Wednesday, May 31, 2023


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

Funny how quickly one's priorities can change. I was all set to bomb this obscure old Polly Shang Kuan fantasy as being one of the worst chopsockies I'd ever seen. Then I saw DARK LADY OF KUNG FU, and FIGHTERS started looking at least a little better.

It's still not even decent formula, and the few positive online reviews seem focused on the film's "so bad it's good" qualities. I found FIGHTERS far too repetitive to tickle my funny bone, though.

So a poor woman (Kuan), whose name (according to one source) is East Sea Dragon, is called upon by Princess Heartbreak to take on the evildoer Tiger Shark (Lo Lieh, only seen in the final minutes of the flick) and his servants, the Five Elements. Heartbreak shows Dragon a cave, claiming that it used to be the repository of twelve scrolls which held the power of the Twelve Zodiac Animals. But eleven kung-fu practitioners found their way into the cave and transferred the zodiac-powers  to themselves. Now there's just one zodiac scroll, and Heartbreak talks Dragon into taking on that power, which just happens to be the power of the Zodiac Dragon. That means Dragon now wields authority over all the other animal-fighters, but she has to find them first.

What follows is loads and loads of silly shit in which actors cavort about dressed in cheap animal-costumes-- rabbits, pigs, dogs, etc. After a lot of slapstick routines, Dragon finally assembles her warriors on a beach to battle Tiger Shark. He's a little bit cool, since he not only has henchmen with lobster-claws, but also a palanquin that can shoot sharks at his enemies. Alternately, the sharks can also shoot bear-traps from their mouths. This is the sort of inspired lunacy that would have upgraded the film to the wackiness level of, say, Kuan's FIGHT FOR SURVIVAL. Kuan doesn't have any decent battles, so FIGHTERS is not much more than a blip in her kung-fu diva career.

Tuesday, May 30, 2023



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

I only watched MIRACULOUS FLOWER once before now, and had a vague memory that it was close to being as bizarre as WOLF DEVIL WOMAN. I didn't watch it back then with a mind to analyzing its mythic contents, though, so when I placed the film under the myth-microscope, I had to ask myself a salient question. Given that I expressed the desire that WDW had been more coherent so that I could have judged to be a high-mythicity film, might I want to give FLOWER more credit than it was due?

In fact, I placed this film under the microscope twice, for after viewing a dubbed version and making my preliminary conclusions, I also came across a subtitled copy and watched that one as well. I found the latter version added a few details that confirmed my conclusions: that even though Chang Ling provided the story for FLOWER, it was apparently shaped in part by scripter Godfrey Ho (at the time, not yet known for being a schlockmeister) and given stronger form by director Feng Ho. Sometimes that's just the way creativity works, in that even genius needs a helping hand.

Chang's character starts out with the name Ah-Shuang Leng but I'll call her May since that's the name she ends up with. May lives her first eighteen years moving from place to place with the woman she believed to be her mother, though later it will be revealed, in best "lost child" fashion, that May's caregiver is her nurse, who saved her from the destruction of her family. As the nurse dies in their isolated hideout, she tells May that she must seek out a mysterious being called the Happy Fairy in order that May can realize her destiny. The nurse also tells May to take along the nurse's walking-stick, and to burn it when she learns her true history.

May isn't too bright at this point, for she drags the corpse of her "mother" with her, thinking all that Mom needs is a doctor. The subtitled version left out some scenes where she encounters some villagers who tell her how stupid she is not to recognize an dead body. After burying the only parent she's ever known, May chances across an itinerant scholar nicknamed "No-Dust" Shueh for keeping his clothes clean of even tiny smudges. May travels with the young man until he reaches his father's estate, and they part. However, when May beds down for the night in a nearby stable, she happens to hear some warriors planning to attack the Shueh residence. May hastens to Young Shueh's house, and when the warriors attack, they're easily repelled.

Young Shueh's father, Shueh the Elder, is so grateful he offers to adopt the footloose girl, and she accepts. Thus she's on hand to witness another attack, this time by the boss of the warriors, Lonely Walker. Walker and Elder Shueh discuss how the former has been endlessly seeking the last of the May Family, and he accuses the elder of treason, so they fight. The elder is defeated but a masked mystery swordsman appears and defeats the villains before departing. Elder Shueh doesn't recognize his savior, but May knows it's Young Shueh. She forces him to admit that he secretly trained himself in kung fu, and May blackmails him to teach the skills to her. In the ensuing months he does so, and the two of them become close enough that Elder Shueh suggests that his natural son and adoptive daughter might marry.

Up to this point May has been well and truly diverted from any greater destiny, but a strange female intercedes to remind May of her nurse's prophecy. May leaves the estate with the walking-stick of her supposed mother. While staying at an inn she has the occasion to use her new fighting-skills to incapacitate a drunken rapist (who could represent the Dark Side of Male Sexuality).

When May journeys to the mountainous realm of the Happy Fairy, she meets a strange old anchorite who claims that she's destined to kill him for having slaughtered the Family of May. May doesn't know what he's talking about, since she's always had the family name of her "mother." She forges on till she finds a bridge over a deep gorge. Here she's attacked by a masked robber who throws her walking-stick into the gorge and knocks her out. The strange woman seen earlier-- none other than the Happy Fairy-- appears to drive off the robber. When May comes to, she's filled with self-pity for losing the stick, and tries to jump into the gorge to kill herself. The Fairy talks May into becoming the Fairy's servant for a year, after which she can still kill herself if she likes.

For the next year the Fairy subjects May to a lot of peculiar torments, which seem nonsensical but are standard kung-fu practice for building up the spirit through adversity. While putting May through these rigors, the Fairy also narrates the story of the slain May family, and May finally begins to connect the dots. She also finds out that one of the attackers gave the family advance warning, which was the only reason May alone was spared.

A year later, of course, the Fairy challenges May to take the big leap off the bridge, and though May declines at first, she finally does jump. But her adversities have given May enough spiritual power to save herself, and she recovers her mother's stick as well. Having finally accepted her family history, she obeys her nurse's injunction to burn the stick. But inside the wooden casing is a sword, the winsomely-titled "bowel-cutting blade," the very thing that the enemies of the May Family wanted to get hold of. This bounty is the real reason why Lonely Walker kept searching for the last escaped May, to obtain the sword-- but it also means Elder Shueh was complicit in the deaths of May's lineage.

May doesn't need formal sword-training to take on a bunch of her family's killers, first at a waterfall, then on a snowy mountainside. Then she's confronted by Young Shueh, who is in a sense both her brother and her potential lover, and who seeks to protect his father. She gets past him, but upon reaching the Shueh estate, she's filled with remorse, since she can't help thinking of the elder as her real dad. She's so filled with emotion that she kowtows to Elder Shueh, bruising her forehead-- and yet she still engages him in combat. Young Sheuh joins the fight, but the Happy Fairy shows up to direct May's attention to her real quarry-- a certain enemy who's been hiding in plain sight.

There are a lot of kung-fu films that are more visually arresting than FLOWER, but not that many that combine so many of the tropes so beloved in Chinese/Taiwanese entertainment-- colorful, operatic characters and settings; torturous familial conflicts, ethereal magic combined with blood-and-guts, and loads of skullduggery and hidden motives. Chang Ling acts up a storm here, both in the dramatic and kinetic senses of the word. She only does a little hand-to-hand fighting in the rapist scene, but her skill with sword-fu is phenomenal. I don't subscribe to the Joseph Campbell theory of "the hero's journey" as representing an insuperable pattern, but it's interesting to see that the creative people behind this now obscure Taiwanese film conformed to the basic premise of the Campbell formula, long before it become common coin in STAR WARS analyses.



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

Well, once again I have to issue a correction. I said here that I thought the Chang Ling film MATCHING ESCORT preceded WOLF DEVIL WOMAN, but I mixed up the former film with a yet earlier film, CHINA ARMED ESCORT, also sold under the title MY BLADE, MY LIFE. This post by the late Todd Stadtman asserts that the order of films that Chang Ling both wrote and directed begins with the film reviewed here, DARK LADY OF KUNG FU, and that this was in turn followed by WOLF DEVIL WOMAN. In a separate review Stadtman attests that Chang also acted in a film she did not direct, MIRACULOUS FLOWER, which was in 1981 and therefore previous to MATCHING ESCORT. Therefore I guess MATCHING was Chang's starring swan song, since most of the rest of the listings on IMDB look like support roles. 

The database also asserts, contra Stadtman, that LADY appeared in 1983, not 1981. This is only important because I'm going to scoot out on a limb once more, and claim that LADY shows Chang as still being in her creative growing pains, though she had acted in eighteen films, as well as becoming a Big Name thanks to a Taiwanese TV show. I remarked upon my sense that WOLF DEVIL WOMAN was a very free-form adaptation of a famous wuxia novel (which I know only from summaries). This also appears to be the case with LADY, which loosely adapts THE BLACK BUTTERFLY, a 1968 Shaw Brothers film about a woman dressing up in a butterfly costume to play Robin Hood (which film I also have not seen).

Well, Chang does dress up as a black butterfly and she does play Robin Hood, but I couldn't discern in the dubbed version I saw either the conflict in the 1968 film, or any conflict at all. When her characters appears as The Black Butterfly, she poses a lot, gets in a couple of short martial fights, and flies around (possibly with some sort of kung-fu super-power, though of course the flying is supplied by "wire-fu.") Beyond that, I could not follow that part of the plot. There's a surly guy named Shadow (Tien Peng) who may want to make love to the costumed heroine, though it was hard to tell. There was a magician in there somewhere, but he may have been a fake one. Possibly there was no main villain, just the sense that the heroine's Robin Hood act was justified by social inequities. (I think it all takes place in some medieval era, but even that was hard to gauge.)

Chang seems much more invested in Black Butterfly's alter ego, though to be sure, the two characters are not definitely seen to be the same person. For most of the film, Chang appears dirty-faced and dressed in rags as "The Monkey King," an adult urchin who leads a gang of younger urchins in a life of pickpocketing. Again, there's not a clear plot here. The urchins run around making mischief and mocking authorities, at least one of whom wears a huge, obviously phony mustache. There's probably a lot of Chinese verbal humor in these exchanges that can't be translated adequately, so maybe in Taiwan all these scenes were screamingly funny. There's no plot in the Monkey King section either, and one review claimed that Chang is perceived as a guy in both roles, even though the Butterfly wears a lot of rouge on her face.

There are one or two memorably nutty scenes, like Monkey King taking a bath in what looks like a giant clamshell. But if one could transform craziness into light, LADY would be a tiny bulb, while WOLF DEVIL WOMAN would be a congeries of stars. So my guess that Chang decided to go full-tilt crazy with WDW after a fairly ordinary flick remains somewhat on target; I just had the wrong "earlier film."

Monday, May 29, 2023



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

Since I don't pay any attention to how much video-game films resemble the original games, I suppose I shouldn't care that much when the separate installments of those films don't resemble each other. Still, upon looking at my review of the 2010 TEKKEN, I noticed that the villain of that film is a guy named Kazuya, who's also the father of the martial hero Jin. So is TEKKEN 2: KAZUYA'S REVENGE a prequel to TEKKEN, purporting to tell how the later film's villain came to be, a la the Second STAR WARS trilogy? If so, the writers of REVENGE had absolutely no idea how to pull off that sort of experiment. A lot of people didn't like Second STAR WARS for assorted reasons, but at least no one was ever unclear about the trilogy's purpose of telling the origin of Darth Vader.

What the viewer gets in this TEKKEN prequel is an hour and a half of the amnesiac protagonist K (Kane Kosugi) wandering around like a somnambulist for most of the film, except for occasional burst of kung-fu violence. This story too is set in the future but one can barely tell, since it's all on cheap street-sets and in various warehouse-looking buildings. K wakes up in a hotel room, not even knowing his name. Cops burst in for some reason and the bemused fellow runs for it. A gang of kung-fu assassins abduct him and their leader, The Minister, gives the amnesiac his letter-name (the same sort of names he gives to his other followers), and invites K to join them in their quest of assassinating bad people. K doesn't have anything better to do, so he hangs around, even though he doesn't like the idea of killing. (Guess his personality took a big change in time for the movie.) There are some nice-looking women in the gang, though K doesn't seem to be interested in any of them, even though one of them, Rhona (Kelly Wenham) seems interested in him.

One online review sports the theory that the story began as an independent project and was forced into the TEKKEN franchise to make it more salable. This makes a good deal of sense, and not only because there's no real payoff when K finds out that he's Kazuya, who will eventually be the villain of the 2010 film. In addition, actors Gary Daniels and Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa play roles approximately like those they essayed in TEKKEN, but both could have been written out of the story easily.

Kane Kosugi, offspring of Sho "REVENGE OF THE NINJA" Kosugi, is one of the most inert actors I've ever seen, even when he's doing his kung fu action. Beside him, Kelly Wenham seems positively animated, and she's playing a world-weary assassin. The script tells us why we ought to care for K, but we just don't, not even when he plays Good Samaritan to a neighbor-lady pestered by thugs. There's a little nudity, but the dialogue is as stultifying as the plot and the kung-fu girls get no decent action. The 2010 TEKKEN was at least mindless fun, but REVENGE is merely mindless.

CASPER (1995)


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

The animated CASPER cartoons and the line of funnybooks built upon the franchise were the very definition of "kid-vid," focusing on innocent gambols with no sexuality and (at most) G-rated forms of violence. The friendly ghost's live-action debut didn't exactly go to the opposite extreme, but while re-watching if for this review, it struck me as something of a "kindler, gentler BEETLEJUICE."

In this incarnation Casper is definitely the revenant of a dead eight-year-old, though he doesn't remember his old life because typically ghosts dwelling upon the earth lose their memories of their former lives. Along with his three obnoxious "uncles," the mischief-making Ghostly Trio, Casper haunts an abandoned estate, Whipstaff Manor, in the town of Friendship, Maine. Then the owner of the manor passes on, leaving almost all his properties to charities. The owner's nasty daughter Carrigan (Cathy Moriarty) gets the manor, so she and her lawyer Dibs (Eric Idle) want to sell the property as soon as possible. They also acquire a treasure-map suggesting that there may a cache of fabulous wealth in the house. However, all these plans are nullified by the prospect of facing real ghosts in the house.

To exorcise the unwanted spirits, Carrigan summons "paranormal therapist" James Harvey (Bill Pullman) to Friendship, and Harvey is so enthusiastic about the case that he uproots his daughter Kat (Christina Ricci) from their previous residence and moves lock-stock-and-barrel to Friendship, coincidentally just as a new middle-school year begins for Kat. Apart from having her life upset by one of many such moves, Kat doesn't really believe in her father's crazy occupation. She thinks, with some justice, that he became passionate about contacting and soothing spirits after the untimely death of his wife, a.k.a. Kat's mother. 

It's a boon to Casper, though, when Kat and her dad move into Whipstaff, because while this friendly ghost does desire friends in general, what he wants most is a girlfriend, at least on a middle school level of dating. Indeed, when Kat takes up residence in the room Casper normally haunts, he proves himself a bit of a horndog ("A girl in my bed! Yes!") In short order Casper reveals himself to Kat, even as the Ghostly Trio commence playing pranks on Harvey. Though the two humans are initially terrified, they eventually settle down and begin the process of interacting with the restless spirits.

 Kat's big challenge comes with the first day of school, which ends with her accidentally inviting her class to a Halloween party at the manor. As for Harvey, the malicious members of the Trio hint that they're aware of his lost wife Amelia, whom they claim is still in the afterlife as a distinct personality. But are they lying, with the endgame of making Harvey into a ghost like themselves? On top of this, Carrigan and Dibs keep nosing around for the treasure. As a tenth-hour development, Casper suddenly remembers some of the backstory of his mortal life, and part of that life involves his late father having built, in some Whipstaff room, a device capable of bringing the dead back to life. So maybe Casper can reanimate himself into a "real boy," and be something more than an intangible companion to Kat?

I certainly prefer a film-plot to have too many plot-threads over having too few. Nevertheless, even the partial list of plot-lines shown above indicates that the writers stuck too many irons in the fire-- and I didn't even mention the one about two mean middle-schoolers who plan to humiliate Kat at her party. Though Moriarty and Dibs do well with their comical villains, the characters aren't strictly necessary. One corrective: this low-rent Boris and Natasha might have been better used if they had some clue about the magical ghost-restorer device, and they wanted that to sell to an unfriendly nation, instead of some dubious treasure (which turns out to be a big nothing anyway). The FX are enjoyable but director Silberling overplays them so that they distract from the story. During the first encounter of Harvey and the Trio, the three ghosts invade his body by forcing their ectoplasmic bodies down his throat. The viewer rightfully assumes that the pernicious poltergeists are about to possess Harvey and make him do something embarrassing. But all that happens is that he looks in the mirror and sees the reflection of various celebrities, including Clint Eastwood and the Crypt-Keeper.

Speaking of guest-stars, a separate section has two fictional characters run out of the manor after failing to exorcise the spirits: Don Novello playing Father Guido Sarducci and Dan Aykroyd playing Ray Stanz of GHOSTBUSTERS. For reasons I won't get into here, I consider only Stanz to constitute a mini-crossover with the Casper franchise. The two Harveys were named after the publisher of Harvey Comics, who arguably kept the franchise more visible with American kids than did any intermittent animated series. Despite good box office, CASPER received no big-screen follow-ups, only two DTV films in which neither Harvey nor Kat appeared. However, the characters were revived for a 1996 TV cartoon, THE SPOOKTACULAR NEW ADVENTURES OF CASPER. This seems counter-intuitive, since by the end of the first movie, Harvey has been able to commune with his dead wife and Kat has more or less adjusted to her new setting. Indeed, one could argue that most of the plot centers around Casper helping Kat with her problems, and even Casper's recollection of his human life don't make him a rounded character, no matter how "rounded" his visual design.

Sunday, May 28, 2023



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological, metaphysical*

First, I have to correct some false information I purveyed in my 2012 review of MATCHING ESCORT. I stated that this film, starring Taiwanese kung-fu diva Chang Ling, appeared in 1983, prior to the subject of this review, Ling's 1982 WOLF DEVIL WOMAN, and that ESCORT seemed to re-use some of the sets of what I thought the earlier film. Ten years later, I don't know if I actually read a false history of the two films, or if I assumed ESCORT came second because some markets retitled it WOLF DEVIL WOMAN 2. But IMDB states that ESCORT was in 1981, and that it was also the first of three films (another source says four) that Chang both starred in and directed. This makes sense, for ESCORT is much more ordinary film than DEVIL. Since ESCORT was said to have been a box office flop, I can imagine Chang and her crew trying to gear up to make their next effort as wild and attention-getting as possible.

This Teleport City review asserts that DEVIL was based on a 1958 wuxia novel that was also the source for numerous  wuxia films, notably Ronny Yu's 1993 BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR. That novel, going by the Wiki summary, deals with a vigilante swordswoman who has a love affair with a young nobleman, but when they fall out her hair turns white, making her fundamentally inhuman, a state that can only be reversed if she eats a rare ginseng root. I can't tell if some of the other details associated with film adaptations stem from the 1958 novel or not-- the idea that the swordswoman is raised by wolves before being taken in by a criminal clan, for instance.

Since there aren't very many adaptations of the novel prior to Chang Ling's film, I speculate that the actress-- who had been wildly popular on Taiwanese television, and who was surely seeking to build a new rep in the film world-- tailored the contents of the novel to suit her needs. I have the impression that there had been earlier Hong Kong films with "wild child" protagonists, but in any case Chang devotes nearly half of DEVIL to creating the persona of her wolf-girl, eventually given the name "Snow Flower." Snow Flower is never adopted by any kind of clan, hanging out with the wolves from infanthood to adulthood. For some reason she wears clothes, including a cowl made from a wolfskin, and she lives in a snowy cave with her wolf-mother. (Since a real wolf would die in the time it takes for a human to grow to maturity, maybe Snow Flower imagines that the wolf in her company is the one that adopted her.) 

How does she get there? Well, funny thing. There is an evil cult, headed by a masked magician named "Red Devil." (In an early VHS translation, the villain was called "Blue Devil" and made to talk like Yosemite Sam, while characters with names like Lee and Wong were named "Rudolph and Rudy.") Red Devil plots to rule the world by terrorizing the local gentry. In addition to surrounding himself with ninja-style assassins, he also sacrifices human beings by making voodoo dolls of them and then subjecting the dolls to various torments. He keeps their corpses on display, which apparently alienates two new adherents, a husband and wife, causing them to flee the cult, their newborn child in hand. The Devil's agents pursue, but the parents-- who are apparently kung-fu masters-- conceal themselves by creating an avalanche to cover themselves and their child. (How do they do it? Oh, they ram their heads against a snowy mountainside.) Providentially, before the Devil's pawns can unearth the bodies, a pack of wolves come along, drive the cultists away, and unearth the still-living infant. Oh, and for good measure the mother-wolf feeds the infant a magical ginseng root, from which she will later manifest supernatural powers.

So that's all in the first ten minutes. Clearly, to keep this review from going on four times the norm, I'll have to confine myself to the high points. Fortunately, DEVIL is an episodic flick, so I'm doing no violence to the plot in excerpting the best bits.

*Nobleman Lee and his retainer Wong come to Snow Flower's stomping grounds, looking for the rare root to use against Red Devil. Not only do these worthies name Snow Flower and teach her to speak Chinese in a few days, Lee-- also a kung fu wizard-- observes that the girl walks hunched-over from living with wolves. So he uses super-fu to straighten her spine.

*Lee goes back to his father to report his failure, and the ninjas show up to kidnap him. Red Devil uses magical gas to turn Lee into his slave.

*Snow Flower wanders into some town and gets drunk. This triggers the super-powers in her body, and her hair turns white. She tosses villagers around like insects but they subdue her and dunk her in the well. Wong rescues her, and moments later she becomes a well-dressed swordswoman who can ride a horse. She only shows a few vestiges of her wolf-persona. Once she leaps into the air with one of Red Devil's men and tears the guy apart the way she earlier tore a rabbit apart. Also, her weapon of choice is a long rope with a wolf-claw at either end, which works surprisingly well against Red Devil's animated fire-bolts and hopping vampires. (These are the revived bodies of the corpses on display in Red Devil's sanctum.)

There's a part of me that really wants to rate this wild opus as having good mythicity, just because it takes the sentimental love-story of the novel and crossbreeds it with a zany wild-child adventure. But the script, which was probably concocted on the fly, doesn't indicate that Chang-- also said to be the writer-- had any insight on the novel's use of Chinese folklore. But if I had a "fair-to-good" category, WOLF DEVIL WOMAN would be top of the list.



PHENOMENALITY: *naturalistic*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

Often I don't review purely isophenomenal kung-fu movies. However, this one does feature a minor kung-fu diva unknown to me, and that touches on my interest in femmes formidables. Also, this flick has zero external reviews on IMDB, and it's not a bad enough film to deserve that fate.

It is, however, a simple revenge film, even though the plot wanders all over the place. Mountain girl Chi (Chia Lin Sun) finds her father dying, and with his last breath he names his killer as a bandit named Yuan. After a brief confab with an old monk-- implied to have been the person who taught Chi kung fu-- the iron-fist maiden goes looking for Yuan. She finds a bunch of his goons in some town and fights them. I note in passing that the film's fight-director eschews the old chestnut where a gang of thugs considerately make individual attacks on a single opponent. Instead, Chi, despite giving a good account of herself, is quickly hit from behind while dispatching another opponent. However, another kung-fu fighter comes to her rescue and they escape the minions of Yuan. However, the two of them must not talk very long, because the film then starts to follow the male fighter Lu (Pin Chiang) for a while, letting Chi go off to do whatever.

As it happens, Lu is also a target of Boss Yuan, because he has half of a treasure map, and Yuan stole the other half from Chi's father. But nobody makes any attacks on Lu, although he picks up a female servant, Shao (Chin-Feng Wang) after defending her against a nasty fellow who apparently bought Shao from her parents. Lu doesn't want a servant, but Shao follows him to his home, and apparently ingratiates herself with him sexually. No sex scenes are shown, but later on Shao will reveal that Lu made her pregnant.

Shao also has a darker secret: she's the daughter of Boss Yuan, and he specifically sent her to enter Lu's service so that she could spy on him and find the map. Of course during that association Shao falls in love with Lu and doesn't want to betray him, earning her a slap or two from Dad before he finds out she's pregnant. (This is one of the few memorable drama-scenes in the flick, in that the fellow playing Yuan is almost comic in his consternation at learning his daughter is pregnant by his enemy.) There's a confusing scene in which a woman in a face-mask saves Lu from some of Yuan's thugs. Presumably it's Shao, since Chi isn't around at the time, but she never evinces martial skills anywhere else.

Lu goes into hiding, possibly to hone his kung fu skills, and though Yuan's men search for him and his treasure-map, they fail to find him for the next nine months, during which time Shao gives birth. Maybe Chi does a lot of training too, for the film's next big action-scene shows her being ambushed at some construction camp, she manages to hold her own much better against a gang of male bandits than she did in her previous solo fight. Again, she's overcome, but Lu pops up and they drive off the thugs. This paves the way for Lu and Chi to square off respectively with Yuan and with his Number Two minion. To the film's credit, the setting of the construction camp makes a nice change, as Lu and Yuan take their fight atop a jam of cut logs floating in a river. Shao shows up to show Lu what she just brought out of the oven, but she dies when she's caught in one of her father's attacks. The film ends with Lu, Chi, and the motherless infant giving the complete map to the Cantonese government, just because.

Though I like dazzling kung fu choreography as much as anyone, I give REVENGE an extra star for depicting most of the fights by showing the opponents reletntlessly surging into one another's spaces-- that is, like real fights-- rather than staging things for greater visual effect. Chi does have one "superlative" feat, when she grabs Lu, tucks him under her arm and runs up a ladder to make their escape, but it's the only such deviation from reality, and I judge that it doesn't move the film into the uncanny domain.

Saturday, May 27, 2023



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

The last of the BABYLON 5 movies (not counting a spinoff, LEGEND OF THE RANGERS) was itself primarily a lead-in to a spinoff series, CRUSADE, which lasted but one season. To maximize CRUSADE's potential, writer J. Michael Straczinksi-- ceding the director's chair to someone else, one Michael Vejar-- didn't content himself with another "long filler-episode," but attempted to link the new series to the most momentous conflicts of the ongoing series.

I don't remember what happened to the Garibaldi character (Jerry Doyle) in that series between this film and the previous RIVER OF SOULS, but now he's associated with developing a fleet of space destroyers for Earth defense purposes. Elizabeth Lockley still commands Babylon 5, and its former captain John Sheridan is now President of Earth. In order to get Sheridan back out on the field of action, he joins with Garibaldi to oversee the resting of one of the new ships. 

To foreshadow a new menace, an early introduced character, a "technomage" named Galen (Peter Woodward), sends premonitory dreams of destruction to Sheridan, so that he'll know that his visit isn't going to be confined to breaking bottles over ships' noses. Galen becomes a featured character in CRUSADE, as does a new visitor to the station, a tough-girl thief named Dureena (Carrie Dobro). Dureena doesn't really play a big role in the main story, aside from lending a fresh viewpoint at a crucial moment, so Galen must have been a helluva prophet to know how she'd become vital to Earth's defenses.

None of the movies ever directly involve the epic "War of the Shadows," but CALL does introduce a new menace that was an ally of that earlier foe: a species called the Drakh. These new players are never seen on camera here, but only by their offensive action: a "death cloud" that infects Planet Earth's inhabitants with a slow-acting nanovirus. Said virus had to be slow-acting, because the new CRUSADE series will focus on finding a cure for the virus. 

Despite a strong performance by Boxleitner, Straczinski's script is one of his dullest and the new enemies are perfunctory villains. I have not watched CRUSADE since its initial broadcast, but I remember it as nothing special. My final verdict on the movies is that none of them are better than adequate, and that anyone who wanted to see BABYLON 5 at its best had better buckle down and plow into the episodes, which are the only time the franchise enjoyed any outstanding moments.

Friday, May 26, 2023



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

RIVER OF SOULS was one of two films shown after BABYLON 5 ended, so it reflects an assortment of changes that had taken place in the series proper. Most of the familiar faces of the show were gone, though Michael Garibaldi (Jerry Doyle), no longer a series regular by the fifth season, finds an excuse to return to the space station to help initiate the new plot. Claudia Christian's Ivanovna departed the series, but she was replaced by Captain Elizabeth Lockley (Tracy Scoggins), who has control of the station in the absence of John Sheridan. But hey-- we still have Zack Allan, as played by Jeff Conaway!

Again writer-director J. Michael Straczynski creates trouble by having an arcane artifact brought aboard the Bab 5 station, but this time the history of the artifact is more philosophically challenging. Archaeologist Bryson (Ian MacShane) unearths a mysterious globe and takes it to the station to meet with his investor, who is none other than the entrepreneur Garibaldi. Bryson has sold Garibaldi a bill of goods about using the globe to further human life-spans, but the scientist has actually been suborned by the beings within the globe, a billion souls from an extinct race. The souls are beginning to escape their confinement and start to cause trouble, though it takes some time before Lockley knows the nature of the threat. A subplot involving a "holobrothel" adds some welcome humor to the story.

In the movie's latter half the plot ramps up when a new visitor arrives: a member of the despised race known as Soulhunters. This unnamed, bald-pated alien (Martin Sheen) seeks the globe because his people are the ones who imprisoned the billion souls in it, in the belief that they were preserving them from utter extinction. Even before the nature of the souls' quandary is revealed, Lockley and her aides have some interesting debates with Sheen-Hunter about the nature of death and the release from life. (Even Jeff Conaway doesn't spoil things.)

Scoggins carries the lion's share of the story and acquits herself well. Sheen has certainly embodied better characters, but he's fun to watch anyway. For a space-filler, RIVER OF SOULS isn't at all bad.



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

If a viewer was intrigued by mentions of a "war of shadows" in the BABLYON 5 pilot or the first telefilm, one won't get much out of the rest of the movies, for that conflict was played out only in the episodic series. THIRDSPACE debuted during the fifth and last season, but stayed independent of the series. Unfortunately, what one gets is just an overgrown "filler episode."

In fact, THIRDSPACE feels a bit like the famous Classic Trek episode, "The Naked Time." Everyone on Babylon 5 is spazzing out because of an outside influence, but it's not a contagion. An ancient artifact, potentially one that can harness a new method of hyperspace travel, is brought aboard the station. But before any discoveries can be made, the artifact begins broadcasting malign vibrations that turn residents into submissive thralls. 

Thanks to the station's resident telepath Lyta (Patricia Tallman), the heroes eventually learn that the artifact is a token of a hostile extra-dimensional race. The universe's oldest aliens, the mysterious Vorlons, are children next to the Thirdspace beings, and the Vorlons deemed the Thirdspacers as virtual gods. In a variation on the Tower of Babel stories, the Vorlons built one of the hyperspace gates, but suffered invasion by the evil aliens-- who are gearing up to invade once more.

As exciting as this potentially sounds, the movie is very talky. Commander Sheridan (Bruce Boxlietner) and his consort Delenn of the Minbari (Mira Furlann) have little to do, and so the burden of the story falls mostly on Lyta, Ivanova (Claudia Christian), and a regular from later seasons, Zack Allan (Jeff Conaway). Conaway is such a bad actor that he drags down every scene he's in, making the perfunctory script even more obvious. About the only time the movie perks up a bit is when a doctor investigating the artifact (Shari Belafonte) is enthralled by its influence and gets into a short fistfight with Ivanovna.



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

In my same-day review of a 1960s AVENGERS episode, I noted one of the main appeals of the series:

...a lot of the stories seem dedicated to the proposition that, if outsiders think the English are stodgy while others think them eccentric, it's better to be thought the latter than the former.

Perhaps this is merely my own justification as to why I think the 1998 attempt to revive the Steed and Peel franchise failed so utterly. Though the credited writer of AVENGERS was British while director Jeremiah Checkick was the next best thing (i.e., Canadian), neither of them seemed to get that much of the TV show's appeal was how faithfully it appealed to the sheer artifice of English cultural tropes. The result was an AVENGERS that felt like any old American-made splashy summer action movie.

The filmmakers compounded this tone-deafness by attempting to sell their recreation as an "origin story" for Steed (Ralph Fiennes) and Peel (Uma Thurman). In the sixties teleseries, one never knows how Steed recruits any of his civilian assets, except for the very first season, which depicted the origin of Steed's partnership with one David Keel. The later seasons, in which the assets are "just there" at Steed's behest, served to give the show a sense of flamboyant escapism, in which Steed and his civilian buddies could drop all references to routine daily life in order to run off and investigate peculiar murders.

Instead, Macpherson's script shows "meteorologist" Emma Peel being brought to account by Steed's unnamed government agency because she's suspected of sabotaging Project Prospero, the government's attempt to control the weather. In the real world, being suspected of traitorous activity would probably get one dumped in a cell without a trial. However, Steed, who instantly takes a liking to the foxy maybe-widow, talks his boss into letting Mrs. Peel share the investigation with him. 

Narrative continuity was certainly savaged by the studio cutting the film to present a shorter (and potentially more profitable) running time, so audiences may never know why the real villain-- mad scientist August de Wynter (Sean Connery)-- is the one behind all the sabotage, or why he somehow created a clone of Mrs. Peel in order to lay the blame on her. Still, Chechick and Macpherson not only made the bad decision to mold their version of the franchise into an origin-story no one wanted, they also build up a "will-they-won't-they" romance between the co-stars, which contradicted the sexual ambiguity in the original Steed-Peel relationship.

In the midst of this debacle, it's not surprising that the actors aren't able to communicate anything but empty gestures. Ralph Fiennes strives with might and main to make his Steed seem like a cultured English gentleman who can drop all pretense of gentility for a sword-duel, but his performance never seems natural. Uma Thurman apparently appreciated the iconicity of Emma Peel, and so tries to duplicate the character's wry humor, but the script gives her mostly witless lines. She handles the sexy stuntwork adequately, though. Connery blusters a lot but his character is an empty mad scientist stereotype, and it's not even clear what he wants to do, in contrast to a weather-controlling analogue in the AVENGERS episode "A Surfeit of H20." The closest thing MacPherson comes to the TV show's constant mining of eccentricities is a scene in which a group of Wynter's colleagues conceal their identities by dressing up in teddy bear costumes. Yet this attempt at weirdness just comes out of nowhere, while in the TV show, there's always some method behind even minor madnesses.

As an homage to the cult TV show, the Chechick-Macpherson AVENGERS is a total bust. I suppose I thought it was modestly entertaining back in the day, but only if I viewed it as just a splashy summer action movie not connected to any previous franchise. 



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

"A Surfeit of H2O" is one of the loopiest episodes in Diana Rigg's debut season as Emma Peel, "talented amateur" assistant to vaguely defined government agent John Steed (Patrick Macnee). It also marks the showrunners' decision to depict more overtly science-fictional threats to menace the intrepid pair, in contrast to the general absence of such content in the previous seasons with femme formidable Cathy Gale.

The shift is logical enough, though. The espionage genre, largely a product of the prose fiction of the early 20th century, soon split into  "realistic" and "escapist" forms, with Graham Greene expousing the former path and John Buchan the latter. Discounting AVENGERS' lost first season-episodes, which *may* have been somewhat more down to earth, the exploits of Steed and his various partners always skewed toward the bizarre and the spectacular, with fewer signs of real-world politics than a James Bond novel.

Though a lot of episodes begin with the heroes investigating the mysterious deaths of government officials, "Surfeit" begins with a lowly poacher inexplicably drowning in an English country field. These demi-spies don't investigate by talking to informants; they read the papers and notice that a local eccentric, Jonah Barnard (Noah Purcell), believes that a second God-sent flood is due to inundate the sinful world. Thus Jonah-- apparently named for the Biblical figure who got swallowed by a sea creature-- tells Steed that he's chosen to emulate another nautical figure, Noah, by building an ark in which the righteous may survive. Meanwhile, Emma talks to Eli, the sibling of the late poacher. Eli thinks his brother may have drowned due to falling into one of the vats at a nearby winery.

Other AVENGERS episodes offer more than just one oddball. Indeed, a lot of the stories seem dedicated to the proposition that, if outsiders think the English are stodgy while others think them eccentric, it's better to be thought the latter than the former. The scientist in charge of the winery's fermentation processes, however, is depressingly ordinary, aside from his suggestive name, "Doctor Sturm." But since the viewer is given no alternative villains, it's soon made clear that Sturm has perfected a method of stirring up ferocious rainstorms that can actually drown a person out in the open. His explanation of how the weather could be weaponized actually makes a good deal of sense, and so once again the Avengers find that even the killing of a humble Englishman can lead them to the pernicious activities of England's enemies. The episode's climax takes place in a "rain room," which reproduces the conditions of an external torrent. The gimmick makes little sense, but it's fun seeing Steed and Peel fight the villains in the midst of pouring rain, while the loony Jonah acts as if he thinks the flood is coming at last.

Mrs. Peel utters a line that shows the writer's embrace of the artifice of this escapist fare. After Sturm explains his evil plan and places Mrs. Peel in a death-trap, she coolly says, "You diabolical mastermind, you."




Twice I watched NEW TALE OF ZATOICHI, the third entry in the series, to see if I could glean some of the stellar qualities others saw in it. But I still didn't think it was as dramatically strong as either the original ZATOICHI or its sequel

TALE might have seemed a little stronger to me if the story had elided some of the side-plots, as when Zatoichi (Shintaro Katsu) encounters an impoverished musician and his family, or ferrets out a local gang of thieves. The main action stems from all the events that transpire when the traveling masseur-swordsman, weary of killing the various opponents who have plagued him, returns to the village where he learned his sword-skills. 

Once he finally makes it to the village, Zatoichi re-encounters his old teacher Banno (Seizaburo Kawazu), as well as Banno's sister Yayoi (Mikiko Tsubouchi). The masseuse is disturbed to learn that Banno wants Yayoi to marry a wealthy man she doesn't love, not least because Zatoichi had a crush on her years ago. Further, Yayoi reveals that she reciprocates his feeling. However, Banno won't stand for interference with his plans, and may be willing to challenge his student to keep Yayoi in line. As a secondary threat, the brother of a man Zatoichi previously slew wants revenge-- though oddly, the thing that offends the sibling most is not simply his brother's death, but the enormity of his being killed by a blind man. However, viewers looking for outstanding swordplay will be disappointed with this entry.

Despite the wandering script, Katsu does his usual excellent job in defining the character, full of regrets for his sinful life. TALE is one of many Japanese films to transplant an ethos of modernity upon a medieval setting. Not only is Banno portrayed as a tyrant for controlling his sister's marital destiny, Zatoichi confesses to Yayoi that he's patronized prostitutes in his sinful life, which a real man of the period probably would not have regretted. Naturally, there's no happy ending in store for the blind masseuse and his former love, so it's on the next adventure in the series.

Wednesday, May 24, 2023



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

I've long meant to review what many consider the best superhero cartoon series of all time, BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES, but as it happens, I decided to start with Vol 4 (which is actually the totality of Season 3). I may amuse myself by working backward. I'm not willing to write standalone reviews of the episodes, but instead include mini-reviews in order to broadcast, with notations of (G) for good mythicity, (F) for fair, and (P) for poor.

HOLIDAY KNIGHTS (F)-- this three-part anthology episode on a Christmas theme features a very bad Joker episode (complete with the third season's ultra-simplified version of the villain), a mediocre encounter between Batgirl and Clayface, and a better than average romp in which Batman has to deal with those voluptuous vixens Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy (though no one makes the Xmas-friendly "Harley and Ivy" joke).

SINS OF THE FATHERS (F)-- Though Dick Grayson was Robin for the first two seasons, the producers decided to follow the lead of the comics, graduating the now adult Grayson to the role of Nightwing and giving the Robin monicker to the new kid in town, Tim Drake. Tim gets involved with the Bat-world through his father's association with Two-Face, whose blackmail plot is somewhat de rigeur. He also meets the new Robin but for some reason doesn't realize that this can't possibly be the same kid-hero he used to fight.

COLD COMFORT (G)-- Mister Freeze, a generally mediocre villain in the comics, gets a great conclusion here. Batman's desire to find new connections through his Bat-family is opposed to Freeze's desire to prey upon Gotham's citizens by eliminating their deepest hopes and dreams. The frosty fiend does come back in BATMAN AND MR. FREEZE: SUBZERO, though.

DOUBLE TALK (F)-- The Ventriloquist is freed from the asylum, as he's been freed from Scarface, the dummy through which he's committed his crimes. But is Scarface really gone?

YOU SCRATCH MY BACK (P)-- Catwoman like Joker gets a visual makeover for the worse, so that she looks like some sort of anime elf. She wants to make a score, but to do so she pretends to romance Nightwing. Will Nightwing poach on his surrogate father's territory? Will Batgirl be jealous? Who cares? Nice fight in a motorboat (but, sadly, without any motorboating).

NEVER FEAR (F)-- This time the Scarecrow, instead of making his victims afraid, immunizes them from fear, and threatens to subject all of Gotham to the treatment, which will turn the city upside down. When Batman and Robin tackle the villain, Batman gets exposed to the no-fear gas, and Robin has to keep his mentor from going over the edge.

JOKER'S MILLIONS (P)-- The original comics story of the same title, created by David Vern and Dick Sprang, is a small masterpiece, but this episode is an overheated, tone-deaf adaptation. For once the Joker re-design isn't the worst thing around.

GROWING PAINS (F)-- Robin sympathizes with a runaway girl his own age, but she has a unique relationship with the shapechanger Clayface. Excellent concluding fight-scene.

LOVE IS A CROC (P)-- Baby Doll, a poorly conceived second-season villain, lures the super-strong Killer Croc into a partnership, but things go sour when she wants to take things to the next level.

TORCH SONG (F)-- Fifties villain Firefly makes his first appearance on the series, with an origin somewhat amended from the original. This time the villain turns evil because he's thrown over romantically by "torch singer" Cassidy. The episode ends atypically, focusing on the singer's trauma even after Batman defeats Firefly. Cute moment where Batgirl (who is Batman's partner just as often as Robin is) quotes PINKY AND THE BRAIN and Batman doesn't get it.

THE ULTIMATE THRILL (F)-- Roxy Rocket, created for the comics by Paul Dini, makes the transition to animation with a slam-bang daredevil theme focused Roxy's love of danger, a love she thinks she shares with the Caped Crusader. Penguin appears in a small role, but happily reverts to his classic 1940s design. 

OVER THE EDGE (P)-- For most of the episode, it appears that Batgirl has died, causing Commissioner Gordon to launch a vendetta against the Bat-clan. But since the viewer knows that it can't really be happening, the revelation that it's all Batgirl's fear-dream, induced by Scarecrow, is underwhelming.

MEAN SEASONS (F)-- In a story drawing upon one-shot comics villain "The Manikin," Batman contends with a villainess who also borrows the seasons-theme of Calendar Man. Calendar Girl has a grudge against various Gotham power brokers, whom she considers to have exploited women. But a satire of sexism hardly registers as valid coming from a cartoon with bouncy babes like Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn (even if the New Catwoman lost all her cleavage). 

CRITTERS (P)-- Did any Bat-fan ever want to see the Bat-clan fight a bunch of super-sized farm animals? Farmer Brown and his daughter Emmylou attempt to solve world hunger by using steroids to gigantize various "critters," but a judge considers the process unsafe and bans Brown's experiments. Brown claims the ban will ruin his fortunes, yet years later he's somehow got enough cash to continue his experiments in secret, until he can unleash a horde of American kaiju on Gotham. He even builds a rocket into a farm-silo to bombard the city with giant bugs. So where'd he get the MONEY?? Bullock shows his age by referring to Brown as "Snuffy." Emmylou herself takes steroids and gets strong enough to beat down Batgirl.

CULT OF THE CAT (F)-- Elfwoman is still not very appealing, but at least this time she displays some of her romantic ambivalence toward the Bat. She steals a sacred cat statuette from a cult devoted to cats, and the cult's agents try to kill her, forcing Batman to get involved. When she's captured by the cult, she insinuates herself into the good graces of the cult leader-- but when he tries to kill Batman, the Princess of Plunder saves him, yet escapes to loot again. The cult-leader is named Thomas Blake, which in comics is the non-secret ID of Batman's other cat-themed foe, The Cat-Man.

ANIMAL ACTS (F)-- This one's good mostly for re-uniting Dick Grayson with his old stomping-grounds. Trained animals commit crimes in Gotham, so Batman, Robin and Nightwing check out the local circus, where Grayson once performed on the high wire. Turns out that the Mad Hatter has extended his mind-control powers over the beasts, and even though his scheme is improbable, there are enough Carroll-quotes to smooth things over. Grayson is reunited with an old circus gal-pal, Miranda Kane, whose surname is probably a shout-out to another DC aerialist, Kathy Kane, the first Batwoman.

OLD WOUNDS (G)-- This is a good condensation of the many psychological factors that led Dick Grayson to abandon the role of Batman's partner Robin and to take the new identity of Nightwing. In real time he encounters Batman and the current Robin, and the young hero senses the conflict between the ex-partners. When Drake's alone with Grayson, Grayson tells the story. Some tension between Wayne and Grayson stems from the mere fact of Grayson becoming a grown man, but in contrast to the comics, the other major factor was that in college Grayson had a romance with Barbara Gordon. Though neither of them knew that the other had a secret ID, Batman ferrets out Batgirl's identity without her knowledge. When Barbara seeks out Bruce Wayne to talk to him about his ward's troubled state of mind, Wayne shows his trust of the new heroine by revealing to her the true ID of himself and his partner. Not only does Grayson-Robin object to this disclosure, he believes that Batman manipulated both of them into being his pawns, and that ends the partnership. The story ends, but events reveal a side to Batman that Robin overlooked.

THE DEMON WITHIN (F)-- Batman and Robin help Jason Blood when the witch-child Klarion separates Blood from his alter ego, the super-powerful Demon, and begins using the Demon as his personal servant. 

LEGENDS OF THE DARK KNIGHT (P)-- The writer of this story claims that he never saw the Frank Robbins comics-story in which three kids relate "blind man and the elephant" impressions of who and what the Batman is like. I don't disbelieve the writer, because the basic idea seems fairly obvious given the many mutations of the crusader. But there's nothing to this story but simple homage, first of Dick Sprang, the quintessential Golden Age Bat-artist, and then of Frank Miller's THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. After two of the three kids tell their stories, they stumble across Firefly trying to burn down a theater, and the real Batman shows up in all his glory.

GIRL'S NIGHT OUT (F)-- Why is it "girl's (singular)," given that the episode is focused on two girl heroes teaming up? Batman's seen briefly leaving town but he tells Batgirl to seek out Superman in order to battle the Kryptonian's enemy Live Wire. Instead, the Man of Steel's cousin takes the message, and Supergirl shows up to help Batgirl make it a "girls' night." But Live Wire forms a somewhat fractious alliance with Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy. Lots of nice fight-scenes, without a codpiece in sight.

MAD LOVE (G)-- Aside from the Joker's crappy re-design, this is a fine rendition of Paul Dini's Eisner-winning story of the same name. This tale was instrumental to redefining the weird but somewhat affectionate liaison of Joker and Harley into a relationship of total dysfunction.

CHEMISTRY (F)-- It's the old "set up the rich guys and gals with phony mates in order to knock off the Richies and get their money" trick. Poison Ivy comes up with her unique take in that her pawns are plant-people infused with her hypnotic pheromones, in order to make certain that the Richies are irresistibly seduced. Bruce Wayne himself is one of the victims, so Robin and Batgirl must snap him out of it.

BEWARE THE CREEPER (G)-- For some reason everyone in this Gotham knows how the Joker was created in a chemical plant accident, so reporter Jack Ryder goes to the plant for a retrospective story. Joker and Harley show up to rain on Ryder's parade, and Ryder goes for a swim in a chemical bath. However, he comes out as The Creeper, whose only similarity to the Joker is that both do a lot of laughing. The comics-version only laughed maniacally to unnerve villains, but this Creeper, able to take prodigious leaps from building to building, was designed to be a cross between Jim Carrey's MASK and a Tex Avery wolf. Creeper decides he'll take hilarious vengeance on Joker, and for good measure tries to steal his girl partner. Batman and Robin work out the Creeper's origins and reverse the transformation, though not before the addled avenger nearly drives Joker crazy. This episode boasts two cool sex-jokes. There's an obvious one when Creeper, rendered unconscious by Batman, collapses atop Harley and gets pillowed by her boobs. More subtly, Harley tries to please Joker by baking herself into a huge gooey pastry, and explicitly says, "Wanna try some of my pie?"

JUDGMENT DAY (F)-- At least the final episode of the series is a decent one. The Judge, a robed vigilante with his face obscured, begins preying on such Gotham villains as Two-Face, Penguin and Killer Croc. Some Gothamites like the idea of an avenger who, unlike Batman, gets rid of evildoers for good, and one of them is a corrupt politician seeking to profit from the Judge's crusade. The Judge's identity is a decent reveal, the fights are pretty good, and this is one of the few third-season tales in which neither of Batman's partners appears. There's an amusing sequence in which four career villains-- Harley, Mad Hatter, Riddler and Ventriloquist-- appear on TV to blame all their actions on Batman, and to claim Gotham owes them money for their mistreatment.



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

A point important only to me: why am I stating that GUARDIANS 3 has strong mythicity, when I rated the other two films as merely fair? The first film was an entertaining reprise of the "Dirty Dozen" template. Volume 2 was more ambitious, and I did initially give it a good rating, only to reverse myself when I decided that writer-director James Gunn didn't bring much of symbolic significance to the Star-Lord "son of God" plotline, except to establish that the hero's sire was basically a deadbeat dad.

I should note that I have not seen the 45-minute "GUARDIANS XMAS SPECIAL," which takes place between Vol 2 and Vol 3. Gunn used this special to lay out some details about the Guardians' setup since the characters made their last big-screen appearance in AVENGERS ENDGAME. None of the details are overly important, and I imagine that in most cases the audience was able to roll with the new information, the most consequential being that Mantis (Pom Klementeff), introduced in the second movie, also happens to be the half-sister to Star-Lord Peter Quill (Chris Pratt). 

This GUARDIANS is like the others in offering the viewer the quarrelsome "esprit d'corps" of its mismatched crusaders, punctuated by dozens upon dozens of saucy jokes, most of which land, though I could have done without Nebula (Karen Gillian) struggling with a car door. Nebula, by the way, has become a regular member of the Guardians since ENDGAME-- not sure how Gunn got around all the devious time-distortions therein-- and has essentially replaced Gamora (Zoe Saldana). The Gamora known to the Guardians was eradicated and then "brought back" as a doppelganger with no memory of her experiences with the group, even her former lover Quill. Drax (Dave Bautista) , Mantis and Groot (Vin Diesel's voice) are largely the same, while Rocket (mostly Bryan Cranston's voice) finally gets the origin-tale suggested for him since the first GUARDIANS. And since not everyone in a seven-person ensemble can get equal treatment in a feature film, Rocket's arc is strongest, followed by that of Quill, while only moderate development is devoted to Mantis, Drax, Nebula, Groot and Gamora 2.0, who finds herself enmeshed once more with the Guardians' current mission.

So what makes this GUARDIANS more mythic than the others? From a superficial standpoint it might seem to be an interstellar SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, in which the members of a group seek to preserve the life of a fellow hero. In this case the hero is Rocket, injured in a battle with a new foe, a golden-skinned superman named Warlock (Will Poulter). Passing over the very involved complications, Rocket's fellow Guardians can only save his life by learning how and why he came to be as he is. 

The architect of Rocket's creation is none other than a being with an Earth-name, Herbert Wyndham (Chukwudi Iwuji), though he doesn't really seem to be an Earthman. Wyndham is patterned upon the comic-book character of The High Evolutionary, who was essentially a less demented version of Wells' "Doctor Moreau," but with much better technology. Where the comic-book character was rather benign-- transforming ordinary beasts into humanoids and creating new planets with a minimum of fuss-- Wyndham exceeds Moreau's conscienceless cruelty by Warp Factor Twelve. Over an unspecified number of years Wyndham has created numerous species, including the one from which Warlock hails. It was at Wyndham's bidding that Warlock attacked the Guardians, though Warlock himself is a naif who doesn't know right from wrong. Late in the film Wyndham claims to have taken the role of God because said deity was absent, and his credo comes down to, "Be thou perfect, or be thou dead."

For the most part Wyndham is indifferent to the fate of his experiments, but he wants to recover Rocket in order to harvest his brain, though this seems later to be an excuse. Wyndham declares war on the Guardians in order to recover his "property." Because of the evolutionary maniac, the heroes end up extending their rescue of Rocket to a reclamation of all the victims of the mad creator's designs. 

In addition to passing over a lot of the film's jokes, I'm also omitting much mention of Vol. 3's many moments of heartfelt sentiment at the fate of Wyndham's victims. Few MCU films have succeeded in wringing strong emotion over massive fatalities, which usually come off as commonplace audience-manipulation, as with the Sokovia Scandal of the AVENGERS continuity. 

Whereas the High Evolutionary of the comics is a benign "god," Wyndham wants to remake all living things into his image as an act of supreme egotism. But when Rocket shows an ability that Wyndham didn't anticipate, this is tantamount to the creation outdoing the creator. Discounting a few early pagan tales, few major religions will countenance such blasphemy, except maybe certain types of Buddhism, in which those with Buddha-knowledge transcend even the gods (though this may be more metaphor than anything). Gunn doesn't go so far as to condemn all father-gods as SOBs, though comparisons of  Wyndham to Ego would not be out of line. But he does include an amusing reference to classic Christian art. In an end-scene where a chastened Warlock rescues Quill from deep space, the iconography is patterned after Michelangelo's famous scene of Adam's creation, but with Warlock taking the place of God and Quill standing in for Adam. (In contrast to the film, the comic-book Warlock actually does use the first name "Adam.")

Wyndham is IMO the best supervillain in all of the MCU movies, precisely because, even though his mania has relevance to the human situation, Gunn is quite clear that his Big Bad really is morally deficient. Due to either conscious or subconscious Leftist sentiments, many MCU heroes have been weak in their moral priorities, while fiends like Thanos and Killmonger sometimes come off as almost sympathetic for their "burn it all down" philosophies. Gunn will probably never return to any form of the GUARDIANS franchise, but he provided audiences with one of the best superhero films of the twentieth-first century on his way out the door.

Tuesday, May 23, 2023



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

"A slave is immune to the fear of dying, because to die is merely to end the cycle of pain."

This quasi-Hegelian comment on the relationship of slaves to their masters' tyrannies is spoken by the Narn diplomat G'Kar (Andreas Katsulas). Profound though it is, this theme has very little to do with the main story of BEGINNING, though some of the action that transpires in the main plot comes about because of the actions of the Centauri ruler Londo (Peter Jurasik), G'Kar's persistent rival, whose people enslaved the Narn.

Londo provides the telefilm's frame story. BEGINNING was broadcast prior to the serial's fifth and last season, so a great deal of continuity had been established during the previous four seasons. But the viewer of BEGINNING does not necessarily need to know a lot of backstory, for the frame story takes place far down the timeline, when Londo is an aged ruler, telling his story to a pair of fascinated children. What he relates is writer-director J. Michael Straczinski's history of the great Human-Minbari War, a tragic conflict that precedes the construction of the Babylon 5 stations. 

The people of Earth provoke the war to some extent, making an uninvited incursion upon Minbari space, albeit against the advice of a younger Ambassador Londo. However, on balance the battle stems largely from cultural misunderstandings. Londo's later actions aggravate the war, for which his older self is duly regretful. G'Kar has a small role selling Centauri weapons to Earth in the hope of framing Centaurians as collaborators, while Delenn (Mira Furlann) is in the position of launching the war on her side-- an action that proves ironic later, when she ends the conflict due to a perceived metaphysical connection with the human race. There are also some linkages to the Vorlons and a "war against the shadows" conflict that played out in the series proper.

Though this is a more mature take on armed conflict than most space-war movies, the script is never more than adequate in expounding its theme, aside from that one line from G'Kar. The character-arc of the Jeff Sinclair character from Season 1 is referenced via the use of archive-footage, and the character of Ivanovna, who became first officer in Season 2, also makes an appearance during the tale-telling. The film concludes in "real" future-time with a teaser involving Old Londo, Delenn, and John Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner), the character who took Sinclair's place in Seasons 2-5. I assume the teaser had some payoff in Season 5 but am not motivated to research the matter. 



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

THE GATHERING was the pilot telefilm that launched the series BABYLON 5, in which writer-director J. Michael Straczinski began to articulate his vision of a space-opera cosmos, which illustrated Henry Kissinger's assertion that "diplomacy is the art of restraining power." The site of all these diplomatic efforts, made between the members of five major spacefaring races, takes place on Babylon 5, the fifth in a series of such space stations.

Straczinski does not tell the audience why four previous space stations perished, and only teases out some of the details about past military actions between humans and Minbari, or between Narn and Centauri. GATHERING is naturally more concerned with involving the audience in the perspectives of the characters forming the ensemble. The Earth characters, who administer this orbiting U.N. building, consist of commander Jeff Sinclair (Michael O'Hare), security chief Garibaldi (Jerry Doyle), and first officer Takashima (Tamlyn Tomita). There are, strangely, no Earth-diplomats in the initial telemovie of BABYLON 5, so in essence Sinclair and his crew are charged with catering to the needs of all the human and alien visitors to the station. Many travelers simply come with mundane motives like trade, but of course the emphasis on the cloak-and-dagger activities of the diplomats. At the start of the movie the representatives of three races have evidently occupied the station for some time; these are Delenn of the Minbari (Mira Furlann), G'Kar of the Narn (Andreas Katsulas), and Londo of the Centauri (Peter Jurasik). But one last representative is about to join the crowd: Kosh of the mysterious Vorlons, who are never seen in their true forms, only in ornate containment suits.

Straczynki wisely chooses a familiar type of TV-storyline to ease the audience into this involved world: a murder-mystery. The moment Kosh enters Babylon 5, he's dealt a near-fatal blow by an unknown assassin. Visual records suggest that Sinclair committed the deed, but of course he must fight to prove his innocence. But for obscure reasons the diplomats have the power to sit in judgment over the accused party, and they vote to turn Sinclair over to the Vorlons. Garibaldi and Takashima find enough clues to lead them to the true culprit, though Sinclair himself has the honor of capturing the assassin. 

Though Straczinski lays a long-term plot involving Sinclair having been tampered with by Minbari science, this would not flower until a later season. At the end of the first season, Michael O'Hare left the series and his role as station commander had to be taken over by a new character, though O'Hare would return for three episodes in later seasons to conclude his story-arc. Tamlyn Tomita and her character both disappeared after this pilot-film, and by good fortune she left no dangling plot-lines. Jerry Doyle's Garibaldi is similarly underdeveloped in the pilot, but here he fulfills one function that's constant throughout the series: his expertise on twentieth-century culture, allowing him to function as a touchstone for modern audiences. 

Arguably, though, the three humanoid diplomats generate the most dramatic tension. G'Kar and Londo don't have any important scenes together, but as the series progressed, these representatives of rival races would have a long and complex relationship. Even here, both actors play their scheming characters with flamboyant vigor. Delenn has a more minor role, as her role in the human-Minbari role will only be teased out in the series proper. The sociological interactions are of course the pilot film's main focus, though there are some cosmological myth-motifs related to alien biology that are arguably more thorough than those on the competing space-station show DEEP SPACE NINE.