Friday, April 25, 2014




"And if one does what God does enough times, one will become as God is."-- Hannibal Lecter.

As I mentioned in my review of THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, I have not read the book on which that film was based. Similarly, I have not read RED DRAGON, the novel that introduced the character of Hannibal Lecter, so I don't know how closely the film MANHUNTER follows the book, and I have yet to see the 2002 film adaptation.

All that said, I prefer director Michael Mann's take on the Thomas Harris world of serial killers to that of Jonathan Demme in SILENCE. In my review of the later film, I remarked: 'At times, indeed, SILENCE may be a little overly composed, thumbing the tub for feminist psychological interpretations of male-female "difference."'

In contrast, MANHUNTER deals more explicitly with the nature of the serial killer.  As the quote above suggests, the serial killer murders so that he can feel like God, whom Lecter pictures as a vindictive deity, taking pleasure every time a plane goes down or a natural catastrophe extinguishes multiple lives.  Lecter's own crimes are barely referenced in MANHUNTER, and he remains imprisoned for the entirety of the film, acting as an insidious mentor to a younger serial killer, who shares Lecter's belief that the act of murder transfigures the murderer.

Killer Francis Dollarhyde calls himself "the Red Dragon" though investigators have given him the demeaning name of "the Tooth Fairy" because he leaves bite-marks on his victims.  Mann, who also wrote MANHUNTER's screenplay, is a little obscure as to Dollarhyde's reasons for identifying with a specific dragon from a famous William Blake painting-series, though the identification leads the killer to sport the tattoo of a dragon on his back.  He only displays the tattoo once in the film, as well as donning a mask, an "outrĂ© outfit" that he displays for the benefit of a reporter he plans to kill. Thus the killer's purpose for using this colorful attire is not to disguise his identity, but to invoke awe in the man before he dies, so that Dollarhyde can be seen as an all-powerful deity.

For the hero as well as the villain, the act of seeing is more crucial in MANHUNTER than in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. Celebrated profiler Will Graham is guilted into joining the "Tooth Fairy" investigation even though he has retired from the FBI following two signal accomplishments: shooting down one serial killer and capturing another, the aforementioned Lecter.  As essayed with William Petersen, Graham is a man with a rare talent to see into the minds of mass murderers, but the experience has left him haunted by his sense of commonality with these monsters.  Graham has even been forced to go through psychological therapy to subdue his demons, demons he must summon forth again in order to understand the insanity of the Tooth Fairy. He consults with the imprisoned Doctor Lecter, ostensibly for Lecter's advice on the case but in reality to "jump-start" his own power to identify with the murderous mind.  Lecter does inadvertently provide the FBI with a lead in the case, but Graham pays a price for this assistance: Lecter mocks Graham with the knowledge that Graham too has taken pleasure in dealing out death, helping to push Graham toward the edge.

One of Graham's theories about the Tooth Fairy is that he was molested by a parent as a child, making the killer impotent in normal relationships and fueling his desire for godhood.  A less skilled writer-director would probably confirm this for an audience by having the killer experience flashbacks of his wretched past, but Mann only suggests the correctness of Graham's theory through Dollarhyde's botched relationship with a blind co-worker. Presumably this plotline appears in the novel also, but Mann brings his own unique cinematic approach to the storyline, through his use of a monochromatic color palette to emphasize specific moods. Of particular note are the all-white walls of the asylum where Lecter-- also clad in white-- resides.  I don't know of any scene that has succeeded so well in giving whiteness a sinister cast, as the scene in which Graham, overwhelmed by Lecter's corrosive personality, flees the asylum with stark white walls on every side of him.

While many contemporary films may treat serial killers in an entirely naturalistic manner-- such as 1999's EYE OF THE BEHOLDER, linked with my SILENCE review above-- there's little doubt in my mind that this is a psycho-film in the uncanny mode, as it deals with a killer who sees himself as abrogating the power of God and/or a dragon-- an ironic association, given that in Revelations the Great Dragon is the opponent of God. The climax features a violent gun-battle between Graham and Dollarhyde, so that I briefly considered that MANHUNTER might also fit the combative mode. I decided that the film did not fit that mode due to the brevity of the violent conflict.

Thursday, April 24, 2014


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1) *fair,* (2) *poor*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: (1) *metaphysical,* (2) *cosmological*

Although evil witches were stock villains in prose horror-stories, sound cinema endured for roughly thirty years before the modern-day witch became a major player in horror films.  The year 1960 premiered, within a month of one another, Mario Bava's BLACK SUNDAY and John Llewellyn Moxey's CITY OF THE DEAD, aka HORROR HOTEL. It's unlikely either influenced the other, but both contain witches who lived in the 15th century, got burned at the stake and somehow survived to wreak evil in the 20th century.  Bava's film is unquestionably superior, but HORROR HOTEL makes stronger use of the Christians-vs.-Satanists theme; a theme that would become dominant as the 1960s produced more witch and/or Satanist horror films.

Like BLACK SUNDAY, HOTEL opens with a female witch being executed by burning. Where in SUNDAY the witch and her male companion perish together by the hands of a European inquisition, in HOTEL witchy Elizabeth Selwyn is burned alone by the irate pilgrims of Whitewood, Massachusetts. Elizabeth almost blows the cover of her fellow conjurer Jethrow Keane by calling out to him. He denies having any knowledge of the accused woman, a plot-thread which sounds like a setup for some resentment on the witch's part. However, as the film unfolds, apparently Satan's power smooths over any differences the two witches might have had. By 1960 both Selwyn and Keane are still alive through some devilish immortality-ritual.  They hold court in the isolated town of Whitewood, where they sacrifice selected victims twice annually, once at "Candlemas" in February, and again at "the Witch's Sabbath," possibly the film's name for Samhain/Halloween.

The audience never knows how the witch-cult has gathered its victims in the past, but the newest victim, Nan Barlow, is urged to visit Whitewood by her teacher Professor Driscoll (Christopher Lee). Nan's brother Richard and her boyfriend Bill both show rationalistic aversion to the idea of modern-day witchcraft and scoff at Driscoll's fascination with the subject. For Nan's part, she's not personally interested in the topic: she merely wants to do her thesis on a promising anthropological subject. So off Nan goes to Whitewood, where she has various slightly spooky encounters, including a conversation with a priest who claims that he's the only practicing Christian in town, and that all of Whitewood-- about ten people, from what the audience sees-- is consecrated to Satan. By the end of the film Driscoll has joined his witch-buddies for the big sacrifice. The righteous priest is killed, but he passes down a commandment to Nan's rationalist brother to literally bear a cross against the devotees of the devil.

Though there are slow spots in Moxey's HOTEL, and the religious themes are superficial, Moxey compensates with some tense scenes, creating spookiness on what must have been a rather humble budget.  One of the best scenes in the early part of the film shows Nan driving along a fogbound road to Whitewood, where she picks up a  weird stranger that the audience will recognize as the still-living warlock Keane.  However, after three more of these fogbound car-scenes-- with secondary female Patricia, with brother Richard and with boyfriend Bill-- the viewer may get a little weary of the fog. The fog-road also spawns a continuity problem. First Richard drives his car to Whitewood, looking to rescue Patricia, and nothing happens to him. Then, apparently the same day, Bill drives the same route, and the evil Elizabeth enspells him so that his car crashes.  Was Richard spared because Elizabeth's crystal ball was on the fritz at the time? 

I also found myself wondering how the aged priest, who lost his sight to the witches' evil magic, survived for an unspecified number of years in the town. Since he states that he has no parishioners, there's no one to pay him a salary wherewith to purchase his daily bread. The sketchy backstory mentions that the priest's wife has died prior to the film's beginning, which becomes relevant because this circumstance brings his grand-daughter Patricia to Whitewood. But it's still hard to imagine how either of them could eke out a living in a town dedicated to the devil.

Still, the big climax saves the film from its more mediocre moments.  Lee, in one of the many supporting roles that followed his star-turns as "Dracula" and "Kharis the Mummy," exudes far more sinister charisma than the principal menace provided by Patricia Jessel.

HORROR EXPRESS is a favorite 1970s film, due to its teaming of frequent favorites Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.  That said, it's a fairly thin thriller. About a year later, the two stars would make a more interesting film pursuing a roughly similar theme, THE CREEPING FLESH. But whereas that film had a theme, however well executed, about man's place in the universe, EXPRESS is just a roller-coaster ride that happens to take place on a train.

In 1906 China, Lee's "Professor Saxton" unearths the ice-preserved body of an apelike man, which he theorizes may be of anthropological signifance. He crates it up and boards the Trans-Siberian Express, planning to take the ancient corpse back to England. By coincidence his colleague Wells (Peter Cushing) happens to be on the same train with his female assistant, as are many other semi-colorful characters: a Russian count and countess, their "spiritual advisor," a devious female spy, and a police inspector who becomes embroiled in solving various murders on the Express.

The culprit is the ape-man, or, more precisely, a energy-alien whose people explored Earth in ancient times. The alien, capable of inhabiting human forms, became trapped in the ape-man's dead body when it was buried in ice.  Now that the creature is free, it starts transferring into other bodies, which it can do whenever its eyes glow in the dark.  This limitation is one of the script's big problems: why would the alien need darkness to make the transfer? I suspect the only real reason was to give emphasis to the visual impact in which the possessed person's eyes glow. In addition, the alien can also suck the memories of anyone he encounters into himself, which causes the victims' brains to "smooth out" before they perish.

The concept of a body-hopping presence has seen better executions both in prose and in film, particularly because EXPRESS' budget doesn't allow for anything more than (1) bleeding eyes or (2) the opaque eyes of a memory-sucked brain. This is the sort of project that would have been perfect for the makeup/FX breakthroughs seen in horror-films of the 1980s.  None of the characters, including those of Lee and Cushing, register as anything but Johnny or Janey One-Notes, though Cushing gets the film's best line.  When an official accuses Wells and Saxton of possibly being the body-skipping monster, Wells replies, "Monsters? We're British!"

Though Lee, Cushing, and Telly Savalas were unquestionably the selling-points for the thriller, I found myself wondering if it would have been a better film had it concentrated on the Rasputin-like presence of Pujardov, the "pet monk" of the two royal Russians. Initially Pujardov has an almost psychic foreknowledge of the danger in Saxton's cargo, and he reviles it as a tool of the devil. Halfway through the film, though, Pujardov becomes intoxicated with the power of "Satan" and not only serves the alien, he willfully invites the creature to invade him.  I don't know if a film about a Russian priest's spiritual struggle would have been any better than a simple thrill-ride, though. There's a suggestion of a plot in which the alien hopes to use human technology to escape Earth but it never leads to much of anything.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

THE ROBE (1953)

PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, metaphysical*

Aside from the 2014 NOAH, the only quasi-Biblical film I've reviewed here is THE SILVER CHALICE,  which alludes to, but does not show, Christian miracles.  The original source novel for THE ROBE is based very loosely on a scriptural reference to a Roman soldier dicing for Jesus' garments, but owes more to the Gospel stories of Judas, the man who brings about Christ's death and suffers the torment of guilt because of his actions. But whereas Judas kills himself to escape his guilt, the ROBE's Roman soldier channels his guilt into becoming a spokesman for the glories of the Christian triumph over secular Roman tyranny. (Interestingly, only in the opening does the film allude to Roman religion, which is immediately dismissed for its carnal deities, ranging from "huntresses to drunkards.")

I should note that I was a believer in Christianity at least until the age of twelve. I didn't lose my faith as some do; I think I simply began to admire many of the features of other religious traditions, as well as the images of myth and fable.  So none of THE ROBE's proselytizing on behalf of Christianity impresses me in the way that the filmmakers intended to impress its target audience. That said, I can appreciate some of the mythopoeic aspects of this take on Christian beliefs.

The easy opposition expoused by the film-- Romans=tyranny, Christians=freedom-- is summarized by the relationship between the Roman tribune Marcellus (Richard Burton) and the Greek slave Demetrius (Victor Mature). Marcellus foils Demetrius' attempt to escape Roman captivity, and yet purchases the Greek to save him from the gladiatorial pit-- an act of "Christian charity" from a pagan consciously concerned only with drinking and wenching. Various complications lead Marcellus to a tour of duty in Palestine, and he takes his new slave with him. Demetrius is almost immediately converted to Christianity just from seeing Jesus on Palm Sunday, but Marcellus and his fellow Romans simply follow through with the execution of a condemned criminal. Marcellus is somewhat more affected at the moment of Jesus' death, but more so when he orders Demetrius to fling the newly-won robe over his shoulders to shield the tribune from the rain-- whereon Marcellus reacts as if he'd just come into contact with Heracles' robe of fire.

Of course, since Christian miracles are never to be conflated with magic, Demetrius later explains that the robe has no magic powers: the pain Marcellus feels stems not from the garment but from his own guilt-- which is the reason I say that the original author's concept of the Roman soldier is strongly informed by the narrative of Judas. Eventually, despite the Roman soldier's skepticism, he converts even as Demetrius has.  Demetrius fades out of the story while Marcellus is being impressed by the rectitude of the Christians he meets in Cana, but the Greek becomes important later when he's captured by the Romans. In a feat of swashbuckler-like action, Marcellus and a team of Christian commandos break into a Roman dungeon and liberate Demetrius. The ex-slave almost dies of his wounds anyway, only to be saved by the healing-powers-- or grace, if that is the proper word-- of Simon Peter, who brings Demetrius back from death-- the only miracle one witnesses on-screen.  Marcellus and his loyal female friend, however, perform an *imitatio dei* when they defy Roman power and insult the corrupt Emperor Caligula to his face, thus bringing on themselves the death penalty.  Demetrius lives on to appear in the 1954 film DEMETRIUS AND THE GLADIATORS.

THE ROBE is not a good film, even for its genre, being particularly weighed down by a flat, by-the-numbers performance by Burton. Indeed, though Mature also plays a one-note character, he invests his role with far more intensity.  It's interesting that although it's implicit that Jesus has risen from the dead by the time Marcellus goes on his quest to find Demetrius and the robe, there's little or no reference to this particular Christian miracle.  There are, however, copious mentions of Jesus' power to heal cripples and other afflicted persons. The film's script, presumably following the book in most respects, includes a cripple whom Jesus did not happen to heal, but who maintains a blissful devotion to God nonetheless-- apparently to provide an example of the proper attitude one should take when one doesn't receive divine intervention.

An interesting detail is that although the film's opening scorns the huntress-deity Diana, this is also the name the story gives to the beloved of Marcellus who scorns Caligula and chooses to meet death alongside her husband.  But the film's most mythopoeic revolves around Demetrius. When he interferes with Roman soldiers forcing Jesus to carry his cross to Calvary, the Greek is knocked out. When he awakes to the ministrations of a nameless female Jew, he briefly imagines that night has fallen-- only to be told that it's a "day not like any other," rendering the Scriptures' literal "darkness at noon" into a psychological metaphor.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014


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

DEEP SPACE is an even bigger waste of time than Fred Olen Ray's Egyptian-themed junkfest from the previous year, THE TOMB.  I'm amazed that I've seen a few affectionate reviews for it, since in my opinion it didn't even do a good job in terms of Ray's signature strategy: that of taking a derivative script and salting it with assorted well-known jobbing actors. Here the familiar faces include lead hero Charles Napier, Ron Glass, Bo Svenson, Ann Turkel, and Julie Newmar. While a bio-engineered imitation-ALIEN wanders around a generic big city killing generic victims, Ray fills in time with such sights as Napier playing the bagpipes to make Turkel take her clothes off, and Newmar as a psychic who's barely in the film except for a couple of scenes where she talks to Napier on the phone.

With the latter role in mind, I can state that I have only one reason for writing even this much about this turkey, and that reason is to raise this question:

"If all of Julie Newmar's scenes show her using the phone, then regardless of the goodness or badness of her performance, isn't it correct to say that she 'phoned in her performance?'"

Tuesday, April 15, 2014


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1,2) *poor,* (3) *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: (1,2) *adventure,* (3) *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: (1) *metaphysical,* (2) *sociological*

Of the three films reviewed here, only the last of them sustains a "fair" level of symbolic discourse, which I term "mythicity." That said, WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE is the least entertaining of the three.

When I was an adolescent SF-fan, I probably would have automatically validated COLLIDE as the best of the three, not because of its symbolic discourse but because it looked like a "class act," with moderately impressive FX and a literate script. Over time, though, I've often found more "myth-matters" in relatively cheap or marginalized works.

That said, the only myths in Sergio Martino's HANDS OF STEEL are those swiped from 1984's THE TERMINATOR and any number of Mad Max imitations. To be sure, Martino reverses TERMINATOR's pattern, in which a pair of beleaguered humans seek to escape a remorseless android.  Here the hero, the oddly named "Paco Queruak," is a man who was turned into a cyborg by an evil scientific project, and who goes on the run, hiding in a human community in desolate Arizona to escape. Most of the hunters sent after Paco by evil project-head Turner (John Saxon) are humans, with the exception of a female cyborg (seen above) who gives Paco a rough time,. and not in a good way.

Derivative as STEEL is, it has some oddball touches that redeem it. When Paco hides out in the Arizona sticks, he encounters a bunch of rednecks, one of whom is played by George Eastman, essaying his usual macho bully-boy. But for a small change, Paco settles most of his conflicts with the rednecks by beating them in arm-wrestling contests. This has caused just about every online review of STEEL to reference Sly Stallone's slightly later arm-wrestling movie, OVER THE TOP.

Aside from that minor distinction, I can't say STEEL delivers a lot of action, even for its B-movie production levels, but there are some decent shootouts and one nice scene where super-strong Paco encounters a helmet-wearing gunman and simply punches through the helmet to pulp the head within.  Paco has a spunky almost-girlfriend who helps him mow down the hunters even though she seems to have no experience with firearms.  The climax is desultory but if one's expectations for Italian SF are low to start with, this isn't a major demerit.  Lead actor Daniel Greene shows no ability to play to audience's expectations of how an emotionaless cyborg might act, as Arnold Schwarzenegger did so nicely.  Still, Greene's lack of acting-charisma offers some extra amusement, though STEEL isn't "over the top" enough to make a "good bad movie."

STEEL is derivative, but at least it doesn't literally re-use footage, music and sounds from a previous film.  Producer Roger Corman decided to do this very thing by recycling elements from his 1980 STAR WARS rip-off, BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS.  That film channeled STAR WARS by way of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, and is at least colorful enough to allow one to enjoy it as a "guilty pleasure."

SPACE RAIDERS, in contrast, only swipes one STAR WARS trope: that of the disreputable space-pirate who turns out to be a decent guy despite himself.  A ten-year-old boy named Peter accidentally stows away on the ship of space-pirate "Hawk" (Vince Edwards).  Neither Hawk nor his motley band of cutthroats are pleased by this development, but Hawk-- once a "space service" officer who has turned to crime-- ends up forming an attachment to the young boy.  In Edwards' best scene, Hawk explains to his unsympathetic crewmate Amanda: "He thinks I'm a hero. I'm just another loser trying to stay alive. But he's not gonna know it."

If BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS channeled THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, I suspect that the 1953 western SHANE was the key inspiration for SPACE RAIDERS.  In that film, Shane, a  gunfighter with a clouded past finds himself defending homesteaders against a cattle baron, in part because Shane has become a hero in the eyes of a young boy.  This concept might have made for a nice change of pace in the ranks of STAR WARS-imitators, but the script for RAIDERS merely hits all the predictable plot-points. Even the ending, where Hawk may be dying after he delivers Peter to safety, looks to be based on the famous conclusion of SHANE.  Edwards' performance has a few good moments, but all the rest is from hunger.

That said, I enjoyed WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE a little less than SPACE RAIDERS. I don't think that the 1951 film was a great favorite in the early days of my SF-fandom, but I can remember being reasonably enthralled with this SF-update of the Noah's Ark story. I never read the 1933 novel by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer, but I would imagine that the novel's scenario was substantially altered for 1950s audiences.

WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE was one of the decade's first "serious" films in this genre, coming out the same year as Hawks' THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD and a year after George Pal produced DESTINATION MOON, whose success may've led Pal to produce COLLIDE as well.  Unfortunately, COLLIDE doesn't hold up as well as either MOON or THING.

Of Philip Wylie's works I've only read the 1930 novel GLADIATOR, but from what I've read of him, Wylie's brand of science fiction was not allied to the expectations of 1930s pulp magazines; rather, it might be better termed "bestseller SF," in that it was written to a more catholic readership.  Certainly the film is replete with many bestseller tropes, particularly in its concentration on a romantic plotline. Viewpoint character Dave Randall is situated as an "average joe," a professional pilot who's incidentally drawn into witnessing the apocalypse. Randall has no interest in science or religion; upon taking a job for a group of scientists, Randall's only interested in being paid. He begins to be drawn into a personal connection when he forms an attraction with Joyce, daughter of Doctor Hendron-- despite the fact that Joyce already has a boyfriend. The film never tells us why Joyce falls out of love with Tony, though he is also a scientist-- a medical doctor-- so that the script may be emphasizing the importance of women choosing mates who are not too much like one's own father.

Hendron announces to the world that the planet Earth is doomed to be pulverized when it's struck by a star he names Bellus ("pretty" or "handsome" in Latin, though the main association may have been with Bellona, the Roman goddess of war).  However, Hendron also says that a portion of humanity may survive if they can build an ark that will take them to Zyra, a possibly habitable planet orbiting Bellus.  He advises everyone in the world to build arks to escape, though there are no successful attempts made by anyone except in America.

Hendron's humanitarian desire to preserve humankind is complicated when he needs the financial help of a ruthless financier, the crippled Stanton, to complete the ark-project.  Stanton takes the part of "devil" against Hendron's "angel," for Stanton tries to select the crew that will escape in the ark. Hendron denies him that privilege, stressing the need for deciding from the pool of the willing by lots.  Though Stanton accedes, his presence remains an irritant, as when his cruel treatment of a subordinate incites that man into trying to kill Stanton to take his place on the ark.  Even though Stanton shoots the subordinate in self-defense, the audience sees him even more strongly as the corruption infesting Earth, for which the disaster is kinda-sorta a punishment. It's no coincidence that the film opens with quotes from the Noah portion of Genesis, particularly the line about how "the way of all flesh had become evil on the earth."

I preferred Stanton's general meanness, though, to the dull lovemaking of Randall and Joyce, much less that of a secondary romantic couple in a "B-story."  In addition, someone in the film's production decided to really pile on the religious references. A voice-over tells us that the impending destruction causes people all over the globe to re-commit to their respective religions, but no tradition except Christianity is validated in the film, particularly since all of the people who survive Earth's destruction appear to be American WASPs. I've never subscribed to the notion that all films must be models of diversity, but I must admit that even I was uncomfortable with the film's utter lack of interest in any other cultures. For that matter, at the climax several individuals who don't get selected by lots storm the ark-- and not a single one of these individuals is female. Call me crazy, but I think it's equally possible that some women in such a situation might have been in that rebel group, rather than just passively awaiting the fall of the axe.

WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE, then, still benefits from a strong basic idea, but it's executed with little panache and no style.

Monday, April 14, 2014


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure *


CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, based on an Ed Brubaker-Steve Epting graphic novel (which I have not read), is a much more satisfying action-opus than the uneven CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER. Because I've always considered that the comics-hero's greatest strength lay in his flights of fantasy-- at best tempered by considerations of reality and verisimilitude-- I wrote that FIRST AVENGER proved "untrue to its own potential as a fantasy-film."

SOLDIER is on much more solid ground in its admixture of fantasy and verisimilitude.  FIRST AVENGER's action-sequences were tolerable at best, but the producers of SOLDIER have made a concerted attempt to beef up both the fight-scenes and the explosive FX.  No one re-invents the wheel here, but the repeated battles between the hero and his main opponent, a master assassin known as "the Winter Soldier," show much more ingenuity than the desultory fistfight battle between the Captain and the red Skull in the earlier film.

The most interesting aspect of SOLDIER is that it tries to walk a tightrope between paying honor to the American military and questioning the fetishization of absolute military security that has dominated American politics since the events of 9-11. Like the anti-drone rhetoric of STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS, the script of SOLDIER aims to reflect liberal sociological concerns about government transparency within the context of what many would deem a "popcorn movie." On its own terms, SOLDIER does a reasonably good job.  Captain America, an artificially preserved member of "the Greatest Generation," isn't just uncomfortable about being a dinosaur in a later era, as the Captain was during his rebirth in the Marvel Comics of the 1960s.  Rather, he reflects an ethos of fair play that doesn't hold with attacking supposed enemies before they attack you. In an early scene SHIELD honcho Nick Fury shows off the organization's new toys: armed-to-the-teeth helicarriers capable of pre-emptively targeting the enemies of America. The Captain disagrees with this principle, even as he shows disgust for the tendency of security organizations to withhold information to their agents, or even to actively lie to them.

The helicarrier scene sets up a somewhat predictable trope possibly borrowed from Brian Singer's 2003 film X2: X MEN UNITED.  In that film the technology that has been set up to target mutants, the supposed enemies of humanity, is suborned by Magneto and almost annihilates all normal humans on Earth.  I don't imagine too many audience-members were surprised by SOLDIER's denouement, in which the spiffy new super-weapons are taken over by evildoers operating within SHIELD. I suppose a liberal purist might object that any anti-conservative message in SOLDIER is compromised by the also-unsurprising fact that "rogue SHIELD" is actually a recrudescence of the Nazi science-unit Hydra from the previous film.  As a corrective to the possible interpretation that all evil conspiracies come down to "Nazis hiding under the bed," the film's coda shows former Nazi Baron Strucker blithely asserting, "HYDRA, S.H.I.E.L.D., two sides of a coin that's no longer currency."

Nick Fury, initially poised as the spectre of overzealous security, is himself targeted for assassination in an action-packed scenario. Fury escapes, only to be apparently taken down by the mysterious Winter Soldier-- making one wonder why the Soldier's bosses didn't assign this master assassin from the start.  The Captain, with help from SHIELD-agent Black Widow and a pararescue soldier named Wilson (loosely recapitulating comics-Cap's partner the Falcon), seeks the reasons for Fury's assassination. They eventually find their to Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford in his first, and probably last, superhero movie).  One aspect of the climax involves a turnabout on the current controversy regarding governmental "data mining" and its role in empowering the helicarrier's targeting computers; the film's answer to this is to advocate a transparency that might cause even Edward Snowden to think twice.

The first film enjoyed some snappy dialogue, but not consistently: SOLDIER does much better in keeping the snappy tone consistent, with only brief sojourns into pathos.  The personal bonding between Steve Rogers, Wilson and Black Widow is positioned as a clear antidote to inhuman security measures.  Rogers, a man out of his time, is confronted with one more survivor of his era, and it turns out to be his best friend, brainwashed into serving Hydra's regime.  Rogers' attempt to break through the friend's conditioning provides a better climax to the film than any of the multitudinous explosion-scenes.

Fans of Marvel continuity should be pleased with its minor touches, such as a passing allusion to Stephen Strange and Cap's early mano-a-mano with a terrorist named Batroc. Understandably the latter does not speak in "ze oh-so-fractured French dialect" of the Marvel costumed villain.  I can well understand Marvel not wanting to alienate French audiences with the kind of goofball accent the comics-character once sported, but-- did they have to go to the lengths of making the character into a Belgian as well?

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

NOAH (2014)

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

NOAH may not be the strangest religion-based film of all time, but it may well take the honor of "strangest film directly based on a canonical book of the Christian Bible." Even Robert Aldrich's subtly ironic 1962 work SODOM AND GOMORRAH pales by comparison.

That said, the script by Ari Handel and director Darren Aronofsky may be based in the story in the Old Testament, but it's clear from early scenes that the writers are only loosely adapting the Biblical story.  In the tradition of revenge-stories of all ages, this Noah is placed in the position of young Bruce Wayne, helpless to do anything when his father, the patriarch Lamech, is murdered by Tubal-Cain, a descendant of the original Cain.  But this is not pure melodrama. To their credit Handel and Aronofsky have sought to situate the conflict between Noah and his father's killer-- who will meet again when both are older men, and the world is about to be destroyed by flood-- in mythic terms relating to man's creation. Prior to the scenes of Lamech's murder, the film recites the familiar story of how Adam and Eve were beguiled by the Serpent and expelled from the Garden.  Most will be familiar with the next major event, in which Cain murders his brother Abel, but Aronofsky grounds this event in a context parallel to that of the Old Testament: that of familial descent. The third son of Adam and Eve, one Seth, in essence takes the place of the murdered Abel, so that two lines of patriarchal descent are responsible for the human race that follows-- lines which in some ways mirror one another:

six of the names in Cain's family in Gen. 4 are very similar or identical to six of the names in Seth's family in Gen. 5.  In Cain's family, we find the names of Cain (Kayin), Enoch (Chanok), Irad (Yirad), Mehujael (Mechuyael), Methusael (Methushael), and Lamech (Lemek)  In Seth's family, we find Cainan (Kenan), Mahalaleel (Mahalal'el), Jared (Yered), Enoch (Chanok), Methuselah (Methushelach), and Lamech (Lemek). --CAIN AND HIS FAMILY, Jared L. Olar.

Aronofsky's script then expands upon this conceit of rival families in a way no Noah-adaptation ever did before.  In the film the offspring of Seth, though mortal and far from perfect, give rise to the righteous family of Lamech, his still-living grandfather Methuselah, his son Noah and Noah's sons. It's unclear from the film as to whether the cinematic Seth founded the sort of tribes credited to his Biblical forbear. However, Cain's descendants have definitely become the same sort of full-fledged tribe that patriarchs in the Old Testament usually produced.  The children of Cain-- including the new patriarch Tubal-Cain-- have become masters of metalworking and primitive technology.  The association of Tubal-Cain with metalworking is wholly in tune with his Biblical model, as noted here, but the script expands upon this mythic detail and makes of it the central cause of the "wickedness" for which the Creator destroys the world. The Biblical Noah story does not expatiate upon the crimes of mankind, though it seems unlikely that technological hubris was on the minds of the ancient chroniclers. What we have, rather, is a philosophical juxtaposition of two mythic figures that are relevant to modern mankind's conception of itself.

Noah is, in essence, the archaic version of an "eco-terrorist." He does not bring about the cleansing of most of the world's living beings, but as a result of his being made a party to it, he convinces himself-- apparently with no input from God on the matter-- that he knows God's purpose for the aftermath of the devastation.  The patriarch conceives the idea that God only entrusts Noah with the duty of building the Ark so that the pure and innocent animals will be spared, while he intends that humanity will die out when Noah's family perishes.  This patently reverses the sentiments expressed in Genesis 1:28 (King James version):

And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

The only "subduing" in this radical departure is attributed to Noah's enemy Tubal-Cain.  In keeping with the ruthless acts of his remote ancestor, Tubal-Cain is the mythic opposition to the eco-terrorist: the eco-plunderer, who thoughtlessly pillages the land and other peoples of their riches for his own benefit, and whose will to prosper is in stark contrast to Noah's will to extinguish himself.

The philosophical argument of the two patriarchs is then worked out, not by through reflection or discussion, but through Noah's status as the somewhat unwilling begetter of the next generation.  In Genesis, Noah's three sons-- Shem, Ham, and Japheth-- are the vehicles through which the world is repopulated, though just as with Cain and Seth, one never quite knows where their wives come from. The movie NOAH, however, grapples with the question of the female role in procreation more overtly, both for reasons of verisimilitude and as an exploration of Noah's animus toward human life.

Whereas the original story includes but does not name Noah's wife, NOAH bestows the name "Naameh" on the wife and also includes a new character: young Ila, an orphaned girl who has been taken into Noah's family and who has become more or less betrothed to the oldest son Shem. Noah, who has not revealed his conception of humanity's fate to any family member, allows this dalliance because Ila is known to be barren. By the same token Noah will not encourage Ham, the second-oldest, to take a wife, in part because it might result in a continuation of the race.  Youngest son Japheth is too young to feel the same mating-urges as Shem and Ham, so that he becomes for the most part irrelevant to the narrative.

The actual building of the Ark is rendered secondary to all of these tumultuous familial conflicts, though as a possible sop to the selling-point of SPFX in Hollywood films, Aronofsky includes an element found only in apocryphal Noah-stories: he has giants build the Ark. The script references the mating of mortals and angels cited in Genesis 6:1-4, but Aronofsky's giants-- who look like multi-armed, rock-bodied Transformers-- are also depicted as fallen angels, in that their essence returns to heaven when they are slain.  Their role in the story allows for some interesting moments, but their main function seems to be to beef up the spectacle in the film.

Similarly, the Ark itself and the animals it carries are also marginalized somewhat.  Most adaptations of the Noah story are replete with explanations of how Noah's family cares for the various species-pairs, but Aronofsky dispenses with this expectation through an ingenious solution: a soporific drug hurls all the animals into hibernation. This leaves the Ark free to be a battleground of family-emotions. Ham's resentment about being denied a wife leads him to bring Noah's worst enemy into the Ark, while Ila receives a boon from her adoptive grandfather Methuselah, a boon which throws Noah's carefully prepared scheme into chaos.

It's amusing to see the inspiring if sedate deluge-tale turned into a combative drama between two opposed ways of life, and surely Aronofsky and Russell Crowe have earned some distinction for producing the world's first "kickass" version of Noah. That said, the main concern is to show Noah's obsession in a new light, one in which his righteousness becomes more alienating than Tubal-Cain's unreflective but entertaining villainy. At one point the villain bites the head of one of the preserved species, dooming the creature to extinction: yet I imagine most audiences will be amused, rather than repulsed, by his selfish will to survive.

In conclusion, I have to admit that while Aronofsky's Bible-movie is far more interesting than most within this genre, I was never entirely swept away by it. NOAH fails to be more than the sum of its parts, and many sequences fail to deliver much beyond puzzlement, such as Lamech's peculiar ritual with a snake-skin, possibly the skin from the Serpent in Eden, and the concluding coda, which seeks to rationalize Noah's canonical reputation for drunkenness.  I suspect that some of these enigmatic sections were the result of a team of research assistants, sifting through myths canonical and apocryphal to find new takes on the Noah story.  Still, at a time when so many films are tedious rote assemblages of "high-concept" schticks, a few rough edges shouldn't be despised.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

EXO MAN (1977)

PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure *

Late-night television used to be littered with failed television-pilots, but now almost the only way to view such ephemera is if someone puts it on Youtube.  That's the way I re-watched the 1979 exercise in tedium SAMURAI, and more recently, the marginally better EXO-MAN.

Three years previous to this pilot, Martin Caidin's novel CYBORG had been freely adapted into the popular series THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN. Seeking to catch lightning again, Caidin came up with a story based in NASA's then-current experiments with "man-amplifier" suits, that imparted to the suit's wearer enormous strength. 

Intriguing though this idea is, everything else in the production is strictly in the grind-it-out mode of television production. THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN isn't high art, but the pilot film for the later series showed some basic understanding as to how to make the character appealing to audiences and to give his heroics some social context.

EXO-MAN's poverty of imagination is shown in the motivating forces that lead protagonist Nicholas Conrad to become an armored superhero. Physics teacher Conrad is first seen imparting the wonders of science to his students; a nice opening scene for actor David Ackroyd. However, Conrad has the misfortune to witness a crime, and he's called upon to testify against the miscreant involved. In the real world the racketeer-boss of said miscreant would just instruct his lawyers to demolish Conrad on the witness stand, but boss Kermit Haas-- a bored-looking Jose Ferrer-- tries to kill Conrad with a car-bomb, and gets one of Conrad's students instead.  Later one of Haas's goons attacks Conrad with a crowbar, but is forced to flee before he finishes the job. Conrad survives as a cripple.  When the crooks attempt to suss out Conrad about his testimony, he conveys the impression that he doesn't intend to testify, so they leave him alone.

But Conrad doesn't plan to leave them alone: building upon the dead student's research, Conrad assembles an exo-skeletal suit in which he can walk, albeit very slowly.  Thus he becomes, in essence, "Exo-Man," though the name is never used in the narrative.  His first order of business is to capture the man who crippled him, allegedly not intending to kill the hood, though by happy accident the fellow ends up dead anyway. The climax finds the bulletproof, super-strong avenger invading Haas' estate and fending off his goons to reach the big boss.

Ackroyd's solid performance is  the only virtue of the film. Other actors-- also including A Martinez, Jack Colvin, and Harry Morgan-- the last as a policeman who may suspect the nature of Conrad's new mission and who seems willing to abet future outings-- are no more than competent. The biggest problem is the suit, since in contrast to the super-speedy Steve Austin, Exo-Man can do no more than lumber about, so that any sensible crook could be miles away before the hero even starts to make a collar. For good measure, in his first outing, Conrad's suit even suffers a "MALFUNTION"-- as the lettering on the suit's control panel calls it-- so that the hero runs out of air. The scene was clearly intended to produce pathos but is more likely to produce groans of disbelief.  As if to fit the awkwardness of the hero, both script and direction show a similar tendency to lumber about and accomplish little.

Friday, April 4, 2014


FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

Like most Americans I've had little acquaintance with the character Sexton Blake, a detective-adventurer who proved extraordinarily popular for many years in Great Britain.  One online essay asserts that some Blake stories are very ratiocinative, after the fashion of Sherlock Holmes, on whom Blake was conspicuously modeled.  However, other tales were much more action-packed than the majority of Conan Doyle's tales. HOODED TERROR follows the second pattern, possibly also imitating the comparative derring-do of Universal Studio's cinematic version of Holmes. If so, director George King-- who had already directed one Tod Slaughter film in 1936. and would direct others with the British horror-actor-- succeeded in his mission.

Whereas some of Holmes' movie-villains were uncanny in one way or another, none of them utilized the trope of the "costumed mystery-villain," as this one does.  Slaughter plays a refined fellow who is secretly the robe-wearing "Snake," who masterminds a criminal organization called "the Black Quorum." Even after watching the film I was somewhat uncertain about what they did aside from murder people who found out about them, but this perfidy is enough to get the heroic Sexton Blake (George Curzon) and his assistant on their trail.

Slaughter, often known for lip-smacking portraits of villainy, is fairly restrained in TERROR, both in his normal identity as a respected millionaire and as the devious Snake.  For my system the villain's use of fancy robes would be enough to qualify the film for the category of the uncanny, but in additional to "outrĂ© outfits" the evildoers also uses such gimmicks as a trap door that drops the hero into a convenient net and a "punishment room" filled with the Snake's namesake pets.  The only possible myth-motif here would be a sociological one regarding the villainy concealed by the British social order, but the script is too by-the-numbers to bring this theme to life.

Curzon is personable as Blake; this is the last of his three performances in a trio of 1930's films featuring the sleuth. But even though I can't quite find the script to be as imaginative as the best Holmes films from this period, George King is for me more the "star" of the show than Curzon or Slaughter.  Simple though the proceedings are, King's visual set-ups are engrossing even when very little is happening-- a quality rarely seen even in the more celebrated film-drectors.