Dehn to figure out how to revive the "Apes" franchise following the apocalytpic finish of BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES the previous year.  Dehn, who did not collaborate on the original PLANET OF THE APES, was one of two writers who riffed on the original to create BENEATH, which as noted before was something less than a stellar follow-up.

For ESCAPE, the third film in the series, Dehn, director Don Taylor and producer Arthur P. Jacobs (alleged to have been a very hands-on producer) came up with a story-within-a-story.  The base story of PLANET was that after human beings destroyed their culture through nuclear war and regressed to subhuman conditions, the apes independently evolved into thinking creatures and essentially repeated all the mistakes that man had made (despite characters like Doctor Zaius, who stumped for Ape Superiority). 

Now, the time-travel that made possible the dislocation of the original film's astronauts takes place once more for two of the intelligent chimp-characters from the first film, Cornelius(Roddy McDowell) and Zira (Kim Hunter).  Somehow these two chimps, plus new chimp-character Milo, manage to pilot the astronauts' ship away from their destroyed world, back through time to reach the Earth of the early 1970s.

Dehn's script plays the "fish out of water" theme for all it's worth, but despite moments of lighthearted comedy, the film keeps a better sense of the fundamental darkness of the premise than the previous series-entry.  For one thing, Milo suffers a "redshirt" fate, being killed (with all due irony) by one of his savage ape-ancestors.  And even after modern-day humans have come to accept the presence of the time-travelling intelligent apes, one of the president's advisors ferrets out the story-within-a-story : that in years to come a plague will conveniently decimate all of mankind's household pets, which then moves wealthier humans to adopt apes as their new pets-- and by extension, a new slave society.  This society, rather than evolution, will make possible "the rise of the planet of the apes."

Further, a leader is supposed to arise and lead the slave apes out of oppression, and the humans begin to suspect that, in the grand tradition of time-paradoxes, this leader will be the child of Cornelius and Zira.  The apes escape the retaliation of human beings for a time, but eventually meet a tragic fate, though their child survives to bring about the fate feared by the humans-- as well as a sequel.

Though ESCAPE is not as sharp a satire as PLANET, it's certainly much better than BENEATH, and it benefits from continuing the two chimps as the most interesting characters of the series.  Taylor's direction is much more engaging than that of previous helmer Ted Post, though to be sure the film is largely a set-up for the fourth film.

CONQUEST, directed by J. Lee Thompson, assumes far more downbeat, nihilistic tones, as it simultaneously justified the vengeful rise of the apes and condemns their revolutionary fervor.  By the time of CONQUEST, Caesar (Roddy McDowll), the child of Cornelius and Zira, has grown to adulthood, protected by a human mentor, circus-owner Armando (Ricardo Montalban).  By this time, despite the government's supposed foreknowledge of how ape-slaves would affect humanity's destiny, history has still transpired just as Cornelius predicted.  Everywhere Caesar looks, he sees apes maltreated by human beings, who seem to consist largely of either self-indulgent sybarites or fascist thugs. The police do remain on the lookout for the predicted arrival of the apes' prophecized savior, and they kill Armando in the attempt to find Caesar.  The bulk of the film follows Caesar's attempt to find a way to "fight the power," free his people, and bond with a female ape of his choosing (Natalie Trundy).

Precisely because the history is so locked-in at this point, characterization suffers.  The humans are either power-hungry Simon Legrees or weakly protesting humanists, while aside from Caesar and his girlfriend Lisa, the apes are nothing more than the incarnation of an oppressed social class.  Still, it's impossible not to simultaneously sympathize with the oppressed simians and to fear their revolt.

At this point, however, Dehn's story-within-a-story grows a little ragged.  Since it's impossible to have the apes succeed within the story's timeframe-- an  alternate-world "1991"-- the ending must show Caesar winning only a temporary victory. At the film's conclusion he gives a ringing speech in which he and his people choose to stand down until the day humans destroy themselves and cede the planet to the oppressed class:

But now... now we will put away out hatred. Now we will put down our weapons. We have passed through the Night of the Fires. And who were our masters are now our servants. And we, who are not human, can afford to be humane. Destiny is the will of God. And, if it is man's destiny to be dominated, it is God's will that he be dominated with compassion and understanding. So, cast out your vengeance. Tonight, we have seen the birth of the Planet of the Apes!

It's a moving moment, in which the viewer can't help embracing this new society emotionally.  And yet, the original PLANET and even BENEATH demonstrate that ape society will be no better than the one that preceded it. Thus, despite the kinetic power of the ape-revolt scenes, Caesar's highflown rhetoric may be seen not as the filmmaker's endorsement of the revolutionary mindset, but as their almost-parting shot at false idealism underlying such rebellions.

Monday, March 12, 2012


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

JOHN CARTER is a solid pulp-adventure whose only sin is that it doesn't quite manage to make Carter into a new heroic archetype, a la Conan.  Despite all the failings of the barbarian's first cinematic foray, that film crystallized something of the harsh "blood and thunder" fantasy of Robert E. Howard, and remains a good touchstone for anyone not interested in reading the originals.

In contrast, although CARTER does keep many essential elements of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Martian mythology, it is put through something of a Hollywood-izing blender so that the film comes out feeling like just another entry in MoviePulp 101.  I enjoyed it quite a bit, but I never felt that Carter himself was especially compelling.

To be sure, the task of Andrew Staunton-- director and one of the writer's of the screenplay-- was made more difficult in that Burroughs's original John Carter novel,  A PRINCESS OF MARS, had many dated aspects that would have made it difficult to adapt today.  Staunton, whose credits include largely Pixar films, chose a pleasing but not especially challenging route to the material.

A large part of Burroughs' introduction of Carter hinges on his Civil War past.  Staunton still keeps Carter a "Southern boy," but elides any reference to the controversial war itself.  The implication of Burroughs' books is that although Carter is not himself racist, by virtue of his lineage he is like his "brother" Tarzan one of "nature's noblemen," and therefore well suited to sort out the quarrels of a planet of warring primitives.  I'm not a fan of heavy-handed Marxist readings of "neocolonial" fiction-- such readings often take on an almost paranoid air-- but a totally faithful adaptation of PRINCESS would have raised such issues, so Staunton was wise to dodge that particular bullet.

Similarly, because Burroughs' original character has little depth-- in the book's opening passages Carter claims he doesn't even know how old he is-- Staunton chose to make this new version of  Carter a bereaved widower, turned into a gold-seeking misanthrope by the loss of his wife and child.  This too stays a tad on the pedestrian side, though Staunton does give it some resonance with respect to Carter finding new fulfillment with the "princess of Mars," thus keeping true to the essential theme of the book.

Some aspects of the Burroughsian mythology translate better than others.  Visually CARTER does well in establishing the barbaric splendor of the Tharks, the Red Martians, and the priesthood of the Holy Therns (who have been turned into major villains rather than the petty religious fanatics of the books).   However, Staunton has to shovel so much mythology at the audience so fast that often it seems like a cram-course.  One of the most haunting fantasies of the first couple of books deals with Carter's travel down the Martian River of the Dead.  In CARTER, there's no sense of mythic resonance in the river; it's just a river that happens to lead Carter to the next plot-point.

The plot is overcomplicated, with a few too many irons in the fire. Staunton's best achievement is with the character interactions between the main protagonists: Carter, Tars Tarkas, Tars' daughter Sola, and the doglike Woola.  Dejah Thoris doesn't quite fit into the character-mix as well, though the script strives to upgrade her from Burroughs' helpless damsel-in-distress to both a tough warrior-princess AND a brilliant scientist.  If this wasn't enough, CARTER goes even further to staunch feminist objections: tossing out Burroughs' notion of a rigid cultural taboo against men and women fighting one another, many female soldiers are seen in all of the warring factions.

The villains, however, necessarily suffer in comparison: they come on stage and strut and preen, but they've no resonance in themselves.

In conclusion, see it for the outrageous pulp-action and don't worry too much about the plot. If you're a Burroughs fan you'll probably enjoy all the references to the canon, as long as you don't expect it to *be* canonical.


Friday, March 9, 2012

VIRUS (1999), STEEL JUSTICE (1992)

PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: (1) *drama,* (2) *adventure,*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: (1) *cosmological,* (2) *psychological*

This time out, by chance I've got two movies related only by their depiction of maliciously mauling metal menaces.

While many reviewers slammed 1999's VIRUS for its lack of originality, it has one great virtue.  If one grants the likelihood that the Sci-Fi/Syfy Channel is probably going to churn out SF-tinged disaster films by the boatload (like those reviewed here), VIRUS would be a good model as to how to do it well.

Of course, Syfy and its affiliated production companies are not ever likely to pour as much money and effort into any of their throwaway commerical-selling fodder.  But in principle, when you criticize a given producer for churning out dreck, you should always be able to point to a good example of what he's doing wrong.
In terms of characterization, the script for VIRUS (adapted from a Dark Horse comic book with which I'm not familiar) resembles any Syfy offering: characterization is minimal of all those facing the disaster except for two or three leading players.  However, even the lead players really don't get much more than a few interesting ticks.  In VIRUS the principal players are Donald Sutherland, as Captain Everton, who's basically the dumbass-in-charge who risks everyone's lives, while Jamie Lee Curtis is Foster, the spunky subordinate who takes over and makes all the right moves, even though most of the "redshirts" get killed anyway.

The premise is simple: thanks to an electrical surge aboard the Russian MIR space station, a form of electrical life comes into being.  It manifests aboard a Russian science-expedition ship at sea and slaughters most of the crew, except for a survivor who lives to tell the tale.

Enter the crew of the tugboat Sea Star.  They've just lost their cargo to a typhoon and are taking on water.  In addition their captain, who viewed the cargo as his last hope to end his debt, is about to commit suicide when the crew sights a "ghost ship," the almost-uninhabited Russian vessel.  They abandon their sinking tug and board the new ship.

The early scenes are probably the closest this horror-tale ever gets to straight drama: clearly Everton is greedy to salvage the vessel and may be willing to kill any survivors to clear his path.  But all of them have worse problems to deal with when the electrical being starts bringing to life killer cyborgs comprised of adapted metallic gizmos and dead bodies.  After various violent encounters Foster challenges the captain's competence, punches him out and takes command.  This drives Everton over the brink.  He establishes communication with the creature and offers himself up for cyborg-conversion.  Unfortunately he's dispatched rather quickly and the final confrontation is between Foster and her allies against more of the electrical creature's mechanical avatars.

Given that Jamie Lee later stated that the picture was crap, she's very good in this, giving a strong tough-girl performance that never seems beyond the bounds of possibility.  Sutherland is more uneven, but then so is his character.  But the A-level FX-work is the real star here.  As long as one doesn't expect any depth in terms of exploring the nature of an electrical life-form, VIRUS is a decent thriller.

STEEL JUSTICE is a different breed of mech-animal, a failed NBC pilot built around the idea of a future-cop with a "dinosaur partner."  One online reviewer theorized that (a) some TV-executive happened to attend a monster-truck rally starring the spectacular "Robosaurus," a mechanical tyrannosaurus that chomped up car-victims, and (b) the executive was immediately inspired to create a series using a mecha-dino with the exact same name (presumably licensed from the original creator).  It's almost impossible to imagine how this peculiar offering could have been turned into a regular series, though I suppose in theory it wouldn't be much different than all the Power Rangers concepts, which usually end with the heroes summoning a big robot to save them.

In the near future, listlessly ripped off from BLADE RUNNER with no great consistency, police lieutenant David Nash is hot to bust a group of weapons-dealers menacing his city.  He has a very personal motivation: a year prior a group of dealers bombed the car occupied by Nash's young son.  Now the depressed cop lives a haunted life, so that when he's not chasing weapons-makers he sits around morosely meditating on the toy he and his late son made together: a small robot dinosaur called "Robosaurus."

However, Nash is destined to receive instruction from a higher power.  Into his life comes a strange fellow, Jeremiah J. Jones, who claims to be a time-traveler.  He's two thousand years old and has spent his life looking for individuals who possess a unique "transforming" power.  He tries to convince Nash to "listen to his dreams" and embrace the power: Nash dumps Jones in the pokey.  But in a climactic battle with the weapons-dealers who killed Nash's son, Nash does tap into the power and transforms the toy Robosaurus into a giant robot dino that stomps all the bad guys to hell and back.

The script, directed and co-written by Christopher (SEVEN DAYS) Crowe, does make a sincere if pedestrian attempt to ground its unwieldy premise in dramatic structure.  The deceased son of Nash (also named David) conveys in one flashback line that he views Robosaurus as a protective force just like his dad.  This trope plays to the basic psychological idea that children project their need for strong protectors onto fantasy-figures like monsters or superheroes, but the STEEL script adds one complex touch.  Late in the picture, Jones admonishes Nash for seeking to take on the criminals in a suicidal attack.  Nash replies that he's willing to die because he's "tired of being helpless"-- which line shows a minor but interesting resonance with the son's line.  Nash's son compensated for his feelings of helplessness with a negative compensation, a protective fantasy-figure that doesn't exist.  Then his same-name father almost loses his life because of similar feelings, but turns them into a positive compensation, using the power of his dreams to summon a real power to help him achieve justice.

Contrary to some online writeups, there's no suggestion that the dead boy's spirit comes back in the form of Robosaurus.  There's one scene in which the toy dino appears to have moved around the apartment under its own power, which probably sparked in some viewers the idea of ghostly survival.  It's more likely that the writers meant to suggest that Nash's mind was subconsciously manipulating the toy, as a prelude to Bigger Things.

Thursday, March 8, 2012


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

As long as one approaches this 12-episode anime adaptation of the Capcom "hack and slash" video games as nothing but extravagant nonsense, one's likely to find it reasonably good fun.

There's never much backstory here to get in the way of the action. The white-haired hero Dante is apparently the offspring of a human and a demon, but though he's skilled with both guns and a big ol' blade, he can only make ends meet by running a demon-hunting business (given the unexplained name of  "Devil May Cry").  Most of the episodes are fairly repetitive-- a customer importunes Dante to help with his demon troubles, and after a little suspense about the where and when to find the critter, Dante dispatches the malfeasant with copious amounts of gut-bursting violence.

Dante is, however, saddled with a few "human" characteristics that don't play any more believably than those Hayao Miyazaki gave to his heroic character in HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE.  He's incredibly indolent and constantly borrows money from others.  In addition, he's never seen eating anything but pizza and strawberry sundaes.  Apparently being half-demon gives one the power to eat fattening foods and remain eternally buff.  Still, he remains largely unflappable and low on affect in the tradition of badass devil-hunters everywhere.

Naturally, the more human elements come from Dante's support cast.  The most effective are two characters created for the anime show: Morrison, an agent who finds Dante jobs and functions as a sort of "older mentor" figure at times, and an orphan girl named Patty, who encounters Dante in the first anime episode and decides to move in to the devil hunter's digs, essentially playing "mother" to him by yelling at him for not cleaning his place.  The other two hail from the video games: human demon hunter "Lady" and demonic demon hunter "Trish," both of whom are incredibly hot babes who are implicitly warm for Dante's form.  However, no actual romance ever gets off the ground to distract from the ultraviolence.

Most of the episodes are pretty much alike, but all benefit from a good head-bopping "heavy metal" theme tune.  Dante's best antagonist appears in Episode 2, a sort of "motorcycle demon" who lures bikers to their death.  However, the best episode overall concerns the first meeting of Lady and Trish, who try to kill each other even before they learn of their mutual acquaintance with Dante.

Though demons and hell are frequently referenced both of them are just video-game constructs with no metaphysical depth.  The psychological angle of giving the emotionless hero a little girl sidekick to nag him all the time is a minor accomplishment, however.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012


FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

THE KID FROM BROKEN GUN was the last of Columbia's DURANGO KID series of matinee westerns, which had an unusually long run of 64 films.  The gimmick was simple and roughly derivative of the Lone Ranger (sans Tonto).  Whenever frontier justice needed to be doled out, a mystery man clad in black, and masked by a simple black bandanna, showed up to corral any and all owlhoots.  The Kid had no special gimmicks like the Ranger's silver bullets; just that black outfit and apparently the charm of Charles Starrett, the actor who portrayed him in all the entries (though the Kid's fight-scenes were provided by experienced stuntmen like Jack Mahoney).

In this final film, Mahoney plays a character who gets just as much screen-time as the Kid, his alter ego Steve Reynolds, and comedy relief Smiley Burnette (whose character name is also Smiley Burnette).  As if in imitation of this trope, for this entry Jack the actor also plays a character of the same name and one who's been falsely accused of murder. 

Much of the story unwinds in a courtroom, which doesn't exactly make for strong sagebrush action.  It seems Jack, who was dating lady lawyer Gail Kingston, became irate with another man who pursued Gail, so that when the rival was killed, Jack became murder suspect number one.  Gail defends Jack in court, though the judge isn't shy about stating that he thinks that women ought to stay home in the kitchen instead of practicing the law.

This almost sounds like a setup to make Gail one of the "strong women" seen in liberal westerns of the 1950s, but as it happens Gail turns out to be one of the louses conspiring to frame Jack, as part of an overly complicated scheme to secure a cache of lost Spanish gold.  So much for pioneer feminism.  After the Durango Kid runs around investigating suspects for a while, he ends up convening his own "trial." With the threat of his gun the Kid forces the judge, the defendants, the real villains and a passel of onlookers into a sham court and questions one of the villains on the witness stand.  When the mangy coyote proves reluctant to confess, the Kid philosophizes that since he's already appointed himself "judge and jury" over this trial, he may as well play "executioner" as well.  The villain confesses, Jack is exonerated and no one in the town, including the judge, bears Durango any hard feelings.

As noted the action sequences are weak, perhaps reflecting the fact that everyone knew the series was finished.  Smiley Burnette offers his same cornpone humor, with the added touch of having a weird dream about being condemned in court.  Oddly the title refers not to the Durango Kid, but to a nickname for Jack, who once boxed professionally under the title.  Since the nickname never has any significance in the disjointed story it's possible someone at Columbia thought of spinning Mahoney off as a new "kid" hero.  However, Columbia soon terminated its matinee westerns in light of competition from television, which is where Jack Mahoney showed up not long after as the star of the "Range Rider" series.

In almost all ways GUN is a naturalistic western like hundreds churned out by the studios of the time.  Nothing except the "outre outfit" of the Durango Kid moves it into the domain of the uncanny-metaphenomenal.  But as I've noted elsewhere, particularly my review of this "Lone Ranger" film, the hero's mask in this sort of film becomes more than just a mundane device, as it is for some of the villain's hirelings, who also go about masked with bandannas for a few minutes. Though I doubt that I'll ever see the majority of these outlaw-chasing oaters, I'd tend to classify them all as metaphenomenal works.  The scene in which the black-clad masked man threatens the villain with execution gives that scene a touch of the uncanny that one would never get from a similar threat made by Gene Autry.

Director Fred F. Sears continued to direct assorted genre-works for the remainder of the decade, including a foursome of SF-films that included THE GIANT CLAW, whose script was considerably kinder to female professionals than GUN.  One of GUN's two writers was Ed Earl Repp, who seems to have written nothing but westerns for cinema but had a long enough history as a pulp SF-writer that fellow pulp-writer Gardner Fox named a villain after Repp in this 1960's Batman comic: