Saturday, August 30, 2014


FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological, cosmological*

One of the original Sinbad's feats was to tie himself to the leg of a giant Roc, which creature was called a "Simurgh" in some versions. On that basis I choose to dub this sort of Hollywood amalgam of Arabic motifs-- Sinbad, Omar Khayyam, the 40 Thieves, and the legendary "Greek fire"-- a "simurghasboard."

Bad puns aside, the most interesting thing about SON OF SINBAD is that it's an example of the uncanny motif "exotic lands and customs" set within a faux-historical period. This stands opposed to my more usual application of the term to either narratives set in prehistoric periods (CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR) or in primitive backwaters within the modern world (just about every Tarzan film).

In the case of SON OF SINBAD, it's not simply that the scripters of the film were ignorant of the temporal difficulties of having the son of Sinbad (the very American Dale Robertson) be best friends with Omar Khayyam (Vincent Price). This conflation is not a simple result of carelessness; rather, SON represents a deliberate lumping-together of Arabic story-motifs, in much the same fashion that makers of prehistory pictures would lump together cavemen and dinosaurs.

SON is usually listed in concordances because a main element of the plot-- which doesn't really bear analysis in itself-- involves the son of Sinbad encountering a weapon unknown to his period or that of Omar Khayyam-- the incendiary explosive "Greek fire." But this is not a marvelous phenomenon, given that it's merely an exotic form of gunpowder. It is an uncanny phenomenon because it appears out of its proper time-frame. At the climax, Sinbad's allies coat arrows with Greek fire and use them to blow up their enemies in much the same way Rambo blasts his foes with dynamite-shafts. It's the same physical phenomenon, but only the former manifestation carries the aspect I've termed "strangeness."

For good measure, the proto-scientist who discovers Greek fire's secret encodes the process for its manufacture within the brain of his daughter, by using a special hypnotic lamp-- hence adding the uncanny phenomenon of "enthralling hypnotism" to the mix.

"Weird families and societies," in turn, is ably represented by an all-female band of warriors, the daughters of the original Forty Thieves, who become Sinbad's allies for the big climax. I'd say that the concept of a band of Arabic Amazons-- all played by glamorous Caucasian girls, of course-- being able to operate in any period of the Islamic Middle East is a greater stretch than the rediscovery of Greek fire. In keeping with SON's avoidance of marvelous devices, the famous cave of the Forty Thieves uses purely mechanical means to "open sesame."

Overall, this is an entertaining bit of Hollywood gibberish, with lots of pretty girls and Robertson ably swashing buckles, at least for this sort of lower-tier product. Vincent Price gets the best lines, intoning pastiches of Omar Khayyam in his usual orotund fashion.

Thursday, August 28, 2014


PHENOMENALITY: *naturalistic*
MYTHICITY: (1) *fair,* (2) *poor*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, sociological*


I've reviewed a smattering of Charlie Chan films, which generally tend toward the naturalistic but sometimes include uncanny tropes as well. In contrast, Chan's greatest competitor in Hollywood films-- the "Mister Moto" series from 20th-Century Fox-- would seem to be entirely naturalistic in attitude.

MR. MOTO TAKES A CHANCE is one of the best of the eight Fox mysteries, all featuring the redoubtable Peter Lorre as the Japanese agent whose interests usually coincide with those of his Western allies from America and Europe. The movie packs a lot of characters and situations into its tight 63 minutes. Aviatrix Victoria crashlands in French Indochina, near the village of Tong Moi. Moto is already there, posing an archaeologist studying ancient ruins, and so are two American movie-makers, a portly rajah who gets a yen for Victoria, and Bokor, the local medicine man-- whose name is apparently swiped from the Haitian word for "evil sorcerer."

The complicated shenanigans end up being about guns being smuggled to Indochinese rebels. In the real world, I would have thought that a Japanese spy would have been trying to help the Indochinese kick out the French, in order to further Japan's mission for the "Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere." Nevertheless, Moto is working to support colonialism here, and in keeping with this ideology, the only authorities one sees are the corrupt Rajah and the superstitious Bokor. Asian culture as a whole isn't given a bad name here, though the trope of "exotic lands and customs" remains at the level of the naturalistic.

Moto, already undercover as an archaeologist, assumes a new identity as "Guruji," a wandering Buddhist monk. He appears in time to save the Americans from Bokor's wrath. This scene includes a naturalistic version of the "enthralling illusionism" trope, in that Moto proves his monkish powers to the natives by first charming a snake and then appearing to resist the heat of a burning brand pressed to his skin. The film doesn't explain how Moto performs these feats of illusionism, but they are conveyed to the viewer as being entirely naturalistic, as opposed, say, to the use of hypnotism and stage magic in the Charlie Chan film BLACK MAGIC.

On a side-note, heroine Victoria, as played by Rochelle Hudson, is a little more gutsy than many mystery-heroines. The character here turns out to be a spy (big surprise), and by coincidence the real-life actress apparently participated in some level of civilian espionage, as well.

DANGER ISLAND, one of the last three Moto films released in 1939, is a rather weak-by-comparison story of the spy-detective investigating diamond smuggling in Puerto Rico. Ordinary the "exotic lands" trope wouldn't be worth noting for this type of mundane mystery. However, there is a brief reference to certain local swamps being "haunted," and a moment in which the director shows the swampland looking "spooky." However, this never registers as anything but a vagrant impression. The scene is roughly the equivalent of those scenes in Charlie Chan films in which the comedy-relief characters would blunder into wax-museums or carnival "haunted house" attractions.

The best thing about DANGER ISLAND is its own comedy relief. Wrestler Twister McGurk (Warren Hymer) takes a liking to Moto after the agent continually bests McGurk with judo moves. The sight of the clueless American towering over, yet following in the wake of, the diminutive yet subtle "Asian" is the highlight of this routine entry. 

Friday, August 22, 2014


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

This long-out-of-circulation flick is not exactly a lost gem. It is, however, a pleasant enough bauble.

To be sure, HAND OF DEATH doesn't even quite come even with a solid journeyman effort like 1958's MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS.   Both films concern scientific researchers who are accidentally exposed to bizarre substances which turn them into monsters, though the fellow from CAMPUS is more in the Jekyll-and-Hyde vein in that he reverts to humanity. Once HAND's victim-cum-monster Alex Marsh is afflicted, his mutation is irreversible.

Even putting aside these differences in content, though, the 1958 film follows a basic three-act structure: scientist becomes infected, scientist slowly comes to grips with his affliction, scientist tries to end the menace of that affliction. HAND OF DEATH, less than a hour long in its surviving state, boils down to two acts: scientist becomes infected, scientist runs around accidentally killing people until the law puts him out of his misery.  It's been suggested that the production company didn't want anything that ran over an hour, for purposes of selling the film as the second half of a B-movie tandem.  This may be the case, though thanks to IMDB I notice that the only other films-- both from 1948-- on which Eugene Ling worked as both writer and producer are just barely over one hour.

Like the fellow from MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS, Alex Marsh (John Agar) doesn't do anything to bring down his evil fate upon his head. At most he's a little obsessed with his pet project: to invent a new nerve gas that will make it possible to end armed conflict: "Do you realize that this could be a weapon so powerful, it could conceivably banish nuclear warfare?" This seemed to me a rather antiquated and over-idealistic take on munitions by 1962; it was just barely believable even in America's pre-war years.)  His girlfriend Carol (Paula Raymond) feels neglected: "This is the first time I've ever heard Alex Marsh actually sound excited about something-- and it obviously isn't me!" Tom, another scientist in the same age-range as Alex and Carol, is clearly hoping to move in if his mentor blows things with Carol.  It's very close in structure to the opening acts of Whale's FRANKENSTEIN, with its suggestion that family friend Victor will be ready to take advantage if Henry Frankenstein bites the big one. Yet Alex is no ranting madman; at most, he's a little stressed from work-- which may bring about the mistake that gives him the "hand of death."

Following the accident, Alex accidentally touches an assistant and kills him.  This, and other scenes in which the scientist murders through a mere touch, provide the film's highlights, and John Agar successfully captures the guilty frenzy Alex experiences at becoming a carrier of death.  However, a "second act" would have allowed the character time to reflect on his dilemna. Alex makes one attempt at a cure, by seeking out an older scientist-- Carol's employer, no less, who was crippled from a not dissimilar research accident. But the affliction mutates Alex further, so that his skin turns black and ropy (explained as a product of advanced cyanosis).  The mutated Alex makes a pretty good monster, and Paula Raymond screams nicely when she sees that he's killed her employer.  After that, Alex futilely tries to disguise himself and escape. But because he loses the power of speech the viewer has no idea what if any long-range plans he has.  The shoot-down by police is somewhat anti-climactic.

Floyd Crosby's cinematography is better-than-average for B-monsters of the period-- better, actually, than that of MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS-- and Sonny Burke's jazzy score contributes some tense moments. Bit-parts are contributed by Joe Besser and Butch Patrick, and I seem to have got through the whole review without mentioning the factoid every one else does; that the Marsh-monster looks a heckuva lot like Ben Grimm of the Fantas--

Dagnab it!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: (1) *comedy,* (2) *drama*

I've noticed that two or three lobby cards for THE BANG BANG KID, a silly Italian-American comedy-western, emphasize the charms of Sandra Milo rather than the "Kid" himself.  This was a logical move, since Milo is certainly the most entertaining thing in the film.

Milo plays "Gwenda," the tempestuous daughter of the mayor in a small Old West town. She also has a sister whose only purpose in the story seems to be the mild, uninteresting counterpart to fiery Gwenda, who nurses a love-hate grudge against Bear Bullock (Guy Madison), a corrupt landowner who runs the town with his coterie of deadly gunfighters.

Somehow a portly little inventor named Merryweather (Tom Bosley) gets wind of the town's troubles, and shows up with his latest invention: a gunfighting robot made in his own image.  Merryweather doesn't initially want anything except to test his robot "in the field," but Gwenda is so hot to humble Bullock that she promises to marry Merryweather if his robot wins out.

Naturally the robot-- dubbed "the Bang Bang Kid" by some townsman (presumably an Italian Westerner)-- wins his first few challenges easily. However, toward the conclusion the robot is disabled, preventing this quasi-superheroic automaton from taking part in the final battle. This is the film's greatest interest for me, in that it seems to build to a combative conflict but then fizzles out for a joke, much like the far superior film THE COURT JESTER.  Because the robot is out of the fight, Merryweather tries to bluff one of the killers by dressing up like his creation. It doesn't work, but the funny fellow is saved by his allies.

Aside from the film's non-combative status, the only other thing of psychological interest is the way Gwenda fantasizes about humiliating Bullock, up until the point that he renounces evil and turns on his really evil gunmen.  All of which proves that if you look good, you can reform any time you feel like it and no one will prosecute you.

Whenever I see movies based on one or more animals on the rampage, I find myself wondering if the film got started simply because someone or other claimed to have access to "animals able to act."  Once the producers had that element, maybe then they worried about getting the human actors, given that these are a dime a dozen.

The script for PLAY DEAD is the modern equivalent of Old Hollywood's "murder-a-reel" flicks: whenever there's no murder on screen, the script has nothing else to offer. PLAY can't even claim the originality of being first to use a demonic dog as a serial killer, having been aced out by the 1978 TV film DEVIL DOG: THE HOUND OF HELL, which was at least enjoyably bad. This hound of hell can't come up with anything better than strangling one victim with his leash and dropping an electric hair-dryer into another victim's bathwater.

The one possible source of interest here is the film's only "name" star, Yvonne De Carlo. De Carlo plays Hester, who mourns the loss of the man she loved because he married another-- Hester's sister, no less.  Apparently, with the death of her lost love, she decides to dabble in Satanism and summon up a hell-hound to get rid of all her relatives-- I think so that she would be the only living heir, but it was hard to follow.

Yvonne De Carlo, unfortunately, is an actress of limited strengths, and working with this kind of thankless role is not among them. It's long been my contention that De Carlo had little presence in "straight" roles, even her best-written one, Anna in 1949's CRISS CROSS. However, she had fine comic instincts, and distinguished herself not only with her most famous role-- Lily of THE MUNSTERS-- but also many minor roles like a villainess in a GIRL FROM UNCLE episode and a horny madame in 1975's BLAZING STEWARDESSES. But here, even though PLAY DEAD sounds like it ought to have been a comedy, De Carlo's lead role doesn't even throw the viewer a bone.

Monday, August 18, 2014


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

I mentioned in my review of THE MONOLITH MONSTERS that in my younger years I'd liked that film quite a bit, and that I was a bit disappointed with a recent re-screening. The titular monsters were still impressive, but the human characters were a bit too routine.

I'm not quite that down on 1953's IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE, the first of Jack Arnold's 1950s SF-feature films. The script and the performances are solid, and its anti-xenophobic message remains preferable to many of the "shoot first and ask questions later" monster-flicks.  Having grown up with Russell Johnson playing the Professor on GILLIGAN'S ISLAND, there's a definite pleasure in seeing him get turned into an even more emotionless character in SPACE.

Yet, for all the film's positive qualities, and its importance in launching the 1950s Sci-Fi wave, at times the script seems a little too pleased with its own innovation.  Main character Putnam (Richard Carlson), an amateur astronomer who first spots the crash of a spacecraft near his Arizona town, is among the first to realize that the aliens from the craft have begin kidnapping locals and then counterfeiting their bodies. Yet once Putnam learns that the castaways are simply trying to repair their ship and get away, he tries to convince the town sheriff Matt Warren (Charles Drake) to hold back and allow the extraterrestials to finish their labors.

Yet, aside from a mild suggestion that Warren may covet Putnam's girlfriend Ellen, the characters lack the texture I find in Arnold's next SF-outing, the first installment of the Gill Man saga. Warren is just a little too eager to storm the aliens despite possible danger to the captured Earthpeople, and so he comes off as something of a whipping-boy. The character of Ellen is something of a cypher, but when she's replaced by one of the aliens, she alone dons a fetching black outfit when speaking with Putnam, even though by that time in the story he knows that she's not Ellen, but an amoeboid monster. Though I as much as like Barbara Rush's iconic sexy-alien appearance, the logic leaves something to be desired.

1957's THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN, directed by Val Guest and adapted by Nigel Kneale from his own television screenplay, explores the same thematic territory, but the action takes place in the snowy Himalayas rather than arid Arizona.  Scientist John Rollason (Peter Cushing) comes to Tibet on a botanical mission with his wife and an assistant, but only his wife knows that on a previous visit Rollason witnessed something he can scarcely believe: the Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas. Rollason clearly wishes he could find out the truth about the so-called Yeti, but though the local Lama (played by a British actor doing a horrible accent) gives shelter to Rollason's party, the philosophical priest won't help him.

In a slightly Faustian development, a Yeti-hunting expedition crosses paths with that of Rollason. This new expedition is bossed by the quixotically named Tom Friend (Forrest Tucker), who wants to capture a Yeti and exhibit the creature to gain fame and fortune. Rollason throws in with Friend, leaving his own party at the Lama's temple.

It's soon obvious that Guest didn't have the budget to offer more than brief shots of snow-covered mountains on a backstage set, but that probably fit in with the original teleplay project, which is more about debating thematic concerns than offering spectacle.  As with SPACE, the opposition of viewpoints-- Friend as the money-hungry opportunist, Rollason as the concerned man of science-- remains superficial.  Still, despite some dull stretches, the script's aim is realized in an organic way. Slowly Rollason realizes that though there are Yeti tracking the expedition, the creatures wreak no direct harm upon the human beings. He theorizes that they are a parallel adaptation that evolved alongside humans. He also hypothesizes that the Yeti are intelligent enough that they anticipate humans someday destroying themselves.  Friend, who wants to think of the creatures as big animals, is repulsed by these ideas. Yet, in the film's evocative moment, the entrepreneur is seduced by the unknown. At one point, even though Rollason warns him, Friend blunders into the path of an avalanche. The moment when Friend gazes helplessly into the oncoming snowslide may be intended to suggest that he has been overwhelmed by the unknown precisely because he can't allow himself to think outside his own narrow confines.

In contrast, Rollason does meet the Yeti face to face. The creatures, if they can speak, do not communicate with the scientist, but when he returns to the monastery, he tells the Lama that there are no Yeti, and that he will work to discourage other modern men from searching for them.  This is a pleasing take on "the Big Lie," in which Rollason does his best to allow another species to prosper in their own domain.

Friday, August 15, 2014


MYTHICITY: (1) *good,* (2) *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: (1) *irony,* (2) *adventure*

Here we have two films that exist on the verge between the marvelous and that particular species of the uncanny that I call the "phantasmal figuration."

Both films are modern-day takes on narratives that are unequivocally marvelous. The original source for the 1988 Terry Gilliam film are a group of sixteenth-century tales which portrayed the real-life Baron Munchausen doing all sorts of extraordinary things, like riding on a cannonball or climbing a vine all the way to the moon.  The original source for the 1997 film is Longfellow's 1855 epic poem, in which the feats of the Native American warrior Hiawatha-- particularly fighting with an evil magician-- are also taken at face value, until the poem concludes by having the warrior meet, and endorse, the religion of the Christian newcomers.

In contrast to this straightforward fantasy-approach, both of these films appear to be hedging their bets by creating "fallacious figments" in which real-life characters merely relate fantasy-stories, after the fashion of the 1987 film of William Goldman's THE PRINCESS BRIDE.

From the inception of SONG OF HIAWATHA, the film takes the viewpoint of a group of white traders (including a Christian priest) who are traveling in the Great Lakes region to trade with the tribes. For most of the film this group is told of the great marvels of Hiawatha, but up until the ending the narrative suggests that the real Hiawatha is long gone and that these are only stories. Then, at the last moment, there is an ambivalent suggestion that Hiawatha still exists in some supernatural form. Thanks to this last-minute flourish, SONG is disqualified from being simply a story in which marvels are related in story-form. Because there is a suggestion of some marvelous presence-- even though it is left ambiguous-- SONG becomes more properly a instance of the "phantasmal figuration" trope.

Gilliam's MUNCHAUSEN seems for most of the story to be an outright marvelous narrative. It begins in an unnamed city in the 18th century, a city being beseiged by Turkish forces. An acting-troupe attempts to distract the panicky populace by putting on a free adaptation of the purported adventures of the famous Baron, full of cheesy stage-effects. The performance is interrupted by the real Baron, now an aged man (John Neville), who tries to tell them about his truly fantastic adventures. He then conceives of trying to save the embattled city by seeking out his former comrades, all of whom possess bizarre powers, like Herculean strength, super-speed, etc.  For most of the film, it appears that Munchausen actually does re-encounter his supernormal allies, as well as visiting the god Vulcan and the King and Queen of the Moon. However, just as Munchausen suffers a tragic death, Gilliam reveals that the whole narrative has been related by Munchausen to the rapt theater-audience.  This edges the film toward "fallacious figment" territory-- but then, in a conclusion that has left many viewers scratching their heads, it's revealed that something-- one never knows what-- has routed the Turkish troops and saved the city. Thus it too becomes a film not of the outright marvelous, but one which leaves the marvelous as a possibility that is never entirely verified-- though the possibility is strong enough to move my marker from a possible "naturalistic" verdict to that of "the uncanny."

Having spent so much time categorizing these films, I won't critique them in depth.  ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN is for me Terry Gilliam's most accomplished work, but I say that as someone who was not a big fan of either BRAZIL or THE FISHER KING.  The FX-work is pleasingly eye-popping, and Gilliam certainly succeeds in capturing the elusive feel of European "tall tales." The film's biggest weakness is that the script attempts to justify Munchausen's marvelous journeys in terms of altruism. But the motive of trying to save the city pales very quickly, precisely because Gilliam has portrayed it as a sinkhole hostile to imagination. The ambivalent ending, while justifiable as Gilliam's take on the conflict of reality vs. fantasy, inclines the film to the form of the "irony," somewhat undermining its own conjuration of marvels.  But this remains a vast improvement over a later, very inferior Gilliam work like THE BROTHERS GRIMM.

In contrast, the sole merit of SONG OF HIAWATHA is that it is a movie of a *faux* Native American epic that actually stars a lot of Native American actors, including Graham Greene and Irene Bedard. Unfortunately, though the film retells most of the highlights of the Longfellow poem, the script is dull and the direction-- the only IMDB credit for one Jeffrey Shore-- is entirely pedestrian.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1-2) *fair,* (3) *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure *
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *metaphysical, psychological*

I generally judge horror-films as "dramas" because they principally concern the rise and fall of some type of monster, be it a vampire, a mad scientist, or-- a mummy, like Kharis from this classic Universal series. But films about monster-hunters usually fit better with the category of "adventure." And there's no question in my mind that the "Mummy" series initiated by writer-director Steven Sommers is not about the titular monster, but about the romantically-involved monster-fighting couple Rick O'Connell (Brendan Fraser) and Evy Carnahan (Rachel Weicz).

It's a measure of my respect for the progenitor of all mummy-films, Karl Freund's 1932 THE MUMMY, that I haven't reviewed it here yet, since I think it deserves an analysis about as long as three of my normal posts. Happily, Sommers does not attempt to duplicate the moody charms of the Freund film. Given his priorities, any such attempt probably would not have turned out well. Instead, the script for the 1999 film merely borrows and/or alters names and events from the earlier film, and employs them for one of the better exemplars of the "supernatural tomb raider" genre more or less birthed by the Indiana Jones series.

Many of the romantic bits between Rick and Evy are amusing, particularly their "meet-cute-yet-morbid" scene when soldier-of-fortune Rick, about to be hanged in Egypt, steals a kiss from Egyptologist Evy Carnahan.  Needless to say, the hero is spared a grisly death-- though the stunt almost killed actor Brendan Fraser-- and he goes on to assist brash but inexperienced Evy and her cowardly brother in seeking out a lost tomb. They're looking for a legendary magic book, but they also find the remains of Imhotep, court magician to the Pharaoh Seti I.  Evy reads aloud a spell from the book, which returns the mummy to life.  Like the Imhotep played by Boris Karloff in the 1932 film, this mummy is a magician rather than a mute bandage-swathed killer. But where Karloff's character could only bring about very limited spells, this Imhotep can conjure forth the sort of phenomena one might associate with an angry god-- a plague of locusts, a hostile sandstorm. Indeed, when one sees what the modern Imhotep can do, one can hardly believe mere mortal Egyptians overpowered him back in The Day.  As a meaningless tip of the hat to the Freund film, an Egyptian warrior who seeks to keep Imhotep dead is given the phony name Karloff's character assumes in the 1932 work: "Ardath Bey."

Sommers' feel for light-hearted action is sure, but he makes no effort to ground his story of a malevolent magician in a credible fantasy-structure. One of THE MUMMY's greatest inconsistencies is that when Imhotep wants to send deadly curses after those who have raided his tomb and that of his beloved, he patterns his spells after the plagues sent against Egypt by the Jewish leader Moses.  I can understand Sommers not bothering to research archaic Egyptian magical practices, but why would an Egyptian magician want to copy from Moses-- who, in theory, was calling on magic from a monotheistic deity having nothing in common with Egypt's many deities? The real answer, I suppose, is that Sommers guessed that most moviegoers would know nothing about Egypt beyond what appears in the Old Testament, and so he played to that.  Additionally, the romantic travails of the 1932 Imhotep are made secondary to those of the living monster-hunting couple, though the former "grand passion" does assume greater importance in the sequel.

THE MUMMY RETURNS is a more frenetic film, but it works better, given that here Sommers has totally committed to his project of creating a phony-baloney Egypt with no connections to the real culture.  Rick and Evy are now a married couple with a ten-year-old son. A cult devoted to Imhotep revives the wizard-mummy again, but this time for a world-beating project. It seems that in ancient times a warrior named Mathayus entered into a pact with the death-god Anubis. This Anubis, who functions like a bargain-basement version of Satan, creates an unstoppable army for the warrior in exchange for his soul. Mathayus gets his conquest, but then ends up the monstrous slave of the jackal-god. The cult wants Imhotep to vanquish Mathayus, aka "the Scorpion King," in order to gain control of his immortal army.

In addition, Imhotep-- who was trying to reincarnate his lost love Anck-su-Namun in the first film by sticking her soul in Evy's body-- meets up with Meela, the genuine descendant of his Egyptian princess. However, the cult still needs an artifact in the possession of the O'Connells, which places them, their son, and assorted other allies in conflict with Imhotep's plans.  The son is kidnapped, the anguished parents give pursuit, and Imhotep manages to cause the soul of Anck-su-Namun to come to conscious life in Meela's body. An unlooked-for consequence of this, however, is that half-Egyptian Evy O'Connell is stimulated into reliving her own ancestral memories. It seems Evy was Nefertiri, daughter of the Pharaoh Seti I, and that she witnessed her daddy being slain by his evil mistress Anck-su-Namun and her cover lover Imhotep.  This leads to a running bitch-battle between Evy and Meela, who, in Freudian terms, are incarnations of a dutiful daughter and the Bad Woman who tries to take her father from her.  The Oedipal scenario doesn't really work, though, because Evy is not drawn toward this Imhotep in the manner that Helen Grosvenor is to the original magician-mummy.

Even though MUMMY RETURNS is overstuffed with incidents-- not least the intrusion of the Scorpion King character, tailor-made to further the Hollywood career of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson-- this strategy plays well to Sommers' strengths, and the result is a fast-paced farrago of crazed set-pieces, particularly the sword-duel between two Egyptian warrior princesses, seen above.  This film would have been a good conclusion to a lightweight but moderately entertaining series.

Unfortunately, seven years later, the studio tried once more to go mining for mummies, and to sum it up with mixed metaphors, this was one too many trips back to the well. Someone must have surmised that there wasn't much more they could do with-- or to-- Egyptian mummies, they decided to go out for Chinese-- that is, Chinese terracotta warriors, yet another undead army. This one is supposed to serve the evil Dragon Emperor (Jet Li), who aspires to world conquest back during some Chinese feudal era.  The "forbidden love" triangle from the first two films is all but xeroxed off, with the Emperor getting peeved when his Number Two Man, a fellow named Ming, gets it on with Zi Yuan (Michelle Yeoh), the same witch who made the Emperor's triumph possible.  The Emperor kills Ming, but Zi Yuan gets even by cursing the Emperor and his army into suspended animation.

After recounting this archaic setup, the film shuttles to 1946. The O'Connells are semi-retired, while their now adult son Alex has gone into the tomb raiding business, despite his general feelings that Mommy and Daddy haven't paid him enough attention.  Alex uncovers, and unleashes, the Dragon Emperor, despite the efforts of a kung-fu cutie named Lin (Isabelle Leong), who takes over the function of Holy Warrior Ardath Bey in the previous films. Lin is the daughter of Zi Yuan, who's been hanging around for centuries in Shangri-La for just this occasion.

There are a few minor entertainments in TOMB. The CGI Yetis were decent, and the DVD shows an alternate ending in which cowardly Jonathan flees China for a locale supposedly free of mummies-- and chooses the one place in South America known for "Mayan mummies."  But most of the film is deadly-dull despite all the fights and chases. As the photo above shows, there's a martial-arts duel between Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh, but it's a waste of time next to the highly kinetic martial battles both actors have produced in earlier films.  Maria Bello replaces Weicz in the role of Evy O'Connell, and gets some equally good fight-scenes, but the "rekindled romance" angle between the monster-battling couple suffers from tired blood.

Frankly, the most significance I can find in the MUMMY series was that Sommers invented "fast mummies" long before anyone came up with "fast zombies." But that innovation didn't eventuate in any great wealth of new mummy movies, fast or slow.

Thursday, August 7, 2014


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

I won't spend a lot of time on Luc Besson's disappointing LUCY except to say that it might have helped had he gone back and read more mind-blowing French comic books, the same type that inspired him to his signature work, 1997's FIFTH ELEMENT.

The set-up for LUCY has potential. The title character (Scarlet Johanssen), a young girl going to school in Taiwan, is inveigled into making a delivery to a clique of Korean gangsters. They subject Lucy to an operation and place a packet of rare drugs in her abdomen in order to sneak the forbidden substances past customs; then she and some other unwilling drug-mules are scheduled to be flown out of Taiwan to the gangsters' confederates. The young woman seems to have no way to go but down.

As it happens, a few of the handlers charged with getting Lucy out of Taiwan decide to take advantage of her, and when she resists, she earns a kick in the stomach. The blow bursts the packet and her system is infused with the drugs, an artificial version of a natural growth-hormone. Besson's script hypothesizes that the designer-drug unleashes a level of brain-capacity that most humans never use, so that Lucy acquires phenomenal psychic powers. She gets free of her captors and sows a little vengeance on gang-boss Mr. Jang, though she lets him live-- apparently for no good reason but because the script needs a villain to continue providing resistance.  Her main project, however, is to overtake the other drug-mules and harvest the drugs they carry, in order to (a) keep the hormone from killing her, and (b) to boost herself to the full 100% capacity, so that she can implicitly transcend time and space.

As an action-thriller, LUCY is adequate. Unfortunately, despite a script that gives scientist Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman) a lot of ponderous dialogue about evolution and the time-space continuum, Besson's rendering of these profundities is merely banal.  Besson's idea of deep meaning is to show assorted shots of animals in the wild, perhaps with the intention of illustrating the vast complexity of the ecosphere. But frankly, I've seen Disney nature programs that provided better illustration of life's impressive variations. Besson's understanding of metaphysical issues is similarly derivative and undermines the potential of the basic idea.

As any number of reviews will have mentioned, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY is derived from a Marvel franchise that was never particularly popular: calling it "third-string" might be too kind.  GALAXY, directed and co-written by James Gunn, is clearly modeled after the cinematic example of 2012's THE AVENGERS, in that the earlier film also introduces a motley crew of disparate characters and forges them into a team. However, both the 2012 film and the 1963 comic book from which it derived had the advantage of teaming up characters from independent features, and thus could draw fans of those respective serials. GALAXY introduces five characters who never appeared in any other movie, although a few support-characters showed up in "teasers" for other Marvel films.

On one respect, GALAXY exceeds the 2012 AVENGERS.  The heroes of the latter film are forced to become allies by contingent circumstances, and though some characters like or dislike each other to varying degrees, the shadow of that contingency hangs over the group's formation.  The Avengers exist first and foremost to repel world-endangering threats, not because they admire or like each other.

The main narrative of GALAXY is also informed by a cosmic catastrophe, but here it seems like an excuse to bring together five quirky "losers," as their de facto leader Peter "Star-Lord" Quill calls them.  To be sure, Gunn's GALAXY is a very slick film: every single line has been crafted with the intent of selling this idea of loners who find their real raison d'etre in being parts of a buddy system.  But there's enough humor in the presentation so that the effect is that of discovering new wine in old bottles.

Marvel-fanatics-- and I myself have been such, at times-- should enjoy the film's tendency to pilfer dozens of characters and situations from disparate Marvel features, usually recombining them in reasonably ingenious fashion. For example, Rocket Raccoon's original version was one of several bio-engineered "funny animals," but since this would have no advantage for GALAXY's narrative, the character is reworked as a "one of a kind" experiment. more or less along the lines of Marvel's mutant hero Wolverine.

I will say that Gunn is so intent on keeping the action fast and breezy that though there are a lot of battles-- muscleman Drax taking on his sworn enemy Ronan, the Novacore ships attacking the villain's dreadnaught-craft-- none of them rise to the level of fight-choreography boasted by THE AVENGERS, which made many fans' hearts twitter by presenting live-action jousts between Thor/Hulk, Hawkeye/Black Widow, and so on.

And one other AVENGERS comparison must be made: both in the comics and the Marvel films, the characters stand on their own, each having his or her own mythic resonance.  None of the Guardians acquire such resonance here, precisely because so much Marvel history is being both reworked and shoehorned into the narrative. However, it's not impossible that the probable sequel could improve on this aspect of its motley group of world-savers, and I for one will be in line to see what Marvel Studios can pull off with this latest batch of "loveable losers."