Thursday, November 16, 2017

THOR: RAGNAROK (2017)



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


Don't call this film a "Twilight of the Gods;" it's more like a "twilight of the THOR franchise."

Thor's brother Loki may be adopted, but it's the God of Thunder who has always been the "red-headed step-child" in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as I pointed out in my reviews of THOR and THOR: THE DARK WORLD. I explicitly stated that I didn't hold the movie-makers to the high standards of Lee and Kirby (not the hierarchy one usually encounters in film / comics comparisons, but one I find valid). But RAGNAROK makes clear that. whereas the film-makers made some effort to formulate movie-mythologies for Iron Man and Captain America, the only effort they could make for the thunder-god was the effort it took to milk a cash-cow.

I went into RAGNAROK with cautious optimism. Though I'd read no full reviews, I'd heard good comments on the film's humor, and whatever the failings of the MCU, humor has usually been one of its strong points. But in this film, the comic elements become so overbearing as to usurp those of adventure. Moreover, whereas most MCU films have had some sense that "less is more," RAGNAROK merely proves that "more is too much."

The tone is quickly set by an opening "teaser-sequence." As part of an espionage mission, Thor lets himself get caught in the realm of the fire-demon Surtur, In comics Surtur has sometimes assumed the role of a "Big Bad," but here he's very close to being a "throwaway villain," like Batroc in WINTER SOLDIER, and only Surtur's role at the climax of RAGNAROK makes him slightly more of a significant presence. The teaser owes its basic concept to a similar sequence in 2012's AVENGERS, wherein the Black Widow lets herself be captured as a means of interrogating her captors, But the RAGNAROK script ruins any potential suspense with its over-reliance on goofiness, which quality scarcely ever lets up for the remainder of the movie. The teaser is capped by an "almost failed rescue" caused by an inattentive contact man, which goes back to RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and which has certainly gotten long in the tooth these days.

Chris Hemsworth's "surfer dude" version of Thor is the only virtue of this dull sequence, but it's telling that as soon as he gets back to Asgard, the script wastes no time bringing him back into contact with his shifty brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston). It's hard to blame the scripters much on this score, since the Hemsworth-Hiddleston chemistry remains solid. An earlier plot-thread, in which Loki bundled Odin off to Earth in order to take over Asgard, is disposed of by having the brothers seek out their lost parent on Earth, though this simple plot-action is needlessly extended with a time-wasting guest-appearance of Doctor Strange. No sooner do Thor and Loki find Odin than, tempus fugit, Odin reveals that he's about to die. The writers and director rush through this revelation as quickly as possible in order to announce that Odin's death will unleash a new menace on the cosmos.

In Norse mythology and in Marvel's THOR comics, Hela is called a "goddess of death" because she reigns over a domain of deceased souls. RAGNAROK's Hela ( a slumming Cate Blanchett) is sometimes called a "death-goddess," but this seems to be a synonym for "Badass Who Kills a Lot of People." Hela is Odin's first offspring, and it's loosely established that long before Thor or Loki existed, she helped Odin conquer the Nine Worlds. At some point Odin became sick of all the bloody killing-- a development that serves only to bring him into line with the original depiction of the ruler in the first film-- but Hela wanted to keep on killing, just because she liked it so much. So he exiled her, and somehow kept everyone else in Immortal Asgard from remembering her existence. However, once Odin dies, Hela pops up and tries to kill both of her brothers, since they're rivals for the rulership of Asgard. Hela's attack results indirectly in the two gods getting flung elsewhere. The evil goddess goes on to easily bend Asgard to her will, and to create an army of zombie warriors.

Thor and Loki both end up on the planet Skaar, whose other name in Marvel continuity is "Planet Hulk." Skaar is an entirely stereotypical "gladiator world," which exists for no reason but to pit alien fighters against one another. Loki gets separated from the thunder god, which is to Loki's benefit, since for the next twenty minutes Thor gets captured and subdued by the high-tech of a cynical warrior-woman, who in turn sells Thor to Skaar's nutty ruler, the grandstanding Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum, reprising his usual quirky character-type). Before Thor goes into battle against his first opponent, the hero learns that the woman who sold him is a Valkyrie of Asgsard-- indeed, she's a take on Marvel's "Valkyrie" character, though I don't think the script ever gives her a formal name. It also comes out that she, unlike the rest of Asgard, remembers Hela because she was the only surviving member of a force that sought to master Hela. (Why did the Valkyries need to fight Hela at all, if Odin had the power to exile her? Who knows?) In any case, she's a shallow, badly conceived and poorly acted character.

Inevitably, Thor comes to grips with the Grandmaster's champion, the Incredible Hulk, whose appearance on Skaar was set up at the end of the second AVENGERS movie. The battle of the two titans is one of the film's best aspects, and their subsequent dialogue might have proved a lot funnier had it nor been preceded by tons of juvenile pratfalls. The film spins its wheels for another thirty minutes trying to figure out how Thor can get back to Asgard in the company of Hulk, Loki and Valkyrie when none of them want to leave Skaar. An earlier film might have had the hero inspire the others with his tenacity and courage. Perhaps the political climate presumably wouldn't allow Thor to "mansplain" things to the recalcitrant warrior-woman.  Finally, the hero-team makes it back to Asgard, where they find that they can't oppose Hela-- who is belatedly said to draw her energy from Asgard somehow-- so the only way to triumph is to bring about "Ragnarok." The script makes a minimal effort to give this development "deep meaning," by emphasizing the necessity of Thor saving his people rather than his realm. However, given the MCU's rash tendency to annihilate prominent mainstays of Marvel continuity-- most chimerically, the destruction of SHIELD in WINTER SOLDIER-- I suspect the film-makers merely wanted a big scene to cap what looks like the last of the THOR films.

I saw the film with an audience that laughed at all the jokes, so I'm in a distinct minority regarding my "less is more" conviction. I imagine that actor Hemsworth liked the emphasis on comedy, since he'd probably like to get other roles than that of thunder-god, and I wish him well on that. But for me the main virtue of THOR RAGNAROK is that it exposed viewers to the superlative designs of Jack Kirby for both Hela and the minor character of The Executioner-- even if neither character was anything special.

THE SCORPION KING (2002)



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


As I observed in my review of 2001's THE MUMMY RETURNS, the idea of the "Scorpion King" franchise evolved from producers' generally successful attempt to mold wrestler Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson into a movie star. Johnson never again essayed the role of Mathayus, a Conan-like swordsman, though the character made three more appearances in DTV formats. This hero, who is a hideous monster in his one MUMMY movie, had a happier life in ancient times. He supposedly existed on a fantasy-Earth predating the rise of known history, although, as with Robert E. Howard's land of Hyboria, the hero's world sports place-names like "Gomorrah" and "Akkad."

I bestowed mild praise on MUMMY RETURNS because in it writer-director Stephen Sommers abandoned any attempt to make his "phony baloney" version of Egypt line up with the real thing. Sommers, one of the writers on KING, followed the same formula here, seeking to make a Conan for the 2000s. Naturally, the makers of the MUMMY series weren't able to pull off any of the deeper resonance found in Howard's prose, or even in the 1982 film. But then, it's unlikely that anyone even thought of doing anything but making a "fun barbarian" picture. Given that most post-Conan barbarian-films have proved dire, the producers did succeed in injecting a sense of loony fun into this genre-entry, aided by a much bigger budget this time round.

Mathayus is a thoroughly formulaic character, in that he starts out as an unprincipled master assassin but easily makes the switch to selfless hero with only a little guidance from his leading-lady, an oracle named Cassandra (Kelly Hu). Like most such heroes, he attracts allies to his banner without half trying, though he does have to fight one Balthasar (Michael Clarke Duncan) in order to earn that warrior's respect. Johnson brings a lot of verve to the character, though, and that makes up for lack of depth. The film's only Campbellian function is sociological, in that the plot depends on a clash of bizarre cultures.



VISIONS OF MURDER (1993), EYES OF TERROR (1994)





PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

These two TV-films-- made about a year apart, and with no creative personnel in common except for star Barbara Eden as a "psychic psychologist"-- are pedestrian in execution, though the first film boasts some interesting potential.

Over the years I've seen quite a few films in which some character, often a female, acquires or discovers psychic powers. These abilities prove onerous in that the character becomes embroiled in solving some dastardly crime.  VISIONS takes an interesting tack in that psychologist Jesse Newman (Eden) doesn't have the usual generalized powers, but a ability to tune in on a specific person to whom, unbeknownst to Jesse, she's actually related. A parapsychologist calls this "interpersonal resonance," and it makes for a good restriction on the usual psychic tropes.

The script labors mightily to make Jesse into a worthy heroine, a self-sacrificing professional who becomes too deeply invested in the problems of her patients. This martyr complex is grounded in the fact that she and her then-husband Hal-- now her ex, as well as a cop-- lost their only offspring sixteen years ago in childbirth. It later turns out that the daughter was actually abducted and sold to a black-market adoption agency, and that she's the reason Jesse starts having psychic flashes of peril to young Kimberly and her adoptive mother, at the hands of Kimberly's adoptive father (the reliable Terry O'Quinn, striving to find something to do with his underwritten part).

In fact, VISIONS is the very definition of a "star movie," in that no character in the story has anything interesting to do except  the protagonist. The same thing applies to the sequel EYES OF TERROR, altered in syndication to VISIONS OF TERROR. Since the first script shot its bolt by making Jesse's abilities dependent on her daughter, the second film decides to invest her with the skill of psychometry, the ability to glean psychic visions by touching objects. Despite this enhancement of Jesse's abilities, her most impressive feat herein is that of doping out a special code that leads her and the police to a cop-killer. The ex-husband is jettisoned and the daughter is played by new actress Missy Crider, who gets a little more development this time out. In fact, she possesses minor judo skills that enable her to fight the villain better than her mom can.

Some actors, no matter how technically proficient, never have it in them to attempt serious drama, just as many never conquer the realm of comedy. Barbara Eden, indelibly associated with the role of Jeannie from her best-known teleseries, never disappointed this viewer whenever she worked in any other light-comedy vehicle. No matter how bad the vehicle, her comic timing and insouciance always persuaded. In contrast, Eden doing dead-serious roles always seems earnest but never heartfelt, and these two meager telefilms prove no exception. (Note: she's nominally more serious in her character for SEVEN FACES OF DOCTOR LAO, but it's still dominantly a comedy, and thus her talents still fit that particular mold better than any of her attempts at "straight" drama.) 

Thursday, November 9, 2017

IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE (1958)


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, cosmological*


According to IMDB, IT! appeared in American theaters in the same month as CURSE OF THE FACELESS MAN.   Of that film I wrote:

Of director Edward L. Cahn's two collaborations with SF-writer Jerome Bixby. CURSE OF THE FACELESS MAN is the more mythically resonant movie, even though the other film probably gets the most press, often deemed as little more than : IT! THE TERROR THAT INSPIRED 'ALIEN!'I
It's often hypothesized that Bixby's script took some influence from A.E. Van Vogt's 1939 short story "Black Destroyer." In that tale, a spaceship from Earth lands on an alien world where all of the once-intelligent inhabitants have reverted to a "criminal state."  One of the creatures manages to get aboard the ship by seeming to be an unintelligent animal, but the alien exposes himself by his natural tendency to drain other organisms of their phosphorous content. The predator kills several of the spacemen but they eventually exterminate him and promise to do the same to his race.

Such a borrowing may be possible. But, given that Bixby's monster hails from the planet Mars-- albeit Mars in a "futuristic 1973," wherein Earth has conquered space-- it's also possible that both Bixby and Van Vogt borrowed from a more august source: H.G. Wells' WAR OF THE WORLDS. In that novel, Wells specifies that his monstrous aliens are a debased species of humanoid that have evolved into their tentacled forms over eons. Further, when they come to Earth, they sustain themselves by draining blood from humans-- a vampiric ability which was a logical antecedent to more specific examples of alien feeding-habits. For that matter, the 1951 film THE THING-- which is an influence named by Bixby in fan-interviews-- also includes the bloodsucking motif, though the alien is not a member of a barbaric race.

Bixby's setup of the Mars-Earth encounter begins with a military mystery. An opening narration by the main character describes Mars as a place "alive with something we came to know only as Death." Back on Earth, an official of the space-force then delivers exposition to a press-conference, detailing how Earth's first expedition to Mars ended in chaos, because one of the men apparently killed all of his crewmates once the ship landed. He adds that soon a second expedition will bring back the accused murderer for court martial.

The scene shifts to Mars, where the second expedition, made up of seven men and two women, lands and takes custody of Edward Carruthers, sole survivor of the first mission. Carruthers is also the only character with a little backstory, in that he is, within this fictional universe, the first man to be launched into space. Bixby's script doesn't exploit this potential, though, sticking with the basics. Carruthers protests that a Martian monster killed the other astronauts. Everyone believes that, because the ship couldn't take off again, Carruthers simply killed his crewmates so that he'd have sole access to the rations. There's even some apparent corroboration when the expedition's commander finds a human skull with a bullet hole in it, though Carruthers has a plausible explanation for this mishap.

Fortunately for Cartuthers' reputation, the same superstrong Martian who killed the other Earthmen stows away aboard the second ship, and begins preying on the crewmen for their precious bodily fluids. The vindication doesn't help Carruthers much, though, because the alien is invulnerable to bullets, gas grenades, and electricity. It's also intelligent, and at one point uses one of the crewmen as a "Judas goat" to draw forth more prey.

Limited though the spaceship set is, director Chan makes use of many inventive visuals in order to keep up maximum tension, and the creature's design is ferocious enough to overcome the inherent problems of a "man in a monster suit" peril. The film's greatest deficit is that all of the characters, including Carruthers, are generally dull, despite Bixby's introduction of mundane small-talk. Most of the time, the characters are in too much physical danger to make characterization an issue. But it's almost painful when Bixby tosses in a trite romantic subplot, wherein young female astronaut switches her affections from the mission-commander to Carruthers. The method for killing the monster is moderately inventive-- asphyxiating the Martian by venting the ship's air-- but it did make me wonder why the gas grenades didn't have any effect on him earlier.

Just so  the audience doesn't forget the earlier "Mars=Death" equivalence at the beginning, it gets repeated in the film's last line as well.




Saturday, November 4, 2017

ONE BODY TOO MANY (1944), HAUNTED HOUSE (1940)



PHENOMENALITY: (1) *uncanny," (2) *naturalistic*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*


ONE BODY TOO MANY is one of a handful of programmers designed to test Jack ("Tin Man") Haley's potential as a lead comic actor. BODY is probably the only one of his comedies that anyone remembers today, but it's because of his supporting co-stars, the inimitable Bela Lugosi. Bela doesn't have a lot to do, as this is another of his "red herring" roles, but the script does provide him with one worthwhile running gag. That's more than most such roles afforded the actor. For good measure, he also gets a scene in which he loftily puts down Haley's character, a frazzled insurance salesman pulled into solving a mystery.

Like many such "old dark house" programmers, this was revolves around the death of a rich patriarch, and what his heirs do to compete for his legacy. The mystery isn't memorable, but at least the film fits well into my "weird families" motif. After the patriarch's death, the heirs have to stick around the mansion while arrangements are made for the late man to buried in a glass coffin so that he can be turned to "look at" the stars at night. The rest of the dead man's family aren't especially weird, and even Lugosi's red-herring isn't as creepy as usual. Watch it for Bela and forget the rest.



HAUNTED HOUSE, as a few IMDB reviewers have pointed out, has no haunted house in it, nor is it metaphenomenal in any way. It's a mild story in which two teenagers in an Andy Hardy sort of town-- a copy body and the niece of a newspaper's editor-- set out to find a murderer. The courts have condemned a nice old man known to the copy boy, so the young man doesn't believe he's guilty, and the niece agrees with him because she likes the copy boy. Not surprisingly, the teens show up their elders.

There is a tiny justification of the title in one scene-- shown above-- wherein the two teens explore the house of the murder victim at night. They half-convince themselves that the house is "haunted" by the victim's ghost, though there's no evidence for this whatsoever. So this is a naturalistic "phantasmal figuration" of the sort I've examined in my review of HAUNTED RANCH.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

SCOOBY DOO AND THE GOBLIN KING (2008)



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

I won't say that the basic idea of the DTV movie SCOOBY DOO AND THE GOBLIN KING is anything special. The worlds of fantasy-film are overflowing with dozens of quest-tales in which protagonists both meek and mighty have to cross into the realm of evil faerie-people to get hold of some arcane object that imperils both the good faerie-people and the mortal world. In that respect, GOBLIN KING is no worse than other run-of-the-mill outings.

Wikipedia notes that this one was one of the few DTV films at the time in which the supernatural was treated "straight" in a Scooby movie, but that observation ignores that different TV shows fluctuated on this subject as well, as seen in the 1985 THIRTEEN GHOSTS OF SCOOBY DOO.

The humor in GOBLIN KING is a little better this time out. This may be because only Shaggy and Scooby are enlisted for the quest of stealing the Goblin King's sceptre before it can fall into the hands of an evil mortal magician. The others-- Fred, Daphne and Velma-- have no mystery to solve and are consequently sidelined. The most interesting thing to happen to them is that, very briefly, the villain transforms them into classic Halloween monsters. I'm not saying that there isn't the usual lame pratfall humor, but at one point both Shaggy and Scooby dress up in drag to infiltrate the goblins' domain. I suspect the animators were referencing the tradition of Bugs Bunny, since the normally cowardly Great Dane even plants a big sloppy kiss on the face of the Goblin King, very much in the Bugs tradition.

Perhaps the video's oddest touch is that while it acknowledges that most of the Scooby Gang's villains have been "outed" as clever villains posing as monsters, Shaggy and Scooby also encounter a bunch of specters in the otherworld who are dead ringers for their old villains. Wikipedia cites most of them, but does not comment on the dead-on imitation of Disney's "Headless Horseman" that might've invited litigation had Disney noticed. The late Lauren Bacall has one of her last voice-roles herein.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

MOON IN SCORPIO (1987)



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


There's a good reason why "sailboat thrillers" never became an established genre. Despite one or two exceptions to the rule, like 1989's DEAD CALM, most of the time it's impossible to do much of anything in the restricted space of a relatively small sea-craft out in the wastes of the ocean.

To complicate things further, director Gary Graver claimed that this seaborne slasher was originally intended to revolve around a supernatural menace. Allegedly the film's producer converted the writer's original story into a slasher-film, and juggled the editing in a manner that made the story confusing. I have no problem crediting this, but even so, it doesn't seem like either Graver or writer Robert Aiken gave the producer much to work with. This is no disappointment regarding Aiken, a small-time actor who'd only scripted one other film (another of Graver's directorial efforts). But Graver sometimes was able to enhance the poor scripts of other films with dynamic cinematography.

MOON IN SCORPIO is another "in media res" film. The Coast Guard comes across a drifting sailboat on which five of the six known occupants are missing or dead. Only one remains to tell the tale: frenetic Linda (Britt Ekland), and the rest of the film is composed of her flashbacks to the horrific incident, occasionally interrupted by talking-head scenes between Linda and a psychiatrist.

Given Graver's story about the producer's interference, I'm not surprised that the identity of the psycho-killer-- a "mystery monster" who escapes an asylum and somehow gets in good with one of the boat's guests-- never makes much sense. But it's evident that the script also devotes no more than cursory interest in the other five characters, although in theory it ought to be their psychological conflicts that heighten the tension once they're all stuck with each other at sea.

I won't say that the bad script of MOON IN SCORPIO is any sort of missed opportunity, but there is a little potential in the opening set-up. Linda has just married Vietnam veteran Allen (John Philip Law), and she knows he's close with two other surviving veterans, Burt and Mark. Yet she doesn't expect Allen to accept an invitation to spend their honeymoon on a sailboat with the two guys and their respective girlfriends. Some chaotic flashback scenes of the three soldiers in Vietnam-- apparently not part of Linda's own flashback-- establish that they committed some mutual sin in Vietnam, a sin which was originally going to unleash a supernatural menace. Even with the monster excised, this plot could have been used to make clearer that the trio's bond stems out of shared guilt, and that this guilt, as well as Allen's general experiences in war, make it difficult for Allen to re-acclimatize to civilian life. But the three men and the three women are all zeros in the personality department, and so even this minor potential goes to waste.


Tuesday, October 24, 2017

GOLDENEYE (1995)



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, sociological*

To get the phenomenology issues out of the way first, there's so much high-tech in GOLDENEYE that I leaned toward considering it to be within the marvelous domain. However, so far as I know, all of the science presented in the film-- EMP weapons, cyber-assaults on banking websites-- were entirely within the realm of possibility in 1995. In addition to one or two James Bond gadgets, such as an exploding pen, the film also sustains an uncanny "outre skill" in the unique assassination-method used by Bond's above-seen secondary opponent, Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen).

Before getting further into the subject of the film's villains, I should focus on the hero. This was the first and best of Pierce Brosnan's four Bond films, and Brosnan does his finest job of coordinating the aspects of toughness and charm that made Connery so appealing in the role. Sole credited writer Michael France never wrote a Bond film before or after this one, and, given that he didn't do terribly well in his later superhero films, such as the 2005 FANTASTIC FOUR, France must have been all but channeling the dry wit of earlier Bond authors, when he scripts "new-classic" Bond lines like "No more foreplay" and "She always did enjoy a good squeeze."

The cyber-terrorist plotline isn't profound but it does its job efficiently, aided in part by the comic performance of Alan Cumming as a master hacker. Since this was the first Bond film to appear following the end of the Soviet Union, I thought the script missed the mark by not having the cyber-attack-- one oriented on destroying Great Britain's economy-- orchestrated by some old Socialist hard-liner, seeking to bring about the fall of capitalist society. Instead, France goes with an Old Friend Bent on Revenge, and the actor playing said villain doesn't have much to work with.

GOLDENEYE is also one of the few Bond films wherein the secondary villain is far more interesting than the main foe, not least because of the former character's name, a clear tip of the hat to Fleming's "Pussy Galore." France's script doesn't give any background to Xenia Onatopp, but director Martin Freeman makes her the embodiment of what might be called a kissing-cousin to that of the "toothed vagina:" i.e., the "crushing vagina." For reasons never revealed, Xenia has tremendous strength in her legs, so that she can crush a man's ribs to jelly while masochistically enjoying any pain her victim wreaks upon her in trying to get free. Freeman's mise-en-scene between Bond and Xenia in a Russian bathhouse is easily the film's best single scene, and probably has been the one most used as a highlight-clip.

The script is clearly influenced by third-wave feminism, though I suspect that this was camouflage on the part of France and Freeeman. In contrast to way filmmakers of the 1980s handled Bond, the first film of the 1990s is marked by lines of extreme political correctness. I didn't mind the film recasting Bond's superior M as a female, but M's lines to Bond, calling him a "sexist, misogynist dinosaur" and a "relic of the Cold War," are tiresomely agenda-driven. Later, the 'good girl" Natalya rants against "boys and their toys" and condemns Bond's womanizing, as does a minor character near the film's opening. Fortunately, politicization doesn't totally emasculate the Bond mythos, not least because Brosnan's Bond successfully seduces the two younger women. It's possible that the filmmakers were using these lines purely with an eye to publicity, seeking to "rebrand" the appeal of Bond for the 1990s. At the same time, one can't overlook that all these third-wave gestures might be cancelled out by the persona of Xenia Onatopp. Not only does she represent a specifically feminine form of power gone bad, she even dies in a situation that resembles the "V" of her own leg-lock.

Monday, October 23, 2017

SIMON SEZ (1999)



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


The only interesting point about SIMON SEZ is that so many people who watched it complained about a lack of plot-- and yet, certainly many of the same people in 1999 who stayed away from Dennis Rodman's second (and so far, last) starring film probably contributed to one of the summer's big successes, THE MUMMY. Neither film has a plot worth mentioning, but if anything, SIMON SEZ makes clear from the get-go that it's nothing but sub-James Bond adventure. It's a lot like the B-films churned out for the DTV market, but with more money spent on it, but its lack of pretension puts it slightly ahead of Rodman's other star-turn, 1997's DOUBLE TEAM.

The story is just another among thousands on the theme of "two factions seek the same McGuffin," in this case, a disc containing specs for constructing a super-weapon. Rodman's character Simon (no last name) is an Interpol agent dragged into a kidnapping case by a former Langley classmate, Nick (a manic Dane Cook, trying to sell himself as the next Jim Carrey). There's lots of shooting-scenes, martial arts scenes, and crazy car-driving scenes, all fulfilling the basic quota for the mindless action-film. Simon, despite his trademark face-jewelry, is the only halfway serious character in the film, while everyone else-- his two aides (dressed like Franciscan monks for some damn reason), the capering villain, and the villain's clown-garbed henchmen-- seems to be competing with Cook to be the nuttiest of the nutty. The villain, for instance, wants to use the super-weapon to blow up the Eiffel Tower simply because he's tired of looking at it.

It's by no means a good film, but I've seen worse films that were overly impressed with their own cleverness. The super-ray-thing definitely edged the film into the domain of the marvelous, though there are other metaphenomenal tropes, in addition to the bad guy's unexplained desire to have his henchmen dress like refugees from A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. Rodman's tech guys also create a mechanical spy-bee, and his car comes equipped with a parasailing parachute.





Friday, October 20, 2017

GAS-S-S-S (1970)



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

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

GAS-S-S-S, a movie with an absurdly long alternate title that I'm not going to type, was the third-to-last film officially directed by Roger Corman. Going by remarks cited on Wikipedia, Corman blamed the failure of GAS-S-S-S at the box office on AIP's cuts and marketing strategy. Thereafter he largely abandoned directing and continued as a film producer because he found that job easier. He defended the "intellectual" content of GAS-S-S-S-S even though he admitted he might have kept keep the film's concepts too well hidden under its humorous content.

The title of GAS-S-S-S is also the source of its only metaphenomenal content. By accident the U.S. military unleashes a poison gas that slays only people over the age 25. Presumably it affects the whole world, though the movie only focuses on a handful of young Americans trying to sort out their place in the new scheme of things. As is often the case with post-disaster films, the characters don't have to deal with piles and piles of dead bodies; it's more as if the gas has simply erased the older generations from existence. The film's focal characters are a romantic couple, male Coel and female Cilia. Their names are so similar that I suspect writer George Armitage was indicating some shared nature, perhaps thinking they had a shared "celestial" (derived from Latin "caelum") nature. Coel and Cilia jaunt about the country, meeting absurdities like golf-playing bikers and a crazed football team. They even run into a man who seems to be a reborn Edgar Allan Poe, riding a motorcycle with a black-clad babe behind him. "Poe" warns that the younger generation is doomed to make the same mistakes as the older one. Even God is a running character, intruding to comment on the action, and apparently bringing back a small coterie of dead people near the film's end. It's an almost plotless "road movie," and despite a number of violent altercations-- including one or two rapes-- the film ends on a note of affirmation, predicting that the young people will defy the odds and forge a more positive world.

GAS-S-S-S's alleged humor usually falls flat. The only joke that works fairly well is one in which a bunch of young guys duel one another with imaginary guns, as if they were kids playing cowboy games, and as they fire at each other, they yell out the names of famous western actors, ending the duel with the portentous name of John Wayne. This seems aimed at liberal-minded kids who rejected the ethos of the American western, but scripter Armitage didn't have the first idea as to how to extend this concept through the rest of the film. Coel and Cilia, along with a few friends they pick up along the way, also encounter other hostile, male-centered societies, like the crazy football team. Yet there's no clear indictment of male privilege. If anything, the aforementioned rape-scenes loosely validate male privilege. In one of the scenes, the girl being abducted yells that one victim yells that she wishes she's taken karate lessons instead of needlepoint, or something like that. In an even stranger scene, a gang of rapists are defeated by a victim who enjoys her assault so much, and so often, that she leaves them all exhausted, and for good measure lectures them on the greater sexual capacities of women. Even in 1970, it's awfully hard to imagine any women in the audience being amused by this jape.

Corman, born in 1926, became an independent film director in 1954. Although he didn't make films with explicit teen appeal until 1957, when he directed both CARNIVAL ROCK and ROCK ALL NIGHT, much of his product became associated, rightly or wrongly, with the teen-centered drive-ins of the decade. Throughout the rest of his career, Corman often catered to what might be loosely termed "the youth market," and even though he was in his early thirties when he produced his first rock-and-roll films, I hypothesize that he took some pride in his ability to suss out what young audiences wanted. Often this came down to the formula called "blood, beasts and breasts," which would also suggest a greater focus on young male, rather than female, viewers. I certainly am not faulting Corman for being a commercial filmmaker, or even for making films that tended to appeal mostly to guys. But his reputed tendency to have loose scripts even during filming, and to inject gratuitous sex-and-violence scenes in haphazard fashion, goes a lot toward explaining why GAS-S-S-S turns out so poorly.

Despite the presence of a comical Creator, there's no sense that Corman and Armitage had any sense of the metaphysical implications of an apocalypse. Thus the only Campbellian function I cite is that of the sociological, as the film is defined almost entirely by a notion of young people wishing that they could remake the world if only all those old people were out of the way.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

IRON MAN (2008), IRON MAN 2 (2010)



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


It's almost ten years since the original IRON MAN movie came out. Though it's far from the perfect superhero movie, I've decided to give a "good" mythicity rating in part because it proved as important to its genre in the 2000s as the Tim Burton BATMAN was in the 1990s. Had Marvel Studios not re-acquired the rights to the character in 2006 and made this film, it's entirely possible that the superhero boom of the early 2000s would have dwindled once the big studios ran through the A-list names like X-Men and Spider-Man. Marvel Studios, having a more intimate investment in the genre, used IRON MAN as a linchpin for introducing the mainstream audience to the pleasures of a superheroic shared universe.

Director Jon Favreau is probably correct in crediting some of the first movie's appeal in its "independent film" approach. In contrast to many of the earlier superhero flicks, IRON MAN pays a great deal of attention to establishing character interactions, giving the actors a lot of material in which to invest themselves, as opposed to emoting in front of a green-screen. Back on my first viewing, I was impressed with the film's updating of Iron Man's origin, as well as the central character's shift away from munitions manufacturing. And yet, now I find myself giving the writers less credit in those departments. For instance, the comic-book origin was strong material to start with. In contrast, it's amazing that the scripters made such a silk purse out of the sow's-ear known as the "Obadiah Stane" arc from an early 1980s run of the IRON MAN comic. It was in these issues that writer Denny O'Neil contrived to give Tony Stark a new competitor who took over his business, one who had very loose ties to Stark's late father. The original arc was tedious and superficial, but it seems to have been integral to the movie-script's interpretation of the Tony Stark character in terms of his "daddy issues."

Those paternal conflicts also play into Stark's early willingness to churn out weapons for the military while making excuses about how his technological advances save other lives. Given that Robert Downey Jr. was in his forties when he essayed the character, that factor makes it difficult to credence Tony Stark being naive about the ways of politics and the manufacture of weapons. Still, one may choose to view Stark as an example of "delayed adulthood," which may be one reason he resonated with Millennials, as against the "jet-set industrialist" model on which Stan Lee based the comic-book Stark. Further, whereas Lee probably meant no irony in having Stark injured while selling his munitions-- after all, in the comic-book origin, the munitions-maker is wounded by a primitive Asian trap-- whereas the scripters of the movie clearly wanted Stark to reap the consequences of his own "death merchant" acts, even if villain Obadiah Stane is directly responsible for the munitions falling into enemy hands.

Downey's irreverent but lovable scapegrace is given greater depth by his two primary supporting characters, secretary Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and military buddy James Rhodes (Terence Howard). Though they're both functioning adults, clearly they can't help enjoying Stark's antics, and so the viewer finds said antics harmless as well. IRON MAN of course cannot escape the deeper sociopolitics of the munitions industry, so in this context it's enough that he does come to see "the bigger stick" as a morally bankrupt course of action. In its place, naturally enough, is the superhero's solution of direct personal action, while his negative image and "bad father" Stane validates Stark's decision by showing his willingness to exploit technology at the cost of humanity.



IRON MAN 2, however, proves somewhat less balanced than the debut film. With the bad father out of the way, the script must substitute an excuse for Stark to spiral into self-indulgence again. It's been stated that the script was indirectly influenced by a well-received story-arc from the comic book, in which Stark became an alcoholic as the result of work-pressures. Favteau's scripters only touched on alcoholic visual motifs, but chose to situate these in terms of an almost manic-depressive concept of Stark, oscillating between moods of invincibility-- seen in the opening scenes where Stark celebrates himself through the medium of a science expo-- and moods of extreme depression. The depression comes about logically enough, as Stark tries to come to terms with the fact that the very device that keeps his heart beating is also slowly poisoning him.

Though alcoholism is not the direct cause, Stark-- who has publicly confessed his identity as Iron Man, and who refuses the military access to his armor-- begins acting like a manic drunk, even when in armor. This plot-line culminates in emnity between Stark and his two major support-characters, which leads to major violence when Rhodes dons a duplicate set or armor, takes the name "War Machine," and battles Iron Man in an attempt to bring him under control. This is one of the few areas in which IRON MAN 2 exceeds the original, since the battle of the armored titans here is far better choreographed than the one in the 2008 film. Of course, by film's end Rhodes and Potts are both on Stark's side again, and the key to the industrialist's reformation lies, ironically enough, in his making contact with his late father, who never seemed to appreciate Stark in life.

Downey provides, if anything, an even more nuanced version of the quirky Stark persona than he did in the first film. However, "for every bit of good there's a little bit of bad," and in this case it's a badly chosen villain. Whiplash, a minor villain from the comics, is pressed into service as a "big bad," a conniving Russian whose father's fortunes were ruined by his interaction with Stark's father. Perhaps Favreau and company might have sold viewers on this character, had they been consistent about pitching him as a master planner from the first. However, they introduce him by having him attack Stark in public, like a hundred other vengeance-seeking villains-- and once that's happened, it's hard to credit such a reckless figure as being the great manipulator seen in the rest of the film. I should add that the script also takes one of Iron Man's better 1970s villains, a master-planner type named Justin Hammer, and downgrades him into a pawn of Whiplash.

Sadly, bad judgments regarding the Armored Avenger's villains extended into IRON MAN 3, to date the last and least of the series. But at least the first film stands as one of the more substantive superhero films, even if there seems little potential for any more solo films with the character in the near future.


Friday, October 13, 2017

TARZANA THE WILD GIRL (1969)



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*


I still remember seeing this film advertised back in The Day, but I never saw it in the theaters. Something Weird preserved it, and I finally saw it via a Youtube download, confirming my suspicion that it would have been a stone bore in a theater, despite the copious upper-body nudity of the title character (played by one Femi Benussi).

Jungle girls tend to fall into two broad (so to speak) categories: the tough babes and the innocent sylphs. The Italian film-industry tended to make the latter, like the slightly earlier LUANA, though I did wonder if the filmmakers would lean more toward the former pattern, since they'd bothered to rip off the name of the seminal "tough jungle hero." However, such was not the case.

TARZANA is an absolutely by-the-numbers exercise in "jungle rot." A little white girl, the offspring of an English lord, is lost in the African jungle. Fifteen years later, the lord hears reports of a mysterious white girl living in the wilds, and suspects that it may be his lost daughter. Thus he funds an expedition to go looking for the mystery lady.

Often expeditions of white adventurers encounter a lot of opposition from both wild animals and hostile native tribes. TARZANA doesn't bother even coming up to the meager level of LUANA's entertainments, as the former depends a lot of stock footage. Thus the film hardly finds time for any battles between the expedition and the local wildlife. What passes for conflict is that, while some of the adventurers sincerely want to bring Tarzana back to civilization and her grandfather, others want to capture the wild girl for exhibition and profit.

Like Luana, Tarzana never speaks, and so it's never clear as to how she survived in the jungle sans help from local natives. She also seems to have acquired some influence over some of the usual animals-- monkeys, elephants-- and though she shows no talent for fighting, she does at one point send some elephants around to stomp the adventurers' camp. Had this scene been the climax of the film, I might have judged it a combative adventure. However, the end-sequence is mostly about two of the good people managing to approach Tarzana-- despite her having been hit with a trank-date by bad guys-- and to remind her of her forgotten past by showing the girl a doll she once owned. It's a paltry form of drama, but said climax, as well as the movie's endless small talk, pushes this one more toward the mythos of the drama.

Benussi's nudity has some appeal, but the film's main interest for me is that I wondered how it was ever exhibited in America, given that the "Tarzan" trademark has been aggressively protected by the heirs of Edgar Rice Burroughs. 

Thursday, October 12, 2017

KUNG FU: EPISODES 19-23 (1974)



PHENOMENALITY: (1) *marvelous,* (2,4) *naturalistic,* (3) *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: (1,2, 4) *fair,* (2) *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, metaphysical, sociological, cosmologicaL*


Up to this point, Caine has only encountered other Chinese martial artists who were either out to kill him for a bounty or who, like Captain Lee of "The Way of Violence Has No Mind," gained Shaolin skills without actually attending the temple. The titular character in "The Passion of Chen Yi" is a fellow priest whom Caine knew during his own temple-service, and there was a bond between them more of animosity than of fellowship.

Nevertheless, Chen Yi is for some reason on Caine's mind at the start of "Passion," to the extent that Caine seeks out an old Chinese man for advice. In the episode's only marvelous touch, the elder informs Caine of exactly where Chen Yi can be found, relying on what the old fellow calls "emanations."

Once Caine arrives at the town where Chen Yi last resided, he learns that the former Shaolin priest has been sentenced to hang for murder in the next few days. Caine remembers that Chen Yi was an arrogant priest, and that he maneuvered Caine into a fight-- which Caine lost-- so that Caine would serve as his go-between, taking messages to an outside mistress. The Shaolin masters find out about Chen Yi's duplicity before Cains becomes enmeshed in the other priest's transgressions, and thus Chen Yi is turned out. But evidently the matter preyed on Caine as an unresolved conflict, and since Caine does not believe that any Shaolin would commit gratuitous murder, he decides to investigate. Having been told that Chen Yi is in the local prison and that no visitor can see him, Caine simply goes through the motions of holding up the local bank-- naturally, without wielding a gun or even harsh words-- and gets himself sentenced to the same prison.

Chen Yi (Soon Teck-Oh) is surprised to see Caine, but he maintains that he committed the murder and is willing to hang for it. Caine then uses his superior skills to escape prison and to continue his investigation. This leads him to Chen Yi's ex-girlfriend Louise and her (perhaps) crippled sister Rita. It's no great revelation to disclose that the girls killed the murder victim and that Chen Y, has chosen to accept death in her place, believing that Louise loves him, when she and Rita really just want a patsy. Caine returns to prison and challenges Chen Yi to a martial arts battle, designed to force the innocent man to leave prison and find out the truth for himself. This time Caine bests the man who beat him earlier, and Chen Yi learns the unhappy truth that his sensuality has once more betrayed him. It's a strong dramatic episode, although the wrap-up is a little too glib about how easily Chen Yi's murder conviction is overturned and the real culprits are condemned in his place.



"Arrogant Dragon" emphasizes drama less than adventure, in Caine's second encounter with the Tong society. The Shaolin seeks another generic Western town, questing after the family of businessman Wu Chang and his daughter Kem. For some reason the script is unusually coy about Caine's purpose, but it's eventually revealed that the priest befriended another Chinese man while working on a railroad. That man perished in a railroad accident, leaving Caine to carry the news to Kem, by whom Kem has conceived an unborn child.

This part of the story was perhaps de-emphasized in order to give more screen time to Wu Chang's situation. Though apparently a respectable businessman, he's actually a member of the local Tong. However, upon learning that his daughter was pregnant, he made plans to desert his post and return to China. One of Wu Chang's rivals finds out and exposes the recalcitrant businessman. Caine intervenes, initially willing to fight the Tong's huge executioner for Wu Chang's freedom. In a rare development, Caine uses Oriental chemistry to avoid a fight-- resorting to an aconite potion to fake Wu Chang's death. But the ploy fails, to the good fortune of viewers, who get to see the hero use his skills on the almost invincible executioner.



I don't remember that I found "The Nature of Evil" to be one of the series' better episodes back in The Day, but now I find it a superior mytholpoeic effort. As the title suggests, it's a meditation on the meaning of evil in the world of KUNG FU. Not surprisingly, the mythos of the series runs counter to Judeo-Chrisitian traditions of simply expelling evil. In the episode's only flashback, Young Caine expatiates to Master Po his impressions of the evil in his own soul, and Po replies that beneficial emotions like pride and joy are impossible without their opposites. The wise man can only confront evil, and choose.

Caine is catching a ride with a wagon-master when he suddenly receives what seems (much more loosely than the psychic episode in "Passion") an impulse to desert his present course and take off in a tangential direction. He's told that the only thing in that direction is a no-account town by the name of Nineveh. Unable to explain his impulse, Caine still seeks out the town with the Biblical name.

Like the Biblical city, this one also has a prophetic figure who has come to excoriate the evil in the community. But the blind preacher Serenity Johnson, last seen in "Dark Angel," has come not to reform the town, but to seek out a particular devil hiding there. Caine soon learns that Serenity's former comrade Sunny Jim was viciously murdered by a hold--up man described as having "skin colored like wax" and "looking like he was hanged, but the hanging didn't take."



For the benefit of the townspeople who are sheltering the evildoer-- albeit only out of fear-- Serenity poses as a fortune-teller, complete with Tarot cards. Serenity's earlier experience as a conman makes it likely that his drawing of convenient cards like "The Devil" and "The Hanged Man" is mere trickery, but the criminal himself-- never given any name, and billed in IMDB as "The Hanged Man"-- seems to have uncanny resources.

For instance, Serenity isn't the only one seeking the criminal; there's also a bounty-hunter named Bascomb. However, because Bascomb is motivated only by money, the Hanged Man subverts him by directing him to a more valuable target: a certain fugitive Shaolin. How the villain gets hold of Caine's wanted poster is not explained, thus furthering the idea that he is in a metaphorical sense the incarnation of the evil in all men, and thus has access to all their dark deeds.

Caine bests the bounty hunter easily enough, and is finally given guidance to his quarry by a young woman who has been in bondage-- not entirely unwilling-- to the evildoer. The Hanged Man-- played with a purposefully stolid lack of affect by Morgan Woodward-- reveals that he only killed Sunny Jim because killing helps the villain forget the pain of his own near-execution. Fittingly, for a villain who is symbolically the risen dead, he battles Caine in the town's soap-factory, and suffers a second death by both "fire" and "water" when the villain plunges into a boiling soap-vat.

"The Nature of Evil" would have made a good closing episode for the season, but for whatever reason, the producers chose to conclude with a two-part episode-- #22 and #23, both titled "The Cenotaph."



This episode is focused on two forms of unconventional romance. In the series' longest "flashback sequence" to date. the viewer sees Adolescent Caine experience his first love-affair. Circumstances force him to protect Mayli Ho (Nancy Kwan), one of the emperor's concubines, from a bandit-leader. The bandit is not much of a threat, but he forces the priest and the concubine to remain in each other's company long enough that they fall for one another. Naturally, in due time they conclude that their social stations are too far apart for them to live together. This part of the story is adequate, notable for featuring Nancy Kwan at the height of her short-lived stardom.

The contemporary story forces Caine to become the frequently-bemused protector of a wild-bearded mountain man, McBurney. The man hijacks a reinforced stagecoach not for profit, but so that he can use it to transport a huge wooden box. What's in the box? McBurney claims it's his wife, but he can't  keep straight whether she's alive or not. Caine is not the only one curious as to the box's contents: so are a couple of ratty thieves, the U.S, cavalry, and a bunch of Indians who may or may not be related to the person in the box. There's an involved backstory about McBurney's relationship to his wife and the circumstances of her (alleged) death. It's a moderately amusing episode if one is in the mood for broad comedy, but it doesn't jibe very well with the overall tone of the season. It feels like the star and the producers just decided to have fun instead of projecting their usual portentousness.



Wednesday, October 11, 2017

KUNG FU: EPISODES 16-18 (1974)



PHENOMENALITY: (1) *naturalistic,* (2,3) *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical, sociological*


The episode-title "In Uncertain Bondage" recalls Somerset Maugham's famous book-title, OF HUMAN BONDAGE. Maugham's idea of bondage, however, involved a form of romantic enthrallment, while the TV show is more concerned with the way people naturally bond with one another when social strictures are set aside.

Once again a stagecoach serves as a medium to link the wandering priest with the destinies of tormented people in the Old West. This stage contains a rich young Southern woman Dora Burnham and her entourage: Tait, a former Southern officer set to guard her on her way to see a doctor for her weak heart, and Jenny and Seth, both former slaves who grew up with Dora but who now work as paid servants. Dora has a heart episode when Caine is present, and he uses Eastern medicine to help her through it. The Shaolin 's good deed is rewarded with captivity, for Dora's three companions have conspired to hold her for a ransom from her wealthy father. (How any Southerner held to any wealth following the Civil War is any viewer's guess.) The kidnappers abduct Caine as well, since they want to keep Dora alive to write a ransom note.

However, Dora, full of Southern pride and scandalized that her own maid betrayed her, won't write the note. Tait has the solution, for their hideout happens to be adjacent to a dank, dry well. He drops both Dora and Caine into the well and waits for Dora to surrender, counting on Caine to keep her well enough to suffer in the cold well.

Once Dora is alone with Caine, it's clear that she expects him to be her servant, due to the difference in their social stations. Caine does serve her, but not for that reason. His flashbacks make clear that he once experienced a reversal of his usual expectations, when Master Kan volunteered to switch places with him and become servant to his student. This "teaching moment" brought Caine an understanding of the need to provide service not because of stations, but out of empathy. Dora then gets her own lesson in empathy when Caine falls ill. Dora must tend him simply because he's a human being in distress, and she writes the ransom note to save Caine was well. Caine doesn't become too sick to fulfill his role of hero, though. After Tait gets his ransom note, he plans to kill both Dora and Caine once he gets the money. In the tradition of an officer, he tries to slay Caine with a saber, and Caine naturally manages to outfight him with nothing more than a convenient stick.

Jenny and Seth are supporting characters, and as such are not explored in depth. However, it's refreshing that Jenny rejects categorically Dora's expectation that she owes the highborn woman any loyalty just because she's been obliged to serve Dora, both as slave and paid servant. When Jenny protests Tait's decision to kill Jenny's former mistress, Jenny protests not out of some jejune sentimentality toward her former mistress, but simply because Jenny has a distaste for killing.

The metaphors present in the title "Night of the Owls, Day of the Doves" prove more than a little strained. Once again Caine stumbles across a dead man who has left behind his will, and the priest dutifully delivers the document to its destination. The will assigns valuable property to a group of "soiled doves," as the script calls them, simply because the ladies ran the dead man's favorite cathouse. However, there's a local bigwig who wants to acquire the property without paying much for it, and he happens, for obscure reasons, to run a group of vigilantes who dress up in Klan-like robes, but with "owlish" motifs.

The script for "Owls," having offered the contrast between virtuous harlots and respectable gentlemen with secret vices, does almost nothing with it. The ladies are thrilled with their windfall, except for one Chinese girl, Cinnamon, who nurses some animosity toward Shaolin priests. Though Caine becomes unusually absorbed in the problems of almost everyone he encounters, he doesn't seem to want to help the prostitutes fight off the vigilantes. Then Cinnamon reveals that the reason she's a prostitute is that she was sold to a Chinese cathouse so that her brother could buy his way into a Shaolin temple. This is apparently enough for Caine to rouse himself and put paid to the Owls in short order.

"Crossties" is another political opus. Caine is stuck in the middle between a railroad company, policed by ruthless Pinkerton detectives, and a group of farmers displaced by the railroad, who have launched a series of destructive raids on the trains. The farmers, led by a man named Youngblood, are presented as entirely sympathetic, while the Pinkertons, led by the fanatical Edwards, have become so repressive that even the railroad professes doubts about their methods. (Harrison Ford has a small role as the railroad's representative, offering the possibility of amnesty for the farmers.) Edwards-- whom Youngblood tags as a man who "don't care about dyin'"-- seeks to destroy the farmers before this can happen, and that means destroying Caine as well. While Edwards is a lackluster villain, he does manage to force Caine to take a beating from his henchmen by threatening an innocent. The fight between Caine and the Pinkertons includes a scene in which Caine, after thrashing about six men, breaks through a barn door shut with a bar across it, another of his more superhuman feats.


Tuesday, October 10, 2017

KUNG FU: EPISODES 13-15 (1974)



PHENOMENALITY: (1) *uncanny," (2,3)*naturalistic*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*


LIke "The Soldier," "Empty Pages from a Dead Book" involves a man who's become a prisoner of parental influences, though "Pages" succeeds in evoking a deeper sense of human tragedy.

While walking toward the next town, Caine encounters a friendly fellow, Bart Fisher, and they exchange pleasantries. Along comes Texas Ranger Clyde McNelly, who holds a gun on Fisher, claiming that he's a wanted outlaw. Fisher proclaims his innocence but makes the mistake (he says) of reaching for his canteen. McNelly shoots Fisher in the arm, and then takes him into town for treatment before taking him back to Texas justice. Caine, though not really involved, tags along.

The local judge is not so sanguine about McNelly's crusade. Not only does he assert that the Ranger is out of his jurisdiction, the judge also pardoned Fisher for earlier crimes, meaning that McNelly shot a respectable citizen. McNelly protests that Fisher's name is written in the book of wanted criminals bequeathed to the Ranger by his late father, a list McNelly is determined to bring to justice. But McNelly's book cuts no ice with the judge, who takes away McNelly's badge.

Caine, the uninvolved bystander, listens as McNelly rants to him about his need to carry on his father's duties. Perhaps Caine, who barely knew his own father, is fascinated by the spectacle of man having submerged his entire identity into his father's mission. Fisher, despite having been exonerated, still resents having been shot, and he whips up a bunch of friends to beat down the former Ranger. Caine comes to the defense of the badly outnumbered victim, trouncing most of the men. One of the attackers, Fisher's brother, climbs up the side of the building, trying to recover a pistol flung up there  by Caine. The brother falls and breaks his neck. At an inquest Fisher gives testimony to make it sound like Caine and McNelly caused his brother's death, so the judge orders them locked up for a trial. Caine, though he was willing to submit to an unjust sentence in "Alethia," decides not to stay, and performs one of his more superheroic feats by simply kicking open the metal door of the cell. He and McNelly flee justice, with much aggrieved talk from McNelly, who still considers himself an avatar of the law. A sheriff on horseback overtakes them. McNelly spooks the lawman;s horse, which results in the man being thrown and injured. For the first time McNelly knows what it means to be a fugitive getting in too deep, but he accedes to Caine's wish to take the hurt man back to town for medical attention. The judge decides that guilty men would never do this, and releases them. McNelly takes his leave of Caine, having realized that a slavish devotion to his father's legacy is no legacy worth leaving.

"Pages" is as good as any of the first-season episodes at conjuring the sense of human tragedy. Even Bart Fisher has a tragic moment, mourning the loss of his brother through his own actions. In contrast, "A Dream Within a Dream," despite good sets and a number of Hollywood heavies, is a rote mystery-story, that wouldn't have been out of place in a Charlie Chan movie.

Caine walks through a forest, and beholds a man hanging by the neck. Before the Shaolin can investigation, an unseen assailant shoots Caine. The bullet only grazes the priest's skull, and when he comes to, he's being cared for by Alex, the town's statue-maker (John Drew Barrymore). Caine tells Alex, and later other citizens of the town, what he saw in the forest. Caine's description of the hanged man matches that of the town's leading citizen. However, when the sheriff investigates the site, there's no sign of a body.

Numerous red herrings are trotted out, and Caine makes a stab at solving the mystery, even though he has no real reason to do so, beyond finding out who shot him. The solution is pretty contrived, and so are Caine's flashbacks, which at one point swipe from the Irish poet W.B. Years  The episode does boast a strong performance from maverick actor Barrymore, whose family grew up alongside that of the Carradines, but "Dream" is otherwise unremarkable.

LIke "The Tong," we see the theme of Shaolin self-defense techniques perverted to criminal ends in "The Way of Violence Has No Mind." Caine's minding his own business in the wild, when a stagecoach comes along. The guards aboard the coach immediately accuse Caine of being part of a gang of desperadoes, because it's known (even though the bandits go around masked) are all Chinese men. Then the real bandits arrive, rob the stage, and liberate Caine from his accusers. The masks worn by the hold-up men don't really seem to serve any purpose except to surprise Caine when he learns that all of the men are of his own nationality. Caine also learns, before he takes his leave, that the leader, Captain Lee, was trained in the Shaolin arts by a renegade priest, and that he uses his skills to loot the white men who have been keeping his people down

Though initially Caine seems willing to let the bandits go their way, eventually he's drawn into conflict with them again, arguing that their way of violence "has no mind" and can only end badly. Most of Lee's men are willing to give themselves up to the law, but naturally Lee is not, and so he and Caine must fight. It's a well-staged battle, one of the few that Caine does not decisively win, making it possible for Lee to do the right thing on his own. It's a better episode than "Dream Within a Dream," but nothing special.



Monday, October 2, 2017

KUNG FU; EPISODES 10-12 (1973-74)



PHENOMENALITY: *naturalistic*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical, sociological*

"Is it not good for the body to do the best it can and so give pleasure to you for doing something well?"

"The Hoots" touches on one of the essential elements of the KUNG FU mythos: the opposition between religion's search for peace and the secular world's search for security, usually in the form of monetary acquisition. Caine's particular search is influenced by the practical side of the Taoist ethos: seeking an internal peace but capable of using violence either for self-defense or for the defense of others.

In this episode, Caine falls in with a group of Hutterites-- nicknamed "Hoots" by the people of the town neighboring the Hoots' sheep-ranch. The group's elder, Otto Schultz, is a symbolic father to his fellows, but his faith emphasizes extreme pacifism in the face of all threats. Caine learns that in the past the group has simply moved away whenever they faced any opposition, and that once again the Hutterites are in peril, as local cattle-ranchers seek to run them off their land. A younger Hutterite, Paul Klempt, hopes to reach out to the townsfolk and create a rapprochment, but he's met with callous indifference and assault. However, the willful assault gets the sheriff on the side of the Hoots, so that he begins increasing protection for the religious minority. Naturally, the nasty cattle-ranchers won't give up that easily, and Caine ends up defending the men who won't defend themselves.

In the end, it's made clear that Schultz's extreme refusal of violence wreaks a sort of violence upon his own flock, and that he has over the years become addicted to suffering. The quote above arises when Schultz objects to Caine singing a work-song as he labors on the ranch, for Schultz that it is suffering that ennobles work. Caine makes it clear to the audience, if not all of the Hutterites, that it's more important to live life to its fullest.

"The Elixir" addresses the problem of being caught up in one's desires, even for those who seek to manipulate the desire of others. At the same time Caine arrives in a small town, so does a medicine-show wagon run by two partners: hunchbacked Niebo, who serves as the salesman for a worthless elixit, and beauteous Theodora, who performs an exotic dance in order to entice customers. However, the local louts want to see a few more veils dropped, so Caine intervenes. The sheriff runs them all out of town,

Theodora is the boss of the operation, in large part because Niebo is hopelessly in love with her. The young woman has no compunctions against selling a false elixir made out of river-water and leaves, and explains to Caine that as a woman she must do whatever she can to get ahead in a man's world. In addition, she isn't giving Caine a lift purely out of charity. Theodora has in the past used her beauty to enthrall men, but one of her ex-suitors, Grogan, has been pursuing the wagon for some time. Theodora hopes to draft Caine as a protector.

It's plain that even though Theodora talks a good game about the importance of freedom, she doesn't see it as a two-way street. "She wants only to have her freedom," says Niebo to Caine, "and I only want to be her slave." Although Caine does obligingly defend Theodora from Grogan, he changes her life by making her realize that she has feelings for her assistant that go beyond her own benefit. One of the wisdom-nuggets from the flashback is the admonition to "bind yourself to nothing, seek harmony in all," which sums up the theme of the episode.

"The Gunman" doesn't directly concern itself with the topic of war. But there's a hint of an anti-war sentiment when the title character, a gunfighter named White, states that his "edge" comes from his ability to divorce himself from the violence he wreaks: "I don't see people when I shoot." Once again, with very little justification, Caine becomes involved with White's problems, as the wanted man travels to the home of widow Nedra, who was married to a late friend of White's. White and Nedra begin to fall for one another, but Nedra also has an unwanted suitor hanging around. Caine is not able to prevent the man's death, though his belief in the sanctity of life encourages him to tell White not to kill the scuzzy bounty hunter on his trail. White is so influenced by Caine's ethics that when a posse comes to apprehend him, he "loses his edge," and dies. It's a weak episode, though boosted somewhat by Young Caine's exchange with Master Po. In this, Caine is confused about the idea of love being non-conditional, and Po sardonically comments, "Do you seek love, or barter?"



Thursday, September 28, 2017

THE TERROR OF THE TONGS (1961)




PHENOMENALITY: *naturalistic*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*


TERROR OF THE TONGS is reputedly a remake of Hammer's STRANGLERS OF BOMBAY, which I have not seen, and which concerned the Thuggee in British India rather than the Tong organization in British Hong Kong circa 1910. The film's main significance to metaphenomenal film-fans is that, though TERROR is not a metaphenomenal film itself, it anticipates British actor Christopher Lee's "yellowface" performance as Fu Manchu, beginning with 1965's THE FACE OF FU MANCHU. Lee's villain here may have been loosely influenced by the example of Fu Manchu in various media, but he lacks the devil-doctor's formidable character, and suffers from a risible name that just happens to be the same as that of several modern restaurants: "Chung King."

The film opens by illustrating the Tong's power in Hong Kong, which local police and civic organizations are powerless to combat. The Tong men usually keep their activities of vice and drug-smuggling confined to their fellow Asians, but two of Chung King's men make the mistake of killing the daughter of a prominent, two-fisted British seaman, Captain Sale. Sale then rushes from pillar to post like an early version of TAKEN's Liam Neeson, seeking to find his daughter's murderers, and the Tong proves incompetent to kill him. Eventually Chung King's men manage to take Sale prisoner, which leads to the film's one memorable line, "Have you ever had your bones scraped, Captain?" Sure enough, Chung King's torturer demonstrates the technique of inserting a blade into Sale's flesh in order to affect the bone beneath. Sale only survives because an agent opposed to the Tong-- one of the civic organizations I mentioned-- saves his life. Eventually there's a public confrontation between
Sale and a Tong killer, and Sale's victory backfires on Chung King's organization, as the tyrannized populace storms the Tong HQ and the villain commits suicide, thus avenging Sale's daughter.

The script by Jimmy Sangster is reasonably tight, and though most of the Asians are played by British actors, there's a saving grace in the fact that the only reason Sale makes so much progress is because he's given covert aid by the anti-Tong group. Thus, this isn't entirely a "white savior" film, but one in which he acts more as a catalyst to help the Chinese people save themselves. On the minus side, a hot young Chinese woman named Lee attaches herself to Sale, and it's implied that she gives him some romantic recompense for helping free her from her Tong slavemaster. There's no romance as such between the characters of Lee and Sale, and it may be fairly argued that Lee is just a standard "hot Asian babe" fantasy. I don't always object to such fantasies, but here its presence highlights the superficiality of the characters.

The Tong registers as a "weird society," and their one use of torture-- later quoted in 1986's ARMED RESPONSE-- qualifies as a "bizarre crime." But both of these are entirely naturalistic in tone.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

DINOTOPIA: QUEST FOR THE RUBY SUNSTONE (2005), HAPPILY N'EVER AFTER (2007), FREDDIE AS FRO 7 (1992)



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


These feature-length cartoons were designed for undemanding kids who would be willing to view direct-to-video discs rather than re-watching the latest Disney/Pixar. I've no delusions that anyone would use my reviews to help them suss out what their kids should watch: my interest in visiting these one-shot wonders is purely to see if any of them conform to my theory of the combative mode.

I've never read any of the juvenile adventure-books in the DINOTOPIA series, but found the television adaptations to be subcombative in nature. I didn't really expect that DINOTOPIA: QUEST FOR THE RUBY SUNSTONE would be any different, even though it discarded any of the regular characters and tried to launch its own franchise (possibly inspired by elements of the books and its video games). Nevertheless, since it featured Malcolm McDowell voicing the above-seen villain "Ogthar," I felt SUNSTONE deserved a look.

Twelve-year old orphan "Kex" (odd name for the hero) tries to escape his lot at the orphanage by stowing aboard a ship, but he's washed overboard. The good news is that he ends up on a remote island, Dinotopia. It's a mark of the movie's superficiality that when he meets the first of several talking anthropomorphic dinosaurs, he's amazed more by the survival of dinosaurs than by the fact that they can talk. The first one he meets is a little female triceratops named "26." She gives Kex a guided tour of the incredible island, whose existence is masked from humanity by magical "sunstones." Kex also meets a 12-year old girl named Mara, who gives him the sort of attitude that would connote a romantic hookup were we dealing with older kids.

The most interesting character is indeed nasty Ogthar, a former tyrant resurrected by two bumbling comic-relief dinos. Though he, like a lot of characters, uses too much contemporary slang for my taste, Ogthar at least takes his villain duties seriously, and proceeds to go after the prize of the Ruby Sunstone.

None of the principals-- Kex, Mara, or 26-- are the least bit formidable, though they gain the help of an ally, a talking T-Rex, when they do him an "Androcles and the Lion" favor. The T-Rex provides a brief battle when it takes on a scorpion-shaped vehicle driven by Ogthar, but this battle is not the climax of the story. Rather, Ogthar chases 26 up the side of a volcano, trying to obtain the sunstone, and the quakes on the volcano drop both of them into the lava. 26 gets a last-minute save, while Ogthar manages to activate some spiffy armor that perhaps saves him from the molten rock. He probably would have come back had the video sold well. Certainly, had there been any more of these bland adventures, Ogthar probably would have still been the best element.



HAPPILY N'EVER AFTER hasn't even got a good central villain to offset its bland heroes, though another big name, Sigourney Weaver, is drafted for the voice-work. In "Fairy Tale Land," where apparently the stories of the folklore-inhabitants repeat themselves over and over, Freida, evil stepmother to Cinderella, gets hold of a magical wand owned by the wizard who rules the land. Since Freida is sick of seeing heroes and heroines get their just desserts, she decides she'll use her new powers to put all the evildoers of Fairy Tale Land in charge, and reduce the heroes and heroines-- not least her stepdaughrer Cinderella-- into disarray.

Frieda isn't the only thing wanting to rewrite the old stories. Apparently, during all the times that Cinderella has been getting hooked up with the Prince, there's a kitchen-boy named "Rick" who's been Cinderella's best friend, and the guy she always overlooks. Because of the chaos Frieda wreaks, Rick finally gets a chanced to make a play for the heroine.

Though the setup in Fairy Tale Land makes no real sense, there are a couple of decent moments. I'm a bit of a sucker for convocations of famous villains, so I like seeing Freida bring together all the giants and ogres who usually lose out. (Admittedly, the SHREK series did the same thing, and better.) The only good designs are the Seven Dwarves, who are made into jovial hicks. However, Rick, Cinderella, and the evil stepmother are tedious in the extreme. The film's so predictable that the moment I knew that Sarah Michelle Gellar voiced Cinderella, I thought, "I bet she gets a girl-power moment where she decks the villain." Sure enough, she does-- and even that tiny payoff was boring.



Yet both of these films have at least a predictable consistency, next to 1992's FREDDIE AS F.R.O.7.
This British kiddie-cartoon sports a wealth of well-known voice-actors-- Ben Kingsley, Billie Whitelaw and Brian Blessed-- but the script, co-written by director Jon Aceveski, is lame beyond words.

The "F.R.O.7" of the title is an incoherent play on both the word "frog" and "James Bond, 007," because it features what is presumably the world's only secret-agent frog. Aceveski devotes a third of the film building up the idea of how "Freddie" became a humanoid frog, though nothing is said about how he managed to become a French secret agent in a world where he's the only anthropomorphic being. But no "Howard the Duck" alienation for Freddie the Frog; he's a walking caricature of "the French Romeo," making passes at a lady secret agent while he gets his new assignment. It seems a dictator, El Supremo, has been stealing national monuments for some nefarious purpose, so Freddie and a couple of human agents are assigned to take the evildoer down. Perhaps to justify his secret-agent status, Freddie is actually seen fighting with the villains a few times, combining kung fu with frog-fu (taking really big leaps high in the air).

Like the other features covered here, FREDDIE should be relentlessly unfunny to anyone but a really young kid who's never heard any of the jokes before. That said, a really young kid probably wouldn't appreciate the film's main joke: that Freddie is a "frog" not only by virtue of his green skin, but also because he's French. "Frog," "frog-eaters"-- get it? The oddest thing in FREDDIE is as follows: he gets turned into a frog by his sorceress-aunt back in medieval times. Centuries later, Freddie "magicks" himself into the form of a humanized frog, and somehow escapes the perils of anti-frog prejudice in order to become an agent of the French secret service. Finally, he learns that his sorceress-aunt is still alive, partnered with El  Supremo--and though Freddie gets even with his aunt by foiling her plot, never once does he consider getting her to reverse her spell and make him human again.

Maybe, as Kermit memorably said, "it ain't easy bein' green." But if that's not really the way you were born, and you got the chance to stop being green-- why wouldn't that be the first thing on your mind?

NOTE: Wikipedia speculates that, had there been a sequel to the flop frog-flick, the hero might have confronted his aunt again and been restored to humanity. Still, it's idiotic that, in Freddie's only outing, the idea of re-humanization doesn't even occur to him.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

SATURDAY THE 14TH (1981), SATURDAY THE 14TH STRIKES BACK (1988)




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

I suspect that SATURDAY THE 14TH was already in production as a standard monster-mash comedy before the fortuitous success of FRIDAY THE 13TH, and that said success prompted the oh-so-humorous title, since nothing about the film even slightly resembles the famous slasher-flick.

A haunted house is bequeathed to the family of clueless yuppies John and Mary and their two kids. However, it's haunted not by ghosts but by a Lovecraftian "Book of Evil," which starts causing weird things to happen (for one thing, the television set plays "the Twilight Zone" all the time.") Monstrous apparitions start appearing, some of which choose to model themselves on then-recent pop culture. For instance, a shark-like thing, complete with "Jaws" theme, shows up in the bathtub of John and Mary's teenaged daughter, while a gill-man resembling the Creature from the Black Lagoon attacks a plumber. Meanwhile, outside the house a married vampire couple, Waldemar and Yolanda, conspire to get into the house and find the book for themselves. Waldemar even vampirizes Mary, which leads to some jealousy on the part of Yolanda. So many weird things happen that the two yuppies welcome the appearance of supernatural sleuth Van Helsing-- but it turns out that the vampire-hunter has his own designs on the Book of Evil. At the climax Van Helsing and the two vampires unleash great supernatural energies upon each other, accompanied by making silly faces at the same time. (Since none of them are the movie's focal characters, SATURDAY does not qualify as a combative movie.) 

The first SATURDAY, like its sequel, was both written and directed by Howard R. Cohen, who did a lot of schlock pictures, the best being IMO 1985's BARBARIAN QUEEN. Both films were also produced for Roger Corman's company New World Pictures by Corman's wife Julie, and thus both are full of cheapjack effects and much recycled footage. John and Mary are essayed by husband-and-wife team Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss, and it may be that SATURDAY was greenlighted in response to Benjamin's participation in 1979's successful LOVE AT FIRST BITE. Certainly both Benjamin and Prentiss attempt some dry humor comparable to that of FIRST BITE, but Cohen's script is incompetent to pull off anything but the most obvious horror-comedy schtick. Since the works of Lovecraft had yet to be mined to good cinematic effect in 1980s flicks like REANIMATOR and FROM BEYOND, I theorize that Cohen may have used the "evil book" routine in homage to Roger Corman's 1963 HAUNTED PALACE, which also involved a family moving into a creepy old place and encountering a book of evil spells. Only Severn Darden (as Van Helsing) and Jeffrey Tambor (Waldemar) do moderately well delivering the stupid dialogue.



Surprisingly, seven years later the same producer and writer-director assembled for SATURDAY THE 14TH STRIKES BACK, and though there were no overt connections to the first film, again the plot concerned a family moving into a house bequeathed by a relative.  However, this time the focus is not on two clueless parents-- this time out, played by genre vets Avery Schreiber and Patty McCormack-- but on their teenaged son Eddie (Jason Presson). Eddie's existence, in fact, gives the title more relevance than it had the first time, for Saturday the 14th is his impending 18th birthday. Eddie is only slightly younger than his teenaged sister, but he feels generally marginalized and out of touch with his family, except for his seemingly dim grandfather, Gramps (Ray Walston).

Then weird things happen and monsters again start roaming the halls. There's no book responsible, though. Rather, there's a crack under the house that unleashes spirits. Eighteen years ago the same crack unleashed a magical mist, and this was the method by which a "dark force" (Satan, I assume) marked Eddie to inherit unlimited powers on his eighteenth birthday. No one else sees the monsters, particularly sexy vampiress Charlene and Kharis, an Egyptian high priest who looks like John Carradine but talks like Boris Karloff. Moreover, the rest of the family, except Gramps, began to act strangely, at one point turning on Eddie and trying to kill him. By the next day, though, they go back to being oblivious.

The mystic contagion even spreads outside the house, affecting Eddie's teacher (who launches into a song in a miniature golf park; one of three or four bad production numbers). Kharis and Charlene keep working on Eddie, trying to make him use his incipient powers for evil. STRIKES BACK thus has a slightly better core idea than its predecessor, rooted in the idea of the "monster-nerd" as a potential Faust, willing to indulge in fantasies of omnipotence. The idea fails partly because Eddie may be the most boring character ever to undergo temptation. When the spirits ask him what he wants to do with his power, the first thing that comes to his mind is to one-up his bossy sister. (The sister fusses so often about Eddie going into her room that I thought this might go the way of AMITYVILLE II, but Eddie's too boring to contemplate even comical incest.) Moreover, Presson has a really annoying whiny voice, so it's hard to identity with him. Walston gives the film a boost when it's revealed that he's not anyone's grandpa, but a mystic protector who makes it possible for Eddie to fight the force of darkness. At the climax, there's sort of a psychic struggle between Eddie and the Dark One, but it consists mostly of stock footage from earlier Corman films, so one could hardly call it any sort of "combat." Basically, Eddie just wishes things back to normal. We may be thankful that the conclusion was so underwhelming, for it may have helped put an end to any further entries in this lame series.