Tuesday, August 30, 2022

NEMESIS 2-4 (1995, 1996)


 




PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological, psychological*

Though my re-viewing of Albert Pyun's 1992 cult favorite NEMESIS indicated to me that Pyun made a pretty bad dimestore Ridley Scott, a re-screening of the three NEMESIS sequels suggests that he did considerably better when he copied off the paper of James Cameron in his TERMINATOR phase.

Speculating on influence may be a mug's game. One Wiki source speculated that NEMESIS 2 might have started out as a project unrelated to the original movie, and that the second film was just shoehorned into the series. Yet another Wiki source, quoting Pyun, states that the director's original idea for NEMESIS was that the hero would be a 13-year-old girl who got involved in cyborg-fighting, and that Pyun was obliged to use Olivier Gruner by the studio. If translations of BATTLE ANGEL ALITA had been available back in the nineties, I might have speculated that the director was then contemplating some sort of "cyborg-gamin" idea along the lines of ALITA. Yet whatever sort of heroine Pyun entertained when he started NEMESIS, it seems pretty likely that the "buff heroine" of Cameron's 1991 TERMINATOR 2 displaced that concept, since Pyun took a chance on giving the sequel's starring role for the sequel to Sue Price, an American bodybuilding star with no previous cinematic experience.

Now, my comment about Pyun being indebted to Cameron's techniques is not mean to propose an invidious comparison between Scott and Cameron, both of whom have excellent story-sense, unlike Pyun. But Pyun does have a raw talent for choreographing bracing action-scenes, and it's on that level that NEMESIS 2 succeeds.

The prologue for 2 establishes that 70 years after the events of NEMESIS, the cyborgs did take over Earth, much as Skynet succeeded in eradicating humanity. However, a group of rebels manage to invent a unique form of DNA that will breed a new race of naturally enhanced humans, able to fight the cyborgs. The cyborgs pursue the rebels, so the rebels inject the DNA into the womb of a volunteer, and send the volunteer back in time, to hide in 1980s Africa. The mutant baby-- for some reason given the same first name as the hero from NEMESIS-- is born, but the mother is slain by insurgents. A kindly African tribesman adopts the infant and raises her in his tribe, and somehow she's raised with the name Alex (Price) even though the mother didn't convey it to anyone. 

Pyun still doesn't want to deal with emotional matters too deeply, for all we get of Alex's life with the tribe is one scene where she's hunting with the male tribesmen. Some of them admire her fantastic muscularity-- apparently her DNA gives her instant muscles a la Captain America-- but one fellow challenges her to a fight. Alex beats him easily, after which she complains about not knowing her true nature to a more sympathetic tribesman. He unveils what he knows of her background, but before Alex can think what to do next, a cyborg from the future arrives and devastates Alex's tribe in search of her.

The cyborg, Nebula by name, shimmers a bit for no good reason. Maybe that was Pyun's attempt to suggest that the creature had metamorphic abilities like the T-1000 from TERMINATOR 2, but the hunter shows no such abilities here. (The android does morph once in the sequel.) NEMESIS 2 is just one long chase scene, with the ripped Amazon heroine fending off both the cyborg and various vicious insurgents. She also meets some outsiders and tries to help them escape, though when one of them gets the chance, she leaves Alex flat. In the end Alex defeats the powerful cyborg, but she's still stuck in Africa without a tribe to call her own.

Price is quite appealing as the put-upon heroine, and comes off as far more natural than most actors cast for their physiques. The next sequel, subtitled variously TIME LAPSE and PREY HARDER, keeps Alex confined to the deserts of Africa (actually Arizona), and this time she gets pursued by several cyborgs. A couple of them are just as buff as Alex, so that they seem like rough mirror-images, though they lack her emotional range. More notably, Cyborg-Farnsworth from the first NEMESIS, again played by Tim Thomerson, also takes a time-flip back to 1980. To make up for these greater numbers, Alex befriends a couple of European mercenaries who help her against the time-trippers.



NEMESIS 3 throws a new monkey-wrench into the works. It's established that there are other DNA "sisters" to Alex, though she's supposedly the only one who can breed superhumans-- and at least one sister, given the name "Raine," also after "Alex Rain"-- has traveled to the 1980s. But here we see Pyun mangling his logic as he did in the first film, for Farnsworth overtakes Alex, who's conveniently lost her memory since the previous opus. The heroine knows nothing about her "sisters," so Farnsworth, instead of just extinguishing the threat to his race, downloads memories into Alex's brain. Does he think this will help him find the other mutants? Alex incapacitates Farnsworth and escapes, but he rallies and the hunt is on again. There are some decent fight-scenes and even an occasional good touch of humor. However, Pyun seems to have no idea how to deliver on the idea that his character is going to birth a race of superhumans, so he opts to end the film by having Alex lose both her memory and her contact with her allies.



NEMESIS 4, while somewhat enjoyable in fits and spurts, shows Pyun-- once more working with Rebecca Charles-- mining the BLADERUNNER vein once more. Not only does Pyun shuttle his heroine "back to the future" of her namesake, he drops the idea that she's going to birth the saviors of the human race. Maybe she uses one of the cyborgs' time-vehicles to travel to the future she's supposed to redeem? But Pyun never says so, and 4's prologue merely claims that in 2280 cyborgs and humans exist in a state of uneasy detente, rather than one controlling the other. 

Somehow, this Alex has become a professional assassin, icing victims as ordered by various syndicates, and accepting commissions from a contact man named Bernardo (Andrew Divoff). Alex doesn't really like her job, though she justifies herself by claiming she only kills bad people. And though like Alex Rain she likes to deem herself human, she too has had various cybernetic implants added to her muscular form. But Alex makes a mistake and aces the wrong target.

This sounds like it ought to yield a high-energy action-opus, full of futuristic gun-battles. However, this time out Pyun's pace is often slower and more meditative. In between knocking off gangsters-- one of whom, another hitman, complains that she's a disgrace to the profession-- Alex sometimes beholds an eerie woman in black. Much of her dialogue is peppered with talk about crying angels-- "Cry of Angels" is the film's subtitle-- so on some level Pyun must have been trying to claim that she was suffering from guilt at having extinguished lives. This may be Pyun's greatest effort to incorporate some subtlety into his repertoire, and I appreciate that, despite the muddled results.

Alex, sure that she's going to be knocked off soon, calls an old hitman/lover (not previously mentioned) and asks him to do the job. Inevitably, given Alex's sexiness, they have intercourse first-- at which point, for no damn reason, the dark "angel" shows up and tries to kill Alex. Alex kills the angel instead, and then she recognizes that it's a cyborg known as "the Mother," who works for Bernardo. It was Alex's contact man who set her up to fail so that he could profit from her getting hit by his agent, so Alex and her lover settle Bernardo's hash-- amid much talk about crying angels, of course. And that finishes up Alex's nineties career, and as the movie closes Pyun includes a montage of scenes from all three films, just to make clear that she's the same character in all of them despite all the narrative inconsistencies.

In this summation I've leaped over the thing that makes NEMESIS 4 stand out from the other two movies: Sue Price is nude through many scenes, and not only in scenes where she's having sex. I personally have no problem with this: in the first films the actress was putting her muscles on display for the delectation of viewers, and here she shows both breasts and muscles (and a quick look at you know what). NEMESIS 4 certainly isn't motivated by "art" in the arthouse sense. And yet there might be a loose correlation between Alex's guilt over killing and her somewhat masochistic impulse to display herself. It's probably also not coincidence that this version of Alex is supposed to be part-cyborg like her namesake. Did Pyun have the germ of an idea of a cyborg trying to assert her humanity via nudity, or did he just want the nudity no matter what? (I should note that despite inhabiting a major city, Alex during her peregrinations hardly ever encounters anyone who's not a hitman, so in a sense she exists in a bottle, where going around nude has few consequences.) I doubt that Pyun's thought ran very deep despite these arty motifs. Yet, compared to some of the no-talents in the action-movie business, Pyun does sometimes have the germ of good ideas, if not the ability to pull them off.



Monday, August 29, 2022

SOUL OF THE AVENGER (1996)

 







PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *metaphysical, psychological*

The nicest thing I can say for this movie-- one of just three directed or co-directed by Steven Kaman-- is that the title I saw it under, SOUL OF THE AVENGER, is much better than the title on IMDB, "For Life or Death." At least the first title sounds like a typical one for a routine kung-fu action-film, though SOUL is far less than routine.

There really should be no great mystery as to how to make an entry-level kung-fu film. Even bad ones can sometimes boast the virtue of an anything-goes extravagance. But SOUL looks like a marriage between two wildly divergent film-ideas. One is a standard martial arts film about an evil kung-fu cult pursuing a renegade member. But this is merged with a strange, listless film about a homeless drunk, Earl (Mark Pellegrino), who gets mixed up in the affairs of the renegade and his enemies, because the renegade takes refuge in Earl's body, occasionally lending him fighting-skills.

So right away, even though all of the action takes place in contemporary America, there's a conflict between a Chinese world that's full of magical glossiness and an American one which is inhabited by lowlifes constantly on the make. It's not really a portrait flattering to either culture.

So, the plot: Kaan Woo (James Lew) was once a member of the Black Dragon society, led by the magical mistress Ling Li (Nancy Kwan). He was apparently her lover as well, though the script is fuzzy on this subject, and though we see Kaan hanging out with a much younger woman, one Caren, it's not even stated outright that Kaan left Ling for  Caren. Kaan remains on the run from Ling's enforcers for some time, including her main henchman Xavier (Richard Norton). Then one fateful night Kaan meets the homeless Earl on the street and gives him a little money. Earl follows Kaan and sees him attacked by Xavier's forces. Xavier doesn't like Earl watching and kills him with a magical "chi" blast. Kaan is so upset by the death of this innocent that he does something almost no noble hero has done before: he infuses his spirit into Earl and brings the drunkard back to life. 

Though Kaan's body appears to be dead, Ling intuitively knows that he's still alive in Earl's body. She plans to resuscitate Kaan somehow, which will mean Earl's death, but for some reason she doesn't just stick Earl in a cell, but lets him roam around, supposedly "investigating" Kaan's appearance. The only half-decent thing about this tedious waste of time is that it sets up some action for the actress Karen Sheperd, playing a friend of Caren's who beats up Earl (whose kung-fu skills tend to come and go). 

Eventually Ling-- who does a little "magical" wire-fu but no fighting as such-- gets ready to reincarnate her old lover. I frankly didn't follow how Kaan manages to bring back his old living body without killing Earl, though there are some other good-guy mystics hanging around, so maybe they helped him out. Most of the fight-scenes by Lew and Norton are subpar at best, and Sheperd is the only one whose battles are halfway appealing. Pellegrino is the best actor in the group, having distinguished himself with roles like "The Devil" in SUPERNATURAL, but he can't do anything with the waste-of-space that is Earl, who has no backstory and no interesting tics. This sort of thing makes even the worse crap from Albert Pyun look good. 




NEMESIS (1992)

 






PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological, psychological*

I'll give Albert Pyun's NEMESIS this much credit: though it's not that great even for a low-budget BLADERUNNER imitation, its extreme paranoia about cyborgs comes closer than does the Ridley Scott film to the way the source novel, Philip K. Dick's DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP?, depicts the threat of its "replicants."

But though NEMESIS had the potential to be a good cheap sci-fi adventure, director Pyan and writer Rebecca Charles mostly blew their chance to give their opus any conceptual weight. Despite the shortcomings of the original film, a franchise, mostly of the "in-name-only" type, did develop three years later, but it didn't use the main character Alex Rain, and none of the nineties sequels included the lead actor Olivier Gruner (whose career as a martial-arts cinema-hero was almost certainly boosted by NEMESIS, only his second film). 

What Pyun and Chase get wrong is that their protagonist Alex is such a hardass that he doesn't really have any emotional investment in anything, unlike the prose and film versions of Rick Deckard. Alex is a cop in a futuristic L.A., and he's first seen approaching a woman named Rosaria, whom he tags as a cyborg. He deems her to be part of a rebel group, but after a failed attempt to explain her group's goals, Rosaria wounds him and escapes. The wound reveals that this cyborg-killing cop has artificial parts inside him, and though he claims to be "eighty percent human," his new wounds require yet more artificial transplants and training. Though Alex is nominally loyal to the force, he doesn't like either his superior Farnsworth (Tim Thomerson) or any of the other few LAPD officers we see. Later, purely on a mission of vengeance, Alex journeys to Mexico looking for Rosaria. He finds her but she doesn't recognize him until he kills her. Alex then meets two of his trainer-handlers, both female and one a cyborg. The audience is told that Alex used to be the lover of the human handler Jared, but few couples have seen less like lovers than these two.

Alex resigns from the LAPD, but after a few months as a hired gun, Farnsworth approaches his old subordinate with a new offer: to take out Jared, who has fled the US to Asia with important security information, on sale to foreign bidders. Farnsworth belatedly informs Alex that there's an explosive charge in his skull, so that Alex has no choice but to obey his old bosses.

During his peregrinations, Alex eventually finds out the truth Rosaria tried to impart: that Jared stole information on a massive plot by cyborgs to infiltrate themselves into human government, with the eventual goal of subverting human rule. Also, Jared herself  has been killed by the time Alex arrives in Asia. (Does he react at all? Don't be silly.) But Jared's cyborg agent Julian (Deborah Shelton, who gets a fine nude scene) gives Alex the straight dope by letting the former cop talk to Jared's memory core. I think we're supposed to believe that the resistance fighters are a combination of humans and altruistic cyborgs, but Pyun and Chase don't pursue details like this. Bad cyborgs then come after Alex-- I'm not sure why, since they shouldn't yet know about his change in sympathies. There's also some talk about neutralizing the bomb in Alex's head, though later I think someone claims this was just a bluff.

Anyway, for the rest of the film Alex, with intermittent help from other resistance fighters, fights off various bad cyborgs, including his former superior. The original ending of the film implied that Alex would go on fighting cyborg conspirators, but the streaming version I saw included an alternate ending that left Alex's fate ambivalent. And so ends the short career of cyborg-hunter Alex Rain, aside from part of his name being bestowed on the heroine of the next three sequels.

Friday, August 26, 2022

ALIAS JESSE JAMES (1959)


 






PHENOMENALITY: *naturalistic*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*


In my college years I remember harboring a liking for Bob Hope's comedies, but for the most part I can't remember particular scenes or routines that made me laugh. It's entirely possible that I simply liked Hope's persona-- the cowardly nebbish who always got the hottest babes-- more than any specific Hope schtick.

All that said, ALIAS JESSE JAMES-- which was not one of the films I saw back during my modest Hope-fandom-- is almost completely laugh-free. Hope had trod this sort of western-spoof material in 1948's far superior THE PALEFACE, and his director for that film, Norman Z. McLeod, was probably selected for JAMES because of those credentials. Hope was also reunited with a previous leading lady, Rhonda Fleming, who doesn't have to do much more than look beautiful and feed the comedian his straight lines.

The concept: a prologue informs viewers of the noble role played by insurance companies in the winning of the American West. One such insurance salesman, Milford Farnsworth (Hope), is a total failure at his vocation until he has a chance encounter with famed bandit Jesse James (Wendell Corey). Upon meeting Milford, Jesse comes up with a scam, signing up for an expensive policy and planning to fake his death to collect a big payoff. Jesse departs for his Western haunts, and when Milford finds out he's insured an outlaw, the hapless salesman pursues the outlaw in the hope of reversing the policy. 

Eventually Milford overtakes Jesse, but the outlaw sees in Milford a "body double" he can use to complete his scam. However, Jesse's girlfriend Cora Lee (Fleming) quickly falls out of love with Jesse and in love with Milford, with barely any effort on Milford's part. Assorted jokes make use of fantasy in the naturalistic "fallacious figments" trope. like Milford's hat inflating when he drinks strong alcohol, or outlaws moving in slow motion when they're fed loco weed.

The only notable feature of JAMES is a gimmick at the conclusion, where Jesse's gang is beaten not by the incompetent Milford, but by eight familiar western heroes, mostly from the small screen, except for Gary Cooper, more or less essaying his "High Noon" character. Tonto is one of these heroes, though there's no Lone Ranger, and the ranks even include Davy Crockett, who would have been about a hundred years old by Jesse James' time. Sadly, even this appealing bit is stultified by yet another unfunny Bing Crosby cameo. 

GET MEAN (1975)


 





PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *metaphysical, sociological*


GET MEAN is the last of four spaghetti westerns starring Tony Anthony as "The Stranger." My recollection is that the first three were fairly straightforward western adventures with no metaphenomenal content, with Anthony doing his take on Clint Eastwood's famed "Man with No Name." However, by 1975 Euro-westerns were allegedly losing steam at the box office, and Anthony, who had co-produced the other three "Stranger" films, took this entry into the realm of metaphenomenal comedy. He probably didn't mean for the fourth "Stranger" to be the last installment, but it was just as well in my view, since MEAN fails as comedy or as adventure. 

For this film Anthony teamed up for the second time with director Ferdinando Baldi, who had helmed Anthony's best opus, 1971's BLINDMAN. However, the tone of MEAN had more in common with Baldi's 1967 musical spoof-western LITTLE RITA OF THE WEST, which I described as a "silly farrago of comic scenes." 

As if to suck in an audience expecting a regular western adventure, the opening is fairly grim. The Stranger is being dragged across the desert by a speeding horse, which only comes to a halt upon entering a ghost town. The horse promptly dies and a small group of Spaniards, whose presence in the town is never explained, releases the Stranger. It's suggested that they knew their respective paths would cross, because the Spaniards have a mission for the Stranger. They want him to accompany their princess Elizabeth (Diana Lorys) back to Spain, where she's supposed to lead her people against an invading force of "barbarians." The Stranger initially wants no part of the contract, despite the Spaniards' promise of a hefty fee. However, out of nowhere a barbarian, sporting a Viking-like appearance, shows up and picks a fight with the Stranger. After beating the intruder, the Stranger agrees to the deal.

With no sense of transition, the Stranger and Elizabeth arrive in Spain, which looks just like the American terrain they just left. They witness a battle between the invading barbarians and another group called "Moors," who are either Elizabeth's people or allies of them. The script makes no attempt to map out who's who or where anyone came from, but the Moors-- all of whom have such Spanish names as Diego, Alfonso and Sombra-- take Elizabeth and leave her protector dangling from a tree. However, he's rescued by a motley group of fighters loyal to the princess. The Stranger wants his money for transporting Elizabeth, but the loyalists say he can only get it is if he liberates Elizabeth, who can lead him to "the treasure of Rodrigo."

The barbarian invasion gets forgotten for the most part as the dubious hero beards the evil Moorish leaders in their own court. After a lot of folderol, the Moors agree to release Elizabeth for a share of the treasure, and the Stranger is appointed as her surrogate to descend into some mysterious caves.

Up to this point I might have classified the film as "uncanny" in depicting Spain of the late 19th century as populated by barbarians and Moors. But the caves harbor restless spirits, who invisible hit the hero in the face and howl at him, so that the Stranger almost feels like he's turning werewolf. He briefly exits the caves and gets chased by a bull, is "blackfaced" by a gusher of oil, and finally does find a treasure of sorts, though he has to kill a knife-wielding maniac to get the object.

But the Moors don't like the thing he brings back, claiming that it's a cursed necklace. They try to sacrifice the Stranger, but he escapes, after which he decides to unlimber his special weapon, a four-barrelled shotgun, though Thoth only knows where he was hiding it. The Stranger takes out all of his enemies and finds the treasure for good measure, enabling him to return home.

Whatever his performance in the earlier installments, Anthony's not very heroic here; with his cherubic face he seems less like a gunfighter than a smart-ass kid. The leading lady has nothing to do but to act imperious and get verbally shot down. All of the best scenes go to the three villains, who are respectively a big dumb ox, a simpering gay guy, and a hunchbacked schemer who deems Richard III his hero. A few barbarian character float in and out of the story at random, and a trio of homely barbarian women figure into the movie's only memorable absurdity. At one point, as if to comment on the female/male fight in BLINDMAN, the three barbarian girls overpower the Stranger and almost kill him, except that one girl gets turned on and tries to kiss him. The interruption allows the Stranger to whip a net over the lot of them, as well as his fruity enemy Alfonso, who happens by so that the hero can pass a comment on "women who act like men and men who act like women." The action-scenes are OK but none of the intended comedy is funny. 


Thursday, August 25, 2022

CLASS OF 1999 II: THE SUBSTITUTE (1994)


 






PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, sociological*

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

As the above poster makes clear, someone over in France paid attention to the actual time-frame of this "Class of 1999" sequel, since the script specified that the action of this DTV film took place about two years after the events of the original film. 

It wouldn't be startling had SUBSTITUTE had been a "sequel in name only," particularly none of the creative personnel from the previous film are involved in it. The setting is also shifted from Seattle to the fictional "Monroeville" in California. However, director Spiro Razatos and writer Mark Sevi found a way to keep a loose connection that's actually important to the story. Further, the narrative forges some thematic connections to the original TERMINATOR from which the first film was derived. I'm a little surprised that SUBSTITUTE is as clever as it is, since Razatos's career consisted largely of stunt direction, while Sevi's other sequel-films-- notably, the fun but very stupid GHOULIES IV -- are not particularly noteworthy.

Before the film gets to Monroeville, viewers see a substitute teacher in Oregon ambushed and implicitly slain by a robotic-seeming young man, John Bolen (Sasha Mitchell). Bolen hangs around Oregon long enough to kill some rowdy punks, after which he also kills the school principal and heads south, seeking gainful-- and violence-filled-- employment in California. Trailing behind Bolen is an individual named Ash (Rick Hill of DEATHSTALKER fame). Thanks to Ash recording his progress on a tape machine, the viewer learns from him that it's two years after Bob Forrest unleashed military robots on the students of a Seattle high school. Ash is trailing Bolen in the belief that he is one of these robots, though Ash's motives are not disclosed.

Bolen finds a new berth as a substitute teacher in Monroeville. The script makes no attempt to show this California high school as being as nightmarish as Kennedy High was, but there are some nasty gangs attached to the school. We focus on two teachers persecuted by the gangs: Jenna (Caitlin Dulany) and her boyfriend Emmett (Nick Cassavetes). Jenna in particular is scheduled to testify about the criminal activity of one gang-member, and at one point some of the thugs get her alone and molest her. Bolen shows up and disperses the punks, though privately he makes plans to begin a campaign of war against them, much as his predecessors had. He shows himself to be a martial arts master and apparently impervious to bullets, though he stops short of sprouting ordnance from beneath his skin.

Jenna befriends the emotionless-seeming substitute, little suspecting that he's orchestrating the more low-level slayings of local scumbags. Jenna somehow gets hold of Bolen's diary, in which he's recorded strange, rambling poetry about his war experiences. Speaking of war, though we know next to nothing about boyfriend Emmett, he too is implicated in the business of combat, in that he manages a small military museum. He and Jenna apparently aren't that afraid of gun-violence, for the conclusion hangs upon their arrangement of a paintball-tournament for their students. The gang shows up to take advantage, but Bolen does too-- and this time, he's against everyone.

The Big Reveal is that Bolen is not a robot. Ash, who's been trailing the substitute with the idea of using him somehow, figures out that he's actually the son of the late Dr. Forrest, traumatized by his experiences of war and wearing body armor that repels bullets. Bolen kills Ash and all the gang-members, wounds Emmett, and then comes after Jenna, who, in approved "final girl" style, manages to end Bolen's rampage.

All of the actors are decent enough in their roles, though headliner Mitchell doesn't quite come up to the standard raised by Patrick Kilpatrick in the first film, much less than to Arnie Schwarzenegger. Another point of interest: Jenna's character arc is much like that of Sarah Connor in Cameron's original TERMINATOR: that of a basically ordinary woman pressed to dig deep in order to survive a threat to her life. I'm not going to say Cameron should be exactly flattered by the emulation, but Razatos and Sevin do come closer to that chosen theme than did a lot of TERMINATOR sequels.


Wednesday, August 24, 2022

CLASS OF 1999 (1990)


 





PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological, sociological*


It's interesting to see how much CLASS OF 1999 channels the prosthetic-heavy FX seen in 1984's THE TERMINATOR. In one more year, TERMINATOR 2 would debut some of the most influential CGI ever to shake Hollywood's money coffers. 

I haven't seen director Mark L. Lester's 1982 cult-film CLASS OF 1984 in a while, so I don't know if there are any significant touchstones between that film and CLASS OF 1999, which is set nine years from the period of the film's actual release. But according to C. Courtney Joyner's script, nine years is enough for an institution named "MegaTech" to perfect "military robots" with all sorts of super-scientific tech beneath their human-appearing shells. More on them later.

Very few of the characters in 1999 seem to be aware of such automatons, possibly because society has allowed school gangs to get out of control. One such school is Kennedy High in downtown Seattle, where two major rival gangs, the Razorheads and the Blackhearts, continually attack one another and cause havoc for the people running the school. Though it's not clear why MegaTech isn't still turning out robots for military use, it's implied that the company is moving into a new venue by convincing Kennedy's principal (Malcolm McDowell) to employ robots as teachers able to defend themselves against unruly students. The leader of the project, Bob Forrest (Stacy Keach), maintains a laboratory through which he and his aides monitor the reactions of the robo-teachers as they begin their new jobs.

While all this drama is heating up, Joyner introduces a viewpoint character: former Blackheart gang-member Cody Culp (Bradley Gregg), who's just been released from juvie prison. Cody wants nothing to do with his old gang-life, but his old gang may not agree with his POV. Cody's family is also compromised by their addiction to the drugs peddled by the gangs. On the lighter side, he begins chatting up Christie, a cute girl at school, though there's a downside in that she's the principal's daughter.

It takes Cody a little while to realize that there's something different about Kennedy's three new teachers: Connors (Pam Grier), Hardin (John P. Ryan), and Bryles (Patrick Kilpatrick). Connors and Hardin are able to defend themselves against any attack by any number of gang-punks, but this by itself doesn't get Cody's attention. However, Coach Bryles not only bullies Cody under the pretense of physical education, he also kills a student who draws a gun on him. The principal promotes the "self-defense" rationale for Bryles' crime, but what ends up happening is that all three robots begin to get the idea that they can start treating the students like enemy combatants. After the robots have pulled off several covert murders, Cody figures out the robots' program, and he rallies his old gang to take out the mechanisms in a rousing in-school battle-climax.

There aren't any great depths to this exploitation favorite. Lester and Joyner get a lot of mileage out of the antipathy between students and teachers, with the robots' counter-attack coming off as far more repressive than the activities of the young reprobates. It's just as well that the filmmakers didn't attempt any pretentiousness along the lines of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. That presumption would have shown the creators moving outside the limitations of their own "class."

SUPERMAN: MAN OF TOMORROW (2020)

 





PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological, psychological*


This standalone Superman film is much better than the thoroughly mediocre product that so often appears from the DC Animated Universe, yet it's just not quite outstanding enough to give it more than a "fair" rating.

I certainly appreciate that the Tim Sullivan script, directed by Chris Palmer, makes a studied attempt to give Superman a consistent character beyond "Big Blue Boy Scout." This is particularly surprising in that the DTV is said to be derived by Mark Waid's "Birthright" continuity, an arc I read but found underwhelming. From glancing over a summation of the comic book series, I see barely any common points, except that both narratives take place at the outset of the Man of Steel's superhero career.

It helps that in this particular iteration, Clark Kent's foster parents are still alive on their farm, which allows the hero to visit them for input on his desire to help his adopted people. The viewer gets to see young Clark interning for the Daily Planet at a time when Lois Lane rockets to prominence, breaking a major story that gets Lex Luthor put in prison for the first time. In his first few attempts at saving people, the fledgling hero wears a makeshift disguise, which will lead to the making of the iconic costume after his clothes get shredded by his first major challenge-- 

LOBO?

Really? I mean, I realize that Lobo always offers Superman fans the prospect of good basic brawls, spiced by the alien biker's scorn for the hero's scout-like personality. But Lobo isn't really a great vehicle for introducing Superman to his alien heritage, much less introducing him to kryptonite. Lobo's been sent by some unnamed alien villain to bring back the hero dead or alive, so that the evildoer might be responsible for giving the bounty hunter a ring of the Green Death. Yet Sullivan's script not only drops the subject of Lobo's employer, even Superman seems utterly uninterested in the matter.

Sullivan does considerably better by giving this version of Superman his first meeting with a future fellow Justice Leaguer, J'onn J'onzz the Martian Manhunter. J'onn not only helps out against Lobo, he uses his formidable mental powers to give the Man of Steel some perspective on his Kryptonian backstory. The script doesn't enlarge on how the Last Martian came to live on Earth, despite the fact that he's aware of Earthlings' propensity for xenophobia. He uses his shape-changing powers to keep a low profile, and he suggests that Superman may want to do the same thing. The exchanges of the nascent superheroes on the dubious nature of defending mankind is easily the best psychological aspect of TOMORROW, though I also appreciated that Lois doesn't immediately become lovestruck the first time she sets eyes on the Hunk of Tomorrow. (Since the entire story is a justification of Clark's career, perhaps his destiny is the "tomorrow" referenced, since the phrase isn't used in the script.)

The real Big Bad of the story is not either Lobo or Luthor but The Parasite. This character is not based upon the first incarnation that appeared in the Silver Age, but a latter-day Bronze Age iteration that first appeared in the FIRESTORM comic. Whatever the provenance of the second Parasite of the comics, this one at least shares that character's name, Rudy Jones (so that TOMORROW seems to be "jonesing" on characters named Jones). Rudy gets exposed to toxic chemicals as a result of the fight between Superman and Lobo, and he quickly mutates into a freakish being who can suck energies and memories out of anyone, normal or "super." This ALIEN-style Parasite thus becomes the dominant threat that results in an uneasy alliance between Superman, J'onn, Lobo and Luthor.

Though the Parasite arc is ably done, he too doesn't really seem to fit in a story devoted to Superman's initial adventures. So the Manhunter from Mars is the only "added" character who really works in such a context, at a period when Superman hasn't even met Batman (though Ma Kent mentions that she got the idea of giving her heroic son a cape in imitation of the Gotham Knight's ensemble). Still, compared to many of the lame DC DTVs I've reviewed, it's refreshing to find one that's at least a little better than average.


Tuesday, August 23, 2022

AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS (1973)

 





PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, sociological*


I wanted to like SCREAMING more than I did. The studio Amicus was better known for anthology flicks than for full-fledged horror-dramas, but they made a solid effort to impress audiences raised on Hammer provender, using Roy Ward Baker for director and gathering a cast that included Peter Cushing, Herbert Lom, Ian Ogilvy and Stephanie Beacham. I know nothing about the film's source novel, but though the scripter Roger Marshall was best known for TV episodes, the previous year he'd adapted another novel for the superior 1972 psycho-thriller WHAT HAPPENED TO JACK AND JILL?

However, now I have to consider that the source material for JACK AND JILL may simply have been better than it was for SCREAMING. The film takes place in the late 1700s, on the estate of the wealthy Fengriffin family. Charles (Ogilvy), the young heir to the fortune, brings his fiancee Catherine (Beacham) to his manor, planning to marry her there. Catherine is spooked for a forbidding portrait at the manor, depicting a one-handed man with an ugly birthmark. On the wedding night of Charles and Catherine, an evil spirit attacks Catherine in her bed while somehow keeping Charles from entering the room. Since no one witnesses the attack, Charles assumes that Catherine had a psychotic episode, though some of the servants display a knowing look. 

Catherine almost convinces herself that she imagined the rape, but then she learns that she's been made pregnant despite not sleeping with her husband. As she tries to find out the dark secret of the manor, some of the people Catherine interviews get knocked off by supernatural forces. Eventually Catherine learns that the ghost that attacked her was the specter of a long dead man who was ill treated by one of Charles's ancestors. Implicitly the ghost decided to exercise a droit de seigneur upon Catherine, taking advantage of her before the younger (and living) man could do so.

The basic problem with this setup is that once Catherine has been raped, there's nothing anyone can do about the ghost's villainy any more. Even when Charles and his confidantes (including the aforementioned Cushing) are convinced of the episode, there's nothing any of them can do about the crime, and the film ends with the birth of Catherine's cursed progeny.

On a minor note, some actresses might have been able to make the most of the unpromising story just by sheer brio. Beacham, however, is not one of those actresses.

THE COLLEGE GIRL MURDERS (1967)

 





PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, sociological*


THE COLLEGE GIRL MURDERS probably doesn't resemble much about the Edgar Wallace book on which the film was ostensibly based, but this may be a point in its favor. The book sounded like a minor Gothic mystery, with some crook dressed up like the ghost of a monk and pretending to haunt a monastery on some British estate. Here, well-practiced krimi director Alfred Vohrer and his screenwriter have a girl's college haunted by a crimson-cassocked monk who's not the least bit ghostly, since he kills his victims with the expert crack of a whip that can break victims' necks. 

Surprisingly, the "Monk with the Whip" (a phrase used as an alternate title) is not the mastermind of a gang devoted to killing off several girls at the college. It's belatedly indicated that the Red Monk serves the unseen mastermind, though the film isn't always consistent on this point. The mastermind also has control of a virulent new poison gas, and he uses ordinary-dress crooks to dispense the poison upon the helpless femmes with such odd devices as gas-guns and books rigged to dispense the vapor. Why? The script doesn't spend a lot of time on motives, but suffice to say that if the viewer knows the rationale of Agatha Christie's "The ABC Murders," the rationale will become evident, if no less shaky. 

Scotland Yard inspector Sir John, who's a bit of dunderhead, had already appeared in previous krimi-mysteries, and this time he's teamed with a forward-thinking young policeman, Higgins, who also becomes romantically entwined with one of the potential victims. Both the Monk and the plain-clad killers rack up a respectable number of deaths, and it should be noted that not all of them are college girls. A couple of college professors-- both of whom seem to be fiddling around with the students-- get aced as well, which to some extent defuses the notion that sex is the motive for murder. Some tension is added when the mastermind's henchmen report to HQ for instructions or for chastisement, and it's evident that the unnamed villain has been studying his Ian Fleming, since he's got such setups as a dummy-at-a-desk to distract assassins and an alligator pit.

The script does dole out just enough information to give some interesting moments to the reveals of both the mystery mastermind and the Red Monk. (To make my categories clearer, I should explain that though the mastermind is not a perilous psycho, the Monk is, and that there's even a tolerable explanation for "his" skill with the whip that has nothing to do with monkish reputations for flagellation.) I for one don't really care when this type of mystery doesn't cross all the T's and dot all the I's: I enjoy seeing stimulating visuals-- and MURDERS is at least the equal of some of the mid-level giallos in that respect.


THE CARPET OF HORROR (1962)

 




PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological*


This film was among the earliest of the West German krimis said to have begun in 1959 with the successful film FELLOWSHIP OF THE FROG. But though CARPET was directed by Harald Reinl, who helmed FROG and a number of other krimi-films, CARPET fails to provide any solid thrills. I don't know anything about the source-material the film adapts, except that it was not authored by Edgar Wallace, whose novels of the 1920s proved very profitable for West Germany in the fifties and sixties.

In contrast to the later giallo films, many of which sported bizarre titles that were barely if ever explained to the audience, the meaning of CARPET's odd name is right up front. A unseen killer permeates a Persian carpet with a deadly chemical, exposes a victim to it, and watches as the man dies of poisoning. Eventually it will be revealed that the killer is tied to a criminal conspiracy, and that the members of the conspiracy talk to their chief through a TV screen that displays typed instructions (in German, though in theory the story takes place in Great Britain).

Having tossed out this bizarre crime for a starter, though, the script becomes preoccupied with the conspiracy's attacks on young Ann Learner (Karin Dor), a pretty young thing who, for once, has already inherited a substantial estate rather than being in line for said inheritance. Two cops, Harry (Joachim Fuchsberger) and his Black partner Bob (Pierre Besari), work to protect Ann, and whenever possible Harry puts the moves on the young woman. 

Though Reinl occasionally manages some atmospheric shots of German locations standing in for London, the script is hopelessly confused and dominated by talking head scenes. It's never very clear what the villains expect to get if they knock off Ann, and it may be that the trope of the mysterious mastermind was inserted just because that was what krimi-loving audiences expected. Sensuous Italian beauty Eleanora Rossi Drago provides some of CARPET's few thrills, both in trying to seduce Harry and getting into a brief struggle with Karin Dor's character.


Sunday, August 21, 2022

JACK ARMSTRONG (1947)


 






PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*


I don't precisely know what I like about the cheap Columbia serial JACK ARMSTRONG, based on a popular radio adventure-series. It's certainly just as cost-conscious as a number of other serials-- THE LOST PLANET, MYSTERIOUS ISLAND-- in which producer Sam Katzman had his actors plod around some very limited shooting-set for fifteen chapters, getting into occasional fistfights but never able to escape to any other venue.

Certainly no one would praise the serial for capturing the sense of youthful protagonists running around solving dastardly crimes, since none of the principals-- Jack (John Hart) or brother-and-sister Betty and Billy (Rosemary LaPlanche, Joe Brown Jr) were less than 24 years of age. The "teens" are also accompanied by an older fellow, the siblings' "Uncle Jim," but he doesn't play a large role in the heroics. Brown's character of Billy is just another lame comedy relief character, but as Jack and Betty the actors Hart and LaPlanche give the serial some needed charisma. The young heroes track down mysterious signals to a remote South Seas island and find there a secret installation whose scientists are constructing an "astroglobe" with which they can rule the world. The leader of the plot is Jason Grood (Charles Middleton of FLASH GORDON fame), but most of the active villainy is supplied by Grood's flunky Zorn (Wheeler Oakman) and a plotter who wants to move in on Grood's action. 

The thing that keeps ARMSTRONG a little above the average is not even particularly original. The island is inhabited by South Seas natives, led by a lissome Princess Alura (Clair James), and these denizens vary between being a help or a hindrance to the adventurers. In a few episodes Grood poses as the natives' god in order to manipulate them against the good guys, but surprisingly the writers don't use this old chestnut very often. There's not much detail about how the natives feel about Caucasians, but in a telling line, Grood reminds a native ally that the natives all know how "cruel" the white men have been to their people. To be sure, there's less evidence of white misbehavior here than what one might have seen in a contemporaneous Tarzan film, but at least the mention of past grievances gives the conflict a little more sociological heft.

As others before me have observed, 15 chapters is too long for this kind of limited set-action, and some plotlines are suggested and never realized, as when Zorn kidnaps one of Uncle Jim's scientists for help on the project-- and said scientist does nothing that even slightly affects the plot. Middleton is a welcome presence in his few scenes-- he was said to be ill and passed away two years later-- though Katzman's people left his name out of the credits. The fight-scenes are decent but unremarkable, and the only memorable aspect of the cliffhangers is that in one of them, the female lead rescues her compatriots, which didn't happen all that often in serials. There are a few impressive FX scenes-- one in which a man is killed in an electric booby trap, and another in which hero Jack sneaks aboard Grood's rocketship (seen only as a single control room) to foil the use of the death-ray. All else considered, maybe I just liked the bouncy theme music.


FIST OF THE NORTH STAR (1986)


 





PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *metaphysical*


I've not read many of the 1983-88 manga series FIST OF THE NORTH STAR, and I've seen few episodes of the eighties TV adaptation, but neither effects my review of this theatrical film. According to Wiki it's an "alternative re-telling" of the manga's early years, condensing the essential "origin story" of the main character and his opponents into a reasonably holistic package.

Once again humanity has succumbed to apocalypse, though this time most of the action seems to take place in a devastated Japan, since most characters have Japanese names and make references to Japanese culture. (One exception: the American dub I watched calls a female character named "Yuria" by the name "Juliet.") In the midst of a cultural chaos, wherein everything has been reduced down to medieval strongholds, the martial master Kenshiro has mastered a special art with which he can literally cause human bodies to explode. However, he faces competition from one of his training-mates, Shin, a master of a rival style. Shin claims that he's in love with Yuria and seeks to claim her by force. Shin wins the fight and marks Ken with wounds across his chest that resemble the Big Dipper constellation, home of the titular "North Star." Shin leaves Ken alive and absconds with Yuria.

When Ken recovers, he embarks on a peripatetic journey in quest of Shin and Yuria, occasionally using his skills to succor helpless victims of tyranny. Little does Ken know that even after he meets and conquers Shin, there's a Bigger Big Bad waiting in the wings-- an even more skilled fighter, Raoh, who wants to take out Ken so that Raoh can rule the decimated world.

STAR is a good basic fantasy-adventure, and the only suggestion of complexity are some freewheeling references to philosophical concepts like "yin and yang" as they apply to these fantasy martial arts. Once or twice Ken's skills are said to incarnate some cosmic principles necessary for the healing of the ruined environment, but this is not pursued with any rigor. Viewers with queasy stomachs probably will not be wild over all the exploding bodies, which in retrospect seems "very eighties."



FAIRY TALE THE MOVIE: PHOENIX PRINCESS (2012)

 





PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *metaphysical*


I've read assorted collections of the 2006-2017 manga series FAIRY TAIL and its television episodes. I found the series a fairly imaginative if rather chaotic "shonen manga," with lots of antic violence but not much characterization. Like a number of other fantasy-adventures, this one takes place in a vaguely medieval otherworld where magic works. "Fairy tale" refers not to a type of story but to a group of heroes who hire out their mystic powers for deserving clients. 

The "phoenix princess" of the film's title is one Eclair. Her tribe is raided by unknown marauders, and Eclair flees to a nearby city with half of the tribe's precious "phoenix stone." In the city Eclair contacts the five members of Fairy Tail--  Lucy, Natsu, Gray, Wendy and Erza-- and they volunteer to help her protect her artifact. 

Eclair gets one of those rare cases of selective amnesia, in that she does remember just enough to keep the plot moving. The group seeks out a wizard in a forbidding forest, but finds that some enemy, presumably allied to the raiders, has slain him. The wizard leaves behind a hologram that gives Eclair and her friends further guidance. Soon the villain, who bears the risible name Duke Cream, sends his super-powered agents to fight the super-powered members of Fairy Tail, and despite the heroes' efforts, Eclair is kidnapped. One of the Fairy Tail mentors informs the heroes that if the Duke can acquire Eclair's half of the stone and combine it with the half he possesses, the villain will acquire immortality.

All of the above is a serviceable if unremarkable plot for a fantasy-adventure, but the animation is cheap compared to that of the teleseries, so that I found all of the action-scenes underwhelming. In addition, the heroes of Fairy Tail are usually notable for being loud and extreme in their passions, but here they all seem rather laid back by comparison. The only exception is a "guest-heroine," Juvia, who nurtures a daffy love for Gray and becomes jealous of anyone who gets near him-- so much so that when a murderous gunman threatens to mow Gray down, Juvia thinks the man is flirting with her special love.

The unambitious nature of PHOENIX reminds me of some of the animated features based on the DRAGONBALL franchise, where it looks like the animators knew that they had a sure thing and didn't really go out of their way to excel. Anyone curious about the series would do better checking out the TV episodes.

TRANCERS 6 (2002)

 






PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*


"How low can you go" often seems to apply as well to film reviewing as to limbo games. Just when I think I've found a film I can dismiss as "a black hole of worthlessness," as I did with TERMINATION MAN, someone somewhere manages to make a sucking void that's even blacker and more worthless.

TRANCERS 6 is probably bad for the same reason as TM. Some producer observed that Full Moon Entertainment hadn't done anything with its "Trancers" franchise for eight years, and so offered to make a new film in the series for X thousand dollars. I would imagine that even a B-film guy like Tim Thomerson would have been outside this filmmaker's range, even if the actor had not distanced himself with the last subpar entries in the series. 

So TRANCERS 6 plays out like what would have happened if Ted V. Mikels had been given control of an installment-- lots of pointless, low-energy violence, enacted largely by performers with minimal film experience, and most of whom show no capacity for improvement. (TRANCERS 6 does boast one long-time jobbing actor, a Robert Donavan, whose extensive credits go back to the eighties, but I couldn't even tell you what he did, because the flick was such a bore-fest.)

Since Thomerson's character Jack Deth had the schtick of downloading his future-self into the bodies of his ancestors, the filmmakers didn't need any particular actor to play Deth. They did however need an actor, and they didn't get one in Zette Sullivan. She plays plays "Jo Deth," the 20th-century daughter of the time-hopping hero, and Jack, not seen on-camera, possesses her body in order to prevent yet another unmemorable madman unleashing zombie-like "trancers" on a populace.

The earlier "Trancers" films were all routine B-movies, and one could blink at the moral dubiousness of the hero taking over his ancestor's bodies to achieve his exploits. But not only is the actress incapable of pulling off anything like the character of Jack Deth, the film can't get anything but dumb sex-jokes out of the prospect of a future-father possessing his daughter's body. This transgressive idea might have worked in a black comedy, but here it translates into boredom.

The villains are even less memorable than the hero, and all I can recall is that the main Big Bad is female, which gives the film the chance for a concluding catfight. But again, the conflict is so low-energy that even Ted Mikels would have been ashamed of this one. Not surprisingly, there have been no feature-length "Trancers" film since this turkey.





Saturday, August 20, 2022

GOLDEN TEMPLE AMAZONS (1986)


 






PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*


Compared to the majority of Jesus Franco films I've seen, this throwback to old Tarzan films-- albeit with an increase of nudity and sadism-- distinguishes itself in that it actually has a plot, however simple.

Like other European jungle-girls of the period, Liana (Analia Ivars, billed as "Joan Virly") wears savage attire that allows the lubricious viewer a few peeks at her secondary sex characteristics, though not much more. Liana's origin actually has some broad similarity to that of the quintessential jungle-girl Sheena, in that both girls lose their parental figures to violence and are raised by African tribesmen, which apparently accounts for their aggressive tendencies. However, whereas Sheena's dad is a noble explorer killed for no good reason, Liana's is murdered for having stolen nuggets of gold from the sacred caves of the local chapter of the Blonde White Amazons.

From what one sees in the opening scenes, Liana enjoys a stress-free existence, bumming around the jungle with friendly elephants and chimps. However, once she's reminded that she witnessed her father's (rather timely) death, she becomes hot to gain vengeance on the Amazons and their evil leader Uruck (William Berger). She and her buddies-- a chimp and a comedy relief fat guy-- joins a European expedition that just happens to be going to the same legendary "golden temple." No tolerance for the Amazons' right to protect their own territory, I guess.

Since Franco's rarely interested in cinematic fight-choreography, the whole expedition is captured by the Amazons pretty easily. Evil Uruck, who was directly responsible for having Liana's father killed, decides that he'd like to make the jungle waif his queen. However, first Liana has to fight the current queen Rena (Eva Leon) for that privilege, which Liana is glad to do. Liana wins the fight-- better than average for Franco-- but she refuses Uruck and remains a prisoner. While Uruck plots Liana's demise, he kills time by allowing Rena to torture two of the Europeans. The torture-scene is actually rather imaginative: Rena positions two victims, bound back to back, within a field of pointed stakes and then hits both of them with her whip. The game is to see which of the two victims will weaken first, so that he or she accidentally precipitates the other captive onto the stakes. Since Franco isn't a particularly imaginative filmmaker, I tend to wonder if he stole the idea from Sade or some more creative individual.

Almost needless to say, Liana's chimp helps the heroine escape for the low-energy finish. After Uruck's death, Liana callously expels the Amazons from their own mountain, as if she still feels herself aggrieved for the raids both she and her father made on the Amazon domain. This jungle-film doesn't need any "exploitative white guys," since the heroine fills in that blank all by herself.


Thursday, August 18, 2022

JUSTICE LEAGUE: THRONE OF ATLANTIS (2015)


 




PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological, psychological, sociological*


In JUSTICE LEAGUE WAR, the League's DTV cartoon just prior to THRONE OF ATLANTIS, writer Heath Corson wasn't able to make anything of the sow's-ear of the Geoff Johns comic-book story but another sow's-ear. However, the 2012-13 "Throne" by Johns is much improved by Corson in the animated adaptation. The comic-book original takes place some time after Aquaman has become acquainted with his Atlantean origins. However, Corson takes the rudiments of the "Throne" continuity and blends it with an Aquaman origin story, one which probably owes something to both AQUAMAN issues written by Johns and to previous takes on the origin-tale, possibly (according to Wikipedia) the 2001 episode of the JUSTICE LEAGUE teleseries "The Enemy Below." Parenthetically, these various origin-tales provided the main source of the storyline for the 2018 AQUAMAN.

Given that WAR presented the heroes of the Justice League as a bunch of quarrelsome infants, THRONE is a considerable improvement. Green Lantern still has an inexplicable animus toward Batman, and he's given some unexplained antipathy toward all things mystical (like the story of Atlantis), but some of the friendly banter between Lantern and The Flash is palatable. Superman and Wonder Woman are in the midst of their first date, a trope which I imagine didn't last long, as I don't remember seeing this Great Romance in any of the DTV films that followed. However, it was pleasant to see Shazam prodding Cyborg to make a date with the cute lady scientist Cyborg works with. And though Batman remains an impatient martinet, even he has a couple of clever lines. They all spend a logical amount of time investigating the slaughter of a US submarine by subsea dwellers, whom they eventually learn are denizens of fabled Atlantis.

In the original "Throne" comic Aquaman's mother has passed away, but in this THRONE she's alive and ruling Atlantis (which is concealed from the surface world by magical safeguards, just like Paradise Island). She's served by her bodyguard Mera, who is implied to be a denizen of Atlantis but not a noblewoman destined to marry Atlantean royalty as she is in the 2018 AQUAMAN. Atlanna fears that her rule is threatened by both her son Orm, the Ocean Master, and his aide Manta (not billed as "Black Manta," and implied to be an Atlantean rather than a surfaceman). Atlanna sends Mera to find her elder son Arthur Curry, whom Atlanna spawned with a surface dweller, because the queen suspects she must appeal to the law of primogeniture to keep Orm away from the throne. 

Mera finds Arthur Curry and reveals to him his true history, but Orm has learned of his competition, and he sends berserker monsters to slay both Mera and Arthur. The Justice League comes to the rescue of both, and then all of them descend to Atlantis. However, before they get there, Orm realizes that his mother is blocking his rise to power, and he kills her, thus inheriting the talisman of her power, the Trident of Neptune. With this magical weapon Orm subdues Arthur, Mera and the Justice League, and then launches an invasion to conquer the surface world. Naturally, the heroes escape their bonds and show up to ruin the villains' plans. (During combat Manta, who's usually rated as the quintessential Aquaman villain, tells the Marine Marvel that he stage-managed Orm's revolt and Atlanna's death, thus taking primary credit for all the evilness.)

In a feature of less than ninety minutes, there's not much time to establish the character of the pivotal hero, but this version of Aquaman is in some ways more sympathetic than the bruiser of the live-action film. Scripter Corson finds interesting ways to work in a lot of Aqua-motifs, such as his discovery of his power over fish and his romantic flirtations with Mera. Corson even does a shout-out to the BATMAN: BRAVE AND BOLD characterization of the hero by having the THRONE version use the BOLD version's catchphrase, "Outrageous." There are also an assortment of cameos: John Henry Irons appears, apparently before he assumes his heroic ID of "Steel," and a coda not present in the comics-original has an imprisoned Ocean Master visited by Lex Luthor. I suspect that this suggestion of an alliance yielded no more follow-ups than the interaction of Luthor and Deathstroke at the conclusion of the theatrical JUSTICE LEAGUE movie.

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

TRANCERS 4, TRANCERS 5 (1994)


 





PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*


Unlike the previous entries in the TRANCERS series, each of which could more or less stand alone, the last two installments were shot back-to-back with the same characters and on the same inexpensive Romanian sets. Both were scripted by comics-writer Peter David, and though I'm sure it wasn't his decision to plop Jack Deth into a "dungeons and dragons" milieu, he should take full responsibility for producing two thoroughly boring and derivative scripts-- though still not as bad as his two OBLIVION scripts, completed around the same time-period.

The first three films, though no more than B-movie fodder, at least made a moderate attempt to establish some basic rules for their time-traveling hero, which is why I assigned those three flicks a "cosmological" function. But rules go out the window in these two entries. Deth abides in his normal 23rd century domain just long enough for two things: to establish (a) that both of his former wives have hooked up with other people, and (b) that a stunner named Lyra (Stacie Randall), a fellow employee at his cop-shop, takes particular pleasure in busting Deth's balls, metaphorically speaking. But Deth's not around long enough to see how much he likes it, for he's off on another mission.

However, his ship ends up on the world of Orpheus, where magic works and science is just a theory. Trancers exist here too, but they don't suffer from any mental impairment and they've come to dominate the human population. They also seem to be able to drain energy from humans without killing them. Their big boss is a lord named Calaban, who rules with an iron hand, though his son Prospero (groan) is a nicer guy. The tyrant's tyrannies generate a motley crew of rebels, led by one Shaleen (Terri Ivens).

Deth is of course greatly pissed off by getting stranded in a world of Creative Anachronisms, but his technology encourages the locals to think he may be some great savior. Two romantic arcs evolve. Deth meets a slave-woman who shares both the name and face of the Lyra from Deth's century, but this Lyra is a bit of a doormat, and that puts Deth off his game. Prospero rebels against his father and begins a love affair with Shaleen. Calaban's efforts to quash the rebels are foiled, but he's not defeated, since he has to return as the Big Bad for Part 5.



In Installment Five, Deth's still focused on getting back to his own time more than he is on helping the rebels. He's informed that he may be able to find a "time-diamond" at "The Castle of Unrelenting Terror," and David's script finds this pseudo-medievalism such a gut-buster that the phrase gets repeated at least half a dozen times, always with the expectation of rollicking laughter.

Before the quest for the castle even begins, David fills time with inconsequential prattle about the character's psychological hangups. Deth wonders if he can't accept the slavish Lyra because he really grooves on getting resistance from a ballsy woman, or something like that. Even when Deth and a few allies get going, the high point of the trip-- if you can call it that-- is Prospero complaining that Deth can't treat even sentient Trancers as equals. 

Deth and Prospero finally enter the castle, get delayed by dozens of alluring courtesans, and then encounter a band of robed ghouls. But there's still no action, for the ghouls just meekly give way when Deth yells at them. Meanwhile, the other characters have to deal with Lyra acting strangely-- possessed, maybe? Back at the castle, Deth fights his own mirror image, who mocks him for his shortcomings, and then Calaban shows up after having been merely talked about for the rest of the flick, and he wants to unleash some demons or something. He steals the time-diamond and teleports over to the rebel castle and starts wreaking havoc with his Trancers. It takes Deth mere moments to ride over with whatever horses he had and engage Calaban in witty repartee, though not a real battle. Prospero stabs his dad, who dies, and Deth grabs the diamond, so desperate to get home that he zaps the device. The diamond whisks both Deth and Prospero to the 23rd century-- though Deth has apparently left a bun in the oven of Archaic Lyra. Prospero gets a second chance at normality because his otherworldly Trancer nature vanishes in Deth's world, but he loses out on booty with Shaleen, while Deth finally gets another chance at romance with Futuristic Lyra.

Frankly, even the main attraction of the first three installments-- that of Jack Deth's terminal crabbiness and sardonicism-- is absent here, and the hero has a dearth of decent action-scenes. There's a little more action in Four than in Five, the main highlight being a swordfight between Shaleen and a Bad Trancer. The best I can say of this dismal conclusion to a mediocre series is that I've seen a lot of other DTV serials turn out even worse.

SUPERHERO DETENTION (2016)

 







PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological*

I've decided to term SUPERHERO DETENTION a comedy in that the premise seems inherently comic, even though there are few if any laughs actually present, and the script isn't consistent about generating them.

The most interesting thing about DETENTION is a slight similarity between its idea and that of THE INCREDIBLES. Though INCREDIBLES is in every way a superior movie, it does sport the unusual notion of a world full of superheroes who have more than a tiny smattering of supervillains with whom to joust. Even a lesser "superhero high school" flick like 2005's SKY HIGH at least establishes the existence of various super-rogues in its cosmos.

So DETENTION is a bit like SKY HIGH crossed with THE BREAKFAST CLUB. but only if the students in CLUB got out of detention in order to fight their first evildoer. The superhero school is about to have a special assembly to honor Kaelus, one of their foremost graduates at doing-- well, whatever superheroes do in this world. However, five fractious super-teens find themselves sentenced to detention that day for acting out. 

This turns out to be a blessing in disguise. Kaelus has turned against humanity because he hates all the missions (whatever they were) assigned him by the government. So he culls a few other super-powered aides, shows up at the assembly, and uses a device to drain away all the powers of both super-students and super-teachers. There's one catch, though: Kaelus didn't manage to get the last five students. (Technically, there's a sixth one, but she barely registers as a character and only comes in at the end for a labored "twist.")

I'm not going to descant on the specific hero-students, because the writer clearly meant them to be types: the Nerd, the Tough Guy, the Conceited Beauty Queen, etc. The writer paid a bit more attention to working out the application of their powers, and some of these are moderately clever. Still, the script doesn't follow through on the notion that Kaelus has drained the powers of about fifty super-persons, and the writers weren't able to come up with any rationale as to why he doesn't just stomp them all into paste.

I also won't comment in depth on the actors, though I think they all rendered serviceable jobs with what they were given. None of their names were known to me, so thirty years from now, it could be that the biggest point of interest about DETENTION could be as an early work for a future superstar, much as the teleseries MISFITS OF SCIENCE was for Courtney Cox.