February 22, 2015

Five Good Things about Masters of the Universe: Number 1, Skeletor

Every Masters of the Universe review, contemporary and retro, will include 2 points. One, it's a piece of shit. Two, Skeletor is fabulous.

After hiring Ivan Drago, Tom Paris, TV's Monica, Noodles MacIntosh, and Major Dad's boss, schlock kingpins Golan and Globus decided they'd better hire an actual actor for at least one role. And, like another genuine actor surrounded by stiffs so wooden they had to fend off beavers throughout the shoot, Frank Langella understood exactly what kind of performance this movie needed and gave it a great one. I don't have much use for children, but thank God both Langella and Raul Julia had rugrats who convinced them to star in a shitty children's movie, because each actor's pitch-perfect camp is desperately needed to keep the audience from slipping into a coma.

Langella, slathered in what has to be the most immobile face make-up in the history of movies (that as a bonus makes him look nothing at all like an animated skeleton), still manages to give a performance that overshadows the entire movie. How the hell he can emote at all using only his eyes, voice, and barely imperceptible chin movements I can't pretend to know, but he creates a genuine comic book villain that no amount of low-rent stormtroopers or bad synthesizer music can contain. When Man-at-Arms responds to Skeletor's threat to kill the Sorceress by defiantly shouting "You dare threaten her life?" and Skeletor thunders back, "I dare anything. I am Skeletor!", you see that Langella, if only at that moment, really believes he's an evil animated skeleton wizard. And for that same moment, so do you.

Great villains, if there's nothing to balance them, warp the movie around them. So if you're going to have Hannibal Lector in your movie, you'd better have Clarice Starling, too. If you don't, then Lector takes over the movie and you realize you'd rather have the psycho villain win and kill everybody. As wonderfully entertaining as Langella is in the role, it's also irritating, because these clods don't deserve to oppose Skeletor. When Skeletor brings He-Man back to Eternia in chains, leaving He-Man's idiot friends behind on a primitive and tasteless planet, that's how the movie should end. Skeletor ought to win, if only because he's the only one having any fun at all. Kind of like Alan Rickman in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.

Actually, exactly like that.

The best scenes in the movie, it's no surprise, are between Skeletor and Evil-Lyn. I could write about them, but thankfully I don't have to. Instead, I'll just end this review with El Santo of 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting doing it for me.

"Frank Langella looks like he's having the time of his life as Skeletor, unleashing all the Big, Hammy Evil...[Meg Foster] and Langella are so good at playing off of each other. Watching them, you get a much stronger sense of their characters' history together than anything in the script itself even faintly suggests, an impression of two people (for lack of a better term) who have known each other for years and have whatever passes among the diabolically evil and thoroughly untrustworthy for a strong and stable on-the-job friendship. Indeed, Langella and Foster get the best moment in the whole film, right after Skeletor interrupts an unexpectedly gentle interlude with Evil-Lyn in order to vaporize Saurod in the usual arch-villain 'making an example of failure' bit. Evil-Lyn, standing beside Skeletor’s throne, offers her opinion on how best to deal with the others, at which point Skeletor grabs her, drags her down to stand with the surviving bounty hunters, and informs her that she’ll be in command of operations on Earth from now on. 'I was not suggesting that I go,' she says, to which Skeletor retorts, 'Then you should not have spoken.' It doesn’t sound like much, but it's all in the delivery: Skeletor's sternly affectionate confidence in Evil-Lyn and her ability to accomplish what Karg could not, Evil-Lyn’s complete lack of confidence in the very same thing, the enormous danger inherent in having someone like Skeletor believe that you're good at your job."

So there you have it, Five Good Things about Masters of the Universe. There are any number of smaller things, too, like the fact that it provided James Tolkan a paycheck. (I hope you're sitting down, but he plays the role of a gruff, belligerent authority figure who bullies the young protagonist.) But these are the top 5, which are almost enough to redeem the whole misbegotten enterprise.

Movie still sucks ass, though.

February 15, 2015

Five Good Things about Masters of the Universe: Number 2, Evil-Lyn

Everything about Evil-Lyn is right: the costume, the hairstyle, the performance, the voice, the smoldering sexual tension with Frank Langella, those eyes. Evil-Lyn is the only character the filmmakers got exactly right. He-Man's a stiff, Man-at-Arms and Teela are unrecognizeable, the Sorceress is old and English and doesn't turn into a bird or even wear a bird on her head, Skeletor's make-up is terrible, Beast Man is a mute lion furry, Karg and Blade and that...lizard...guy aren't even from the series, Battle Cat doesn't even get to be in the movie--but they got Evil-Lyn right.

I don't know who decided to cast Meg Foster in the role, but that person deserved a raise. And to think the filmmakers seriously considered making her wear contact lenses to hide her eyes. All the other things I mentioned help, but it's really her eyes that set Evil-Lyn apart. She doesn't seem to belong in the movie, which is why the character works. She's truly otherworldly, in a way that the lion furry, the lizard man, the goofy muppets, and the guy with an immobile mask for a face aren't. She's mysterious and sultry, and totally believable as Skeletor's dark companion. I mean, she's got evil right there in her name!

Her best scene is every scene she's in, but my personal favorite is when Skeletor gains the Power Cosmic and totally doesn't share it with her: She leaves. That's right, she's all, "Smell ya later" and jets. No scream of rage, no continuing to fight He-Man even though she has no quarrel with him at this point, no foolish attempt to charge at possibly the most powerful being in the universe at that point--she just blows the joint. Now of course, there was no sequel to this movie, because it blew harder than an episode of The O'Reilly Factor. But it was a great sequel set-up, with Evil-Lyn abandoning Skeletor to his fate, still out there, waiting for the time to strike, in a way far more subtle and devious than ol' Bonehead ever managed.

And then they fuck it up with a post-credit sequence showing Skeletor not dead. Hel-lo! You already set up the sequel, dipshits. Evil-Lyn. She left when the heroes were incapacitated and Skellie was having a space orgasm, remember? Oh that's right, you don't remember, BECAUSE THIS MOVIE IS FUCKING STUPID!

I can't believe there's no scene of Evil-Lyn trying to seduce He-Man. Probably because nobody would buy him turning her down.

February 13, 2015

Five Good Things about Masters of the Universe: Number 3, Eternia

Apart from the faux-Stormtrooper armor of Skeletor's guards, the look of the movie's planet Eternia is pretty rad. For not much money (and with no CGI), they create a rather interesting alien planet and pull off some snazzy shots. French artist Moebius, who lent his considerable artistic talent either directly or indirectly to the visual designs of Blade Runner, Alien, and Dune, did some impressive conceptual work. The film opens on a nice matte painting of the exterior of the iconic Castle Grayskull, and most of the first act takes place within, on what is really a neat set. Think the Emperor's throne room in Return of the Jedi, complete with a dangerous and highly unnecessary bottomless shaft for the black-robed, white-faced lightning-shooting evil wizard to fall into, combined with the Emperor's throne room in Dune.

He-Man gets a great introduction. Skeletor, having taken Grayskull, believes he has won. (And, were it not for the contrivances provided by the screenwriters' trusty Plot-O-Matic 3000, he has.) This being the case, he occasionally makes bombastic announcements to the "people of Eternia" as their new ruler, in which his giant face is holographically projected (presumably) all around the planet. Against the background of Skeletor's colossal face declaring that "Those who do not pledge themselves to me shall be destroyed!", He-Man appears in the foreground, tiny and alone on a rocky outcropping, his ripply muscle-y Dolph Lundgren back to us, staring grimly (I assume) at this evidence of Skeletor's seeming victory. This shot says everything we need to know just by the visuals. Rebels, Empire. We get a sense of how small and ill-equipped the Rebels are and how large and powerful the Empire Skeletor is.

They then immediately ruin this nice moment by showing He-Man fighting men in reflective padded armor shooting laser guns while he uses his sword to deflect their blaster fire back at them. Hmm...where have I seen that before?

But hey, if you're gonna steal, steal from the best, amirite?

Of course, because this movie sucks, we almost immediately leave Eternia and spend the rest of the movie on boring old Earth, that primitive and tasteless planet. But for a few early scenes, man, they were really onto something.

February 11, 2015

Five Good Things about Masters of the Universe: Number 4, He-Man gets captured.

It's so cliche even Austin Powers made fun of it. Roger Ebert gave it a name: The Fallacy of the Talking Killer. Not only does it appear on the Evil Overlord list, but it appears several times.

The villain has the hero dead to rights. All he has to do is pull the trigger. "Bang. Dead." to quote Scott Evil. But he doesn't. He has to kill the hero in some elaborate way. Or he has to kill him after he has destroyed all that he holds dear. Or he has to explain his plan first. Or he has to kill him after he attains ultimate power in the universe.

Which is to say, he has to let the hero put his escape plan into action so we can have a crowd-pleasing end-of-the-movie fight scene.

The wrong way to do this is how it's down in every James Bond movie ever: a naked plot contrivance. The villain can't kill the hero because then the hero would be dead and the movie would be over. The right way is to give the villain a reason to keep the hero alive.

Now if you're a hack fraud, you'll say, "But Carl Eusebius, you just gave reasons! The villain can't kill the hero because of his hubris. He has to triumph in such a way that blah blah" shut the fuck up. "The villain is arrogant" is not a reason, it's a plot contrivance. A reason comes from a character. It's called "motivation". Every character in your story has to have it, else your story isn't about human beings or anything like them. If a villain is so arrogant that he'll risk his own life due to his arrogance, you have to set that up. It has to emerge from the villain's character. Let me give you two examples from movies that don't suck. One movie is great, and the other is good in a schlocky action kind of way, just to show you that "action" doesn't mean "dumb".

In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the titular villain doesn't personally have Kirk in his sights, but he has a man who does, Captain Terrell. Terrell informs Khan that he has Kirk at phaserpoint and also has possession of the Genesis device, so that Khan is free to take the device at any time. Khan, being a villain in an actual movie, immediately orders Terrell to execute Kirk, since, as he puts it, "First thing's first." Terrell is too good a person to gun someone down in cold blood, even under mind control, so he fails to do so. Kirk then taunts Khan, demanding that he face him personally. Khan, being a villain in an actual movie (did I mention that part?), correctly suspects that he has nothing to gain by doing this. At this moment he is in control; going to Kirk's location means fighting on Kirk's terms, not his own. Instead, he can destroy Enterprise and leave Kirk permanently stranded. This victory would be poetic (and we know Khan is a cultured man who would appreciate the poetry of his vengeance, since he quotes Milton and Melville at the drop of a hat), because Kirk has earlier abandoned Khan and his wife. What better way to revenge himself upon Kirk than to consign him to the same fate?

At the end of the film, Kirk is back on Enterprise, which in its current state is much weaker than Khan's Reliant. To make up for this, Enterprise flees into a nebula, where both ships will be crippled to the same degree. Khan rather wisely again refuses to fight on Kirk's terms. But Kirk knows Khan, the kind of man he is. Because The Wrath of Khan is a great film, it now inverts the earlier situation that led to Enterprise being crippled in the first place. In that situation, Khan approached Enterprise as a friend, since Reliant is a fellow Starfleet ship, while refusing to make contact to avoid giving the game away. One of Kirk's officers quoted a regulation requiring defensive action against any ship, even a Starfleet ship, that has not been successfully contacted. Because Khan knows Kirk well, he correctly guesses that Kirk will ignore this regulation and instead rely on his own judgment. This allows Khan to cripple Kirk's ship by firing without warning on a defenseless Enterprise.

But now, at the end, it's Kirk's knowledge of Khan that will in turn lead to Khan's crushing defeat. Kirk gets on the line and taunts Khan, this time not angrily, but mockingly. "I'm laughing at the 'superior intellect'", he says with barely concealed mirth, purposefully using Khan's own language to goad him. Khan then makes the fatal decision to enter the nebula, where he finds only defeat and death.

The second film I've already talked about, but fuck it, here it is again. In Commando, the villain Bennett has Matrix at gunpoint, as he holds the latter's daughter hostage. Matrix plays on his knowledge of Bennett's psych (they were in special forces together for many years) to get Bennett to discard both the gun and the girl and fight Matrix as an equal. In a shitty action movie, this would work because villains are dumb. But here it works because Commando carefully lays the groundwork for it to work. Bennett is shown to take pleasure in killing with knives rather than guns, so he can see his victims' eyes as the life oozes out of them. Bennett is repeatedly shown comparing himself to Matrix, claiming they are equals and superior to the common soldiers around them. Even if no one else were around to see it, if Bennett defeated Matrix only because he had his daughter as hostage and the gun, he would always have that doubt: Was I really better than him? Because Bennett has been measuring himself against Matrix for a long time, only by beating him "fairly" can he be sure, in his own mind, that he's really the best. Even then, Bennett's no fool. Once he realizes Matrix is winning and he manages to locate the discarded gun, he doesn't hesitate to use it. Wanting to be the best is one thing, but he's not dying for it.

So it is for Masters of the Universe. As the film opens, Skeletor has won. He's captured Castle Grayskull and the Sorceress. All he needs to do is to drain her power and wait for the stars to align and he gains ultimate power in the universe or whatever. The forces of good have been reduced to a ragtag resistance force, with He-Man as its charismatic leader. When Skeletor sends his forces out to capture He-Man, his right-hand woman Evil-Lyn inquires why he doesn't order them to kill him. Skeletor replies, "If I kill him, I make him a martyr, a saint." Instead, he plans to capture He-Man, utterly break him, and parade this shattered and dejected enemy leader in front of the world, to demoralize all his followers and discourage anyone else from being one. See, that's a reason not to kill the hero, at least not right away.

February 9, 2015

Five Good Things about Masters of the Universe, Number 5, No Prince Adam.

Maybe they realized how moronic it would look to have the same live-action actor playing both Adam and He-Man, or maybe they didn't want to pay for the special effects required to portray the transformation sequence, or maybe Dolph Lundgren refused to wear pink and white tights. For whatever reason, there's no Adam. He-Man is just He-Man.

This deprives us, of course, of the homoerotic transformation sequence: Surrounded in light and projected against the imposing background of the ominous Castle Grayskull (that way they can use the same sequence no matter where Adam is at the time), mild-mannered Clark Kent Prince Adam holds his sword aloft in the most phallic way possible as his clothes disappear and he turns into a ripply muscle-y barbarian with a killer tan. He then bench-presses his sword while shouting, "I have The Powerrrrrr!" to no one in particular. This seems to be a necessary step in order to turn his mild-mannered tiger companion into the monstrous Battle Cat, a tiger that isn't mild-mannered. Which, you know, is better for fighting evil. He-Man does this by pointing his iron-hard rod--the Sword, I mean--at him, shooting a white-hot stream of lightning that transforms him into BC. I don't know why He-Man has to bench press the sword first, but there you go. Actually, he does it even when BC isn't around to be transformed, so I officially have no idea why he does this.

As for the movie, at its climax, He-Man finally, finally holds aloft The Sword and shouts "I have The Powerrrrrr!" as he's enveloped in light, and...it doesn't make any sense. He never did that before and never does it again. It just comes out of nowhere, because it was in the show...even though the movie doesn't follow the show, since he doesn't transform. He just shouts and glows in light while Skeletor stands there thinking, "The fuck is he on about?" It goes back to how Cannon tried to have it both ways. The "I have The Power" line is so iconic they felt they had to include it, even though it doesn't make any sense in the context of their adaptation. (Think the last-minute nonsensical never-referenced-again "By your command" line in the Battlestar Galactica remake.)

Still, there's no Prince Adam. And we're all happy about that.

February 5, 2015

Five Good Things About Masters of the Universe

Masters of the Universe is one of the worst theatrically-released action movies of the 1980s. It's so bad it sunk its production company, the unparalleled masters of crap known as Cannon Films, a company that even The Apple and 17 Chuck-Norris-in-Vietnam movies couldn't destroy. But MotU managed it.

Masters of the Universe began as a toy line, whose only "story" consisted of mini-comics included with each doll action figure. Not a lot of depth there. This is a toy line in which the muscle-y barbarian hero is named "He-Man" and the villain, who is an animated skeleton, is called "Skeletor". A skeleton. Named Skeletor. They must've spent upwards of minutes coming up with that one. The Filmation cartoon series added more depth, but it was actually worse because the added elements made even less sense. The dumbest thing of all was giving He-Man an alter ego in the form of the meek and ineffective Prince Adam. In order to "transform" into He-Man, Adam had to pull the Sword of Power from his back and hold it aloft in the most phallic way possible, standing as erect as his iron-hard sword allows in order to become a real man. (It's not quite on the order of Thundercats, in which the hero's sword literally grows longer and stronger as he cries out for a lady of the evening, but it's not far off.) Never mind the fact that Adam is wearing pink and white tights, so there's no way he could carry a sword strapped to his back without its being visible, yet it doesn't appear until he reaches for it, and never mind that Adam looks exactly like He-Man, only paler and wearing clothes. Superman at least wore glasses. He-Man...loses his tan. Surely Skeletor will never penetrate this cunning disguise! And even when yer old pal Carl Eusebius was a wee tot 3 years of age and therefore dumb enough to like this crap, he wondered how Adam could be a weakling when he has exactly the same ripped physique as He-Man.

I guess it's still better than Battle Cat, the tiger He-Man rides (really). BC transmogrifies from a green-and-yellow-striped tiger into a green-and-yellow-striped tiger...wearing a hat. It takes the Sword of Power to put a hat on a tiger? Was The Sword designed by Siegfried and Roy?

So MotU sucked from the beginning, making it a real challenge for Cannon: Make the film too similar to the show, and it'll be terrible, but make it too different, and you lose the built-in audience of dumb kids that presumably were the reason the film was made in the first place. Being the kings of bad decisions, the people at Cannon decided to go for broke and do both. Following the comics and not the TV show, the movie left kids who only knew the show baffled (almost all of them, since the comics had long since been discontinued by 1987 and the show was the closest MotU had to canon at that point), while the adults who didn't know anything about the series guffawed at every mention of the name "He-Man" and sat bored out of the their skull-bones until the credits rolled.

Still, before I rip into this piece of shit, I wanted to point out some good things about it. Because as bad as it is, there are some really, really effective parts. And that just makes yer old pal Carl Eusebius even madder. This good stuff, wasted here in this pile of crap. It's enough to make you want to stop purposefully watching shitty movies and writing a terrible blog about them. So, over the next five days, enjoy Five Good Things about Masters of the Universe.