Tuesday, January 28, 2020

US (2019)

PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

Sartre's concept of the Other is informed by a desire to rein in the forces of authority represented by European colonialism and capitalism. I suggest, however, that because of this ideological orientation, he could not see the same forms of evil as being either real or potential within the culture of the Other. To rewrite the injunction from the Gospel of Matthew, Sartre could see the beam in a Frenchman's eye, but none in the eye of an Algerian.-- REDEFINING THE RACIAL OTHER PT. 2.

I've said in many essays, both here and on THE ARCHETYPAL ARCHIVE, that I consider the primary purpose of art and literature to be expressive, not instructive. I'm often suspicious of political agendas cleverly designed as entertainment. Nevertheless, I must admit that expressiveness can't be true to its nature by keeping out sociopolitical subject matter, and there are times when the works of art benefit from being grounded by the artist's view of contemporary politics. For me, the thing that separates political lecturing from political mythologizing is the author's ability to integrate his views of society into an assortment of greater epistemological concerns.

I've had only scattered exposure to Jordan Peele's work as an actor, and have seen nearly none of his behind-the-scenes work. Peele has a reputation for promoting Progressive political views, and I doubted that I would have any use for that element of his movies. That said, on this blog I've endeavored to highlight the creativity of even the most super-politicized raconteurs. If it's possible to celebrate Gene Roddenberry even when he showed some of his more conservative stripes, it should be equally possible to celebrate an ultraliberal creator even if I find his views untenable.

Perhaps the least political aspect of US is one that it shares with a number of modern horror movies: an obsessive minimalism regarding the depiction of characterization. I've avoided a lot of recent films in the genre after seeing-- and feeling burned by-- 2007's PARANORMAL ACTIVITY. Whatever audiences liked about this film and the franchise it spawned, I don't think it could have had anything to do with the viewers' intense investment in the characters. Similarly, US-- Peele's sophomore horror-film after 2017's GET OUT-- eschews any real background on the film's four viewpoint characters the Wilsons: father Gabe, mother Adelaide, and their two kids Jason and Zora. The Wilson family are upscale African-American, and Adelaide-- whose backstory is seen intermittently as the story progresses-- also seems to have been from a well-to-do family.

Peele spends about half an hour exposing the audience to the friendly badinage of the Wilsons, much of which has the thematic aim of showing how well-off they are, with their beach-house in Santa Cruz, Gabe's obsession with having his own boat, and a Siri-like computer assistant named Ophelia. Peele doesn't tell the audience how they reached this apex of conspicuous consumption. Gabe, Jason and Zora all appear to be without conflicts, but Adelaide suffered some trauma in her childhood, causing modern Adelaide to be something of a control freak. Flashbacks show little Adelaide encountering a duplicate of herself in a carnival hall of mirrors, and only the least experienced viewer won't suspect that this trauma foreshadows the movie's main conflict.

In the comfort of their beach house, the Wilsons suffer home invasion by four doppelgangers of themselves. However, these people-- who claim to have a shadow-like relationship to the Wilsons-- would never pass as the originals, particularly "Red," the double of Adelaide, who leads her "family" much as Adelaide wears the pants with hers. The other three have various bizarre ticks, but Peele grants actress Lupita N'y'ongo a lion's share of time to portray Red, who speaks and moves as if unfamiliar with either activity. She claims that she and her family have lived a life of endless suffering while Adelaide and her brood have lived the high life, but the shadow-people can take the regular people's place if they kill them.

However, the doppelgangers don't immediately kill all four Wilsons, apparently because Red wants Adelaide to suffer more. This leads to a series of battles and escapes for the beleaguered Wilsons, serving to pad the film until Peele introduces not one, but two, Shyamalan-style Big Reveals.

Even before listening to Peele's ruminations about "privilege" on the DVD, it was pretty evident that Peele wasn't telling a generic horror story in which the main characters just happened to be Black Americans. The Wilsons are clearly being punished for their affluence, while Peele's sympathies lie with the marginalized doppelgangers. Peele's politics are akin to those of the Sartre quotation above, which he makes clear in his DVD remarks, asserting that everyone who possesses any level of privilege does so at the expense of some other person. This idea is one that could be given a nightmare level of expressiveness, like some of Hans Christian Andersen's darker stories. But Peele, despite knowing a lot about genre fiction, blows that potential with his desire to "virtue signal." He tosses out a few Bible quotations as proof as his sagacity, but he's certainly not concerned with any of the larger themes of the Judeo-Christian mythos, even for the purpose of satire. Similarly, even though he pays lip service to the idea that all persons have a dual nature, he's not interested in the "daylight side" of consciousness. He does manage to portray the revolt of the oppressed without boiling it down to formulas of "people of color vs. evil colonizing Caucasians," and so he's at least a little subtler than BLACK PANTHER. And for that reason, even though I feel sure that there must be some contemporary ultraliberal creator out there capable of superior creativity, Jordan Peele is not that creator.

Monday, January 27, 2020


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

Though I enjoyed the 1960s FLINTSTONES show, its brand of "cornball caveman antics" don't grab me much these days. That said, there was a definite level of craftsmanship in the show that pretty much disappeared in a lot of Hanna-Barbera's 1970s output, with the possible nadir being another comic-caveman romp, CAPTAIN CAVEMAN AND THE TEEN ANGELS. Yet in that same period, the company put out this 1979 TV special, which was something of a return to good form. ROCKULA AND FRANKENSTONE apparently earned positive ratings back in 1979, given that Hanna-Barbera issued four more Flintstones specials and a subsequent FLINTSTONE COMEDY SHOW (which just so happened to feature the odious CAPTAIN CAVEMAN as one of its segments).
The 1979 FRANKENSTONE special doesn't play the monsters quite as straight as that standout in monster-mashdom, ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN. Nevertheless, the titular fiends aren't nearly as derivative as dozens of other swipes of the Universal Classic Monsters, and their motivations, while comical, are relatively consistent.

Thanks to the largesse of a game show patterned on "Let's Make a Deal," Fred Flintstone, Barney Rubble, and their respective wives Wilma and Betty win a free trip to the legendary castle of Count Rockula in the usual Transylvania knock-off. (There's no mention of either of their kids, who are conveniently missing.) For some reason the castle's being used to host a large costume-party for a lot of locals, and although the foursome come across a creepy-looking "Igor" at the start, he turns out to be an ordinary fellow. However, the locals tell the visitors a fairly complicated story about the castle's former owner, a vampire who had an ongoing feud with a clan of werewolves. To protect himself against these lupine enemies, Rockula created an artificial man, Frankenstone, but never managed to activate the creature.

While the party goes on, a chance bolt of lightning activates the long dormant Frankenstone (Ted Cassidy, in one of his last roles). The monster then revives Rockula (John Stephenson), who's been sleeping all these centuries for no stated reason. The two monsters expel all of the party guests, but Rockula mistakes Wilma for his long-vanished bride, and tries to convince her to marry him (though Hanna-Barbera never even suggests that he might persuade her by chowing down on her veins). Rockula finally concedes that Wilma's not his bride, but then gets the idea that he can still marry her, if he makes her a widow.

Almost all of the story takes place with the cavepeople running around the castle in time-approved "let's get outta here" fashion, but there are a few cute jokes. Barney dons a werewolf mask and temporarily scares away Rockula, who still has some wolf-issues, and Wilma, for no particular reason, wraps herself in mummy-bandages and mistakenly clobbers the masked Barney. It's certainly not as funny as the laugh track suggests, but the story does allow for more interpersonal comedy between the protagonists and their creepy opponents. The denouement even gives Rockula the ultimate reason to cease pursuing Wilma: the Terror of a Domineering Housewife. Cassidy reads Frankenstone's lines rather after the fashion of Glenn Strange, which is certainly preferable to yet another Karloff impersonation-- and though facially Rockula looks like a long-nosed Sid Caesar, at least that counteracts the way Stephenson voices the vampire with a Lugosi accent thicker than that of Adam Sandler.

Rockula apparently went back to the old crypt, but Hanna-Barbera re-used their Frankenstone design for the first of four TV-specials, "The Flintstone's New Neighbors." The new version of Frankenstone (this time by John Stephenson, doing a tiresome Boris voice) is the paterfamilias to a family of monsters who move in next door to Fred. Fred resents his weird new neighbors, including a wife with Bride-of-Frankenstein hair, a short Franken-tyke, and a teenaged daughter who looks like Munch's famous "The Scream" painting. Barney is more tolerant, and the friends fall out until the Frankenstones prove themselves to be good people.

This 30-minute special was a backdoor pilot to the cartoon-series "The Frankenstones," which also showed up as a segment of the FLINTSTONE COMEDY SHOW. For the record, the family also had a pet octopus and a monstrous maid, never fully seen on camera here but represented by a long hairy arm.

Saturday, January 25, 2020


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

I watched both of these films purely to fulfill a couple of completist urges.

In the case of THE LEMON GROVE KIDS MEET THE MONSTERS, the completism had to do with my general liking for "monster mashes." LEMON, a little over an hour long, is a compilation of three short bargain-basement films by Ray Dennis Steckler, the first of which Steckler made with the idea of using it as a television-series pilot. When this attempt failed, the shorts were apparently shown as matinee attractions in theaters.

The "Lemon Grove Kids" of the title are a bunch of adults who have juvenile adventures in a suburban community. Steckler, who plays the goofy character "Gopher," made the shorts in homage to the Bowery Boys, a B-film series that came about when the once teenaged "Dead End Kids" had all become a gang of dopey adults. Steckler goes to great effort to channel Huntz Hall of the Bowery Boys, mugging and pulling faces, but he doesn't quite have Hall's gift for comedy.

Two of the three shorts have no real metaphenomenal content, though of these two, one sees a creepy-looking mummy, a superhero, and a lady-napping ape, before one finds out that they're all actors in costumes. The middle short, "The Green Grasshopper and the Vampire Lady from Outer Space," has the Kids seeking to ferret out the source of a vampire plague in their community. If I understood the script correctly, the villains are the Grasshopper and the Vampire, and I guess they're both supposed to be aliens, though they look nothing like one another.

There are a couple of decent jokes in this amateurish production, the best being one where the Vampire Lady bites Gopher, so he gets mad and-- bites her back! At least that was something I'd never seen before in a vampire movie.

I watched 2009's G-FORCE for no reason but superhero-film completism, since someone somewhere claimed that this kid-flick qualified for that category. I disagree. Although the Force is made up of intelligent guinea pigs who are given the power to communicate with people via technology, and although they get involved in a villain's world-conquering scheme, it's my determination that "real superheroes" have to have some significant level of power, even if it's just the ability to predict the future or the like. But one line in the film even admits that the guinea pigs have been given no enhancements beyond the talking-ability, and though they prevent the villain's plan-- largely because he's an animal like themselves-- these particular funny animals don't deserve the sobeiquet of superheroes.

Also, what humor there is is extremely routine and is designed only for very small children.


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

The script for the second adventure of superspy Charles Bind is no better than it was for the first exploit, NUMBER ONE OF THE SECRET SERVICE. However, the first film was so cheap that it resorted to having the hero attacked by an assassin wearing dimestore vampire fangs, so in terms of FX the Charles Bind series had nowhere to go but up.

This time Bind (Gareth Hunt) is assigned to find a missing British diplomat. Bind's M-light boss doesn't approve of the agent's wastrel ways, and warns Bind that if he doesn't straighten up, "Number One" (the film's 007-style nickname for Bind) may be replaced by "Ultra One," who's supposedly as good as Bind at fighting and shooting. At first it sounds like this is yet another recycling of a standard spy-comedy joke about some imitator being threatened with meeting the real thing. Instead, Bind's competitor, an American named Jensen Fury, is one of Bind's main adversaries in the film.

Fury-- played by a Brit actor doing a very bad accent, possibly based on that of Clint Eastwood-- has become the foremost henchman for an American-but-with-a-Brit-accent senator named Lucifer Orchid. Apparently Orchid's trying to replace important people with robot replicas, though his scheme barely plays any real role in the narrative. Instead, as soon as Bind shows up on Orchid's doorstep, the mastermind spends most of the picture setting up various devices or traps to slay the super-agent. Fury, for his part, resents the idea that anyone might consider Bind a rival, and repeatedly tries to show off his macho prowess by shooting and/or humiliating Bind. In comparison to the threadbare NUMBER ONE movie, writer-director Lindsay Shonteff manages to come up with a moderately impressive array of menaces. such as a swimming pool full of acid and a stripper who has razor-blades attached to her pasties and can rotate them so fast that they can shred wood. Sadly, Shonteff also repeats one of the "gags" from the first film, where a martial female turns out to be a man in drag-- which allegedly appears in the third and last film as well. Bind, for his part, gets an even greater high-tech upgrade, including a flying car, a force field able to repel bombs, and huge saws that pop out of his car to slice and dice a pursuing auto.

Very little of the script is actually funny, but it's such a catalog of absurdities that LICENSED is at least more diverting than NUMBER ONE. One online commentary asserted that the first actor to play Bind, Nicky Henson, was much better than Gareth (NEW AVENGERS) Hunt. This is quite true, but Hunt's stolid demeanor, as he plays his smarmy-handsome-guy part straight, works better for this material. In my NUMBER ONE review I noted that Shonteff didn't equal even the average Eurospy flick in terms of employing comely actresses, but LICENSED has some nice moments of feminine pulchritude-- though the woman playing the deadly stripper doesn't work out too well. 

Tuesday, January 21, 2020


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

From a marketing standpoint, PREHISTORIC WOMEN probably came about due to the success of Hammer's co-production (with Seven Arts) of 1966's ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. Indeed, WOMEN used some of the costumes from YEARS, as well as taking actress Martine Beswicke and giving her the lead in WOMEN. It's even arguable that the basic idea of the YEARS screenplay-- reputedly authored by the film's producer Michael Carreras, though other scripters provided the finished product-- recycles one of YEARS' basic ideas, a conflict between primitive tribes.

Yet WOMEN takes such a peculiar tack with its "babes-in-fur-bikinis" motif that I'm tempted to wonder if the real force behind the film's genesis might have been a ten-year-old Carreras reading Edgar Rice Burroughs, which his adult self later tried to translate into bankable cinema.

One of the most famous tropes in Burroughs' TARZAN books is his repetition of an idea more or less swiped from Rider Haggard (whose novel SHE Carreras adapted in 1965): the idea that the "dark continent" of Africa harbored countless sub-civilizations of white tribes descended from emigrants from Europe or the Middle East. In the late 1960s this was a difficult trope to make credible any more, and for that reason WOMEN's main character-- white hunter David Marchent (Michael Latimer)-- has to pass through what seems like a dimensional gate to encounter a white tribe living in Africa.

Carreras's backstory for this tribe is incredibly labored and confusing to anyone who tries to sort it out. Carreras did not write Hammer screenplays nearly as often as his colleague Anthony Hinds-- WOMEN is just his fifth script out of eight credited on IMDB-- but it seems odd that he even attempted to design anything more involved than the aforementioned YEARS. Yet the man told a reasonably coherent story for his 1964 CURSE OF THE MUMMY'S TOMB, which required a complicated backstory for the titular mummy. In that film, Carreras provided a flashback that clarified the situation. But in WOMEN, Carreras relies on three different interlocutors to provide exposition, when what he really needs is another flashback to dramatize the origins of the peculiar tribe.

Marchent, after getting a partial lowdown from some Black Africans reciting the history of the curse of the White Rhinoceros, passes through the dimension door and finds himself in another jungle. A blonde woman, fleeing pursuit, attacks him-- an attack never explained, given that he looks nothing like her enemies-- and then both of them are captured by a group of unspeaking brunette women. Marchent is hauled before the queen of the unnamed tribe, Kari (Martine Beswicke). She provides some more exposition, clarifying that in this world, the brunette white women enslave all the blonde white women-- though Kari's the only brunette who speaks or takes any decisive actions. One line calls some of the brunettes "Tongueless Ones," and all of them might as well be tongueless since they have no lines.

In contrast, the blondes get a fair number of lines in which they express their wretched enslavement, particularly the blonde Marchent first met, one Saria (Edina Ronay). Despite having tried to either stab or brain him with a rock earlier, Saria and Marchent become interested in each other, while evil queen Kari lusts after Marchent. He refuses her attentions because he doesn't believe that either of the sexes should dominate the other, or something like that. The angry Amazon-- and she does seem to be the only tribeswoman who can fight, by the way she takes down a disrespectful slave-- consigns Marchent to an underground prison, where it seems that all of the tribe's men are kept, regardless of their hair-color.

Other details about the tribe's history come out as Marchent chats with an old man who knows a lot of stuff. He claims that the whole tribe emigrated from another land, but he loosely implies that the "dark ones" in that tribe were somehow in thrall to the "fair ones." However, the fair ones overhunted the rhinoceri in the area, potentially enraging the neighboring black natives, for whom the white rhino was a particular object of veneration. Once all the rhinos were gone, the fair ones tried to run a hoax on the natives-- a barbaric people called "the devils"-- by erecting an idol of a white rhino. Somehow this placated the devils-- until a rebellious brunette slave, Kari herself, exposed the hoax to the natives. There's also something about the vengeance of "the gods," who may be responsible for moving the whole kit-and-kaboodle into a dimension removed from reality. But the upshot is that Kari and her fellow brunette Amazons gain control over everyone else in the tribe, keeping all the men in the underground caves and paying tribute to the devils by periodically giving up one of the blondes to the savages. (Whether the victims get married or eaten, the pattern seems like a clear callback to the 1933 KING KONG.) In addition, when the blondes aren't being sacrificed, they have to dance for Kari's amusement.

There are, by the bye, far more musical interludes than one would expect to find in a jungle-babe flick, and I suspect that these various interludes, like the costuming, may have stemmed from some production exigency. (A couple of scenes even focus on male Black Africans, so it's not just about putting the shapely lasses on display.) Maybe the musical segments also make up for a low level of action. Marchent is made something of a pawn between Kari and Saria, for she encourages him to play up to the queen in order to foment a rebellion. Then the wishy-washy blonde changes her mind out of jealousy and fouls up the whole plan, potentially putting Marchent in a position to get killed. Fortunately for the good guys, Kari simply sends Marchent back to the caves, which in a roundabout way helps him free the males and lead an attack to overthrow the reign of Kari and her devils. To be sure, Kari is defeated not by Marchent but by the spectre of a white rhino, though it's not at all clear why the rhinoceros-god would have any animus toward Kari.

WOMEN is a strange concoction of barely acknowledged racial elements and overdone sexual elements, even though it's ambivalent as to whether Kari ever beds Marchent. Kari, indubitably the central character since her traitorous act brings about the tribal curse, is nevertheless a hollow and fairly absurd character, and actress Beswicke played to that absurdity by making her something of a shrieking fishwife. Maybe Carreras didn't expect anyone in the audience to care whether or not the backstory made any sense; maybe he thought they'd only be ogling the ladies the whole time. Yet he could have scripted something much simpler if all he'd wanted was a sex-show-- and the very incoherence of the script suggests that he may have wanted to express his own liking for Burroughsian entertainments.

Monday, January 13, 2020


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

If the incredibly mediocre KING DINOSAUR boasts any distinction, it's as the first directorial credit for Bert ("Mr. B.I.G.") Gordon. Given that Gordon got somewhat better over the years-- maybe in part because he didn't again work with one of the credited co-scripters, Tom Gries-- maybe one could think of DINOSAUR as the director's version of the crappy comedy-club, where the aspiring comedian can perform without anyone of consequence seeing him get all the "bad" out of his system. (Not that Gordon got rid of all his badness, but still...)

As it happens, DINOSAUR also boasts a "last" distinction. It was filmed under the aegis of Lippert Pictures, a cheapie company that didn't touch any fantasy-content in the forties except for jungle-adventures like QUEEN OF THE AMAZONS. Then Lippert brought out ROCKETSHIP X-M in a quickie attempt to benefit from advance publicity on George Pal's DESTINATION MOON. For a few more years, the company tossed out a few more low-budget sci-fi flicks, with DINOSAUR concluding that trend slightly before the company apparently dissolved. DINOSAUR, in addition to emulating some aspects of ROCKETSHIP X-M, may also have been intended to mooch off an upcoming release, or rather re-release-- that is, *if * the producers knew that RKO's famed KING KONG was scheduled to return to theaters the next year. As all monster-philiacs know well, KONG's re-release in 1952 had already enjoyed box office returns impressive enough to spark the whole "giant monster" craze of the fifties, beginning with 1953's  BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS.

The name of the film certainly evokes the title of the film with the big ape, and in a very loose sense, DINOSAUR emulates KONG's theme of conflict between the modern world and a prehistoric milieu. But the supposed "original story" by producer Al Zimbalist chose to shift the setting from an obscure Earth-island to a planet in outer space-- though the main action does take place on an island on said world. The planet, nicknamed "Nova," conveniently looks like an Earth-bound wilderness, even down to having a human-friendly atmosphere.

Four astronauts-- two males (Ralph and Richard) and two females (Nora and Patricia)-- journey to the newly discovered planet, allegedly with the aim of just scoping things out. Nothing is said about colonizing the world, though that was the dominant mentality of the period. Still, one might almost believe that the four scientists are really interested in pure research, except that the Gordon-Gries-Zimbalist script has zero interest in keeping up the illusion of scientific exploration, not even on the level of Zimbalist's 1953 production CAT WOMEN OF THE MOON. Indeed, the script goes out of its way to dismiss scientific concerns. At one point one of the guys wonders what time it is, and though a lady scientist points out that they don't yet know what the "cycle" here is, the fellow pronounces that he thinks it's about three in the afternoon.

The four explorers aren't really there to analyze the world, but to walk around a lot, goggle at an assortment of beasts, and for each of the two couples to have a little romantic interaction. The four of them are just as deficient in interesting psychology as they are in scientific regimen, and again, even CAT WOMEN does it better. All four are so poorly concocted that I tend to consider the planet itself as the star of the show.

Despite the film's title, there's no particular monster that dominates DINOSAUR. To be sure, Ralph-- or maybe Richard?-- claims that the giant iguana menacing the group is actually a T-Rex, which he dubs "King Dinosaur." This rear-projected behemoth does get more screen time than a giant rear-projected gecko, a giant rear-projected bee, and a normal-sized kinkajou whom the scientists claim to be a "lemur." But the alleged monarch is not really lord of his domain, though he and the gecko are juxtaposed to suggest that they have a big fight a la Kong's battles for prehistoric supremacy. It's the whole domain that the nugatory characters are opposed to, as is shown by the denouement. These supposed scientists, rather than being intrigued at Nova's potential for research, decide that they're grossed out by all these primitive displays of violence, and so they blow up the whole world with a handy atom bomb. To be sure, this slightly resembles the way Ernest Schoedsack returned to Skull Island just to destroy it in SON OF KONG. But I think Gordon and company were probably more influenced by the attitude of military arrogance I pointed out in BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, which is all about killing the primitive whenever it challenges modern life in any way.

Saturday, January 11, 2020


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

Of all the mythoi to employ the combative mode, that of the "irony" is the least common. Of the hundreds of films or teleseries collections I've reviewed here since the blog's genesis, AEON FLUX THE COLLECTION is only the sixteenth combative irony.

In my review of the 2005 live-action adaptation of the cartoon, I mentioned that I hadn't seen the cartoons in some time and thus wasn't sure whether they hewed closer to irony or to adventure, although the live-action film was pretty solidly aligned with the latter. However, the summation I wrote of the Aeon Flux cosmos remains accurate:

The original “Aeon Flux” cartoons, produced in the 1990s by Peter Chung for MTV’s “Liquid Television,” became popular with viewers chiefly through their feel of enigmatic unpredictability. The scantily garbed Aeon, an inhabitant of a far-future civilization, engaged in assorted obscure missions, sometimes including assassination, against the forces of city-ruler Trevor Goodchild, sort of a futuristic Nero, albeit rendered with more irony.  On occasion Aeon was “killed,” but came to life by the next episode.

I should note here that only in the first series of "Aeon" cartoons-- ranging from 2-minute to 5-minute episodes-- did the heroine repeatedly perish. Since these shorts were scored but almost totally lacked dialogue, this facet of the heroine's history went unexplained. Then AEON FLUX became a half-hour standalone cartoon show with full dialogue, during which season the possibility of Aeon's having clones was bandied about slightly. However, creator Peter Chung's entire approach to the genre of that SF-genre one might call "future revolution stories" remained consistently elliptical and evasive even when the presence of dialogue gave Chung more opportunity for exposition.

The ten episodes of the half-hour series continually place the leather-clad Aeon in some peculiar situation, toss off a modicum of explanation, and then follow the heroine about in her vaguely defined missions, usually against the forces commanded by Trevor Goodchild. As in many revolutionary stories, villain Goodchild is identified with repressive government, while hero Aeon is lined up, at least in theory, with the forces of liberation. However, Chung may also have borrowed from ironic forms of the espionage genre, since the two sides are often morally ambiguous. Goodchild is often shown to be a scientist in the Frankenstein tradition, seeking to extend the power of humankind to explore new vistas of technology, while Aeon Flux urges caution and restraint. Further contributing to their ambiguity is their past history as lovers, a history that remains in play. Even in the midst of their conflicts, Aeon and Goodchild are occasionally given to embracing and fondling one another. In keeping with the MTV audience of the time, everything in the animated universe has a quasi-sexual vibe, but the sense of the erotic almost always is attended by elements of frustration.

For instance, in one episode Aeon becomes implicated in killing a female enemy agent, and then becomes interested in the dead agent's boyfriend. She pulls the fellow out of trouble, and the two of them sustain a sort of Bogey-and-Bacall badinage during their doomed relationship.

AEON: "Why would I be interested in hurting you?"
GUY (apparently regarding her leather attire): "You look as though you might."
AEON: "You look as though you might enjoy it."

But though couples in this cosmos can get off, no one can get a happy ending, and the short-run series ends on the same ironic tone of non-consummation as when it started.

Parenthetically, in a commentary track Chung addresses the matter of Aeon's skimpy attire. He never says outright that he designed the heroine's clothing to attract "the male gaze," nor does he mention whether or not he received any complaints about Aeon's leathers during the series. He does, however, aver that he avoided giving her many clothes because, in an animated project, the attempt to delineate garments often interferes with what he considered a more important value: that of capturing the expressivity of the human form, in keeping with the priorities of classical art. His explanation is certainly better than most of the lame defenses most artists make for depicting the unclothed female form, and though it may only be a partial truth-- like many of the truths one encounters in an irony-drenched world-- the truth-value has a conditional reality at the very least.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: (1) *adventure,* (2) *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*

Both of these films embrace nerd-culture so totally that even I, an avowed pop-culture apologist, got a little tired of the constant references.

From the marketing of SHAZAM!, with not a few references to the 1988 movie BIG, it was plain that the filmmakers were going for lots of comedy, with just enough "serious" scenes to please audiences who wanted the thrills of adventure. SHAZAM! has enough FX to make its city-slamming scenes reasonably appealing, though the average viewer has probably seen it all before.

It goes without saying that exigent circumstances prevented a faithful adaptation of Fawcett's CAPTAIN MARVEL comic book, not least because Marvel Comics presumably holds the trademark on the name. Though it's not illegal for DC to use the name for the character, Warner Brothers probably opted to use the name "Shazam" for the hero so that they could promote the current version of the character with no blowback from the MCU. This does have one major narrative consequence for the film, in that now the hero can't tell the populace his superhero name without transforming back into his mortal ID Billy Batson. The film tries to make the best of the awkward situation by bestowing many goofy names on the Hero Who Dare Not Speak His Name, such as the Crimson Cyclone and Captain Sparklefingers. However, that joke gets old pretty fast.

This version of Billy, rather than being a lone orphan, is swiftly lumbered with a family of five other foster kids. Four of them are zeroes personality-wise, including a young lady named Mary, who will possibly be revealed as Billy's long-lost biological sister. The fifth kid, Freddy Freeman, is a boy Billy's age, making it possible for the two of them to bond as foster brothers, even though Billy doesn't share Freddy's love of superheroic lore. But Freddy, though he gets the best lines in the film, exists merely to be Billy's sounding board when the latter has his inevitable encounter with an ancient wizard who bestows on Billy "the power of Shazam."

Naturally, "Shazam" has a rival for that power. The original hero's perpetual arch-foe was a wizened little mad scientist named Doctor Sivana, but, in keeping with some later comics-lore, this time Sivana is a frustrated dude who as a child got passed over when the wizard briefly considered Sivana for Shazam-hood. The rejected candidate, now an adult, figures out how to plunder the underground sanctum of the now dead wizard and to gain super-powers from demons contained therein, the Seven Deadly Sins.

I can certainly imagine many worse adaptations of the original Captain Marvel, and SHAZAM! is modestly entertaining, though pretty predictable. The only scene that struck me as having some of That Old Fawcett Magic was one in which Shazam manages to channel his powers into his five foster siblings-- but I confess it only has such an appeal because it's a "reference" to the way the original hero created his "Marvel Family" of Mary Marvel (sister Mary) and Captain Marvel Jr (Freddy Freeman). The sociological myth of SHAZAM is an overblown lecture on the importance of family ties, particularly when the family is conceived as a signal to diversity.

LEGO BATMAN also depends on a similar sociological lecture, but this time it's tied to the filmmakers' perception of Batman's imagined psychology. Here, instead of being an avenger obsessed with righting the unfairness of the world, he's Richie Rich As Superhero. Yes, there's a touch of the original Bat-trauma, which has caused him to shun almost all contacts with the outside world, save for his faithful butler/surrogate dad Alfred. But the trauma simply unleashes the Bat-Id, moving the crusader to pursue ever bigger and more ostentatious methods of crimefighting. He's Veblen's conspicuous consumption wrapped in a cape.

It's kind of fun to see a Batman who hasn't yet become saddled with Robin, and who won't even acknowledge Joker as his foremost villain-- which moves the Clown Prince to go looking for a new level of evil. He releases various famous non-DC villains from the Phantom Zone, and Batman's only way of thwarting all of these evils is to forge the bonds of family with New Robin, New Batgirl, and even his previous roster of rogues.

Again, most of the jokes in LEGO become repetitive pretty quickly. However, I must admit an affection for one that involves DOCTOR WHO's Daleks, which ends with Joker advising the audience to "ask your nerd friends" about them.

Thursday, January 2, 2020


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, psychological, sociological*

Since ALITA BATTLE ANGEL is one of the most faithful adaptations of a comics-property in history, I may as well lay out the manga's backstory by re-using an earlier writeup I did for a particular ALITA arc, IRON MAIDEN:

Yukito Kishiro’s world is dominated by an aerial city named Tiphares (named for the central sephiroth of the Kaballah’s “Tree of Life”), a city linked to the Earth’s surface by a long shaft and assorted cables. Yet for the first two arcs the reader does not see how life is lived by the citizens of the clouds. Rather, Kishiro focuses on the lives of the ground-bound humans whose domain, “the Scrapyard,” coalesces around the aerial shaft. The reader’s first image of this environment is that of a mammoth junkyard, reinforcing the idea that the people, too, are castoffs from legitimate society. Earthbound commerce centers around Tiphares as well. The only businesses Kishiro shows are METROPOLIS-style factories, whose main function is to process food and other commodities and send the goods up to the sky-city via the central shaft. The inhabitants of the Scrapyard, however, live a hand-to-mouth existence, and many of their bodies have become modified through grafting or through the addition of cyborg parts—which seems to debase rather than enhance most of them.

Much of the story of ALITA derives from the first origin-arc, IRON MAIDEN and the subsequent arc KILLING ANGEL. Future arcs dealt with the young cyborg's eventual journey to the forbidden cloud-city Tiphares, but ALITA can only suggest this potential. As scripted by James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis, Alita's early years in the Scrapyard serve to infuse her with two major motivations: to discover the original nature of her metal body's programming, and to avenge the death of her first love Hugo, and the script succeeds in making the familiar bildungsroman seem fresh, even if the film must by its nature end with its saga incomplete.

Though Robert Rodriguez does yeoman work bringing Kishiro's cyberpunk world to life, the pleasures of the Scrapyard and its piecemeal inhabitants takes second place to the characterization of Alita-- which is all the more remarkable, since the heroine's on-screen presence is that of a visual effect. Still, facial capture technology has come a long way since THE POLAR EXPRESS, with the result that real-life actress Rosa Salazar is able to convey a wealth of emotions through her CGI persona.

I can quibble at a few of Rodriguez's elisions. In contrast to the original manga, Alita's first love Hugo (Keean Johnson) never quite "comes alive," and some of the finer points of Kishiro's characterization are lost in translation. In contrast, Christoph Waltz provides able support as Alita's mentor Doctor Ido, who not only installs her brain in an unpredictable new body but also introduces her to the perils of the Scrapyard.

But ALITA is not primarily a drama, but an eye-popping adventure-tale, and Rodriguez does not disappoint here either. In fact, I prefer Rodriguez's combination of adventure and drama far over that of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where much of the emotionality seems superficial and manipulative.

Rodriguez had a previous outing in adapating comics-properties, with the two SIN CITY films, and as I note in my review, the second film didn't turn out nearly as well as the first. However, those works were derived from an anthology concept. Thus Rodriguez, having a strong model to draw from in the manga-series, would seem to have a fool-proof series in the making.