Friday, July 27, 2012

Date With Destiny: Oslo, August 31st (2011) ✭✭✭✭ 1/2

Joachim Trier’s Oslo, August 31st is the antithesis of the seasonal blockbuster, but this brooding portrait of a recovering drug addict will remain in your mind long after memories of summer’s superheroes have faded. Trier has created a simple tableau that stirs the emotions in ways that are simultaneously subtle and explosive, leaving audiences - and his battered protagonist - wrenched of feeling and robbed of all but the most basic human instincts. Fortunately Oslo, August 31st is a work of fiction. If it was the documentary it often resembles, the film would be too much to bear.

Here we experience a momentous day in the life of Anders, a 34 year old recovering heroin addict played to deeply damaged perfection by Anders Danielson Lie. Given a day pass from his treatment center for a job interview, Anders ventures out from the leafy green healing cloister and reconnects with some old friends in downtown Oslo. Through their wary - often painful - interactions, Trier builds Anders’ backstory brick by brick, and the true cost of his years of addiction is made heartbreakingly plain. While his old party buddies have moved on to careers, families and futures, Anders faces a daunting lifelong struggle to remain clean. As we learn more about the emotional wreckage caused by Anders’ years of high living, a shocking scene early in the film is given clear context. His current challenges combined with guilt from the past have drained him of hope and spirit. Anders must now decide if such a life is worth living.

Lie has mastered the agonized empathy he sought to convey in Trier’s previous feature Reprise, and here he manages to dominate scenes while appearing to mentally withdraw from them. His deep set eyes provide a direct sight line to his soul, while the dry smile he offers up to his old friends imparts the sadness of wasted years. Constructed as a series of set pieces, Oslo, August 31st offers Lie plenty of showcases, and he delivers with skill and assurance. The long awaited job interview reveals his confusion and contradictions in a harrowing display of self loathing, while his pathetic attempts to revive an old love are undone by a mixture of pride and shame.

Trier provides no easy excuses for Anders, who over the course of the film is able to forgive everyone but himself. The depth of his pain far exceeds mere drug addiction, and the world’s library of recovery psycho-babble offers him no solace. Anders eventually returns to his childhood home, where disheveled ghosts of lost happiness await him, and a dead key on an out-of-tune piano becomes a catalyst for a fateful decision. Oslo, August 31st is a film of simple, modest visuals that traffics in cold and uncompromising psychology. And, like its junkie main character, it doles out the profoundly real in ever more disturbing and dangerous doses.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Hi-Def Nightmare: The Last of England (1980) ✭✭✭

Derek Jarman's The Last of England is being released today in blu-ray from Lorber. Here's my review of the standard def version, originally posted December 9, 2009

A naked man eats cauliflower from the garbage, a distraught bride attempts to rend her garment, and masked thugs with high-powered rifles patrol a burned out city in Derek Jarman’s hellish vision of the anxiety-ridden 1980s. Constructed as an abstract poem, both sonically and visually, “The Last of England” is a challenging, and at times virtually unwatchable film, that repulses and hypnotically seduces in equal measure.

The result is an audience kept perpetually off balance. Jarman unloads vast stores of bile on Britain’s Tory government, while reveling in poignant sentimentality for his own childhood as well as a lost generation of young men ravaged by alienation, war and disease. Repeated images of heroin addicts evoke both disgust and sympathy for those who “seek amusement within England’s many walls”; meanwhile the middle-class is brought to the verge of destruction by “radioactive ice cubes”.

While many of the flashier editing techniques seem quite dated and clichéd, it is important to remember that this film is over 20 years old, and is reflective of a time when civilization seemed to be evolving backwards, and an era in which political power came to be concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. This was especially true in Britain, always a very class-conscious nation, and Jarman intensely explores the contradiction of rigid social stratification in a supposedly free and open society.

Through frequent allusions to Nazi Germany and the Blitzkrieg, Jarman draws stark contrasts between the steely, optimistic Britain of the 1940s and what he believed to be a nation of numbing conformity in the 80s. The changes in the political landscape during that decade have never been universally accepted, and are the true antecedents of today’s “culture wars”.

While Jarman’s film is at times too creative for its own good, underneath the baffling arty glitz is a clear and damning condemnation: Governments are quick to celebrate their successes, but never concede their failures.

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Saturday, July 21, 2012

Two by Götz Spielmann

With two excellent feature films, talented Austrian writer/director Götz Spielmann made the world sit up and take notice in the 2000's. He established himself as a filmmaker unafraid of life's downbeat rhythms and the power struggles unleashed by human sexual desire. Despite unconfirmed rumors of various projects in the works, Spielmann has not made a new film in four years. While we eagerly await a new production - with no indication of when that will be - it's clear it will be quite awhile before another Spielmann film makes it to North American audiences. Fortunately, his two previous successes are readily available on home video, and any fan of reality-driven dramas would do well to check them out.

In 2004's Antares, set during a cold, overcast weekend in Vienna, we peer through the drab concrete walls of a high rise apartment building and into the complicated lives its residents in three lightly interwoven tales of domestic strife. The first story concerns an attractive middle class couple (Petra Morze and Hary Prinz) whose opposing work schedules have caused their lives to become a grinding routine, and their marriage to slowly erode.

Next, we learn about a young grocery cashier (Suzanne Wuest) who is desperately trying to get pregnant for all the wrong reasons. Lastly, we meet a sociopathic realtor (well played by Alex Kiendl) whose emotions can range from smoothly charming to violently abusive in mere seconds, and we become involved in his pathetic attempts to reconcile with his estranged wife (Martina Zinner), who is trying to rebuild her life.

The first narrative is the strongest, featuring a compelling performance by Morze (who is sort of the Catherine Deneuve of Austria) as well as some surprisingly graphic sexuality. Viewers may even feel a bit of a let down when the second story commences, but stick with it, as the momentum is soon restored and we are treated to an ending that ties up all the loose threads in a believable and satisfying way.

Here the director is clearly influenced by the work of his fellow Austrian Michael Haneke, but Spielmann’s filmic stylings are more traditional, and, while there are moments here that will make you gasp, he wisely never delves full-out into Haneke’s brand of drastic, intentionally disturbing realism. Antares is reminiscent of an edition of well crafted short stories and if, for instance, John Cheever or Raymond Carver were from Eastern Europe, the results would look something like this.

2008's Revanche is an extraordinary film all about the symbiotic relationship between opposites and how they not only attract, but actually need each other to survive. Fittingly enough, the film feels at times like two completely different tales rolled into one. Yet this polarity is neither confusing nor intimidating, and in fact adds an enticing flavor to the narrative.

The first half of the film takes place in a Viennese sex club where a recent Ukrainian immigrant named Tamara (Irina Potapenko) uses her willowy allure to build a steady clientele of middle-class Austrian businessmen. She also maintains a romantic relationship with strong and silent Alex (Johannes Kirsh), the club’s bouncer and handyman, who dreams of settling down with Tamara for a better, and more conventional, future. As life at the club becomes more and more dangerous, Alex hatches a hastily conceived scheme to finance their escape, but a series of missteps, and just plain bad timing, reveal the fatal flaws in his plan.

The scene then shifts to a nearby rural community, where Alex reconnects with his elderly grandfather (Johannes Tannheiser, whose character takes stubbornness to amusing new levels) and generally keeps a low profile. But there are two other characters waiting to round out our scenario; a frustrated hausfrau named Susanne (Ursula Strauss) and her policeman husband Robert (Andreas Lust) who, each in their own way, either use Alex or are used by him to attain a deeply personal solace.

The film showcases Spielmann's marvelous gift for recreating the light, space and rhythms of reality.  Within his airy dramatic pauses and leisurely vistas of rolling farmland, we are allowed the time to absorb and contemplate the deep-rooted fears and emotions that have driven all of these characters to the edge of a bleak desperation.

While Robert and Alex have clear cause to develop into mortal enemies, Spielmann craftily elects to show us that the men share a secret tragic history; a history that affects each of them in equal, but ironic, ways. For its type, Revanche is a nearly perfect film: full of earthy beauty, impeccable pacing, stark authenticity and masterful direction.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Metrosexuals of Steel and Panic in the Sky

A few snippets of the new Superman film Man of Steel surfaced last week at Comic-Con, and it appears the iconic superhero has been given the full Chris Nolan nocturnal Goth treatment. Superman is impervious to everything but kryptonite and, apparently, the capricious whims of popular culture. And like pop culture, the last 20 years have been difficult ones for ol’ Supes, as countless traumatic efforts have been made to hip-hop him into relevancy. During this period he has died, been reborn as four different characters, mucked about in alternate universes and, worst of all, sported a mullet. Most recently, Superman renounced his American citizenship in favor of an Internationalist lifestyle. So much for truth, justice and the American way.

2006’s Superman Returns was widely regarded a failure, although I loved it and gave it 4.5 stars. It managed an entertaining story that didn’t destroy the traditional legend entirely, provided you overlook the strong implication that Superman was a baby diddy. Superman Returns was a love letter to the character, particularly all of his on screen manifestations, but its oblique references were lost on the Playstation crowd. Jack Larson and Noel Neill, stalwarts from the 1950’s TV show, appeared in bit parts, while the film’s music featured direct quotations from John Williams’ score composed for the Chris Reeve franchise of the 1970’s. And there was even a connection to the Kirk Alyn serials of the 1940’s, as star Brandon Routh’s lanky build was reminiscent of Alyn’s dancer physique. But Superman Returns was marred by hokey religious analogies and a surprisingly uncathartic ending; an ending that screamed for a sequel that will never be made. Superman has moved on to Henry Cavill in murky colored tights with weird art deco piping. The Man of Steel is now a throughly modern Metropolis metrosexual.

Folks my age - that nebulous demographic wedged between the Boomers and GenX - usually think of the late, lamented Christopher Reeve as the essential Superman. But my preferred embodiment of the character runs a few years earlier to The Adventures of Superman TV show, and the heroic stylings of the equally late and lamented George Reeves. No one milked the takeoffs and landings for dramatic effect better than Reeves’ Man of Steel. Then, once Metropolis had been restored to order, he’d suddenly reappear as boring, buttoned down Clark Kent, often while making a final adjustment on his newly tied Windsor knot. And with a well timed witticism and a wink to camera, both the city and Superman’s secret were safe for another week.

The Adventures of Superman was an extension of the radio dramas and B-grade detective movies that preceded it. Thus George Reeves’ Metropolis was a city of small time hoods; chain smoking knuckle-crackers in big hats with names like Blackie and Mumbles. These unkempt thugs might manage a temporary tactical advantage over Superman in the early going, but there was never any doubt that Reeves would eventually take flight out of a broom closet window and make short work of the miscreants.

But in an episode from Season 2 entitled Panic in the Sky, Superman comes very close to meeting his super-maker, not to mention spilling the beans on his secret identity. In fact, this lowly TV episode comprises the most exciting 30 minutes of Superman narrative ever photographed. No subsequent big budget CGI-laced extravaganza has surpassed it, although the surprise ending of Superman II (1979) comes slightly close.

In Panic in the Sky, Earth faces destruction from an approaching meteor. Superman, advised by a kindly scientist (Jonathan Hale), flys up to the meteor in an attempt to destroy it, but encounters an unknown type of radiation that nearly destroys him. His mission a failure, Superman shakily returns to Earth, drained of strength and his memory a misty haze. Meanwhile, the meteor’s gravitational pull plays havoc with Earth’s weather patterns, unleashing violent storms and earthquakes all over the globe. As the planet becomes engulfed in its death rattles, the only being who can save the world lies sleeping in a Metropolis sickbed, sapped of his superpowers and unable to remember his heroic history. Humanity must face its darkest hour alone while its Kryptonian champion grapples with amnesia.

Panic in the Sky is a triumph of mood and suggestion. Its few attempts at special effects are laughable by today’s standards, yet the dire situational dramatics cut through with conviction and clarity. The terrifying destruction ravaged by the asteroid is never shown, but only mentioned as news reports “off the wire”, read aloud by Perry White, his head engulfed by smoke from a nervously puffed cigar. Tension and suspense builds through every scene, greatly enhanced by the use of some well selected stock music (that’s right, stock music. The only original music in the series was the opening theme).

The episode shifts from macro to micro scales. As Earth prepares for a mysterious armageddon, Clark Kent is absorbed with his own strange mysteries, including some odd garments hanging from a secret compartment in his closet. But this closet has no window through which he can heroically take flight, only a hidden sliding door that leads to more questions than answers. Ultimately, like Superman Returns, the episode takes on its own messianic overtones, as the approaching meteor becomes a symbol of a world without Superman; a dark hellfire no longer held at bay by bright and righteous counterbalances.

Produced for peanuts and beset with cheesy visuals, Panic in the Sky remains an exciting and entertaining chunk of Superman’s filmic legacy. Nearly 60 years later, the installment continues to fascinate and engross, and I’d wager it did more to popularize the Man of Steel than all the subsequent reboots and super-facelifts combined. Sometimes a concept should be left alone, immune to the shifting breezes of fashion. Hollywood and DC Comics have a huge investment in the new Superman movie, and hopefully it will revitalize this splendid character for a new generation. But I’d be stunned if its entertainment value is any greater than 1953’s Panic in the Sky.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Three From Norway

There’s something about our blazing 116° Arizona summers that makes me scurry off in search of productions from cooler climes. Yeah I know summer is typically the time for superheroes and all-you-can-eat explosion buffets, but around here a bleak and cloudy Scandinavian drama, preferably framed by snow banks, provides the perfect antidote for excessive UV rays.

The nation of Norway has been on a hot streak - or should that be refreshing cool streak? - lately with this reviewer, beginning with the astonishingly good TV mini-series Norwegian Cozy (2011), available through Dish Network’s Eurochannel and Amazon. This story of a massively dysfunctional family forced to reconnect when the dementia-ridden patriarch (Stein Winge) is declared a menace by the state, grows and entwines with such blatant honesty viewers quickly find themselves addicted. With each episode, new and surprising angles of family history are revealed, ever deepening the pressures and conflicts faced by the principals.

Winge has ruled - and alienated - his family by a potent mixture of charm, fear and bullying, but now early stages of senility have rendered this aging tyrant a danger mainly to himself. Portly eldest son Georg (Anders Baasmo Christensen), a dreamer who writes letters to an aborted fetus, is given guardianship of his father and takes up residence in his Dad’s shabby suburban bungalow. Younger brother Terje, a frustrated artist who devotes his time to creating outrageously profane websites, is played with great empathy by Anders Danielsen Lie, proving his memorable and heartbreaking turn in Joachim Trier’s Reprise was no fluke.

We also meet the boys’ mother (Tone Danielsen), who found marriage to their father so horrific she has become a lesbian, and a sexy, long lost possible sister (Viktoria Winge). Norwegian Cozy peels away like a densely layered onion, and manages to create a hypnotic resonance by placing us squarely in the skin of its protagonists. Dad is in that precarious state - too senile to be left on his own but not addled enough to give up his pride and ego - and this situation will strike an experiential chord with those of us who have family members with similar afflictions. But the series also blends in humorous and tender moments, and even a bit of occasional goofiness, in forming a complete and engrossing picture of the perils of family life, and how we may never recover from it. There’s one more episode to go, so I haven’t given Norwegian Cozy a star rating yet, but so far it’s on track for 5.

Two Norwegian feature films deserve a quick mention as well. Vegas (2009)✭✭✭✭, has little to do with the Nevada vacation mecca, but is the story of three troubled teens who form an alliance in a foster home. Illuminated by the misty glow of the midnight sun, Vegas is a film of hope and magical possibility, despite its protagonists' rather grim realities. The film sports three wonderful young actors: Karoline Stemmer, Jørgen Hausberg Nilsen and Sindre Kvalvåg Jacobsen, making their feature film debuts. Vegas is available from Eurochannel and YouTube.

Lastly, 2010’s Happy Happy ✭✭✭ is one of those amusing, adultery-based romps that just screams for an American remake with Reese Witherspoon. A bit draggy in parts, the movie is ultimately a pretty decent comedy and worth the watch. Features lots of snowy scenes. Available from Netflix

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Vintage Superheroes and Serials: Batman and Robin (1949) ✭✭✭

The first serial featuring the Caped Crusader, 1943’s Batman, was produced at the height of the frenzied zeitgeist of WWII, and featured an array of Japanese villains (white actors pretending to be Japanese, to be precise) and some appalling racially-charged dialogue. That serial is not suitable for children and is barely passable for adults, unless you like wall-to-wall epithets and ill-fitting costumes.

Batman and Robin from 1949 was the second cinematic incarnation, but the first in our Serial Saturday series to feature truly modern production quality and a decent print to boot. The shots are in focus and properly exposed (I know this doesn’t sound too exciting, but the older serials have some really crappy technicals) and the soundtrack is clear, strong and thankfully free of the scratchy noises and distortions that marred the Mascot productions of the 1930s.

Batman is played by Robert Lowery, a 36 year old journeyman actor with an extensive record of film industry employment in westerns and crime dramas. Lowery’s good looks and smooth vocal delivery kept him busy as a supporting actor but the rank of elite leading man would elude him throughout his career. Lowery does a good job here of portraying alter-ego Bruce Wayne as a pampered waste of air, while imbuing the Dark Knight with an imposing toughness, despite his silly couture.

Taciturn John Duncan, as the Boy Wonder, is a welcome break from the cocky, self indulgent Robins of more recent vintage. Duncan’s still waters run very deep, and while his line readings don’t exactly sparkle, he exudes a steely focus on the task at hand. I’d much rather go into battle with this Dick Grayson than the brash, mouthy Robins of Burt Ward and Chris O’Donnell.

In this 4 ½ hour opus, Gotham City faces impending doom at the hands of a mysterious cloaked figure known as The Wizard. He and his band of sharp-dressed henchmen have stolen a top secret invention that’s essentially the world’s largest remote control. With it, the Wizard can commandeer any plane, train or automobile within a hundred miles, and use that vehicle to unleash wanton death and destruction. Well, he can ram a car into a tree anyway, which was about all the mayhem this low budget serial would allow.

In Chapter One, our heroes leap to the Batmobile - actually in this production it’s a stock 1949 Mercury convertible – in hot pursuit of an armored car under the Wizard’s influence. While the Dynamic Duo is able to thwart the Wizard’s nefarious scheme on this occasion, it becomes clear that, as is often the case in serials, finally slapping the cuffs on this slippery perp will be a long, drawn-out affair.

Just getting to the Wizard’s hideout is an exercise in patience. First, his henchmen have to go to an isolated location at the shore and find the exact right bush to move out the way, revealing a narrow tunnel that descends to a secret underground marina. From there, a submarine shuttles the men to an island where the Wizard scans them with a fancy version of x-ray goggles. If the visitors pass muster, the Wizard pushes a button and allows the men entry into his secret lair of buzzing contraptions and brightly flashing gizmos.

Visiting the Wizard requires a concerted effort. And after you do all that he doesn’t even offer you a cuppa. Hardly seems worth it. Anyway, this cumbersome ritual is repeated many times throughout the serial – I suppose it was one way to extend the episodes to proper length - and eventually the viewer wishes the Wizard would just move someplace closer to town; perhaps a nice condo, convenient to schools and shopping.

And speaking of town, the Gotham City depicted here is not the hotbed of foreboding art-deco skyscrapers as envisioned by Tim Burton and Chris Nolan, but rather a flat, sleepy burg - as exciting and energetic as Akron on a Sunday morning. Street scenes are filmed on back lots with absolutely no effort expended on atmospherics – no strolling extras, no passing cars – creating the sense that the city’s entire population suffers from pathological shyness. Car chases, and there are a lot of them, are filmed in rural areas on dirt roads. Unfortunately, the speeding vehicles create huge dust clouds that partially obscure our view of Gotham’s finest cabbage patches.

The cheapness extends to the Batmobile itself. In fact, there isn’t one. Here, Bruce Wayne’s personal vehicle must suffice as the Dark Knight’s ride. When the top is down, the Mercury conveys Bruce and Dick to their frivolous idle rich appointments. When the top is up, the Dynamic Duo is hot on the trail of the dastardly Wizard. This subtle subterfuge does not fool the very sharp and shapely Vicky Vale (Jane Adams), who finally asks the burning question “What are you doing with Bruce Wayne’s car, Batman?” This query stumped even the writers, as the Caped Crusader just kind of shrugs and laughs it off.

However, these same writers did create one clever deus ex machina; the Wizard’s terrifying device requires bearings made from very expensive diamonds to perform even the most rudimentary functions. So before he can destroy the world, his henchmen must knock off every Zale’s and Jared’s in Gotham, giving Batman and Robin an all-you-can-eat buffet of misdeeds to investigate and thwart. And that, my friends, is how you get a serial to last 263 minutes.

With the advent of the fourth hour, after the Caped Crusaders have survived raging infernos, falls from high rooftops, out of control airplanes and assorted other perils, the serial begins to chug toward conclusion. And by then most viewers, along with the Dynamic Duo, will have thoroughly had it with The Wizard and his shit.

But there is one more revelation to be made - the discovery of the Wizard’s identity – and while it’s a complete surprise, it also is a bit of a letdown. But through this discovery, our heroes are able to finally to corner the devilish criminal. The actual apprehension is surprisingly laid-back and routine, kind of like the collaring of Al Capone for faulty IRS reporting.

You’re probably thinking that after such a litany of complaints, your loyal but snotty reviewer hated Batman and Robin. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, I adored it. As a Batman completist, any manifestation of the character interests me, as long as it remains somewhat true to the legend. My least favorite Batman film, 2008’s The Dark Knight, took too many liberties for my taste, wasn’t much fun and was filmed in such inky darkness it was often incoherent.

This serial succeeds due to the actors. Not necessarily the acting, which barely rises above serviceable, but the attitudes of the performers themselves. From Lowery’s Batman to the lowliest henchman day-player, the cast went about their roles with earnest, absolute conviction.

There’s no tongue-in-cheek smugness and no sense that the actors felt the script was beneath them. Instead, there’s an admirable resolution to interpret every character and each line of dialogue with an unshakable commitment to believability; the cheesy sets and hokey costumes be damned. Rarely is “work ethic” used as a reason to recommend a movie, but this lunch pail, blue collar version of Batman and Robin, devoid of irony and camp, is downright refreshing.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Vintage Superheroes and Serials: The Phantom (1943) ✭✭

Lee Falk’s The Phantom, created in 1936, was a precursor of the modern superhero concept. Essentially a hybrid of the Lone Ranger and Tarzan, The Phantom pioneered many pulp innovations, including the skin-tight union suits that have become the garment of choice for today’s battery of masked crime fighters. The Phantom’s jurisdiction, a mysterious African jungle rich in precious stones, valuable minerals and ravenous crocodiles, provides a groaning board of narrative possibilities. Over the years, The Purple Knight has battled pirates, poachers, headhunters, witch doctors and, most sinister of all, a number of multinational corporations.

This serial from Columbia Pictures was the first attempt to bring The Phantom to the screen and starred buff Tom Tyler as The Aubergine Avenger. Comprised of 15 chapters and clocking in at 5 hours, the production is a thorough immersion in all things related to The Ghost Who Walks and before it’s through you’ll be able to cite chapter and verse the complex history of the Legend in Lilac.

And you’ll need all 5 hours to figure out just what the heck is going on here, as the serial features not one, but two groups of villains, all competing for our hero’s time and attention. The Plum Protector (stop it! right now!) must also contend with renegade bushmen, surly jungle beasts, numerous pools of quicksand and a naïve band of explorers who always seem to get caught in the crossfire.

One group of baddies appear to be members of some sort of amateur mafia with designs on swiping priceless tribal artifacts. The other criminal enterprise is led by the evil Professor Bremmer (Kenneth MacDonald), who seeks to build a secret airstrip on land sacred to the natives. The exact purpose of this airstrip is not known, but it seems doubtful that tourists were clamoring to spend their precious vacations being eaten by tigers while drowning in quicksand. Tying this convoluted silliness together is some claptrap about an ancient treasure map scrawled on a shattered clay tablet. The majority of the map pieces have been recovered. But the really useful fragment, the one with “X” and all that, remains missing.

As a production company, Columbia was generally considered a cut above its main competitor, Republic Pictures, but neither outfit showered its respective serial divisions with lavish budgets. This production set in remote Africa would pose unique challenges and unintentionally create a bizarre and humorous geocultural mash-up.

Filmed at Beale’s Cut, a popular wilderness area near the confluence of Interstate 5 and Route 14 in Santa Clarita, Ca., the crew staged jungle scenes by augmenting the native vegetation with a few potted plants. The result is an arboreal aberration and the only spot on planet Earth where maple and palm freely intermingle.

Sets from old westerns were recycled as African villages and jungle settlements, making this corner of the Dark Continent look an awful lot like old-town Albuquerque. Even the characters’ names add to the confusion. The main local hustler is a bar proprietor named Singapore Smith which, last time I checked, was no where near Africa, but I concede does sound kind of exotic and cool.

The previously mentioned band of well-meaning scientists are guided by a group of sherpas who appear to be Mexican farmers pressed into service. Why gentlemen from Mexico would be leading an African expedition is anyone's guess, but it does account for the party's tendancy to get hopelessly lost in remote and perilous areas.

But most confusing of all are the tribesman, who look much more Samoan than African. Of course, this is usually the case when one takes overweight, white American actors and dresses them up in grass skirts and face paint, which is an accurate description of the wardrobe department’s efforts here. In fact, I can’t recall a single black actor being employed by this production. If I’m wrong I offer my abject apologies, but I really don’t have the energy to fast forward through the whole five hour shebang again and fact check my assertion.

To evaluate what the serial DOES have, one must start with the performance of Tyler as the Mauve Marauder (I warned you!!), and while his athletic build cuts a fine figure in heroic long johns, his Phantom comes off as a bit smug and snooty - the kind of guy who'd go to an amateur musical in St. Louis and then complain that it was much better on Broadway. The script doesn’t help Tyler out very much, as he often utters the equivalent of “Nothing can go wrong now” in a self-satisfied delivery, just before everything goes horribly wrong.

Despite moments of prissiness and lousy prognostication, The Phantom is exceptionally skilled at fisticuffs, which is a good thing since in every episode some miscreant attempts to kick his amethyst ass. Our hero generally does well in the early going, scoring with vigorous body/head combinations. But the Violet Vigilante (please, please stop) has a bit of a glass jaw, and just one punch from his opponent will send him reeling backwards and crashing into a dining room set. The primitive African huts in this production are oddly replete with such furnishings, and it’s a good thing too, since Tyler destroys enough tables and chairs here to keep the assembly line at Broyhill humming for months.

Accompanying The Phantom is his somewhat faithful dog Devil, a beast who seems bored with the entire endeavor. Devil doesn’t have much of an attention span, and often wanders off precisely when his owner needs him the most. Actually, Devil’s attitude is quite sensible if you think about it. Why should he rush in to fight a freaking tiger? The Phantom got himself into this mess…

Truth be told, I’ve never been a big fan of The Phantom. I always found his complex adventures difficult to follow in the comic strips. Probably had something to do with the fact that we only got the Sunday paper at our house, which meant I missed 6 out of every 7 installments. Still, I didn’t see anything here that caused me to reassess my opinion. After 5 hours with the Fuchia Firebrand I still found him odd, creepy and, in the realm of superheroes, squarely second-tier.

Join us next time when we discuss a leading light of the cape and tights crowd; a hero who is still packing movie theatres to this day. A crimefighter of such popularity that his street cred cannot be destroyed, no matter how lousy the serial….

This Article Originally Posted 12/10/2010