Tuesday, December 31, 2013
MYTHICITY: (1) *fair,* (2) *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological, psychological, metaphysical*
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
I haven't seen the three sequels that followed 1992's UNIVERSAL SOLDIER, but the fifth and sixth installments in the series don't reference any of the events in those films-- particularly since Wikipedia notes that the fourth in the series is now considered "out of continuity." In contrast to, say, the ALIENS series, it would be easy to see either REGENERATION or DAY OF RECKONING as direct sequels to the very first film.
This relative independence would seem to be the creative choice of John Hyams, who directed the 2009 film from a script by Victor Ostrovsky. Following this, Hyams and two other writers supplied the screenplay for the 2012 SOLDIER.
While Hyams has yet to make a "big" film that has vaulted him to critical attention, I am impressed that he has developed some excellent mise-en-scene on a film-series whose original incarnation was, to be sure, popcorn entertainment at best. In contrast to many "MTV generation" directors who rely on flashy visuals but show themselves to be incompetent in allowing the actors' talents to shine, Hyams manages to show both hero Van Damme and villain Lundgren to good effect as actors as well as martial masters of mayhem. Yet at no time does REGENERATION fail to provide the kickass thrills that most fans of UNIVERSAL SOLDIER have come to expect.
The only downside of the lively script is that it begins with a setup that proves to be a mere excuse to set another batch of the undead, hyper-accelerated soldiers-- "Unisols" for short-- into action. A group of Russian terrorists takes control of the Chernobyl nuclear plant, threatening to set off a bomb, and thus a nuclear disaster, in order to have their fellows freed from prison. When counter-terrorist forces-- including soldiers from the United States-- attack Chernobyl, they learn that the terrorist leader has the new improved version of a Unisol working for him, revived by a rogue scientist. After the ordinary soldiers are repelled, America sends four of its old-style Unisols as well, but the New-Coke Unisol slaughters them as well.
Naturally, the military next turns to its favorite resurrected grunt, Luc Devereaux (Van Damme). Though Devereaux is still receiving psychiatric counseling for his anger issues, he's sent to the Ukraine to do his duty. As it happens, rogue scientist Colin isn't entirely on board with the terrorists' aims: after they've gained their concessions, Colin reveals that he has a second Unisol working for him-- none other than the clone of Devereaux's old opponent Andrew Scott (Lundgren). But Colin-- almost certainly named for Colin Clive, the first actor to play Doctor Frankenstein in a sound film-- learns the hard way that it's a perilous business messing around with things that should stay dead.
Suffice to say that though Devereaux does have some battles with terrorists when he makes the scene, the film's main concern is to depict yet another epic battle between the Good Soldier and the Bad Soldier. Oddly, even though it's a much longer battle than the one Roland Emmerich directed in 1992, and even though Hyams is a better director than Emmerich, Hyams doesn't quite manage to one-up the original in this regard. Nevertheless, it's a better than average grudge-brawl, with the usual expected winner. The introduction of clone technology in this film goes on to have repercussions for the following installment in the series.
DAY OF RECKONING is a very different animal from REGENERATION, to the extent that I could almost label it by the Fryean term "irony." When I've used this term for other film-reviews, as with last summer's LONE RANGER film, I mean it to describe those narratives where the protagonists, even if they seem to triumph, do so in a world bereft of positive meaning. RECKONING doesn't quite descend to that level, but it comes close.
One thing that separates RECKONING from the other "Unisol" films I've seen is that the action-spectacles, while no less kickass, don't have the rather removed feel common to most adventure-films of this type. Director Hyams orchestrates the bloody violence in such way that pain really looks like it hurts, rather than being some minor inconvenience that a properly stoic hero can throw off.
RECKONING also plunges into the deep end of the conceptual pool by debuting a new protagonist, never given any name but "John" (Scott Adkins). The film opens with a horrific home-invasion scenario, wherein John's family is killed before his eyes by masked assassins, one of whom appears to be Luc Devereaux (again, Van Damme). The audience does not initially see John, for Hyams shows him reacting to the violence as if his eyes were one with the lens of the camera. Nine months later, John awakens from a coma in a hospital, and slowly regains use of his limbs and faculties. He remains something of a blank slate during this time. An official working for the government gives John some info about Devereaux's career-- and if it seems odd that an operative would divulge such info to a mere civilian, that's because it will be borne out that John isn't any more ordinary than Devereaux.
In short, this time the Unisols have revolted and escaped their handlers, starting their own church out in the boondocks and pledging to take over the country that exploited them. The "Unisol Church of Eventualism" is headed by a reborn-again Andrew Scott (Lundgren again), a clone of the one defeated in REGENERATION. For some reason Luc Devereaux-- or this version of him, since it may not be the original-- has made some common cause with his old enemy.
John tries to ferret the reasons for the murder of his wife and child, only to learn, in time, that he too is a Unisol, and worse, a clone of an original. A previous clone of John was sent to extinguish Scott's organization, to get rid of the rebellious supermen "before they reproduce"-- though all the Unisols are men and none of them seem to be making plans to become baby daddies. The previous clone failed, so the government decided to try a new wrinkle: a clone motivated not by a soldier's loyalty to country, but a father's loyalty to his family.
I don't believe I take much away from RECKONING by blowing this particular spoiler. Hyams's script and direction constantly keeps the viewer on edge with grundgy visuals and inventive lighting-effects, so it should be clear from the get-go that John's initial situation isn't all that it appears to be. In fact, though the operative later tells John that his family never existed, neither John nor the viewer truly knows whether or not this is true, or whether the current version of Devereaux had anything to do with any home invasion or not.
In due time, John the Second does obey the government's will, tracking down Scott and Devereaux to their lair. Though martial-artist actor Adkins is not as well known an action-icon as Van Damme and Lundgren, Hyams' team goes the distance to make his fights with both figures compelling-- and, as I said before, very bloody and painful looking. Perhaps adding insult to injury, Adkins also renders a better acting performance than either Van Damme or Lundgren, and not only in this particular film.
The one thing that keeps John's world from devolving into meaninglessness is that at the end he finds a unique way to one-up the manipulative agency.
Since RECKONING is an installment in an ongoing serial, I don't suppose it's likely to accrue respect for being so different in tone and content. But it deserves to be seen less as a pure action-adventure or more as an "everything you know is wrong" thriller along the lines of John Schlesinger's MARATHON MAN.
Saturday, December 28, 2013
FRYEAN MYTHOS: (1-3) *drama,* (4) *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological, metaphysical*
If there was ever a school for horror villains, the Leprechaun must have been copying answers from Freddy Krueger's paper.
That said, of the four LEPRECHAUN films I recently re-viewed on a 4-disc collection, all but one of them can be watched in a spirit of simplistic "dumb fun," if one happens to be in the mood for flicks about killer leprechauns.
Mark Jones' script for the first film sets the undemanding standard for all the films that follow. The franchise's sole gimmick is an inversion of the genial image of pop-culture leprechauns. In place of merry pranksters who match wits with humans over wishes or pots-of-gold, we have a leprechaun allegedly named "Lubdan"-- though I never heard him so called-- who obsesses over his gold pieces and will kill any trespassers with his reality-altering, "Nightmare on Clover Street" powers. The only consistent plus of these four films is Warwick Davis' boisterous, if scene-chewing, performance as the Leprechaun. The plots are all stupid: human finds gold or some other treasure, leprechaun kills to recover said treasure. Yet I find that Davis's malicious glee wears better than the emoting of a lot of pint-size predators, particularly "Chucky."
The 1993 original begins like a lot of demon/ghost films: someone transgresses on a supernatural thingie's boundaries, and then manages to seal the critter up in a house that innocents will later attempt to live in. Once Lubdan gets free from his place of confinement, he makes life miserable for the people who have moved in, whom he assumes have custody of his missing pot-of-gold.
The script tosses in one motif that has the ring of archaic legend: every time someone tosses shoes at Lubdan, he can't resist picking them up and giving them a shine, because he's a shoemaker at heart. But there's no depth to the motif: it's just there as a stopgap to the Irish evildoer's magical powers. Jones also makes the Leprechaun vulnerable not just to traditional iron, but also to the touch of a four-leaf clover, which seems a little desperate to me. LEPRECHAUN is also slightly noteworthy as the first theatrically released film to star Jennifer Aniston, who might like to forget her performance here. She doesn't come anywhere close to the Hall of Fame for Scream Queens, though she does get one nice scene. As she tries to escape the lethal leprechaun by jumping into a cop car-- one complete with a lepre-killed police officer-- Aniston's character manages to grab a nightstick and poke Lubdan's Irish eye out. But her hunk boyfriend gets the honor of blasting Lubdan back to Kilkarney County-- however temporarily.
LEPRECHAUN 2 comes the closest to creating a mythic mood. It opens in Ireland, a thousand years prior to the present day. Lubdan has somehow managed to enslave a human to his will; a motif which sounds closer in spirit to Christian tales of devilish enthrallment than to Celtic faerie-stories. Lubdan announces to his slave that he intends to marry. He plans to take possession of a particular bonnie young beauty, and in a mood of largesse will even set his slave free. For some reason the leprechaun can take possession of her if she sneezes three times and no one says "God bless her." However, when the slave sees that it is his own daughter Lubdan has selected, he prevents her enslavement by speaking the blessing. Before the leprechaun kills the rebellious slave, the irate imp announces that in a thousand years he will seek one of the slave's descendants. This certainly seems to be the only time the leprechaun ever displays anything resembling patience, but from a mythic standpoint, it does recall stories of descendants tormented by the banes of their ancestors.
However, once the film moves into the present, it's just Freddy Krueger time again, as Lubdan seeks his modern-day bride over the objections of all and sundry. There is one reality-changing death worthy of the NIGHTMARE series: Lubdan mesmerizes a male victim with the image of a nude woman, suckering the fellow into sticking his face into a grinding device. The leprechaun's shoe-fetish is addressed more or less in passing, and there's also a minor meditation on the evils of greed, as the male protagonist's uncle tries to make a deal with the baleful bogtrotter. He of course comes to a bad end. Once again Lubdan is destroyed by film's end. Unlike some serial monsters he never shows any interest in seeking out his former opponents-- possibly because most of the heroes are so forgettable.
LEPRECHAUN 1 and 2 are just simple dumb fun, but LEPRECHAUN 3-- the first direct-to-video installment-- is as dire as dire gets. Through some folderol Lubdan, last seen exploding after the hero shoved a chunk of wrought-iron through his guts, appears in Las Vegas, but magically transformed into a stone statue. This time when he's resurrected, the Leprechaun loses all pretense of being a creature who doesn't know modern ways, as he starts indulging in Freddy-like pop-culture quotes, as when he tells the young protagonist, "Come over to the green side of the Force." The young guy in question gets ahold of one of Lubdan's magic coins, which gives him or anyone else the power to make wishes. Lubdan goes around killing everyone who's come in contact with the coin, usually with very makeshift, unimaginative deaths. The writer of this video-turd apparently couldn't be bothered to think along the lines of leprechaun-stories; any old fantasy was OK with him. At one point Lubdan bites the young dork, and as a result the dork begins to change into a human-sized version of a leprechaun. Leprechauns=werewolves? Who knew? The dork does gain a few magical powers with which he fights the leprechaun, but their combat is not lengthy enough to elevate this film to the combative mode.
For all the comedy lines liberally strewn throughout the first three films, I still consider them essentially *dramas,* in that the viewer in theory should want the leads, no matter how dorky they are, to survive the viridian villain's victimizations. LEPRECHAUN 4, however, plays more fast and loose with the viewer's sensibilities, so that I label it a comedy. It's also a combative comedy, given that there are extensive scenes in which Lubdan matches his malevolent magicks against the high-tech weapons of a group of outer space mercenaries.
Since Part 4 shares the same director and most of the same producers as the execrable Part 3, I have to believe that Part 4 is more tolerable because the writing-team is better. To be sure, even though IN SPACE is more bearable, it's still corny, derivative humor. But at least there's a little life in it, as when the film opens with the space marines preparing to assault an "alien" base and reciting the slogan, "Semper fi! Do or die! Kill kill kill!" The film might be seen as anticipating Jason Voorhees' slightly later journey to outer space, but the real template followed here is the ALIEN franchise.
The backstory makes no sense whatsoever. The viewer only knows that the mercenaries work for a weird cyborg doctor named "Doctor Mittenhand," which is patently a spoof on "Doctor Strangelove," since the actor playing Mittenhand essays a German accent as thick as strudel. The "alien base" is some lair cooked up by Lubdan the Leprechaun, but one never knows what if anything either Mittenhand or the mercenaries know about him. Lubdan-- having shifted back to sex again after making money his obsession in the third film-- has brought to his lair Zarina, princess of the empire of Dominia, in order to woo her. Zarina is repulsed by Lubdan but intrigued by his promises of vast wealth, while for his part Lubdan wants to marry her so that he can kill her father and become the lord of the empire.
The marines break in and manage to blow Lubdan into pieces. However, in a nasty spoof of ALIEN's face-grabber scene, one of the marines pisses on Lubdan's remains-- and the evil elf sends his glittering essence into the man's dick. Cute line from another marine: "I'd give you a round of applause, but I see you already got the clap!" Later, back on the mercenaries' ship, the Leprechaun re- births himself from his "daddy's" member-- not coincidentally, while the marine is trying to have sex. Nevertheless, IN SPACE wisely cuts away and does not try, on its budget, to emulate the ALIEN scene which supplied the seminal (hah) inspiration.
After that, Lubdan starts slaughtering marines, while mysterious Mittenhand-- who seems to have had some idea of Zarina's presence at Lubdan's base, though he has no idea what the Leprechaun is-- tries to use Zarina's DNA to clone himself a new body. Lubdan interferes and turns the good doctor into a slimy spider-creature.
What most differentiates IN SPACE from the other three films is that now all of the characters, at one time or another, are mouthing the same cornball lines as Lubdan. Most of the mercenaries have Earth-names-- as does the female lead, the Acerbic Female Doctor, name of "Tina"-- yet they appear to inhabit a far-future civilization. However, the Black Guy Marine makes jokes about "superstitious black" stereotypes from the twentieth century. No one has the slightest idea what a leprechaun is, though, and the mercenaries continually identify Lubdan as an "alien"-- and indeed, the villain "dies" the same way the original Alien died. Yet, if one takes it as an intentional comedy, where nothing is at stake, the inconsistencies take on a certain comic logic.
Tuesday, December 24, 2013
MYTHICITY: (1) *fair,* (2) *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*
Some Hollywood films were caught flat-footed when World War II ended, at least in Europe, in June 1945. Busy turning out melodramas in which the Nazi menace was still extant, they had to "back-date" the films to keep them relevant.
That doesn't seem to be the case with JUNGLE QUEEN, which was released in January 1945 but set its narrative near the beginning of the war, in 1939. Were the filmmakers unusually prescient regarding the disposition of the war? Or could it be that, given that the story's action took place in Africa, they realized that the plot had little in common with the real war's history? The fact that the script coined an ambiguous term for the area in which the story takes place-- calling it "Middle Africa"-- suggests that the producers were saying, "Well, things could have happened this way if the Nazis had wanted to gain control of Central Africa."
Of course it would have been cost-prohibitive for a serial to mount an invasion comparable to the Afrika Korps' movements into North Africa. JUNGLE QUEEN follows a pattern seen in most American jungle-films-- particularly the Tarzan opus-- in that the villains seek to insinuate themselves into local African politics by suborning their tribal customs. Thus a group of interrelated tribes called "the Tongghiili" become the focus of Nazi espionage, Leading the Nazi agents-- though only rarely seen interacting with the Africans-- are Dr. Bork (Tala Birell) and Lang (Douglass Dumbrille). The viewpoint protagonists are American adventurer Bob Elliott (Edward Norris) and his comedy-relief buddy Chuck (Eddie Quillan). They make common cause with Pamela Courtney, a British national who's come to the jungle, like many jungle-film female leads before her, to look for her lost father. The three of them become the Nazis' primary foes, though not without some highly unusual help.
Another well-trod trope of jungle-films was that of "the white goddess." This was usually a purely mortal white woman who was taken in by some Black African tribe, who worshiped her because they'd never seen white people or for some equally unlikely reason. JUNGLE QUEEN, however, is the first jungle-film I've seen where the white goddess, name of Lothel (Ruth Roman), does seem to have some claim to supernatural powers.
The viewer is never told just how Lothel comes to be looked upon as a spiritual adviser to the tribes of the Tonghilli. Lothel, a woman garbed in flowing white robes, is first seen manifesting before the tribes in a great stone temple, walking across a field of flame to show off her claim to goddesshood. Because there's currently a power vacuum in local Tonghilli politics, Lothel seeks to keep the reins of power out of the hands of "bad Africans" and in the hands of "good Africans." Of course there would be no story if the bad Africans didn't take power for a while. So Lothel wafts her way out of the temple and shows up to aid Bob, Chuck and Pamela whenever they're endangered by either Nazis or bad Africans.
QUEEN has a bad reputation among serial fans. There's no question that it suffers from a slack script and boring villains. Yet whereas a lot of serials have been visually humdrum, I rather liked the way directors Lewis Collins and Ray Taylor kept focusing on the heroes in interesting visual setups, to enhance identification-- though I must admit that the villains don't get the same treatment, as they're usually sitting around yakking about their next strategies. I also thought the black-and-white photography seemed crisper than one normally sees in most serials, making the actors look good even when they're not acting all that well (Norris) or are not trying too hard (Dumbrille).
One positive sociological myth-aspect of JUNGLE QUEEN is that although the overall political approach to the tribal cultures is patronizing even on the heroes' side-- that is, suggesting that the Africans are "good" if they are pro-Allies-- the script's approach to the native customs isn't especially condescending. There's no suggestion that the "bad Africans" are bad because they embrace old tribal ways, because the "good Africans" embrace the same customs. And whereas some jungle films make Black African natives look foolish when they conflate either real or phony monsters with their ancestral spirits-- as one sees in PANTHER GIRL OF THE KONGO -- JUNGLE QUEEN is innocent of that sin, because their "goddess" really does seem to be something supernormal.
Whereas most "white goddess" films are careful to emphasize that the goddess is a fake, JUNGLE QUEEN offers no explanation whatever for Lothel's nature, and even the white heroes remain clueless on that score by picture's end. In addition to prancing around through vaulting flames, Lothel usually shows up whenever the good guys need her, and she can disappear the moment anyone looks away from her. This leads to the serial's only genuinely funny moment, for though Eddie Quillan is the comedy relief, straight-man Norris gets the best joke when Lothel does another vanishing act on him, and he shrugs to the audience as if to say, "Got me again." The ability to walk through fire and to do ninja-like vanishing tricks could be examples of "fake magic," and thus would belong to the domain of the uncanny. However, in the serial's last episode, one of the Nazis fires point-blank at Lothel, with no effect on the goddess. Immediately after this. the two of them are both consumed by an explosion, but Lothel survives to re-assume her role as guidance counselor to the Tongghili. I suppose it's inevitable that a "white goddess" of any kind carries uncomfortable colonial associations, but the mere fact that JUNGLE QUEEN's script avoids the "fake goddess fools the natives" pitfall defuses some of those associations-- though of course it was a given that the script couldn't go to the other extreme, and portray Lothel as a LITERAL goddess.
Oddly, though UNDERSEA KINGDOM-- Republic's attempt to duplicate Universal's success with FLASH GORDON-- is a much more expensive effort than JUNGLE QUEEN, I found that it lacked even the latter's minor charms, much less GORDON's mythic dimensions.
I appreciate that KINGDOM comes up with a lot more gosh-wow tinkertoys than most space-opera serials. Its chapters are replete with robots, ray-guns, a battering-ram tank (which at one point has the hero spread-eagled on front of it, easily the serial's best moment), and a giant tower that rises from the sea to menace the modern world. This sequence reminded me of Robert E. Howard's 1935 novel HOUR OF THE DRAGON, which also concerned a recrudescent archaic world that strove to replace the modern continuum.
However, FLASH GORDON-- both in the comic strip and the original serial-- showed some interest in the exotic worlds Flash visited as the hero attempted to sway the various races of Mongo against the tyrant Ming. UNDERSEA KINGDOM is a little more on the programmatic side.
Hero Crash Corrigan and his allies voyage to the Undersea Kingdom of Atlantis for roughly the same reasons that Flash and his friends seek out Mongo; investigating the genesis of mysterious phenomena in their world. In GORDON, Ming is responsible for causing chaos on Earth, while in KINGDOM, a tyrant with the risible name "Unga Khan" has been creating earthquakes on the surface world as a prelude to his attempt at conquest. In both serial-stories, the scientist-member of the hero's team is seized by the tyrant, who seeks to use his talents to promote his agenda.
But KINGDOM has no interest in the world of Atlantis as GORDON showed interest in the exotica of Mongo. Atlantis could pretty much be any old Ruritanian kingdom, and the script may be poking fun at its own good/bad simplicity in naming the good faction "the White Robes" while the allies of Unga Khan are "the Black Robes." To be sure, in one episode a Black Robe is converted to the side of the angels when Corrigan spares his life. But it doesn't do the fellow-- oddly given the name of an "evil" pagan deity, "Moloch"-- much good, because by the serial's end all the bloody Atlanteans, good and bad, bite the bullet.
Perhaps this, more than anything, accounts for my negative feelings toward the serial. Flash Gordon's Mongo is a great though utterly inconsistent dream-world, where any sort of weirdness is possible. The producers of UNDERSEA KINGDOM seem strangely in a hurry to dispose of their dream-world, as if its presence threatened the hegemony of their real world, not just the serial's version of reality.
Corrigan is a competent serial-hero, who almost never resorts to a ray-gun if he can use his fists or wrestling-moves to win a battle. But he lacks the charisma that Buster Crabbe displayed in his first serial outing, and his companions are similarly routine. Despite having two comics to supply the funny stuff-- with the hilarious names "Salty" and "Briny Deep"-- their routines probably could have been excised without anyone noticing the lack.
Saturday, December 21, 2013
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*
I decided to review the three "Hansel and Gretel" films that came out, but as two of the titles are overly cumbersome, I didn't feel like squeezing them into my header.
Last summer's HANSEL AND GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS remains the best known of the three. It wasn't the first out of the gate, but I find it likely that the one that came out first was influenced by pre-production news of WITCH HUNTERS.
Unfortunately, HAGWH doesn't have much to offer beyond its basic "high concept:" that of showing the folkloric characters Hansel and Gretel grown up and kicking witch-ass. The setting is vaguely Germanic, but all of the characters talk like modern-day Americans. Early in the film I was particularly ticked off by one example of banal American-ese, when Gretel asserts that there is increased "witch activity" in the area. CSI: WITCH HUNTERS, anyone? Even Terry Gilliam's 2005 misfire, THE BROTHERS GRIMM, seemed more in touch with the period.
There's a marginal mystery about the circumstances under which Hansel and Gretel were abandoned as children, after which they were waylaid by a cannibal hag with a candy house, their first "victim." But the film doesn't exert itself to put any effort into the siblings' backstory: it's only there in order to provide the villain with a reason for going after Gretel, whom the witch wants to use as a sacrifice due to her lineage.
Even for a Big Dumb Action picture, Hansel and Gretel are woefully under-characterized; they're not even convicing bad-asses, though as Gretel Gemma Arterton throws some decent punches. Particularly ludicrous given the loose period setting is that the two heroes have recourse to assorted rapid-fire weapons, such as a Gatling Gun. Arterton and Jeremy Renner are competent but the witless script gives them nothing to work with. Punch, hit, shoot; rinse and repeat.
The "H&G" film that did make it out first, appearing on SYFY in February 2012, was almost certainly anticipating the original release date of WITCH HUNTERS in March of that year. Like many SYFY fantasies it's shot on a very restricted set-- a real forest, to be sure, but only within very limited parameters.
The most amusing thing about the film is the name. Hansel, not Gretl, is the witchslayer of the story, and I can only assume that the producers didn't think "Witchslayer Hansel" was strong enough to let viewers twig that the flick was about "Hansel and Gretel." As in the big studio production, Hansel and Gretel are as children accosted by a witch. But the witches in this tale aren't interested in eating people, only in possessing them. The witch Zora steals Gretl from Hansel's side, leaving little Hansel behind. Since he thinks his sister dead, Hansel devotes his life to hunting witches. During his campaign he picks up two "good witch" aides: mature beauty "Lara" and younger beauty "Ehren," who use their magic to battle Zora's coven. Hansel later learns that his sister is alive, having been kept around into adulthood so that Zora could inhabit her body (played by the film's one big-name star, Shannen Doherty).
GRETL never looks like anything but another made-on-the-cheap knockoff. Yet all the body-switching was at least a trifle more emotionally involving than the outrageous-but-derivative kinetics of WITCH HUNTERS. It's a measured choice at best, but GRETL, despite the awkward title, comes off best of the three.
HANSEL AND GRETEL: WARRIORS OF WITCHCRAFT came a little closer to the actual release date of WITCH HUNTERS, showing up on DVD rental "shelves" in February 2013. However, the heroic siblings are named "Jonah" and "Ella," and their only connection to the siblings of the folktale is that they are supposed to be modern-day descendants of Hansel and Gretel. Jonah and Ella are expelled from a high school because Jonah gets in a lot of fights. They're accepted into another academy in Salem, Massachusetts, whose headmaster is played by yet another "star-with-marginal-name-value," Eric Roberts. Soon Ella learns that one of the local cliques is a witch coven, and it seduces Jonah to the dark side of the Force, or something. With the help of Principal Roberts Ella takes on the witch-cult with some of the most ennervating action-scenes ever.
The only plus here is that director David DeCouteau does allow for some hot women alongside his more trademark "hot guys." But this movie is too cheap to even make "cheap thrills" a reality. I only watched it in a mood of looking for new nominees for your basic "so bad it's good" parties. WARRIORS is a masterpiece of tedium with no possible laughs, so it comes off as inferior even to this sort of junk.
Wednesday, December 18, 2013
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological, psychological, metaphysical*
I've seen a few reviews trash writer-director Michel J. Bassett's take on one of Robert E. Howard's fan-favorite characters, Solomon Kane, but I can't quite see why.
True, even the best adaptations of Howard's work-- a small pack headed by 1982's CONAN THE BARBARIAN-- don't tap into the author's strain of dark pessimism and savage code of ethics. But KANE comes closer to the source material than most attempts, notoriously 1984's CONAN THE DESTROYER, 1997's KULL THE CONQUEROR, and the 1992 cartoon CONAN THE ADVENTURER.
In the original stories and poems, of which Howard wrote roughly a dozen, Kane is a dour 17th-century Puritan adventurer, devoted to traveling the world in quest of evils to destroy. This isn't a lot of motivation for a movie to work with, so it's natural enough that Bassett sought to "psychologize" Kane somewhat.
The film opens with a rather confusing scene of Kane serving alongside a gang of reivers, only to be confronted by a genuine hellfire-demon. Said demon informs the future hero that his soul now belongs to Satan, even though Kane hasn't signed any pacts that he knows of. Possibly the scene, awkward though it is, serves two purposes. First, it establishes for the audience that Kane's world is inhabited by real magical beings. Second, the revelation scares Kane straight, sending him to the bosom of a monastery, just long enough to instill in Kane a desire to do good.
Various flashbacks transpire to delve into Kane's history and psychology. Bassett doesn't exactly reinvent the wheel as he resorts to that old favorite, "daddy issues." However, there's at least some attention paid to the archaic milieu, as the story's first in that British-born Kane is the second son of his aristocratic father Josiah. Whether or not the film accurately describes English customs of the period, the script implies that it's axiomatic that only the elder son Marcus will inherit the entire estate of the Kanes. Kane objects, claiming that Marcus is nothing but a brute. To add oppressive fatherhood to neglect, Josiah wants Kane to join the church. Josiah gives no reason for this demand, but one may fairly assume that Josiah wants Kane to devote his life to God so as to give Josiah an "in" with Heaven while he has Marcus take care of the estate's temporal affairs. However, we learn through Kane's frequent flashbacks that Kane defied his father, and that before he could leave the estate, he had a fight with his brother that ended in his brother's apparent death.
Kane tries to turn his back on violence, but violence comes looking for him, principally in the form of a band of slave-taking raiders commanded by a magican, one Malachi. Kane also befriends a family of pilgrims, and when their young and pretty daughter is abducted, it doesn't Kane long to ride the revenge trail. The trail does take him back to his ancestral home, so that Kane is forced to confront the familial past he left behind.
The FX and fight-scenes are solid, James Purefoy gives a strong perf as Kane, and Bassett is consistent in projecting a sense of how grimy and violent things were in the 17th century. I speculate that the filmmakers may have wanted to avoid the original context of Howard's character: that he was usually riding around messing in the business of foreign nations, with at least two tales set in early colonial Africa. Avoiding this political hotspot may have been prudent, though if there was ever a Kane sequel, I would hope that they'd find some way to address the Puritan's complex relationship with "darkest Africa," politically incorrect though it might be.
Sunday, December 15, 2013
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*
Any time one looks up an IMDB listing for a given film and finds a martial artist/actor listed as one of the "writers," one should be pretty sure what one is getting. And sure enough, despite the Old West setting, GHOST ROCK is your basic American chopsocky with minor supernatural content.
In large part GHOST ROCK is cribbed from Clint Eastwood's 1973 "American spaghetti western" HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER. In that film a man murdered in a corrupt town apparently comes back from the dead to avenge his murder. Wikipedia claims that the original intent of the script was a naturalistic one, and would have revealed that avenger Eastwood was the twin of the murdered man. That sensible explanation was dropped, with the result that in the film released the audience never got any rationale for the avenger's appearance.
In contrast, GHOST ROCK provides both a naturalistic and a supernaturalistic avenger. Twenty years prior to the main body of the story, a gang of outlaws raid a small ranch. A little girl is killed and the boy who knows her survives to seek vengeance twenty years later in the town of Ghost Rock. However, for no explicit reason the little girl, grown to womanhood, shows up in town, fully armed and also seeking revenge on the outlaws. She's literally a ghost, but thanks to budgetary constraints, she never walks through walls, allows bullets to pass through her, or the like.
Naturally there's no telling why it takes both natural-hero John (Michael Worth) and supernatural-heroine Savannah (Jenya Lano) so damn long to find the murderers, particularly when their leader Pickett (Gary Busey) is hiding in plain sight, serving as the mayor of Ghost Rock. In addition, to make the presence of martial arts in the Old West slightly palatable, Ghost Rock has a substantial Chinese population, who are maltreated by Mayor Pickett and from whom John learned his non-American fighting-skills. In addition to a second male martial artist who works for Pickett and gives John his best fights, even a couple of local prostitutes show off a couple of kung fu moves. While no one would ever call the teleseries KUNG FU historically accurate, compared to this rampant silliness it's a veritable model of probity.
Lively gunfights and kung-fu battles make this dumb-fun western watchable but never memorable. It does try to throw in a little humor, but sometimes the film's jokes are more peculiar than funny, as when saloon-madame Mattie (Adrienne Barbeau, currently pushing seventy years in age) is challenged to knock out a man with one punch, as if this is a common occurence in Ghost Rock's version of the Old West. A commentary on Barbeau's fame as a "tough girl," or just giving the actress some extraneous "action" to perform to justify purchasing her services to enhance the film's "marquee value?" On a star-spotting side-note, Worth-- best known to mainstream audiences for the syndie teleseries ACAPULCO HEAT-- is joined here by Christa Sauls, another HEAT veteran.
Thursday, December 12, 2013
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*
As with the various DURANGO KID westerns I've reviewed, THE OCTAGON is a film whose metaphenomenality inheres entirely in its use of unusual costumes-- but for the film's villains, not for the hero. Although Chuck Norris' hero "Scott James" has been trained in the arts of the ninja, his only concession to ninja tradition is that briefly he appears clad in black attire. Only the bad-guy ninjas appear in full costumes.
There's not a lot to say about the slack plotline of OCTAGON, in which an isolated fortress of ninjas somehow manages to maintain itself in some American forest while periodically sending out its black-clad killers to perform assassinations. Hero James, who received his training by virtue of being adopted by a ninja master, left the fold in part because of conflicts with his envious brother Seikura (Tadashi Yamashita). James attempts to keep out of ninja business, but finds himself drawn back in, partly thanks to the contrivance of his mercenary pal McCarn (Lee Van Cleef), who is in the business of hunting terrorists.
I don't expect great acting out of this type of American chopsocky, but in the entire cast Van Cleef is the only actor to bring some elan to his tawdry role. Norris, Yamashita, Kim Lankford, Karen Carlson-- all turn in dog-worthy performances. Their clumsy thesping would be easier to overlook if director Eric Karson and his team could bring any energy to the proceedings. One review called OCTAGON "sluggish," which sums up the flick's failings adequately. I will note that this was Karson's first time directing an entire movie, and that he did improve somewhat with his next two martial-arts adventures, 1986's OPPOSING FORCE and 1988's BLACK EAGLE.
A side-note: in the same way that I stated that the heroic "Durango Kid" was an uncanny presence with his bandana-masked getup-- but that ordinary bandits wearing bandanas would not be-- not all ninjas convey an uncanny vibe. I'm not likely to ever review the 1997 naturalistic modern-day karate-film KICKBOXING ACADEMY. But this film's very minor use of "ninjas"-- who are just a coterie of modern-day thugs in ninja costumes-- does not convey any uncanny status upon its narrative.
PHENOMENALITY: (1) *marvelous,* (2) *uncanny*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*
Not long ago I got a temporary freebie for the HBO channels, and my first complaint was that all of the channels were recycling stuff from the 90s. When I had HBO in the 90s, I knew that incarnation showed a lot of trash, but at least it was NEW trash.
Then, while cleaning off some old tapes, I come across two specimens of cheap nineties flicks that came close to eradicating any nostalgia I had for the period, at least in terms of the horror genre.
Neither film is any good, but of the two, LOST SOULS rates lower. This is a dreary Canadian-made telemovie which reminded me slightly of 1976's BURNT OFFERINGS, wherein a rather bland American family moved into a old house in the country and promptly began encountering strange phenomena.
The Robinsons are the family in question here, and the only interesting thing about them is that their 12-year-old daughter Meaghan, an autistic, begins to show greater signs of involvement once they move into the house. The parents and their other child, a teen boy, don't have to deal with any of the real-world problems attendant on dealing with even a high-functioning autistic, so in effect Meaghan is just another predictable excuse for a "weird kid" who makes contact with the spirit world a la POLTERGEIST. At least the player chosen for the role, British child-actress Laura Harling, managed to make her character interesting despite her largely withdrawn nature. This is more than the script did for any of the other characters, particularly headliners John Savage and Barbara Sukowa.
The essence of the script is the old "ghosts trying to direct the living to their real killer" schtick, and it proceeds with reasonable logic from plot point A to plot point B. The most entertaining aspect of the telefilm is that at the climax, when the real killer reveals himself and the ghosts come out to finish him, the film's budget was too low to allow for FX of any kind. So the killer just hears the ghosts screaming in his ears, causing him to fall to his death.
INNER SANCTUM II, by renowned schlockmeister Fred Olen Ray, provides a little more fun even though the so-called plot is thoroughly illogical.
I have not seen the film of which this was a sequel, though from descriptions it seems to have been a naturalistic "erotic thriller" about a husband trying to gaslight/kill his wealthy wife, only to be killed by her in self defense.
As Number Two (in every sense) begins, heiress Jennifer is now being haunted by memories of her husband Baxter, who returns in her dreams with a ghoulish demon-face, threatening to finish her off. She consults with an impotent psychiatrist (David Warner) who can only give her various drugs. But legal affairs, conducted in part by "Count Yorga" (Robert Quarry), must go on, and Baxter's brother-in-law Bill arrives with his wife to hear the reading of Baxter's will. Then Jennifer starts seeing Old Demon-Face running around in the real world. Has poor Jennifer flown round the bend?
Of course not: it's Colonel Mustard in the Living Room with a Demon-Face Mask. But oh wait, Colonel Mustard gets killed, so it's really Mrs. Peacock with a claw-hammer who's the main villain. The brief attempt to gaslight poor Jennifer by making her dream-demon come to life qualifies this film for uncanny status in terms of the "phantasmal figurations" trope, while Jennifer's traumatized nuttiness qualifies the film for the "perilous psycho" trope. Incidentally, starring actress Tracy Brooks Swope manages to make her character pathetic rather than sympathetic. Perhaps the film's writers felt the same way toward the character, for in contrast to the plots of most supposedly erotic thrillers, this one ends with the gaslight-girl still crazy and seeing real-world demons. Maybe it was director Ray's intention to suggest that the demons were real after all, but there's no support for that view in the script. Also, the sex-scenes are among the most perfunctory I've ever seen in this sort of flick.
The only pleasures one can get from this are two: (1) spotting actors known for better roles elsewhere, and (2) a longish three-way cat-fight involving star Swope, her nurse Jennifer Ciesar, and former "RED SONJA villain" Sandahl Bergman.
Tuesday, December 10, 2013
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological, psychological*
"For the first time, Wesley-- you're in control."-- Sloan, WANTED.
Even though the above quote is spoken by a character who will prove to be the hero's primary antagonist, his words define a world of difference between the source graphic novel by Mark Millar and J.G. Jones-- reviewed here-- and the 2008 film, a Russian-American production directed by Timur Bekmambetov and scripted by three writers associated with the FAST AND FURIOUS franchise.
Though the film WANTED deals with far fewer marvelous entities than the graphic novel does, I've argued that the main reason for the film's alterations were due to the need for "narrative clarity:"
The WANTED movie chose to use super-assassins-- a bunch of ordinary men transformed into a cult of killers by a secret organization's rituals and weapons--because that was the easiest narrative concept to put across in a two-hour film. The WANTED graphic novel, however, began as a proposal to DC Comics, which would have taken the old 1970s SECRET SOCIETY OF SUPER-VILLAINS concept and cranked it up for the ultraviolence audience...
However, the changes were more than cosmetic. The Millar graphic novel is one I deemed to be little more than the manifestation of an "idiot id," in that the protagonist's concept of self-actualization is that of being able to go on spree-killings whenever he pleases, because he's the biggest badass in a world already dominated by super-villains. As I said in that review I have no problem with an author who decides to flout morality in all respects, as with the Marquis de Sade. But such defiance pales a bit when the only motive behind all that anarchy is just another form of "conspicuous consumption."
The film, in a far more sophisticated manner, allows for the existence of altruistic motives while not losing sight of the original story's goal: to show a pathetic wage-slave actualizing himself by becoming the greatest badass in a world of badasses. Thus pathetic Wesley Gibson (James MacAvoy) endures a humiliating wage-slave existence for just as long as it takes to pound in the suckitude of his life-- all in a much breezier manner than one sees in the over-obvious Millar-Jones work. Then Gibson is initiated into a world of chaotic violence by two gun-wielding assassins. One, he is later told, is "Cross," a master assassin who killed the father Gibson never knew, and now seeks to kill Gibson as well. The other is the sultry female killer "Fox," who draws Gibson out of apparent danger and initiates him into the world of the Fraternity, a thousand-year-old cult whose assassins murder people to keep the world safe from evil. Gibson doesn't entirely buy into their raison d'etre-- getting mystic messages about who they kill from a gigantic loom, whose threads are supposedly attuned to the will of Fate itself. However, after the Fraternity members demonstrate that he possesses untapped powers of badassery inherited from his father, Gibson can't wait to ditch his dull compromised life and embrace the life of a super-assassin.
In the graphic novel Gibson becomes a super-killer with a modicum of training. But as noted above, the film is more about the elusive feat of control, so the training becomes a more significant narrative element in the film. In keeping with their name, the brutal members of the Fraternity "initiate" Gibson in a variety of ways-- beating him, knifing him, forcing him to risk his life in dangerous stunts. But the violence not only serves to arouse Gibson's killer instincts, it also breaks down his false expectations about life. Given that the FAST AND FURIOUS franchise might be subtitled "Zen and the Art of Maniac Auto-Driving," the film similarly gives Gibson's training sequences the feel of an anarchic version of the teleseries KUNG FU. Of course the feats that Gibson and Fox can accomplish-- causing bullets to bend in their flight after being fired, flipping cars so that they spin in the air like pinwheels-- all belong to the realm of gosh-wow fantasy. In addition, while I critiqued the graphic novel for its "paucity of imagination," Bekmambetov and his team make their super-assassin's world into one with great visual humor. Even a car-chase scene that would be grindingly obvious in most American films is punctuated by moments of weird humor, as when Cross must give chase to Fox and Gibson by stealing a truck full of bobble-head animals.
I won't dwell on the specific twists and turns of the plotline, except to say that at least they have the potential to surprise an audience, in contrast to the lame "gotcha" featured in the GN. Where Millar and Jones simply create a group of characters who have no altruistic impulses, the script for the film presents the notion of the "Loom of Fate." One never really knows if the Loom has any genuine power to target persons who deserve to be assassinated. But because the script leaves the Loom ambivalent, one can view it as every ideal that has ever been used as a rallying-point for violence-- and each individual can decide how far that applies in the real world.
Though some critics read this film as being little more than a paean to violence-- which it is, in part-- it devotes a fair amount of attention to bringing human dimension to Gibson's Quest for Fearlessness. Fox, who is a rather flat character in the graphic novel, is imbued with a puckish sense of humor and an enigmatic feminine viewpoint, and both characters are well essayed by James MacAvoy and Angelina Jolie.
Because the emphasis here in on excitement rather than on the elision of all heroism, I view the 2008 WANTED as belonging to the "adventure" mythos, whereas the GN conforms better to the mythos of the "irony."
Sunday, December 8, 2013
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *irony*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical, sociological*
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
In NO SUCH THING Hal Hartley, who made his name with low-key naturalistic films like 1989's THE UNBELIEVABLE TRUTH, attempts to provide a modernist take on the classic fable BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. By "modernist" in this case, I mean that his project involves undercutting the expectations of anyone who expects traditional narrative. Allegedly Hartley wanted his "Beast" to be played by avant-garde director Jean-Luc Godard, similarly known for movies devoted to breaking down normative narrative.
Literary modernism was in general not kind to faerie and fantasy, so it's a bit of a surprise that the film begins by focusing upon a genuine Beast (Robert John Burke), who lives in the wilds of Iceland, sustained by tribute from neighboring, regularly-terrified villagers. In contrast to the lion-like Beast favored by both Jean Cocteau and the Walt Disney Corporation, this Beast has goat-like horns and the ability to breathe fire like a dragon. In contrast to being a lord enchanted by magic, Hartley's Beast has no origins; he claims to have existed since the dawn of mankind, but has no idea how he came to be. Though he's remained hidden under the cover of his legendary status up until the 21st century, his tedious, unrewarding existence comes to an end when a gang of journalists come to investigate the legend of the monster, and he kills them all.
In the traditional story "Beauty" is drawn to the Beast because of her father's trespass against the Beast's privacy. In THING, the Beauty is the slightly dowdy office-worker Beatrice (Sarah Polley), and she's drawn to the Beast because one of the slain journalists was her fiancee. As she works for a major news organization, run by the acerbic "Boss" (Helen Mirren), Beatrice is given the chance to fly to Iceland and investigate the murders--
--at which point we see one of Hartley's first deviations from customary expectations. A normative narrative, be it an archaic fairy tale or a modern imitation thereof, would have Beauty on the Beast's door right away. Instead, Beatrice's plane goes down in the sea. She alone is rescued, albeit crippled. The Beast's story is put aside while Beatrice, sent back to a hospital in the U.S., endures a lengthy and painful operation that restores her to her normal status. In the film's best moment, when Beatrice leaves the hospital, people touch her for good luck, as if her miraculous rescue imbued her with godly power.
This sequence is Hartley's biggest flouting of the expectations of normal narrative; thereafter, she eventually makes it to Iceland, interviews the people in the Beast's neighborhood, and finally beards the Beast in his lair. But Beatrice has no obligation to stay in the Beast's company to expiate a parent's debt: rather, she pulls out a gun and tried to kill the creature who murdered her fiancee. The creature can't be harmed by guns, but he would dearly like to end his pointless life. Beatrice resembles the fable's "Beauty" only in that she is able to repress her horror of the unknown and speak with its living incarnation. Thus she learns that the Beast knows of one scientist who claimed to be capable of ending an immortal's existence-- one "Doctor Artaud," probably named after the founder of the so-called "Theater of Cruelty" in the 1930's.
At this point THING verges away the BEAUTY AND THE BEAST text almost completely, taking on more resemblance to 1933's KING KONG, a film which arguably patterned itself after the traditional tale. In exchange for helping the Beast locate Artaud, in order to put an end to the Beast's existence, he must follow her back to civilization and suffer the ignominy of being ballyhooed by the press, as well as swearing not to kill anyone no matter how aggravated he becomes. The Beast's ennui is such that he agrees, and eventually this Beauty does something worse than almost bringing about the Beast's death: she puts him on display for her own career-furtherance. Just to further puncture the romantic theme of the original story, during one of the Beast's publicity tours Beatrice, now somewhat famous herself, enjoys a one-night stand with a handsome stranger.
However, ignominy is not the Beast's worst problem. The Boss presciently comments that soon the average civilized viewer will become bored with even a miraculous being who can neither die nor be killed. The U.S. military and its grant-hungry scientists are interested in the Beast, though, for they take him prisoner and subject him to assorted deadly forces, indifferent to his sufferings.
Only here does Beatrice shows something akin to "love," though not of a romantic sort: she uses her celebrity to liberate the Beast and lead him to Doctor Artaud, who deduces that the reason the Beast is so invulnerable is because he fundamentally does not exist-- which is the clue to the oblivion he desires. Yet even here, Hartley ends the film enigmatically. Hartley conjures with the imagery of the Cocteau film, suggesting that as he dies-- if he dies!-- the Beast first transforms into something like a normal human man. But the film ends with a close-up of Beatrice's face, her expression ambivalent, which no doubt mirrors the expression of many who watched the film.
Though I myself prefer traditional narrative to ironic twists on same, I believe it's possible to devise an intelligent satire upon the template of "Beauty and the Beast." But like a substantial number of modernist works, Hartley's NO SUCH THING doesn't have much to offer beyond turning expectations upside down. Most of its jabs are at easy targets-- the bored consumer, scientists who prostitute themselves for funding-- and the relationship of the lady and the monster, rather than being interpreted in some radical new way, is merely pushed to the side as-- to quote the aforementioned Hartley film-- just another "unbelievable truth."
Thursday, December 5, 2013
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, sociological, metaphysical*
The fourth Godzilla film is also the third to pit the big lizard against a second colossal creature. However, while Godzilla's previous foes Angilas and King Kong present the same danger to humankind that Godzilla does, Mothra-- making her second appearance following her 1961 debut--
has a different tonality.
Indeed, though the film was retitled GODZILLA VS. THE THING for the American market, the Japanese title shows the correct emphasis: this is structurally a Mothra film in which Godzilla is the giant moth's antagonist.
A typhoon, rather than atomic tampering this time, is responsible for causing the gigantic egg of the next Mothra to be carried from Infant Island to the shores of Japan. Indeed, nuclear power is only occasionally addressed in this film, mostly by picking up on the plotline of 1961's MOTHRA, which argues that Infant Island has been reduced to a wasteland by atomic testing. It's not abundantly clear as to how the islanders can live there at all, though it may be that their resident moth-god provides some help in that regard. When the storm deposits the egg off Japan, greedy businessmen, much like those from the first Mothra film, lay claim to it and advertise it as a spectacular attraction for "Happy Enterprises." Some noble reporters, primarily lead male Sakai and lead female Junko, question the businessmen's right to the great egg. The "Mothra-fairies" appear first to the businessmen, attempting to regain the egg of their deity, but the corrupt corporate types merely try to capture the fairies for further exploitation. The fairies then appeal to the reporters for help, but even the Fourth Estate can't do much to stir up opinion against Happy Enterprises. It's rather surprising that the government doesn't intervene in the matter, since the fairies warn that the adult Mothra may attack to regain the egg, and the creature's last rampage would be an event the government wouldn't want to repeat.
Enter Godzilla, rising once again from a short-lived hibernation. Sakai and Junko journey to Infant Island, hoping to persuade the islanders to summon Mothra to save Japan-- and the egg-- from Godzilla. The islanders initially refuse, but Junko delivers an impassioned speech which sways them. The giant moth, moved by the prayers of its people, attacks and almost defeats Godzilla, only to receive a death-wound from the Big G's fiery breath. Godzilla rises to attack again but the Japanese military delays him again, notably with an electrical trap.
However, the egg has been kept safe long enough that it can now hatch, which it does in a bravura sequence, nurtured by the sacral song of the fairies and the islanders. (There's even a suggestion that the islander-god may have some existence separate from Mothra herself, since one of the islanders' idols flashes with magical power.) Two Mothra-larvae hatch from the egg and end up defeating Godzilla by ambushing him with gobs and gobs of enfolding silk. The larvae and the fairies then return to Infant Island as the reporters bid them a cheery farewell.
In my review of MOTHRA I noted that because the giant moth was female, this signified "the hegemony of feminine nature." MOTHRA VS. GODZILLA underlines this hegemony even more than the first film. If Godzilla and similar creatures represent the face of an unforgiving nature, striking back against the abuse of humanity, Mothra symbolizes the feminine virtue of motherly forgiveness. It's surely not accidental that Junko, not the more forceful Sakai, is the one to speak most eloquently on the need for the islanders to forgive and forget. Even the notion of the egg's spawn twin larvae-- mirroring the image of the twin fairies-- speaks to the feminine prodigality of the natural world, as against the destruction wrought by male-oriented technology and weaponry.
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological, psychological*
This U.S.-Spanish co-production, put together by roughly the same team that came out with 1983's HUNDRA-- also starring blonde Laurene Landon-- is pleasant enough escapist adventure. Compared to many other ersatz "Indiana Jones" knock-offs, YELLOW HAIR is probably near the top of the pack, though it suffers from a wandering, "make it up as we go along" script.
Writer-director Matt Cimber throws in a little metatextual humor, mostly consisting of voiceovers that adjoin the viewer to watch for the next installment of Yellow Hair's supposedly serial adventures. But happily there's not too much of this. The titular "fortress of gold" is a hidden sanctuary of a lost tribe called the "Tulpan"-- implicitly pattened on the Aztecs-- who have survived into the late 1800s. No one knows the location of the hidden warriors, though they emerge from time to time to taunt the Mexican military. The one "marvelous" aspect of the Tulpan is what appears to be a magical pool with the Midas touch, for when they lower a victim into it, the pool takes on a mystic glow and turns the victim into a statue-- I presume a golden one, though the material doesn't look much like gold. At no time is the magic pool given any explanation.
Yellow Hair (Landon) is a half-Comanche, half-white woman who has been raised with the tribe since childhood. She regards her adoptive mother Grey Cloud as her true parent but otherwise knows nothing of her parentage. Grey Cloud also takes in a Caucasian orphan, who grows up along Yellow Hair as an adoptive sibling and takes the name of "the Pecos Kid." Pecos leaves the tribe and apparently travels around acquiring girlfriends in every small town, while Yellow Hair becomes the tribe's pre-eminent warrior. Early in the film she uses her fighting-skills to fend off a male suitor who challenges her, and it's plain from Yellow Hair's conversations with Grey Cloud that she's learned to fight so that she won't live the life of a squaw-- though she doesn't seem to have any better goal in mind.
Pecos gets in dutch with the commander of the Mexican militia, partly because he's claimed to have information about the Tulpan. When Yellow Hair finds out about Pecos being in captivity, she sneaks into the compound and breaks Pecos free in the film's best action-sequence. The commander retaliates by sending some of his men, led by the Comanchero Flores, to the Comanche camp, where Flores murders Grey Cloud. While Yellow Hair seeks vengeance on the commander's forces, she also becomes intrigued by the "Fortress of Gold" when an old seer tells her that her true parents came from the Tulpan sanctuary.
After a number of lively-- but low-cost-- action-scenes, Yellow Hair and Pecos manage to enter the mountain sanctum of the Tulpan. Yellow Hair naively accepts the apparent welcome of the lost tribe and vows to remain with her parents' people. Pecos leaves for the outside world, but doubles back, in time to rescue his quasi-sister when she learns that the Tulpan plan to turn her into a golden statue.
Though the action is not lively enough to grab anyone not already in the mood for a RAIDERS-lite flick, YELLOW HAIR is serviceable in that regard. There's a passing suggestion that the two quasi-siblings may have a thing for each other: Yellow Hair seems jealous of Pecos' many trysts, and in one scene she claims that Pecos once tried to see her without her clothes. Though he claims that it was only to verify whether she was male or female, the issue is dropped and no romantic liaison takes place, though they're implicitly together at film's end. The fact that the male is allowed many sexual encounters while the female is occupied in defending her chastity incarnates a certain prevalent sociological myth about male-female dynamics, though this too is not explored in any depth.
Tuesday, November 26, 2013
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical, psychological*
I suppose that in terms of plot coherence THOR: THE DARK WORLD (hence just DARK WORLD) isn't really any better than the 2011 THOR, which I castigated for its murky motivations and political correctness. But DARK WORLD is a far more entertaining film than its predecessor if one doesn't obsess over the plot-points. Further, DARK WORLD comes much closer to emulating the look of the great fantasy-films. I mean, the central palace in Asgard still looks like nothing more than a gigantic pipe organ...
...but at least there are enough scenes set in Asgard that the place looks like something people might *live* in. The design of Asgard is nothing special, and looks derivative from the Peter Jackson LORD OF THE RINGS films, but it communicated a good fantasy-vibe nonetheless. The costumes, which I also praised in the first film, remain a strong point. But the film's greatest improvement is to impart a Norse *ethos* to Thor's home, so that it seems a credible place for heavily-armed warriors-- including Thor and Loki's war-maiden mother Frigga-- might disport themselves.
I have not re-read the Walt Simonson comics-epic on which DARK WORLD is very roughly based. Simonson's storyline introduced the "dark elf" Malekith, who sought to bring about an apocalyptic catastrophe, just as his cinematic counterpart does. However, I recall Simonson's Malekith as a malevolent master schemer, almost as entertaining as perennial Thor-villain Loki. DARK WORLD's Malekith is in comparison a one-note figure. The script throws in a few portentous phrases about how Malekith hails from the unformed chaos-world that preceded the existing cosmos of the "Nine Worlds," and this chaos that Malekith wishes to bring back is presumably the "dark world" of the title. But a few dimestore myth-quotations, probably culled from some familiar translated work like the "Elder Edda," are not enough to make Malekith a memorable villain. The audience gets that he's pissed to have the world of light succeed the world of darkness, and that's about it. Christopher Eccleston attempts to give Malekith a frosty, malefic attitude, but it's clear that the scriptwriters weren't interesting in the character as anything but a plot-device.
But this time there's a good reason for this bit of negligence: that of placing the relationship of noble Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and conniving Loki (Tom Hiddleston) on center-stage. DARK WORLD begins a year or more after the events of THE AVENGERS, during which time Thor and his warrior-companions have been traveling through the Nine Realms, subduing what one assumes are unjustified rebellions against Asgard's authority. Loki has been locked away in a high-tech prison, given succor only by his adoptive mother Frigga, though he professes not to need her attentions. Meanwhile a new threat appears on Earth: a super-weapon called "the Aether" which the Dark Elves created to hurl "cosmos" back into "chaos." A prefatory opening establishes that during a war between the Dark Elves and the Asgardians-- the latter party led by the father of Odin-- the Asgardians wrest the device from their foes. Somehow the device ends up on Earth, and in 2013 starts emitting various freaky phenomena, like creating anti-gravity and dimensional portals. This leads super-scientist/Thor-girlfriend Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), her intern Darcy (Kat Dennings) and her intern's intern to investigate the site of the weird stuff, not long before Thor himself shows up. In addition to some romantic tensions between Thor and Jane-- the guy did leave without explanation for over a year-- Jane is possessed by the Aether, a power that will destroy her even if it isn't used to destroy the universe.
Whereas Thor was the "duck out of water" in the first film, Jane then gets that honor in DARK WORLD, since Thor must take her to Asgard for possible treatment. This prompts the Dark Elves to attack Asgard to regain the Aether. Following the repulsion of the first assault,, Odin digs in his heels, defying Malekith to strike again. Thor enlists Loki to spirit Jane out of Asgard in order to seek out Malekith. The gambit is partly successful in that Malekith removes the Aether from Jane, but Thor and Loki are unable to prevent the Dark Elf and his goon squad from departing with their treasure. Loki pays-- or appears to pay-- the ultimate price for helping his brother, while Malekith is poised to oblierate the universe once "the stars are right," as the cliche goes. The last quarter of the film is dominated by Earth-based action, as Thor goes it almost alone against Malekith's forces. He's aided only by Jane and her friends, who have whipped up some ill-defined portal-manipulating gizmos, whose use adds to the frenetic action of the climax. Inevitably the apocalypse is postponed and all is right with the world-- apart from the hearkenings of the next few plot-developments of other Marvel movies, not only for another THOR but also for the forthcoming GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY flick.
This quick summary does nothing to convey the film's best asset: its humor. Without the character-based jokes-- stronger here than in the first film because there's some history to play with-- the fast-paced action might have worn me out. Kat Dennings' Darcy, who barely had two quips worth rubbing together in the first film, gets the lion's share of the funny lines, probably a consequence of the fame she gained from her CBS sitcom TWO BROKE GIRLS, which enjoyed breakout success in the fall after the original THOR's debut. But other characters get a fair share. Hiddleston's witty, charming Loki has his expected moments, but even the sobersided Thor gets in a few shots. In contrast to my feelings towards the stodgy original, I find myself looking forward to at least one more episode in the Thor saga.
Monday, November 25, 2013
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, sociological*
I suppose I could have waited to review GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN until I got my hands on the DVD set that shows the original Japanese version of RAIDS as well as the Americanized version, as I did with the original 1954 film. However, critical consensus seems to be that RAIDS was a quickie sequel executed by a lesser talent at Toho Studios, while one of the men most associated with GODZILLA's breakout success, director Ishiro Honda, was assigned to some other project. For that reason, and because I was impatient to compare the sequel to the original-- even in a somewhat compromised form-- I decided to simply review the American version here.
I found that though the absence of Honda and a sufficient budget made a sizeable difference in the essentials of RAIDS, there are interesting points of continuity between the first two iterations of Godzilla. Despite the necessity of creating a "new Godzilla" after the old one was skeletonized, the script for RAIDS remains generally consistent with the concept of the first film, possibly because at least one of GODZILLA's credited writers, Takeo Murata, contributed to the RAIDS script. And of course effects artist Eiji Tsuburaya's work is largely uncompromised in the Americanized film, which is more than one can say of the original film's musical score. Perhaps the best way to describe the difference between the two films is to say that while GODZILLA was a response to and amplification of the content and themes in 1953's BEAST FROM 20.000 FATHOMS, RAIDS is more of a response to 1933's KING KONG.
In my review of KING KONG I observed:
Kong is the character toward whom everyone else looks, while he himself sees only Ann. He is, as Denham says, a "god in his world," and he maintains his godhood through his unstinting superiority in combat. Prior to the great ape's being taken prisoner through human trickery, we see Kong battle and vanquish three prehistoric enemies: a tyrannosaurs, an elasmosaurus, and a pteranodon.
To be sure, the film begins very differently from KING KONG, centering not on a band of explorers looking for exotic animals to film, but on two "fish spotters," Tsukioka and Kobayashi, whose job is to track the movements of tuna schools at sea. Mechanical failure causes Kobayashi to land his plane on a remote island, and Tsukioka lands there as well to render aid. No sooner have the men come together than they see two titanic creatures battling on the island. These are another Godzilla-- dubbed "Gigantis" in the American version-- and Anguirus, a new beast based roughly on the authentic prehistoric creature, the Ankylosaurus. The two pilots flee for their lives, becoming the heralds of the warring titans to humanity.
The broad implication of the American film is that these two creatures have been awakened from centuries-long hibernation by atomic testing, just as in the case of GODZILLA. What seems less obvious is the question as to why the reborn creatures are fighting. In 1933's KING KONG, Kong fights with various monsters who are seeking to eat Ann Darrow. With what we are given, one can only assume that the new Godzilla and Angurius had been competitors for territory in ancient times, and that upon being revived, they simply renew some earlier battle as if there had been no interruption.
The contending monsters plummet into the sea, causing them to become separated, though both of them proceed roughly in the direction of the city of Osaka on the Japanese island Honshu. Doctor Yamane from the first film appears briefly to recap the history of the first Godzilla's rampage, as well as the fact that the weapon that slew him is no longer available. There is a curious attempt in this film to equate both monsters with a primeval "fiery past" of the Earth's history, an equivalence which will become providential at the film's conclusion.
Strangely, as if to mirror similar scenes in the first film, we see residents of Osaka celebrating the fact that the monsters haven't attacked long before they should credibly believe themselves safe. Perhaps the scripter and director wanted to conjure once more with the image of Godzilla as an ancestral dragon sent to chastise modern Japan. Godzilla finds his way to the shores near Osaka, but the military-- once again treating Godzilla as if he were an enemy invader-- distracts him by shooting flares toward the ocean. However, an incident involving convicts escaping their imprisonment brings about a large fire, so that Godzilla returns to Osaka, roughly about the same time Anguirus arrives.
One immense benefit of the battle between the two creatures is that their conflict distracts from the audience's expectations of seeing Osaka ravaged as Tokyo was in the first film. That said, their conflict also has some of the same ego-boosting effect seen in KING KONG: when Godzilla triumphs over the formidable Anguirus, he proves that he is "top lizard" much as Kong did in defeating various dinosaurs. Thus Anguirus is in some sense a stand-in for Osaka: their extended-- and exciting-- wrestling match takes the place of a more expensive general destruction of the city. Though this maneuver may have had its roots in economics, the "monster duel" would become one of the central tropes of the Godzilla franchise, becoming far more important than the trope was in the original KONG or in most of its recapitulations.
The army expends its usual might against Godzilla, to no effect, though the Big G does proceed back out to sea, ending up on an island covered with ice. To solve the dilemna of his presence, the film happily avoids bringing in yet another miracle-working scientist. Instead, Tsukioka's somewhat comical pal Kobayashi nobly sacrifices his life divebombing Godzilla kamikaze-style. Kobayashi's heroic act gives Tsukioka an inspiration: if the army shells the icy cliffs surrounding Godzilla, they can bury him in ice. The military follows Tsukioka's plan, and Godzilla is duly entombed. In addition to duplicating the natural processes that plunged both Godzilla and Anguirus into hibernaiton, there may be some sense that "fire monster" Godzilla has an antipathy to the cold and loses power in its vicinity.
The human characters in this film are somewhat one-dimensional and are in no way as compelling as Serizawa, his fiancee and his young competitor from the first film, though I presume that RAIDS' characters were somewhat better presented in the Japanese original. Interestingly, though RAIDS' box office was so disappointing that the studio did not make another Godzilla film until 1962, that film followed the template of RAIDS far more than the original GODZILLA as well, in that it centered around another "monster duel," albeit one brought about by meddling humans. This was of course KING KONG VS. GODZILLA, whose popularity revolutionized the Godzilla franchise. It might be said, then, that GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN offered a more practical pattern for imitation than the original, by its singular nature, could have.
Saturday, November 23, 2013
A little over a year ago, I downsized my frequency of reviews down from "one for each day of the month" (which started in Oct 2011) to "one for each weekday of each month." Since I feel that I've covered a lot of the essential ground I needed to cover to explicate my Ten Tropes, and the movie-blog takes away from a lot of other things I'd like to do, my new minimum will be no less than three reviews for each full five-day week on the calendar of a given month.
I may end up doing more than twelve reviews at any given time, but starting this month twelve will be my current minimum blog-rate.
I may end up doing more than twelve reviews at any given time, but starting this month twelve will be my current minimum blog-rate.
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological*
My second viewing of DESPICABLE ME was much like the first. It's a film with some good bits of business, layered into a pleasantly predictabe storyline. Hollywood has produced any number of similar films in which a rogue does something beneficent with a selfish end in mind, and ends up being converted to good by the simple act of being forced to act good.
DESPICABLE's main interest is that it presents an alternate world derived from the superhero idiom: one in which there exist some unspecified number of super-villains, but no superheroes. Following the opening stunt-- in which the world is horrified to learn that the Great Pyramid of Giza has been stolen-- a newsman wonders "which of the world's villains" is responsible. We only see two, however: Felonious Gru, the needle-nosed, stocky-shaped "me" of the title, and his enemy, the young whippersnapper Vector. Both establish that this is a world of purely comic villainy: one where villains exist in a state of what Veblen called "conspicuous consumption." After it's revealed that Vector is responsible for stealing the Pyramid, Gru determines that he wants to top his rival by shrinking and stealing the Moon itself. It's never clear about how either supercrook could profit from these bizarre deeds, but their actions are very much in keeping with the attitudes of certain comic-book villains-- the Joker in particular-- who often indulge in stealing absurd objects less for profit than for the sheer thrill of defying the law. Here the forces of law and order are barely even seen; DESPICABLE's world is an arena in which two ludicrous lawbreakers cross swords-- or ray-guns, as the case may be.
In order to recover a vital weapon from Vector-- one that Vector heisted during Gru's original heist of the object-- Gru adopts three adorable little girls. He uses the girls as catspaws to infiltrate Vector's sanctum, accomplishes his mission, and then-- can't seem to figure out how to get rid of the rambunctious trio. Refreshingly, the three girls are reasonably well characterized so as to keep them from being overly sentimental in their growing attachment to their new "daddy," whom they're not initially too crazy about either. But the expected filial bond takes place nonetheless, not least because Gru nurses some frustrated familial feelings as a result of an indifferent-- but still comedic-- mother-from-hell.
There's never a direct combat between Gru and Vector, for throughout the flick they fight one another largely through the use of super-weapons-- though Gru has a nice moment toward the end, personally invading Vector's fortress single-handed and quashing its many threats. His motive by that time is no longer the satisfaction of his ego but his concern for the safety of the girls, whom Vector has kidnapped. This in turn leads to a Big Climax in which Gru rescues his adoptive daughters from Vector's ship, all while Vector has lost control of the situation because the shrunken Moon has begun to assume its former size. Still, I regard this as a "combative comedy" because the outcome-- in which Gru re-acquires his daughters and puts the moon back into place-- takes place because of his decisive actions in pursuing Vector's ship. Still, Gru's success and Vector's humiliation take place because of their ongoing opposition, so it's the outcome is the result of that combative stance. In this DESPICABLE resembles a number of other combative comedies I've reviewed here, such as
1991's HOOK and 2012's DARK SHADOWS, where fate more than the central hero strikes the final humiliating blow against the antagonist.
Monday, November 18, 2013
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological, psychological*
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
Though some critics consider Fleming's OHMSS one of his best novels, in my re-reading I found that it suffered from weak pacing and motivations. The novel is famous as the one in which James Bond marries for the first and only time, but he weds neurotic Tracy di Vicenzo, one of Fleming's least interesting heroines.
OHMSS also presents the return of Blofeld after his introduction in THUNDERBALL, but it's hard to top a crime as daring as heisting atomic bombs. This time Blofeld poses as a phony European count and takes up residence in a castle in the Swiss Alps. He creates for himself the reputation of a great allergy doctor, and he invites several allergy-afflicted Englishwomen to his lair on the pretence of curing them. His real intent is to program them subliminally so that they will carry bacterial agents back to England-- sort of like a cross between a beauty pageant and the Trojan Horse (no pun intended)-- and infect England's agriculture and livestock industries. Bond presumes that Blofeld is funded by the Russians, though this is never verified. Bond is placed on Blofeld's trail by the father of Tracy, Marc-Ange, head of the Corsican equivalent of the Mafia, and 007's only way into the villain's fortress is to pose as an expert on heraldry. It seems criminal mastermind Blofeld is bitten by the snob-bug, desiring to have an English firm authenticate his phony nobility. Fleming never makes this transition convincing, but he does have some fun with the pretensions of commoners. However, that bit of fun doesn't compensate for the novel's padding with too much information on the science of heraldry. Bond infiltrates the citadel, learns the evildoer's plans and escapes in the novel's most exciting sequence. Then, unable to attack Blofeld with conventional forces, Bond gets the help of Marc-Ange in attacking and destroying the Swiss castle. In the end Bond marries Tracy, but she's killed when vengeful Blofeld makes a machine-gun attack on Bond.
The novel fits well into the uncanny phenomenality thanks to Blofeld's programming techniques, probably owing to then-current beliefs about subliminal programming as expressed in Vance Packard's 1957 book THE HIDDEN PERSUADERS-- not least because 007 actually uses the term "hidden persuader"in the text.
The cinematic OHMSS follows the book very closely, aside from inserting many more fight-scenes-- something Fleming's books rarely emphasize. Of course OHMSS is famed as the first non-Connery Bond-film, and star George Lazenby has maintained a strong reputation even though he never repeated the role. Given that Lazenby was not a professional actor, he comes off quite well, though one must credit the producers for helping to mold him into a quasi-Connery to keep the fans happy. Co-star Diana Rigg infuses the character of Tracy with much more cleverness and strength than the prose character possesses, and in deference to her history from THE AVENGERS, she too gets an extended fight-scene. Telly Savalas essays my least favorite Blofeld, but his portrayal has its strengths, not the least that he is a much more physical antagonist for Bond. This proves to be in keeping with the Blofeld who ends up sword-fighting Bond in the novel YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE.
The movie also manages to trump the thrills of Bond's novel-escape with a tour de force of skiing-stunts, improving on Fleming by handicapping Bond with but a single ski. Later both Bond and Tracy experience a second ski-attack, which serves to get Tracy captured by Blofeld's forces. This has the additional result of making the attack on the castle more involving. In one of Rigg's best scenes Tracy manages to keep Blofeld at bay by flattering him with poetry, at least until the climactic attack. Because the script builds up her character considerably, her death is similarly more affecting than in the novel.
Blofeld's scheme differs only in minor details. Instead of inviting only English girls for his Trojan Horse treatment, Blofeld brings in young women from many countries. This change allowed the producers to put the beauties of many nations on display, making for greater international publicity to boot. No mention of Russian assistance is made, and as a consequence Blofeld isn't out to decimate England right away. Rather, in a variation of his THUNDERBALL routine, he plans to blackmail the world to keep its resources safe. This doesn't entirely track, especially since he does so after Bond escapes his clutches and could theoretically warn border-guards about the Trojan babes. Blofeld gets a mano-a-mano battle with Bond while the two struggle atop a bobsled, which is certainly more exciting than the villain simply slipping away during the attack.
One-time Bondfilm director Peter Hunt-- who had been an editor on all five films previous-- handles the interpersonal scenes quite well. However, according to one interview Hunt sought to play down some of the more outre aspects of the 007 world. Thus there are no added gimmicks in the film, and the "hidden persuaders" are the only metaphenomenal aspects of the film, just as they are in the novel. At times Hunt's passion for realism renders some scenes clunky or overly distanced, lacking the escapist glamor for which the franchise had become known.