Jan 252017
2.5 reels

Ordinary citizens are murdering their neighbors, believing them to be demons. and The Justice League can’t find a cause. Batman (Jason O’Mara) teams up with the esoteric mage and anti-hero John Constantine (Matt Ryan), the magician Zatanna (Camilla Luddington), the ghost Deadman (Nicholas Turturro), and the possessed knight Jason Blood (Ray Chase) to unravel the mystery.

The good and the bad of Justice League Dark are the same as that of the DC New 52 comics it is based upon. John Constantine is the draw and the guy that holds it all together. Over time he can get to be a bit of a drag and he is hard to cheer for, but his flawed personality and magic tricks can be a lot of fun. Zatanna is a more traditional hero, but an engaging one and she works well with Constantine. Their seedy world of demons and deals is a nice change of pace from “the men in tights.” Both deserve their own comics and films (and have had their own comics, and in the case of Constantine, a film and a TV series), and both are even better when they can play off each other.

But two things held the comics back and equally pull down this production. Firstly, the characters don’t fit together. Constantine and Zatanna live in that dark world of spells. But Deadman is an old time joke character, who belongs in Sunday comic strips. The fact that he wears tights just drives home the point. Jason Blood is perfect for your next high fantasy role playing game. Sure, knights and dragons are magical, but it is a different kind of magic. I wouldn’t drop Doctor Strange into the middle of The Lord of the Rings, or vise-verse, but that’s what we have here. Swamp Thing fits no better (yes, he’s pulled in for a long cameo), and the magic house AI feels like it was yanked straight out of the science fiction television show Andromeda. Batman is only in the movie because DC can’t sell anything without Batman. He’s amusing here and there, but his normal role is taken by Constantine, which leaves him to stand around and doubt magic. The pieces just don’t fit together. This becomes more evident when we get to a big super-hero type fight scene. Constantine should be doing gritty, nasty little spells, not tossing power bolts.

The second is a problem that plagues many fantasy films: we have no idea what anyone can do or how powerful anything is. There are no rules. When any of the team is in trouble, they just pull more magic and win. We have no way of knowing if any situation is dangerous. It’s all just flashing lights.

The story is a mystery that is tied up a little too easily, but this is a 76 minute film, so it could only get so complicated. There’s a few more origin stories than I’d have liked, but they were stuck with that, or leave the characters as unknowns except to comic readers. There’s also an excrement demon, straight out of Kevin Smith’s Dogma. I’d have thought DC had enough monsters in their comics to make swiping one unnecessary.

The R-rating is undeserved, both from the ratings board (who go a bit nuts with cartoons, wanting to warn parents of even the slightest nudge past teddy bears) and from DC who wanted it. All it amounts to is one use of “shit,” a few “bastards” and a purple magical entity that teases a curvy female bottom. These are barely worth a PG-13 and all could have been scaled back without harm to the picture, and should have been as the swearing stands out.

Justice League Dark is one of the better films DC has produced in the last few years. That’s not a ringing endorsement, but an indication of the mess that is DC. Suicide Squad was fair and both Batman v Superman and Man of Steel were as bad as Superhero movies get. Their animated films had been their strength, but the weak Son of Batman trilogy and the misguided Killing Joke have shredded that reputation. JL Dark isn’t bad, and for DC right now, that’s a win.

Jan 152017
  January 15, 2017

For my dumb, fun, movie of the night, I went with Transporter 2 from 2005. I had only seen the first, which was dumb and fun. And this one was dumb and fun. Jason Statham did his alpha manly man thing to the point that I was expecting to see pools of testosterone on the floor around him.

It could easily have been a better film. I could have improved the film massively with an hour and a red pen. But my guess is that the expected viewers for this kind of film don’t want it improved. The fights in the first half were exciting, but as we headed toward the climax, they just became too dumb to mean anything. Our hero against two tough guys and a lingerie-clad girl with automatic pistols? That’s cool. Our hero against twelve axe-wielding brutes with no place to duck? That’s just stupid. He would have died. Simple. It makes it far less exciting. But I’m guessing the fans of these flicks just think it is cooler with more. I’ve seen the same thing with old Shaw brothers martial arts films that get dumber and dumber as they go along until it is nothing but bodies moving on screen. Or anything with Chuck Norris. I don’t think the genre has to be bad, but maybe its biggest fans think it does.

It also had the recent James Bond film problem. Old Bond (Connery/Moore) could get away with certain things because it was part of the dance. It isn’t real. We know it isn’t real. And there are rules in the unreal world. It’s like a musical, where the rules say people can suddenly break into song. So in old Bond, villains could have elaborate ridiculous plans, as well as shark tanks, instead of just shooting Bond and being done with it. But now that Bond is supposed to be “gritty and realistic” that sort of thing doesn’t work so well (like, everything in Spectre). And so we have Transporter 2—not realistic by any means, but also not a faux-world Bond film. In the Transporter world, people do just kill people. All the time. Lots of them. Yet villains could have shot our hero four times—shot him dead—but didn’t. No reason. A lot of reasons why they should. But they didn’t. They instead held off to chat. Which is…dumb. Give me magical Bond spy world, I’m OK with it. But in kill-everything-that-moves Transporter land, our hero should be dead.

All of which means the problem isn’t really with films, it’s with audiences. There are far too many dim film-viewers. Classes would be nice. Thinking would be nicer, but that’s asking too much. So to get better films, we need a better class of audience. Maybe we can get The Transporter to eliminate some of the current group. Just a thought.

Jan 112017
  January 11, 2017

I’ve been doing the best genre film list thing for 2016, and I’ll keep to that as I haven’t seen enough outside the genre world to sum up all the work out there. But Love & Friendship has got to be high up on any full list, and slashes to bits most of those genre films.

love-and-friendship-2016Love and Friendship is a Jane Austin film. For those who don’t read or watch Austin (shame on you), she can be quite pointed. But her jabs tend to be done with a bit of affection. Society is dumb and the people in it shallow and silly, but society is beautiful as well and those shallow silly people have good hearts. Not so here. This is Austin with the gloves off and in full comedy mode.

What’s really fun is that we are completely on the side of the villain. Lady Susan (played wonderfully by Kate Beckinsale, returning to Austin after a fine 1996 turn as Emma–people forget what a fine actress she is, discounting her because of her action work in Underworld, and ignoring that she’s quite good in those films) is a manipulative, mastermind who is pathologically unable to see herself as anything but perfect. Most of those she twists about are fools, but a few rise above that, yet I wanted them to lose and Lady Susan to win. Her exact goals are foggy as key scenes are kept hidden from us–because Susan’s world is that of society; that is where she is mistress of all and so that is where we see her. That and reporting back to her confident who shares her outlook on life.

The plot twists here and there, particularly as so much is hidden, but the basics are simple enough: Lady Susan, a non-grieving widow currently lives by visiting wealthy friends and family. She’s looking for a bit of fun for herself, and a bit of money, and a match for her daughter. She’s just been tossed out of one house for her affair with the married master of the mansion, so heads over to her husband’s brother’s home. The wife hates her, and understands her, but is no equal. Lady Susan sets to work on those less clever and therein lies the story.

The film is ruthless with social custom, and more so toward those who control the status quo, while just being a lot of fun. Considering the failings of the world that the good people fit into so comfortably, perhaps Lady Susan is a heroine after all.


Jan 092017
four reels

In a bleak Estonian village, the peasants survive with the help of witchcraft and folk magic, which is as much a part of everyday life as the tree bark they eat. The most notable magic takes the form of “kratts,” automatons made from wood, bone, straw, farm implements, and eventually even snow, and animated by a soul purchased from The Devil. These are used sometimes for basic work, but as often to steal from each other. Among these unsavory villagers is Liina, a young and pretty girl who is besotted with Hans, who is the least repulsive of the local males. But Hans is obsessed by the Baroness, the daughter of the feeble German landowners who are constantly being robbed by their servants. Her attempts to win him with magic over several months are complicated by ghosts, the plague, lycanthropy, a poetic snowman, and a very angry Devil.

It doesn’t get much weirder than this art house surrealistic fairytale. After a brief scene of a wolf (more likely werewolf) in the snow, we’re introduced to a three-legged creation, with blades for hands (or feet) and a mounted cow’s skull, that breaks into a barn, steals a calf, and then turns into a helicopter. By the time the dead, that have dropped by for dinner and a sauna, have turned into giant chickens, it all seems to fit together. It doesn’t make sense exactly, but it fits.

Based on a hugely successful Estonian novel, the film keeps many of the comic elements, but on the whole takes a more dour tone. There’s some laughs to be had, often connected to cruelty. More often it is tense. The B&W photography is beautiful, but that’s a beautiful look at a wretched place, filled with broken buildings and unsanitary people. There’s no feeling of hope, which is driven home by the grim score. As these people cheat and steal from each other, my question is why they bother. I’d just embrace the plague, which comes first as a beautiful girl, then a goat, and finally a pig.

This may all sound dreary, but it is gorgeous and captivating. Even though you are trudging along in the muck, the muck is shiny and there’s always something new. There’s a sleepwalking girl who must be saved, by her father, lover, and enemy. There’s multiple trips to a crossroads to make deals with the devil. There’s a priest lead around on a leash, peasants spitting out Eucharist wafers to make holy arrows, hidden treasure, and men with their souls ripped out. It’s all crazy, and slow, but never boring. Poetic, twisted, and perplexing, if you really mean it when you say, “Hollywood keeps making the same stuff; I want something different” then I’ve got a movie for you.