Sunday, June 30, 2013
MAN OF STEEL (2013)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical*
Such is my disappointment in MEN OF STEEL that I don't want to spend much more time out of my life analyzing its faults and flaws.
Certainly it's not the worst film of its kind. At the same time, there are many bad films that manage to be more entertaining than this Zach Synder flick.
None of the niggling controversies about the flick-- about the demolition of huge cities invoking 9-11, about Superman breaking a "code" that does not exist in this iteration-- mattered to me. Indeed, one of the few intense moments of this film revolves around the transgression of said code. There are moments where Henry Cavill's intense performance overcomes the banal sentimentality and slapdash character motivation of the script. The action-scenes are well constructed in their way, though my inability to become invested in the characters hampered what pleasure I could take in the FX-scenes.
Perhaps the most annoying thing in my view is the dull, dingy color scheme of the film. Most scenes are dominated by yellows and browns, blacks and greys, and as others had commented, even the famous super-suit has been darkened. It's a strange thing to behold, when even superhero films that invoke a *noir* mentality, such as the Nolan Batflicks and Snyder's own WATCHMEN, are more colorful than a Superman film.
Clearly Snyder was hoping to rebrand Superman with his own aesthetic, the better to promote his own celebrity. Nothing wrong with that, but I find it to be an impoverished aesthetic. It reminds me somewhat of the attempt the 1984 film GREYSTOKE made to do a Tarzan film without any of the Burroughs mythology. That's not quite apt, of course, since Snyder does work in the usual Superman cast, as well as replaying the General Zod saga from SUPERMAN II with state-of-the-art FX. And there's one moment that almost taps the mythos of the comic-book Superman, where it's revealed that Superman himself has become a literal "ark of Krypton," carrying in his own body the genetic history of Krypton's lost people.
As I write this, it's been said that the box office take for MAN OF STEEL has undergone a severe drop after its first two weeks. The film will still probably make money overall, but if the rebranding proper fails, hopefully Snyder will go off and wreck some less classic superhero.
Thursday, June 27, 2013
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical*
Though this "acid western" includes two major scenes in which characters experience wild psychedelic "trips," and the villain lusts after some unspecified magical power, there's never a strong declaration that magic has a real effect in this world. Therefore I class this as an "uncanny" film, and the psychic journeys, masterfully illustrated by "fractal computer graphics," conform to the trope "delirious dreams and fallacious figments."
The credits for RENEGADE note that the film is only "loosely adapted" from the famous Franco-Belgian comic book feature, "Lt. Blueberry," by Charlier/Moebius. I've read a fair number of these western comics but have only seen Blueberry having naturalistic adventures. Director/co-writer Jan Kounen reframes the hero Mike Donovan-- never called "Blueberry" in the English version as in the comic-- as a character implicated in the religious beliefs of Native Americans, specifically the Chiricahua Apaches.
As a young man Donovan visits an equally young prostitute. They build a certain affection beyond the purely monetary interest, but some drunken yahoos, led by Wallace Blount, break into the hooker's bedroom, wanting to be serviced. Donovan and Blount get into a fight. The young prostitute is fatally shot, Blount is burned when a fire breaks out, and Donovan, after being shot as well, is left for dead in the desert. Donovan's life is preserved when Runi, an Apache shaman, decides to use Apache sorcery to save his life. Donovan is saved after having undergone a "ritual death" at least in a figurative sense, and later returns to his own people. In his mature years Donovan (Vincent Cassel) becomes a marshal of an unnamed western town, though he maintains a sympathetic relationship with the local natives.
Trouble begins when gold-hungry white men set their sights on a sacred mountain worshipped by the Apaches. The schemers make a minor attempt to set up a conflict between the townspeople and the Apaches, but this never gets off the ground, due to Donovan's investigations. Runi warns Donovan that a "white sorcerer" plans to seek out the holy mountain in search of some great secret. Shortly afterward, a much older Wallace Blount (Michael Madsen) arrives in town and shoots a fellow who's threatening one of his gang-members, earning himself a stay in jail. It takes Donovan a few minutes, but in a rush of repressed memories, he finally recognizes Blount from their previous encounter. He goes after Blount to kill him, but Blount's gang breaks him out and they go off to find the gold-- aside from Blount, who has other fish to fry. Eventually it's revealed that as the result of his burn-injuries Blount too went through a "ritual death." The villain isn't presented as overtly psychic-- though he does seem to exert a hypnotic influence over one Apache female-- but somehow he's formed the conviction that there's a great secret he wants from the mountain.
Donovan strikes off in pursuit, and the film concludes with a very psychedelic "combat" in which both Donovan and Blount join in a shared trance, apparently (according to Wikipedia) using the psychotropic plant *ayahuasca.* It's not much of a combat, though. The trippy action is hard to follow, but the gist seems to be that Blount isn't sufficiently prepared for the ordeal, so that he simply "blows up." Donovan, possibly because he's been semi-initiated into Apache rites, survives the experience.
In addition to Cassel and Madsen the film includes several other well-known actors, including Juliette Lewis and her father Geoffrey, Djimon Hounsou, and Ernest Borgnine, but none of the performances are particularly stellar. The script is far too concerned with setting up the admittedly excellent psychedelic effects, and as a result proves slack in dealing with the motivations of its hero, its villain, and almost everyone else, except maybe those of Blount's money-hungry partner Prosit, who insists that he deserves respect for his Prussian background.
Sunday, June 23, 2013
THE THREE WORLDS OF GULLIVER (1960)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*
It's been such a long time since I originally saw THREE WORLDS OF GULLIVER that I didn't remember that its script took a WIZARD OF OZ route at the end, invoking the hoary "it was just a dream" motif. The conclusion does allow for the possibility that Gulliver's encounters with giants and pygmies may have really happened, as was the case in the original Jonathan Swift novel. But the script is so weighted toward an allegorical interpretation that the dream seems the better explanation of events-- hence, GULLIVER best fits the "delirious dreams and fallacious figments" trope.
GULLIVER was the first collaboration between producer Charles H. Schneer and FX-wizard Ray Harryhausen to follow on the heels of their successful 1958 SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD. GULLIVER was also the first of four collaborations that adapted classic literary works, followed by Jules Verne's MYSTERIOUS ISLAND, the ARGONAUTICA of Apollonius, and H.G. Wells' FIRST MEN IN THE MOON. In this review I suggested that JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS might have been conceived as an attempt to make a "prestige" production. GULLIVER shows some similar inclinations, though the film substantially rewrites the satirical intent of Jonathan Swift in order to render a more crowd-pleasing story about a young couple-- Gulliver and his fiancee Elizabeth-- and their attempt to master their contrary views on their life together.
Beginning in the English city of Wapping in 1699, the story begins with Elizabeth reacting badly as she hears rumors that her fiancee, Doctor Lemuel Gulliver, may venture out on a ship in order to gain greater riches. The two come together at Gulliver's impoverished medical office, where he's forced to accept poultry in payment from Wapping's rural residents. Gulliver makes his argument, that only by making more money can they hope to have a real life together. Elizabeth counters that she doesn't want him going away from her, that above all else she wants them to live together in Wapping, no matter how poor they are. Eventually Gulliver makes the decision to ship out no matter what Elizabeth wishes.
However, in a very significant departure from the novel, Elizabeth stows away on the ship, determined that she won't be parted from Gulliver. Moments later, a storm comes up, and Gulliver is hurled into the sea. By the logic of the dream-explanation, Elizabeth is also tossed into the sea, though at no time does the viewer see this occur. Gulliver floats to Lilliput and encounters the miniscule Lilliputians, the first of the title's "three worlds." In a very softened version of the Swift satire, the giant Gulliver finds that the small-mindedness of the Lilliputians proves more formidable than any of their weapons. One satiric barb-- wherein the king claims, "I hate justice but love law"-- is the wittiest non-Swiftian line in the film, though it, like the script's other attempts at satire, is a little on the glib side. The least interesting aspect of the script is its attempt to inject a Lilliputian romance between two young lovers who directly recapitulate the Gulliver-Elizabeth quarrel. The most interesting moment is a rewrite of a Swift scene in which the giant publicly micturates on a fire to put it out and is condemned for it. In a more G-rated vein, the film's Gulliver puts out a fire by spitting water on it-- though significantly, he also spits on the Lilliputian queen moments after she has mooned over his titanic stature, causing her to turn against him and join the king in condemning Gulliver. A doctrinaire Freudian would probably read this "spewing" as a deferred sex-act, and this carries some weight simply because the sex-act is alluded to more overtly than one usually sees in fantasy-films of the period. At any rate, Gulliver escapes Lilliput's wrath in a boat. As he does, he claims that his experience with being a "powerful man" has soured him on the position he argued in England. Now he wants to live a life as a "nothing," whom no one will notice.
Providentially, this change in attitude brings him to the second world, that of Brobdingnag, where people like Gulliver are as tiny dolls before the gigantic inhabitants. Now that he's agreed with Elizabeth, he immediately comes back into contact with her, learning that she too was hurled off the ship, and has arrived in Brobdingnag before him, where she's already been made a pet of the king. Gulliver and Elizabeth are then taken care of by their new masters, which would seem to be Elizabeth's bucolic dream come true, just as Gulliver's gigantism signifed his desire for greater importance. But although the giants are less overtly nasty than the Lilliputians, they have their own demons of pettiness, and soon Gulliver begins to worry that their charity will come to an end. An evil alchemist accuses Gulliver and Elizabeth of being witches, and though Gulliver initially outwits him, he finally finds himself in a gladiatorial arena, fighting a "colossal" lizard through the FX-expertise of Harryhausen.
This time, Gulliver and Elizabeth both escape to the sea, but when they next awake, they find themselves washed ashore near Wapping once more-- the "third world" of the title. They're uncertain as to whether they mutually dreamed the giants and the pygmies, and Gulliver suggests that both of these figures are demons within their own hearts. The only thing of which they are certain is that their love together, the compromise of their respective viewpoints, will enable them to bring forth new life that will transcend the pettiness of kings and princes.
I've omitted one element in this summary: whereas Gulliver becomes a giant in Lilliput, symbolizing his need for prestige, in Brobdingnag both he and his fiancee are turned into dolls by a giant little girl, the native girl Glumdalclitch. She's a "mothering giant" who has not yet reached puberty, and who professes not to understand the sexual impulses of her "dolls," the intensity of which leads the couple to get married-- very quickly!-- by a Brobdingnagian priest. Yet, where Gulliver's only mirror-image in the Lilliputian segment is another young man who desires importance, in the Brobdingnag segment Glumdalclitch is given a peculiar "dark clone," the alchemist's same-aged daughter Shryke, who incarnates an "anti-mothering" sadism and yearns to see the little people burned at the stake.
When all is said and done, though, the few glimmers of imagination in the screenplay-- the deferred sexuality, the doubling motifs-- are overpowered by the ponderous allegory. GULLIVER's reading of Swift is heavy-handed in its attempts at satire, particularly when Gulliver's peerless, almost Christ-like generosity is rejected by the uncomprehending Lilliputians. In comparison to most of the Schneer-Harryhausen collaborations, GULLIVER is the least fun, and feels the most like a secondary-school student trying to rationalize the thematic appeal of the Swift story. Worse, the synthesis that GULLIVER proposes to solve the rift between male and female-- that love will find a way-- feels like a cop-out.
Friday, June 21, 2013
GODZILLA VS. SPACE GODZILLA (1994), GODZILLA: TOKYO S.O.S. (2003)
MYTHICITY: (1) *poor,* (2) *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological, cosmological*
I recall a review that raked GODZILLA VS. SPACE GODZILLA over the coals as one of the worst, if not the worst, of the "Big G" films. It's not that bad, but it's not much more than one big setup for the clash between Godzilla, his evil "space clone" (complete with weird crystals growing out of his back), and a human-piloted mecha called "Moguera."
The very basic plot, picking up where 1993's GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA II left off, begins with those helpful Mothra-fairies providing a modern-day oracle, though Mothra herself has nothing to do with the story. The fairies seek out the protagonists-- mostly a group of Godzilla-fighting soliders and lady psychic Miki Saegusa, a character who appeared in all of the Godzilla films from 1989 to 1995. The fairies warn that a new monster is descending to Earth from space. Soon the authorities dope out that this new threat is "Space Godzilla," a clone of Godzilla's cells. In no less than two previous films, Godzilla's bodily cells had been thrust into space by his clashes with big monsters, and some of those cells mutated and grew in space. Now, thanks to a "white hole," Space Godzilla is on the way back to Earth.
While waiting for the new threat to arrive, Miki and her soldier-allies attempt to rein in the old one. One soldier, Yuki, has a grudge against the Big G and attempts to kill him with a special "blood coagulate" buller, but he fails. Miki succeeds to some extent by using a psychic implant to attempt taking control of Godzilla mentally, but this plotline sputters out as well. Thus when the two Godzillas come to blows-- inevitably trashing Tokyo for good measure-- humanity's only participant in the battle is the military-operated Moguera. Moguera is visually based a giant robot that appeared in the 1957 Toho production THE MYSTERIANS, but the English script makes no direct connection between that film and this one.
It's just as well that the plotlines involving Yuki the vengeful solider and Miki the "Godzilla-hugger" peter out, for the humans are pretty much lost in the clash of the great powers. The battles are good but only rarely above average. Purely on the basis of nostalgia, Moguera is one of the film's better elements-- though he's also used for the best humor-line, when a soldier forced to dig a pit wonders if Moguera-- who has a drill-nose and was named for the word "mole" in Japanese-- might lend some aid.
GODZILLA TOKYO S.O.S, appearing about ten years later and part of a new continuity, displays a much stronger script, one strongly indebted to the theme of the original MOTHRA of 1961. For one thing, a character from the '61 film, Dr. Shinichi, is once more reprised by the original actor. Shinichi and his family are honored by a visit from the Mothra-fairies, or rather from their descendants. The fairies warn that dire things will happen because human beings have tampered with "the bones of the dead." This references the previous film in the series, where the Japanese government, as always seeking new ways to defend against the current Godzilla's rampages, constructs a robot using the bones of the very first Godzilla, killed in the classic 1954 film. This robot is the new "Mechagodzilla," called "Kiryu" in the Japanese verison; I'll use that name here to distinguish this skeleton-based construct from other Mechagodzillas.
Just as MOTHRA critiqued the greed of capitalistic culture, TOKYO S.O.S. concerns itself with humanity overreaching its proper bounds by trifling with the remains of even a monster. One might call this flick "ANTIGONE with giant monsters." One character even says portentously, "we crossed the line between mortals and gods."
The fairies add that Mothra will protect Japan from Godzilla if the humans will destroy Kiryu and return the bones of Original Godzilla to the sea. But Shinichi's nephew Chujo is less than happy to hear the predictions, for he's a mechanic working on making Kiryu battle-ready. Clearly Chujo has invested much of his own ego into the big robot. He does have a meager interest in female soldier Azusa, one of the pilots of Kiryu. However, a hotshot male pilot named Akiba is also interested in Azsusa, and the two men butt heads slightly. However, the main focus of Chujo's narrative is that he wants to get the chance to see Kiryu in action-- and of course he succeeds. There's even a sequence in he overcomes the limitations of his lower sociological status-- that of being a mere mechanic rather than a pilot-- to repair Kiryu at a crucial moment.
Mothra does intervent to fight for Japan even though the humans don't even come close to junking Kiryu until the very end of the story. Mothra is killed, but just as in the '61 film and its 1964 sequel MOTHRA VS. GODZILLA, the sacred moth's new incarnations are waiting in an egg back on its native island; an egg which then breaks and spawns not one two larva-form "Mothrae." Then it's a big four-way battle between Godzilla, his imitator Kiryu, and the two larvae. It ends a bit more poetically than usual when Chujo drives Kiryu into the sea, thus belatedly honoring the fairies' wish. In approved samurai fashion he's ready to die for his duty, but Azusa and Akiba rescue him. TOKYO S.O.S., despite the generic sound of its title, is one of the few modern *kaiju* that successfully emulates the themes of the best giant-monster films of Japan's classic era.
Thursday, June 20, 2013
KING KONG ESCAPES (1967), LAND THAT TIME FORGOT (2009), TRIASSIC ATTACK (2010)
MYTHICITY: (1) *fair,* (2,3) *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological, cosmological*
Before getting to reviews proper, I'll mention in advance that only KING KONG ESCAPES is a "combative drama," given that only that film features two megadynamic forces fighting it out.
I enjoyed KING KONG ESCAPES in its initial release back in the day. I don't think that even at that young age I was blind to the film's greatest deficiency: not that it didn't endeavor to follow the 1933 KING KONG's spectacular stop-animation FX, but that its choice of the "suitmation" for its version of Kong is ratty and overly comic-looking.
But though the film also lacks the deeper symbolic resonances of the Willis O'Brien epic, its script does make a game try-- more than one saw in 1962's KING KONG VS. GODZILLA-- to reproduce some of the most famous tropes of the 1933 film. First of these is the trope in which Kong proves his "alpha male" status by continually besting other giant monsters-- here, a T-Rex, a giant serpent, and the formidable "Mechani-Kong." The other is Kong conceiving a major crush on a pint-sized blonde beauty. Director Ishiro Honda even throws in a redux version of the original's climb to the top of the Empire State Building, with the Tokyo Tower taking the place of the New York City icon. Here it's Mechani-Kong, not the Great Good Ape, who takes the dramatic fall in the end.
There's no question that ESCAPES is more in a juvenile mode than the original film; the former is even loosely based on a 1966 Saturday-morning KING KONG cartoon by Rankin & Bass. But Honda does a great job of respecting the juvenile audience of his day. Even some of Honda's other *kaiju* films could bog down in earnest discssions of the Menace At Hand. But the script keeps the pulpy conflict boiling on all levels. Conflict between Doctor Hu, the supergenius villain who creates Mechani-Kong, and his maybe-Communist Asian backers, represented by the sultry "Miss X." Conflict between Kong and the crew of a United Nations submarine, when Kong spies the cute blonde nurse Susan. Conflict between Hu and Kong, when the scientist realizes that his robot ape can't mine the precious element he needs, forcing him to enslave the real simian into his service. Conflict between the sub's commander and Hu, "who" have met before in other adventures. This sounds like a simple feat, but given the staggering number of dull juvenile features, Honda and his scripters deserve kudos for keeping things lively.
But the most impressive element of ESCAPES is the soaring, majestic score of Akira Ikufube. When that music comes up, the rattiness of the Kong costume falls away, and the superior Robot-Kong costume looks like it cost a million bucks.
I've already reviewed the 1975 LAND THAT TIME FORGOT, which is an enjoyable adaptation of the 1918 Edgar Rice Burroughs novel. That film kept to the idea that the dinosaur-haunted "land" was an isolated part of Earth, but today that idea won't fly: the globe has been too well charted. Thus the 2009 LAND sends its hapless protagonists-- a group of vacationers cruising the Caribbean-- through a time vortex, so that they land on Caprona, where various other travelers have preceded them. Since it's a cheapjack movie, there's only one dinosaur and a handful of human victims. The only strong similarity to the Burroughs novel is that some of those travelers are WWII Germans who still have a working U-boat. The vacationers must ally themselves to the Germans in order to search the isle for petroleum. Bad luck; they can only get the oil they need if they get rid of the T-Rex.
There's enough incident to keep this item rolling along, but the dialogue is horribly banal and the actors are just paying the rent.
However, as poor as the 2009 LAND is, it's a masterpiece next to 2010's TRIASSIC ATTACK. Given that the "raison d'etre" of most SYFY films is to write a sketchy story around some giant, equally sketchy CGI critter, I wonder if TRIASSIC came about when some animator said: "If SYFY will pay for dinosaurs with all their flesh animated, why wouldn't they pay for dinos with no flesh?"
For that's the goofy idea TRIASSIC puts out there. An Indian sorcerer becomes irate with the white-eyes ravaging the environment-- like many SYFY flicks, this one resorts to "eco-terrorists" to make the story sound a little bit relevant. He uses his magic to animate three dinosaur SKELETONS from a nearby museum, and they go on a rampage until one of the dull-stick protagonists figures out how to make them go away with the technological wizardry of an elecrtical attack.
The only amusing image to arise from this folderol is that one of the dinos happens to be a pterosaur. How exactly does the SKELETON of a pterosaur manage to FLY? Oh, yes, magic, quite right. Forget I even asked.
MARK OF THE GORILLA (1950), CAPTIVE GIRL (1950)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*
The third and fourth JUNGLE JIM films, both directed by William Berke, register pretty low even on the "dumb fun" scale.
The only metaphenomenal aspect of GORILLA is that some of the ex-Nazi villains of the piece dress up like gorillas in order to keep intruders away from a game preserve, where some wartime gold has been buried. The evildoers are led by Onslow Stevens, usually a dependable "B" face but rather dull this time out. The recrudescence of Nazi evil, which was a routine trope in postwar flicks, is also not exploited for any patriotic vibes. The continuity, such as it is, is often broken up by gobs of stock footage, and though Jungle Jim gets to wrestle with three different beasts, none of the fights are interesting. The only pleasant aspect is that, as with the first two films, the story includes two hot girls, and once again there's a "cute American" type as well as a "exotic foreigner" type. Neither female character does very much beyond (as the pic above shows) getting tied up. This might be a plus for a certain type of viewer.
CAPTIVE GIRL breaks with that "tradition," for it only has one female in it, though as she's dressed in a leopardskin one-piece, she may make a more positive impression. Played by swimming champion Anita Lhoest, who never made another film, she's not a "Sheena"-style fighter but she does have a pet tiger that comes to her aid. In addition, since she was orphaned by one of the film's villains and has the usual jungle-upbringing, she seems to have a slight rapport with the animals, though the tiger is the only one who obeys her. The title makes no sense because she spends most of her film-time running around free.
In place of two babes, CAPTIVE gives the viewer two villains of note. One is Buster Crabbe, who played Tarzan in a 1933 serial, just one year after "Jungle Jim" star Johnny Weismuller made his fame by playing the ape man in the MGM film-series. The two "ape men," who were both swimming stars in their youth, naturally have a climactic battle underwater, but it's a pretty desultory battle. I got more entertainment out of seeing long-time B-film badguy John Dehner as "Hakim," the guy responsible for orphaning the jungle girl. He's dressed up in witch-doctor garb and colored in "brownface"-- supposedly because he's some sort of Arab-- but the actor projects a nice aura of menace despite it all. The villains are both after a sunken treasure connected to the old sacrificial rites of Hakim's tribe, and as usual Jungle Jim represents the role of the progressive colonist, trying to turn the heathens away from the old ways. It isn't much, but it gives the story a little more heft than the threadbare GORILLA.
ADDENDUM: I should note an interesting conundrum about the phenomenality of MARK OF THE GORILLA. Since it is the intent of the Nazi crooks to convince outsiders to beware of real gorillas, for this film the "phantasmal figurations" trope is naturalistic, just as it was for 1943's LEOPARD MAN. However, unlike LEOPARD MAN, GORILLA actually treats the viewer to the sight of men dressed up as gorillas for what I deem an "outre" purpose-- as opposed, for instance, to wearing such attire to a costume party.
Thursday, June 13, 2013
THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT (1975), AT THE EARTH'S CORE (1976), THE PEOPLE THAT TIME FORGOT (1977)
MYTHICITY: (1, 3) *fair,* (2) *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological*
Over three subsequent summers, producer John Dark and director Kevin Connor produced what a few references call the "Edgar Rice Burroughs" trilogy. However, aside from the stories' authorial source, the only common element of the three films is that the heroes venture to primitive worlds full of prehistoric inhabitants. One is an adaptation of Burroughs' novel AT THE EARTH'S CORE, a series about a prehistoric world inside the Earth. The other two draw in varying degrees from Burroughs' "Caprona trilogy," each of which focuses on a different hero in the prehistoric world of Caprona, hidden with a volcanic crater in a remote corner of the globe.
THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT follows many key elements of the Burroughs book of that title. Hero Bowen Tyler is one of a group that survives the torpedo-ing of their ship by a German U-boat during the hostitlities of WWI. Tyler, accompanied by some English sailors and a gutsy young girl, boards the U-boat and takes control of it. Unfortunately, when Tyler and his crew attempt to return to the world of their allies, they are fired upon. Their search for a safe haven lands them in the unknown land of Caprona, a land where evolution has gone berserk.
In the book Caprona's wealth of prehistoric life is explained by a mystical-sounding "pool of life" into which all Capronan species lay their "eggs." The 'eggs"-- which act more like "sperm"-- then progress along a "great chain of being" so as to become dinosaurs, cavepeople, or even a weird species of winged humanoid called the "Weiroo." Connor's LAND does to its credit keep this wild explanation for Caprona's evolution-flux, including Burroughs' core idea about the different species of cavepeople. In Burroughs' scheme, the cavepeople undergo evolution within their own lifetimes, progressing from "ape-men" to men able to use clubs, to men who can use axes, and so on. The idea naturally doesn't come off as clearly in the cinematic medium as in prose, but the LAND script makes a game effort to adapt Burroughs, though it drops the idea of the animal-human hybrids.
The film also keeps the book's other most appealing aspect, showing how all of the humans-- English, German, and American-- are forced to work together to survive in this grim milieu. The biggest change is the one wrought upon the German U-boat captain, who is a stereotypical evil Prussian type in the book, guilty of firing upon an innocent civilian ship. In the film he's a generally sympathetic figure who justifies having blasted Tyler's ship because it carried hidden arms for his country's enemies. In the book the German officer attempts to abandon Tyler and his friends to Caprona by making off with the submarine, and the villain only gets his just desserts in the third part of the trilogy. In the film, the officer tries to save Tyler when another German abandons the heroes, but he and all of his officers ironically die in a volcanic explosion while Tyler's group lives through the chaos.
Further, Connor's film eschews the novel's strong focus on the romance between Tyler, the plucky girl and the German officer, to whom the girl was engaged by family arrangement. Here the officer has no designs on the heroine, and there's barely any romance between Tyler and the woman with whom he ends up sharing Caprona. Connor's direction is fluid and keeps the melodrama lively even without the romance. And though the film makes considerable use of models and puppets, location shots taken in the Canary Islands gives the film an expansive feel characteristic of the best adventure-films.
To date AT THE EARTH'S CORE, even in the wake of JOHN CARTER, is probably still the film that most closely follows the plot of a Burroughs novel, though I confess I did not reread the book prior to re-viewing the movie. Unfortunately, CORE is also horribly studio-bound, having been filmed entirely in Pinewood Studios. Perhaps the producers thought that location shoots were not necessary, since Burroughs' essential idea is that the lost land of Pellucidar is enclosed within the earth's core. However, the "forests" look about as convincing as the potted plant-jungles of old "Jungle Jim" films. This time Connor's film does include two humanoid species from Burroughs' books, the Sagoths and the Mahars. However, whereas in the book the Sagoths are apelike humanoids and the Mahars are evolved pterandons with formidable psychic powers, the makeup men on CORE portray the Sagoths as clownish figures with white faces, and the Mahars look like big parrot-creatures. In addition, though I can blink at the FX of a lot of pre-CGI films, the Mahars look ghastly whenever the film calls upon them to "fly."
Only the stars redeem Connor's lackluster flick this time, principally Doug McClure as David Innes, the rich young backer who goes along for the ride when scientist Abner Perry (Peter Cushing) tests his drill-nosed vehicle, "the Iron Mole," for purposes of exploring the subterranean worlds. McClure, who acquitted himself well enough as Tyler in LAND, shows more vivacity here. Jittery scientist Abner is one of Cushing's wimpiest portrayals, and though Cushing brings some liveliness to the character, eventually the scientist beomes tedious. The script plays up his comedy-relief appeal, for when the Mahars attempt to mesmerize Abner, he responds, "You can't hypnotize me! I'm British!" Romance is more crucial to the story, as David must not only navigate the dangers of Pellucidar but must also succor Dia, the obligatory hot pagan babe. Despite the romantic angle, Caroline Munro as Dia is given litte to do and comes off largely as window-dressing. I must admit that of these three films I did not see CORE in my youth, so its charms may be weaker on me for that reason.
Happily, THE PEOPLE THAT TIME FORGOT was a return to form, in part because the production returned to the Canary Islands, giving the film the same expansiveness seen in LAND THAT TIME FORGOT. Connor and his collaborators seem to ratchet up the excitement, so that almost every single frame suggests some incipient danger, and the heady activity of the film anticipates a similar approach in Steven Spielberg's famed love letter to adventure-flicks three years later. From ERB's PEOPLE Connor takes two major elements: the idea of a heroic character sent to find the missing hero from the first book, and a character named "Ajor." In the book Tom Billings finds his way to Caprona looking for Bowen Tyler, and spends the whole novel fighting off cavemen and dinosaurs while slowly falling in love with cute cavegirl Ajor. In a development rare in Burroughs, Billings also has to fight his own prejudice, as he resists falling in love with a woman he initially regards as a "squaw."
In Connor's PEOPLE, the hero's name is changed to "Ben McBride" (Patrick Wayne), though he still comes to Caprona looking for his lost friend Bowen Tyler. He comes with other allies in tow, one of whom is spunky photographer Charly (Sarah Douglas). The tension between Ben and Charly is clearly a substitute for romantic interest, though again, there's not much time alloted for amour. Charly is fairly liberated for her time-- more so than most if not all Burroughs heroines-- and is frequently shown as having a positive impact on the group's mission, particularly when she suggests using a stegosaurus to help them move their crashed plane.
The group shortly comes across Ajor (Dana Gillespie), a cavegirl who speaks English. Though the last scenes of LAND merely show Tyler and his girlfriend Lisa surviving the harsh world of Caprona, at some point Tyler attempted to reach out to the cavepeople and to lead them toward greater civilization. Ajor is apparently just one of many tribal types who received Tyler's teachings, though it's slightly suggested that she may be in love with him. Ajor relates that another advanced tribe-- the "Nagas," possibly named after the snake-demons of Hindu lore-- resented Tyler's influence and abducted him. She proves more than willing to lead the expedition to "the Mountain of Skulls" to rescue her mentor.
As an interesting side-point, the Nagas-- though they are not hybrids-- function in approximately the same manner as the Weiroos in the third Caprona book, OUT OF TIME'S ABYSS, which focuses on a third hero and only involves the characters of Billings and Tyler very incidentally. The Weiroos even have a "city of skulls" to indicate that they worship death and murder, and the "Mountain of Skulls" suggests the same sort of corrupt death-worship in Connor's film. The only downside to these colorfu villains is that for no good reason many of the Nagas dress up in anachronistic samurai armor. Logically such technology should have no place in Caprona, even if one supposed that the world's freaky evolution somehow jumped one tribe up to the level of 12th-century Japan.
The action is fast and furious, even if the climax depends a little too much on again having the local volcano destroy hunks of real estate. Curiously, Tyler attributes intelligence to the volcano, which is certainly not one of Burroughs' ideas. Equally curiously, Tyler does not survive the mission. Perhaps, since his backstory establishes that his wife from the first film is already dead, the scripters thought it would prove poetic for him to perish in the same world. But all of the other principals-- Ben, Charly, and Ajor-- survive after some lively battle-scenes, and unlike Caroline Munro's Dia, Gillespie's Ajor remains right in the thick of it.
Wednesday, June 12, 2013
THIRTEEN WOMEN (1932)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*
THIRTEEN WOMEN has been hailed in some quarters as one of the first "psycho-thriller" films, though it really uses only one major trope of such films: the killer who goes after a list of victims and eliminates them in a variety of ways. I imagine that the trope was nothing new even in 1932, but that it simply had not taken forms so intensely ritualized as to take on the names of subgenres.
As in the later psycho-thrillers, it's the monster who is the star, not her victims. Said monster is the half-breed Ursula Georgi, whose early history is vague. Her dominant motifs (as with the multi-armed idol in the still above) and her physical coloration suggest that she is half-Hindu, and her own aspirations to be considered "white," expressed in her end speech, indicate that her other half is Caucasian, though no specifics are given.
By 1932 Hollywood had done many "exotics" of one kind or another. On occasion, a few of the more forward-thinking films allowed that exotics might commit nefarious acts because they had been sinned against by specific white people or by colonial culture in general, as we see in 1929's MYSTERIOUS DOCTOR FU MANCHU. I am not likely to read the original book on which the film was based, as this essay doesn't make it sound like a must-read, but what little is printed makes me suspect that the author's original motive was more sensationalistic than sensitive.
Still, Ursula, as essayed with seething intensity by Myrna Loy in her "exotic" phase, does get across a fair amount of pathos for her "monstrous" character. The victims, including Laura, the potential victim played by headliner Irene Dunne, are colorless society women, who begin to die like flies as an occult adviser, "Swami Yogidachi," sends them predictions of their dire fates. The Swami, however, is merely a pawn of Ursula, who has a grudge against the women from their finishing school days. According to Ursula-- and none of the characters gives any counter-story-- she was excluded from the school's society by "the color line," and this made it impossible for her to gain success in white society. Now, since Ursula is indeed dark-complected, it's doubtful that she would have enjoyed much social success in white society even if her finishing-school sisters had opened their hearts to her. Still, even if the society women are merely surrogates for white society as a whole, the script doesn't stoop to having them defend their people's prejudices.
The script also includes a few lines in which Ursula castigates white society for condemning half-castes to social ignominy: men can only be "coolies," while women-- well, Ursula won't say what their fate is, but she strongly implies that she had to pay for her finishing school fees by working on her back. Possibly this trauma could explain why Ursula wastes time on these society snobs-- for at some point she cultivates a talent with a lot of potential for making heaps of money: hypnotism. Some of the victims die merely as a result of a suggestion, as with a trapeze-artist who perishes after receiving one of the dire notes. However, Ursula can compel men and women to act against their will, as when she forces the Swami to walk into an oncoming train. After she kills most of the other twelve women-- though most of these deaths are not seen on screen-- Ursula fixates on killing, not Laura, but Laura's little boy. To do this she resorts to both poisons and explosives, which actions get the police on her trail. Does Urusla hate Laura's child because she's somehow unable or unwilling to conceive her own offspring? The film doesn't go that deep, though the potential seems evident.
There's a brief suggestion at the end that perhaps the Swami's spirit returns at the end to doom Ursula as she doomed him. But since the Swami is only seen from Ursula's POV, it's more likely that she merely hallucinates him moments before she dies-- thus putting her in the position of being just one more overly suggestible female.
Tuesday, June 11, 2013
THE LOST TRIBE (1949)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*
THE LOST TRIBE was the second of Columbia's "Jungle Jim" series. Like the first film, TRIBE is a moderately lively cut-rate entry, in which old jungle hand Jim is called upon to save the hidden city of Zom from jewel-hungry white interlopers. Like the first film, it also dresses up the film with two females, one a white woman from the outside world and the other an "exotic" who looks like she escaped from a South Sea Island picture, though ostensibly the story is set in Africa.
This time the black African characters remain pretty much in the background. Like the majority of fictional lost cities set in Africa, Zom's few inhabitants are either Caucasian or very close to that model (Elena Verdugo, who plays the exotic female "Li Wanna.," was of Hispanic extraction). Just to stir the pot a tiny bit, this time the white girl is an evildoer. She uses her feminine charms to fuddle the young son of the ruler of Zom and gets him to reveal the city's location. She does make a belated attempt to change and to free Jungle Jim from captivity, but meets a fairly brutal fate, being knifed to death by one of her thieving allies.
The city of Zom may be one of the most desultory depictions of a lost city on film, perhaps even beating out THE HIDDEN CITY. Like that film TRIBE belongs to the "exotic lands and customs" trope, though to be sure Zom isn't especially "exotic" compared to most lost cities. As the photo above shows, Zom's specialty is making all sorts of mini-statues studded with priceless diamonds, which in the photo are displayed on what looks like a mockup of a water-fountain. Jungle Jim asks Zom's ruler as to whether his people worship the statues, and the king responds like a good Protestant: they don't worship the idols, but only use them as symbols of a higher power. Yes, Jungle Jim: always be sure that the natives you're protecting have the "right" belief-systems before you save them from venal white guys.
The film also includes the performance of an "astounding animal," a female gorilla-- patently a man in a gorilla suit-- who joins Jungle Jim's side after he saves her and her offspring from a lion. Just to show how drunk the writer was, he has Jim dub the gorilla "Simba," which means "lion" in Swahili and has been used to connote lions in dozens of other crummy jungle-films before this-- so the LOST TRIBE guy couldn't even get THAT right . The gorilla gets the best fights against the human bad guys, though Jungle Jim proves his manhood by killing two or three jungle-beasts.
Sunday, June 9, 2013
THE LOVES OF HERCULES (1960)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological, metaphysical*
THE LOVES OF HERCULES, one of the first imitations of the successful 1958 HERCULES, is often dismissed as just another Italian fantasy-peplum. Most of these follow a very set pattern revolving around the problem of a Herculean hero's fidelity to a "good woman" upon being tempted by a "bad woman," usually one who is (a) an evil queen, (b) a somewhat older, more experienced female, (c) a sorceress, or (d) two or more of the above.
LOVES, though, isn't quite so predictable, nor is it automatically the sort of cheesefest one finds in most other examples of the subgenre. True, to see the qualities of LOVES, one must get past cheap sets and effects, flat and unpoetic English dialogue, and the clumsy performances of leads Mickey Hargitay (as Hercules) and Jayne Mansfield (playing both good woman Deianeira and bad woman Hippolyta). But there's more going on beneath the flexing of muscles and boobs than is usually the case.
For one thing, the story begins with a degree of tragedy. While Hercules is away consulting with an oracle-- who tells him he's fated to suffer for having slain "the serpent of Hera"-- a plot-thread never heard from again-- his wife is slain by evil Licos, counselor of the city of Ecalia. Licos then sets up his own ruler, the father of Deianeira, for the deed and then pre-emptively kills the old king. His original plan seems to be that when Hercules comes seeking vengeance, he'll take out his fury on Deianeira, the inheritor of the throne, and leave the way clear for Licos' assumption of power.
Hercules does come to Ecalia, but on seeing the busty queen he immediately begins to forget his slain wife and incline toward Deianeira. He refuses to make war upon a woman, but Deianeira's own people judge her for the crime of her father, perhaps hoping to defuse Hercules' anger. She is put through the "trail of Themis," in which a warrior-- in this case, Hercules-- must hurl axes at the bound woman. Apparently the idea is that if she's innocent, the goddess Themis will spare her, though the film is spotty on this point. It's also not clear as to whether Hercules deliberately misses her with each throw, or whether Themis really intevenes.
Hostilties cease between Hercules and Deianeira, and they become more friendly, but Licos has another plan. He sends for Deianeita's fiancee-- to whom she was engaged by her father-- and sets up a quarrel between the fiancee and Hercules. Later Licos has a stooge kill the fiancee and frame Hercules for the deed. Then Hercules runs off to clear his name, following Licos' agent. The agent blunders into the land of the Amazons, where he's killed by one of their guardians, a gigantic-but-not-very-mobile Hydra. Hercules kills the monster but he's wounded. The Amazons find the hero and take him back to their city.
Meanwhile, Deianeira learns of Licos' murder of her father and the framing of Hercules. The villain keeps her alive for the usual reason, hoping to make her marry him and secure his rule.
Hercules fails to return to Ecalia for a very good reason: the Amazon queen Hippolyta-- who loves to seduce men and then torment them by changing them into agonized trees-- uses magic to transform herself into the image of Deianeira. For some time the muscleman is mazed into thinking he's cohabiting with his true love-- always a good way to absolve the hero of some extracurricular hanky-panky. Fortunately for the hero, one of the other Amazons exposes Hippolyta's plan. The Amazon shows Hercules the tormented tree-people, which snaps him out of his enchantment. He escapes, while Hippolyta, though she kills the traitor Amazon, is slain by one of the tree-people. Hercules returns to Ecalia to raise hell. Licos flees with Deianeira, but in the countryside they are attacked by an ape-creature. The ape kills Licos, Hercules kills it, and the lovers are reunited.
Except for the bit about the ape-man at the end-- which seems to have been tossed in so that Hercules have one really good hand-to-hand battle-- this heroic fantasy is reasonably logical for its sexual politics. In a symbolic sense, Deianeira-- named for one of the archaic hero's lovers-- is a tacit substitute for the wife killed by Licos' schemes. The wife's death frees Hercules to take on a new love, which is something of a sop to modern tastes, since the original usually just took new concubines whenever he pleased. The "trial of Themis," though not a real Greek ritual, carries some of the resonance of real atonement-rituals, which were concerned with expelling evil from the community by placing supposed evildoers through ordeals. It's possible to read the rather William Tell-ish ritual as a distanced sexual ritual, as well. Also in agreement with the ancient Greeks is the film's treatment of the Amazons, since they transgress the normality of "good" women like Deianeira, taking pleasure in being sexually active and in performing sadistic tortures. The idea of humans being tormented in tree-form was probably borrowed from Dante's INFERNO.
To be sure, it's a mixed bag. But in comparison to most of the films of the period, whether starring Hercules, Samson, or Ulysses, at least there's a little logic to all the loving and the killing,
Friday, June 7, 2013
JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological, metaphysical*
In my review of Ray Harryhausen's 1958 SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, I mentioned that I'd come across a hostile film-review which asserted that Harryhausen's type of films weren't about anything but piling wonders on top of one another. This was written long after Harryhausen's heyday in film, but it's possible that he and/or his longtime producer Charles Schneer heard similar dismissive comments even after the success of the first SINBAD film.
By accident or design, the 1963 JASON seems like an attempt to channel Harryhausen's genius for visual effects away from outright juvenilia like SEVENTH VOYAGE and MYSTERIOUS ISLAND, and toward a more "prestige" production-- albeit one that would not lose the juvenile, wonder-loving audience. In contrast to the "Sinbad" stories of the ARABIAN NIGHTS, which belonged more to folklore than literature, the ARGONAUTICA of Apollonius was a genuine literary work of the classic era. Even a free-form adaptation of such a work-- and JASON certainly is such-- bids comparison with other cinematic adaptations of religious narratives and literary epics, such as 1961's EL CID and 1962's SODOM AND GOMORRAH.
I could say that my extrapolation is based largely on my perception that the script, direction, and musical score for JASON all suggest to me a greater sense of thematic gravity, as well as an appreciation for the monolithic qualities of literary epic. But what most suggests "prestige" to me here is that Schneer and Harryhausen accepted a script which leaves the story of Jason's quest unfinished.
In most pop culture films of the period, it was rare-- though not impossible-- for the villain of the story to escape, unless there was a very good chance of a sequel in which the hero would get another crack at him. JASON begins with the prophecy that the hero will conquer the evil Pelias, the murderer of Jason's family, but the film ends with Jason overcoming a substitute tyrant, and with the suggestion that Jason will have other adventures. Had there been a JASON sequel, presumably Pelias would have met the usual dire fate of evildoers.
Why did Schneer and Harryhausen pursue this strategy? Certainly it would not have been impossible to devise a "Reader's Digest" version of the Argonautica, in which Jason would leave Argos with his crew, have a few adventures at sea, steal the Golden Fleece from Colchis and its ruler Aeetes, and return to finish off Pelias at the climax.
Various reasons suggest themselves. Had JASON been successful enough to prompt investment in a sequel-- which it was not, unfortunately for Harryhausen fans-- then the mention of "future adventures" at the end of JASON would have helped "pre-sell" the sequel. Additionally, the script was certainly molded by the sort of effects Harryhausen most wanted to execute-- and frankly, the conclusion of the original epic, wherein Pelias meets his fate, is pretty light on wonders and marvels. Harryhausen's wonder-working instincts may have told him to end the film on a high note, in the fantasy-land of Colchis.
But even with these alternate scenarios in mind, I still suggest that it was important to Schneer and Harryhausen to impart a "high seriousness" to JASON. The film begins in Jason's infancy, in which the villain Pelias slaughters the hero's family under the delusion that the gods have sanctioned his actions. Twenty years later, he meets Jason as a young man-- though Pelias conceals his identity-- and conceives a scheme to send the hero off to fetch the Golden Fleece as a means to get rid of him. In most pop-culture tales of this sort, Jason's motives for finding Pelias would be revenge and nothing but. But the script gives Jason nobler motives: he recognizes that Pelias has made the land he rules into a corrupt wasteland, and the hero wants not to just to avenge his personal grievances, but to redeem the land of his father's people. The imagery of a wasteland in the living world will be mirrored by Jason's journey to Colchis, which in many interpretations is essentially the land of the dead.
The assemblage of heroes-- the sort of thing that would be severely adumbrated by most catchpenny Italian fantasy-films of the time-- is given a great deal of attention, even if various details are altered, as when the Argonaut Acastus becomes a secret agent for Pelias in order to create suspense for the viewing-audience.
Jason's awe before the gods-- in whom he does not initially believe-- is tempered by his desire that men should stand on their own feet, while Zeus and Hera reveal a doleful awareness that someday this will come to pass. Though large sections of the ARGONAUTICA are naturally omitted, the film devotes a great deal of time to the subplot of Hercules and his good buddy-but-not-bedmate Hylas. This subplot plays an important role in the epic but it could have been omitted in the film, for the only impact Hercules has on the story is that he profanes the treasure-room of Hephaestus on the Isle of Bronze. Obviously any of the Argonauts, excluding the more sensible Jason, could have performed the same action. The fact that the filmmakers kept this unnecessary subplot suggests that they wanted to maintain some fidelity to the original epic, so that the film wouldn't just be a "catalogue of wonders."
Though the Argonauts' encounters with Talos on the Isle of Bronze and with Triton amid the Clashing Rocks may be the film's best known-- and most excerpted-- sequences, Jason's sojourn into Colchis has the greatest thematic relevance with the idea of the wasteland. Almost as soon as Jason rescues a new ally from the sea-- Aeetes' daughter Medea-- he loses his false friend Acastus, who fights with the hero and then escapes into the sea. Later Acastus betrays the Argonauts to Jason, informing Aeetes that they plan to steal the Fleece to restore their own land. The heroes evade captivity thanks to the help of Medea, who has fallen in love with Jason.
Without question Aeetes rules a realm of magic: he has the Fleece guarded by the Hydra, and when the hero kills the many-headed creature, Aeetes appeals to the witch-goddess Hecate to transform the Hydra's teeth into skeletal soldiers. He rails against the Argonauts for having come to steal the Fleece, and his argument h would be compelling if he were not a figurative King of the Dead. This makes him the sort of myth-personage who always gets plundered by great heroes, thus allowing those heroes to bring back supernatural gifts for (usually) the betterment of mankind. In addition, by defeating Aeetes' minions of death, he has in effect defeated the power which the mortal Pelias also represents, so that in a symbolic sense the film feels as though Jason has achieved his ends, even though Pelias has not yet been literally conquered.
Medea is the one weak element in JASON. Of course she could not be forced to love Jason by Aphrodite as in the epic; for modern audiences she had to fall in love with him normally. But their love does seem to occur by the authors' divine fiat anyway, and neither Nancy Kovack or Todd Armstrong are able to impart anything but marginal romantic feeling. Medea is also stripped of all of her sorcerous powers, so that she's nothing more than an additional prize for the titular hero to steal from Colchis, after she agonizes very briefly about betraying her father and her people.
It's axiomatic that a pop-cultural film like JASON cannot possibly reproduce the full range of mythopoesis available in even a late-classical work like THE ARGONAUTICA. Yet, even though JASON did not win great box-office success in its time, it does grapple with some of the same metaphysical issues presented by the ancient myths-- not least, the limits of man's indebtedness to his gods, and to the deeper sources of imagination from which the gods may be spawned. In this respect, JASON succeeds far better than most of the quasi-religious spectacles of the same time-period.
Thursday, June 6, 2013
NOTHING BUT THE NIGHT (1973)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
I wanted to like NOTHING BUT THE NIGHT, the sole production of Christopher Lee's company Charlemagne Productions. However, in addition to having been a financial failure despite the top billing of both Lee and his frequent partner-in-horror Peter Cushing, NIGHT is also a failure in terms of aesthetics.
I can't make any comparisons between the film and the original John Blackburn novel. I theorize, though, that the novel may have managed to make the story's "slow build" revelation work. But what might have worked on the printed page definitely does not work on the movie-screen. Perhaps in selecting this novel for adaptation, Christopher Lee was attempting to distance himself from the more visceral Hammer fare for which he'd become internationally famous. NIGHT's science-fiction elements, which relate to adults finding a way to biologically "download" their memories into the children at an orphanage, are revealed with a gradualness that is surely meant to be tantalizing but ends up as tedious.
The film begins promisingly with a scene on a bus transporting some of the orphans; a scene that foregrounds the film's conflict of youth and age, with older citizens on the bus looking cross about the orphans singing the Brit version of "99 bottles of beer on the wall." The bus crashes, and though only the driver is killed, the orphans come under the care of pathologist Mark Ashley (Peter Cushing) and his younger assisant, psychologist Dr. Haynes. Haynes discovers that one orphan, name of Mary, has strange dreams about having experienced a fire, and he wants to examine her in greater depth, even though the orphanage, the ominously named Inver Hall, wants all the children returned. Haynes also finds out that Mary isn't entirely an orphan; that Mary's natural mother Anna Harb (Diana Dors) lost custody of her child because Anna was a prostitute who killed a man-- presumably a john-- and went away to prison for many years. Anna shows up at the clinic, also wanting access to her stressed-out daughter.
Dr. Ashley's troubles are just beginning. Not only does he have to contend with do-gooder Haynes trying to convince him that Mary needs special treatment, retired cop Colonel Bingham (Christopher Lee) wants to investigate the trusteeship that runs the orphanage. Three trustees have perished as a result of unmotivated suicides in recent months, and one of them was a dear friend of Bingham's. The Colonel also begins nosing about the case of the orphans, and Ashley reluctantly allows himself to be drawn into the investigation. In addition, a scandal-rag reporter interviews Anna Harb, who's making a stink about not being able to see her daughter, and this reporter also joins Haynes' investigation.
Haynes facillitates a meeting between Anna and her daughter, but things go wrong, and Haynes is murdered by Anna. The murder takes place offscreen, so the audience never knows what transpired, though the presumption is that Anna tried to steal her reluctant daughter from the clinic and Haynes gor in the way. Anna Harb goes on the run, and presumably heads for the island of Bala, where Inver Hall dwells, anticipating that Mary will be sent there. Ahsley continues his investigations of Mary's strange memories while Bingham seeks to find out if there's some sort of conspiracy that may have brought about the three suicides.
The various plotlines never entirely cohere, leading me to the suspicion that the book accounted for a lot of loose ends that this 90-minute movie had to leave out. Suffice to say that though Ashley becomes less prominent in the latter half of the film, he and Bingham eventually uncover the truth: that the orphanage has become suborned by a private experiment which makes it possible for members of the "older generation" to live second lives, by taking over the bodies of school-age children. After almost eighty minutes of "slow build," Bingham is finally witness to the true nature of these corrupted vessels. He rages against the stealing of the lives of the young by the old-- the first time the film's moral theme becomes fully evident-- and a last-minute rescue prevents Bingham from being sacrificed in a fiery Guy Fawkes Day ceremony.
The reference to Guy Fawkes-- an English custom that may not play well outside the British Isles-- demonstrates that some aspects of the film are quintessentially British. Other themes-- those of class warfare and the recrudescence of pagan religiosity-- may travel somewhat better, though almost a full year later THE WICKER MAN would delve into the same themes with far greater acuity.
For instance, take the character of Anna Harb. Her function in the story is that of a "red herring;" she largely exists to take the viewer's mind off the strange doings at Inver Hall. She doesn't suceed at this since she is, by definition, a low-class "working-woman," so the audience can't believe her to be involved in the high-level conspiracies. She almost functions as a contrast in sociological terms, for throughout the film it's clear that British society abides by the Golden Rule, as in, "He who has the gold makes the rules." This extends to the well-heeled trustees' ability to legally separate a mother from her daughter. However, though the script suggests some sympathy for the concept of maternal rights, it extends no feeling for Anna Harb, who is little more than a cartoon of a lower-class woman. It's not even very clear as to why she wants her daughter back so desperately, though a few lines suggest that somehow she may have been involved with the memory-transfer experiment. It's possible to imagine a scenario that hurled a plague on high-class and low-class houses alike, but NIGHT is not sophisticated enough to pull that off, and the lack of moral resolution leaves a muddled result. Moreover, Diana Dors doesn't provide any tension as a menacing psycho-killer. In American terms, it's like watching Ann Sothern play a psycho-mom.
I certainly can't believe director Peter Sasdy to be at fault here, given that roughly two years previous he produced the brilliant HANDS OF THE RIPPER. Only in the final Guy Fawkes scene does some of Sasdy's directing-talent show itself. Lee and Cushing as always project good presence, but both of their characters are vague stereotypes. Lee isn't all that impressive as an investigator, but he has a good scene in which he butts heads with the liberal scandal-rag reporter, which could also be construed as a matter of class politics.
Tuesday, June 4, 2013
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological*
In re-viewing Steven Spielberg's HOOK, I found myself thinking that it should have been subtitled, "REVENGE OF THE ADULTS."
As I noted in my essay on J.M. Barrie's original novel, I regard Barrie's story of Peter Pan-- whether in book or play format-- to be a "combative comedy." It is "combative" because the plot centers around the direct conflict of two dynamic adversaries. It's also a "comedy," though I found it to be one that revolves less around "jokes" than around what I called a "homey type of comedy." The book's main theme is stated by the gentle irony found in its concluding lines: "and thus it will go on, so long as children are gay and innocent and heartless." Over and over Barrie repeats his refrain: the Darling children rarely if ever remember the heartbroken parents they have left behind, Tinkerbelle doesn't even think of expressing appreciation for those who clap for the fairies and bring her back to life, and so on. But Barrie is making a subtle point: for him the essence of childhood is not the sort of idealized winsomeness of Victorian days, but a divine selfishness, a desire to play ceaselessly without consequence-- except perhaps with girls, whose mothering instincts kick in early.
Prior to my first viewing of HOOK I thought it seemed perfectly natural that Steven Spielberg should do a Peter Pan movie, given that he was often associated with movies that possessed juvenile content. However, most of those films were works on which Spielberg served as a producer and not director, like 1985's GOONIES (though Spielberg did contribute the story there). As a director his content "skewed adult"-- and that may have a lot to do with his willingness to do a story about Peter Pan choosing to grow up, an idea with which Barrie himself toyed.
The vision of youth presented by Spielberg and his writers in HOOK demonstrates no interest in Barrie's theme of childish insensitivity; instead, it is the mature Peter Pan, now "Peter Banning" (Robin Williams) who has become insensitive to the needs of his children Jack and Maggie, sired with his wife Moira, the granddaughter of the original Wendy. In order to age normally, Peter has forgotten his earlier existence in Neverland, and subdues all of his life-instincts as a husband and father by transforming into a workaholic corporate raider. In the film's best line, the aged Wendy observes, "Peter-- you've become a pirate!"
Somehow Captain Hook (Dustin Hoffman), though his ship is stranded in Neverland, learns where Peter Banning lives and steals his children in order to lure Peter Pan back for a climactic battle. This development may be read as an inversion of Barrie's theme. At no time do Banning's children yearn after the absolute freedom of agelessness and endless playtime; no sooner are they in Neverland that they want to return home. Children aren't the ones who need Neverland; it's adults who need it as an anodyne against the pressures of being an adult.
Peter Banning, having no memory of Hook or Neverland, has no idea how to cope with the kidnapping. Spielberg's solution is to turn Tinkerbelle into Jiminy Cricket, who facillitates Peter's return to Neverland. Peter still remembers nothing even in Neverland, so his nemesis allows him time to "re-train" himself, so that Hook will be able to kill him in "good form."
Tinkerbelle leads Peter to the current edition of "the Lost Boys" for his training. These Lost Boys aren't "innocent and heartless," they're simply boisterous, much like the earlier "Goonies." In addition to trying to cast off his middle-aged attitudes and his middle-age gut, Peter has to face Rufio, a rival for the leadership of the Lost Boys. Meanwhile back at Hook's pirate ship, the piratical villain devises a means to further torment his old foe, as he tries to brainwash Jack into becoming a "mini-Hook." This is perhaps the only place where the film invokes Barrie's idea of an inherent juvenile selfishness, in that Hook puts pressure on the kids by claiming that their parents don't love them, but only give in to their needs to "shut them up." Of course neither Jack nor Maggie is unusually selfish, so the failure of Hook's scheme is something of a foregone conclusion.
Though there are a number of charming moments in the film-- I particularly like Maggie's horrified reaction when the pirates gives her an "F" for failing his phony-baloney class-- HOOK suffers from too many incidental characters and a wayward, rambling plot. The ending is the greatest failing: after building up to the combat of Hook and the rejuvenated Peter Pan, the script has the hero try to walk away from the conflict twice-- even after Hook kills Rufio-- apparently out of some misguided sense of moral rectitude. There is a clever bit in which Hook is "killed" by his old nemesis the crocodile for roughly the same reasons he is in the Barrie book: so that the hero himself need not commit the final act. The humor is definitely more oriented toward "boffo jokes" than toward Barrie's form of gentle humor, and because the production seems so ceaselessly high-energy, the audience in 1991 was probably ready for the film to end long before it did.
Dustin Hoffman's Hook rates as the best featured performance here; he's still somewhat foolish, as in the book, but not as incompetent as he is in Disney's PETER PAN. Robin Williams is a mixed bag: he does quite well as "serious, adult Peter," but his humorous moments just sound like outtakes from a Williams standup routine and he's a washout as the rejuvenated, flying-with-his-pot-belly-hanging-out Pan. Even allowing for the massive change in Tinkerbelle's character, Julia Roberts proves a terrible choice, lacking any sort of fairy-like luster. Bob Hoskins and Maggie Smith acquit themselves best in their supporting roles.
THE BROTHERS GRIMM (2005)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological, psychological*
One thing I'll say for Terry Gilliam: he's honest. In his DVD commentary for GRIMM he admits that he didn't like the original script he read before signing on, but that he took the assignment because he was out of work at the time.
There's nothing intrinsically wrong with a filmmaker simply signing on to do a "time-killer" film, which is the highest compliment one can give THE BROTHERS GRIMM. Gilliam and other hands worked on the script, but however they might have improved it, at heart it's just another "high-concept" film along the line of the "mismatched partners" trope. GRIMM begins with fictionalizing Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm-- who always call one another "Jake" and "Will," and are played respectively by Heath Ledger and Matt Damon-- so that instead of being scholars of the fairy tale, they're a couple of frauds. They use their knowledge of folklore to hoax the people of their native Germany into paying the duo to exorcise supernatural threats that the brothers have faked with stage magic. Of the two, Will is the flamboyant showman, while Jake is the subdued scholarly type whom Will maneuvers into their life of deception.
No sooner does the film set up the brothers' career that the script invokes another famous trope, "the boy who cried wolf." The Grimms' reputation for ghostbusting becomes so widespread that they're engaged to solve the mystery of disappearing children in the village of Marbaden. With very little difficulty, the brothers discover that this time the threat is real. In the neighboring forest they discover a secluded tower, and eventually learn that its inhabitant, "the Mirror Queen," is an immortal sorceress who lost her beauty to disease years ago. Now she's found a way to restore her good looks by sacrificing twelve young people during an eclipse. The Grimms are extremely reluctant heroes, but they're continually forced to play hero by other circumstances-- a French occupation-general who wants an end to the commotion, or the beautiful trapper-lady Angelika whose family is distantly involved in the witch's scheme.
This dependence on outside circumstance points out the script's fatal flaw: the protagonists have no real convictions of their own, and so their efforts to be heroic always seem like mere plot-convenience. Their sibling quarrels are flat and unconvincing, and though the actors present the characters with some charm they aren't able to give the characters any depth. The script ladles in half a dozen references to fairy tales and similar lore, not all associated with the original Grimms-- "Hansel and Gretel," "Red Riding Hood," "The Gingerbread Man, " "Snow White," "Rapunzel," and "Sleeping Beauty." But these too have no more resonance than footnotes, and they feel as though in many cases they were chosen as from a grab-bag of fairy-tale references.
Oddly enough, the lead heroine Angelika (Lena Headey) proves far more engaging, both in terms of character and plot, than either the Grimms or their villain, and I suggest that it would have been a better story built around her. Initially the Grimms seek out this lone trapper-woman because she knows the ways of the forest. Then it's revealed that long ago Angelika's woodsman father told her strange stories of the forest-tower-- and that later, he mysteriously disappeared. The film ultimately reveals that the Mirror Queen has suborned the woodsman as her enforcer, enchanting him into the form of a werewolf (thus combining two elements of "Red Riding Hood" in one character). This is the closest that GRIMM gets to the "family romance" of real myth and folklore, for Angelika is the only character who has a truly personal struggle, attempting to win her father away from the influence of an evil old woman-- thus displaying a nodding resemblance to SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTRESS. Though the enchanted woodsman almost does sacrifice the life of his daughter for the sorceress, in the end Angelika wins the contest, albeit indirectly, when the woodsman gives up his own life to defeat the Queen.
Though the Brothers do ultimately perform heroic acts, I don't find that they have the attitude I regard as intrinsically heroic, so that I would style both of them as demiheroes. This technicality alone would not keep GRIMM from being what I style a "combative adventure," but in my system the protagonists also lack the necessary *dynamicity,* so I rate GRIMM as a *subcombative adventure.*
Sunday, June 2, 2013
YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (1967)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological, psychological*
In contrast to LIVE AND LET DIE, where an excellent Fleming book gave rise to a so-so movie, Fleming's YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE-- the last Bond book published prior to the author's demise-- is a so-so book that gave rise to a movie that is, if not one of the best Bonds, one of the most iconic. Though I've commented elsewhere that I liked Charles Gray's take on the uber-villain Blofeld better than the performances of Donald Pleasance or his successor Telly Savalas, there's no doubt that the Pleasance image is the one best remembered, and the most frequently parodied.
The book ought to be a lot better than it is, given that it follows one of the great tragedies in James Bond's fictional existence: the slaying of his new wife Tracy by Blofeld and his equally evil wife Irma Bunt. Instead, Fleming follows the same pattern that he did following Bond's tragedy in CASINO ROYALE: 007's boss gives the agent a minor-seeming errand to help the agent get over his remorse, but the errand mushrooms into an encounter with a major adversary. Much of the continuity of Fleming's TWICE feels like a travelogue in which the author acquaints the reading-audience with the many mysteries of Japan. In order to obtain necessary intel from the Japanese, Bond is engaged to kill an eccentric recluse-- the almost comically named "Doctor Shatterhand." The doctor becomes an embarassment to the Japanese government because he maintains a "garden of death" worthy of Hawthorne's Doctor Rappacini, and many Japanese citizens, full of their culture's high regard for suicide, seek out the garden in order to immolate themselves. When Bond investigates, he learns that Shatterhand is actually Blofeld in disguise. Blofeld has essentially "turned Japanese"-- he even sports a samurai armor and fights Bond with a sword-- but Bond manages to kill the SPECTRE leader and his wife before destroying the villain's redoubt. In a side-plot, Bond loses his memory and almost "turns Japanese" as well when his female ally Kissy Suzuki tries to convince him to live with her. The novel has no marvelous devices but falls under the uncanny category of "bizarre crimes," due to Blofeld's almost supervillain-like passion for experimenting with the lives of the Japanese. In contrast to the movie, Fleming does attempt in his *gaijin* way to grapple with Japanese culture's fascination with suicide and death, which gives it a better than average sociological mythicity.
The cinematic TWICE, directed by Lewis Gilbert-- his first of three Bond films, followed by THE SPY WHO LOVED ME and MOONRAKER-- doesn't delve that deeply into Japanese culture. However, like the novel the film is one of the first Western stories to spotlight the subculture of ninjas, who would become major players in the adventure-films of the 1970s and all succeeding decades. Since this film followed on the heels of 1965's THUNDERBALL, and the series would not adapt ON YOUR MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE until 1969, Bond has no personal animus against Blofeld, except for Blofeld's having been the prime mover behind the THUNDERBALL affair. Therefore TWICE is the first time the characters meet on-film. Blofeld's Japanese HQ does keep one element from the novel, in that the villain stocks a pool full of vicious pirahna. But this Blofeld's raison d'etre is distinctly of the Space Age-- as is Bond's, since here we see the agent using such super-scientific devices as cigarettes that can cast forth explosive charges.
TWICE is probably the film most people will remember using the trope of "independent villain tries to foment war between the superpowers." I seem to remember that Marvel Comics had used the trope at least twice before TWICE came out. Still, the opening scene of the film-- in which a spacecraft sent by Blofeld "devours" an American space capsule, causing the death of a life-lined astronaut-- is one of the mythopoeic high points of the entire Bond series. That bravura scene best "encapsulates" (sorry) the Cold War tensions underlying the "race for space."
Though scripter Roald Dahl dispenses with most of Fleming's travelogue-like sequences-- particularly scenes of Bond drinking and whoring with his Japanese colleague Tiger Tanaka-- Dahl still keeps to Fleming's image of Japan as a male fantasy come true, full of pliable, obedient women. The only exception to this rule in the book is the aforementioned Kissy Suzuki, an expert pearl diver enlisted to help Bond gain entrance to Shatterhand's palace. The film, in contrast, has three moderately compelling women-- Blofeld-agent Helga, who almost kills Bond in a gimmicked-up plane, and two female Japanese agents. One dies a sacrificial death, while the other-- a much altered version of "Kissy"-- joins Bond's side in the big climactic battle, though she doesn't do a helluva lot. So on the frontier of "gender politics" TWICE is a slight step back from THUNDERBALL.
A Wikipedia comment asserts that Dahl modeled his script after DOCTOR NO, but in my opinion the structure is closer to THUNDERBALL. Both films are minimally plotted, as Bond seeks to investigate some Machivellian enemy and has to keep fending off continual attacks even as he manages to "tour" an assortment of exotic locales. But if the plot is ragged, the exotica is always stimulating, and Bond has two better-than-average fight-scenes amid his peregrinations. Gilbert's final Bond film MOONRAKER follows the same pattern but gives the audience far less bang for the buck.
RESIDENT EVIL: DAMNATION (2012), RESIDENT EVIL: RETRIBUTION (2012)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*
I've never agreed with critics who put down the RESIDENT EVIL films for not having the horrific content of zombie films. I can't speak to the films' adaptation of tropes from the video games, with which I have no familiarity. But from the first RESIDENT EVIL, which introduces its iconic heroine Alice, it's always been clear to me that the zombies aren't the focus of the film, as in George Romero's DEAD films. These are films of adventure, and the zombies are just cannon fodder for the heroine and her allies.
In general the EVIL films-- whether or not helmed by frequent director Paul W.S. Anderson-- have been good popcorn fare, with just a hint of the same mythic tropes developed in the ALIEN franchise; where a kickbutt female becomes the hope of the world due to her ability to assimilate the powers of the fiendish invaders.
That said, I have to say that RETRIBUTION-- the latest live-action film in the franchise, all of which have starred Milla Jovavich as the heroine Alice-- was the weakest one I've seen in terms of action and spectacle. Part of the problem is that most of the action takes place within one big complex, depriving the story of the quasi-epic scope available in other entries. Ironically, making ths film more like a video game deprives the film-franchise of one of its best features.
Alice and many familiar faces from the series-- Jill Valentine, Rain Ocampo, and Albert Wesker-- appear here, but the script, as marking time for the proposed "sixth and final installment," does little more than put them through some "Alice in Wonderland" mutations. Alice's ally Jill turns against Alice, having fallen under the power of the human-hating computer program "the Red Queen." Alice finds that she herself has been cloned, and that one of her clones has produced a female child, one Becky, who happens to be deaf-and-dumb. Wesker, usually a villain in most of the stories, enlists Alice and her friends to help him prevent the extinction of humanity by the killer zombies. None of it is precisely bad, but none of it has the extra *oomph* that made other series-entries fairly appealing. The most I can say is that RETRIBUTION includes a very good hand-to-hand battle between Jovavich's Alice and Sienna Guillory's Jill.
In contrast, the animated film DAMNATION-- the second film of its kind, and released in the U.S. slightly after RETRIBUTION-- manages to keep some of that old kickass feel. Again, since I don't follow the games, perhaps I enjoyed DAMNATION better simply because it was my introduction to two new characters, American soldier Leon S. Kennedy and devious spy-girl Ada Wong. Wong actually shows up in RETRIBUTION as well, but her character in the live-action movie lacks the gusto of the animated version. In addition, DAMNATION, in addition to the usual slobbering alien-predator mutant monsters, benefits from a strong villain, lady president Svetlana Belikova of the "Eastern Slav Republic."
I can't say that either film's plot stuck with me very long, but DAMNATION scored with me by creating some incidental characters-- albeit characters doomed to perish almost immediately-- a small band of Slav rebels attempting to fight Belikova but also attracted to American pop culture. In contrast, RETRIBUTION was just the same old group of recurring characters, and so proved a little on the boring side. Possibly Paul Anderson took it easy with this one while warming up for his supposed big finale.
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