Feb 272017
  February 27, 2017


With the most iconic comic book characters in their stable and a near stranglehold on pop culture heroes for decades, I’d expect DC comics to have a better success record with film. How hard can it be to take characters everyone loves, and wants to love, and bring them to life on the big screen? Apparently very hard.

DC has had some winners. The modern Superhero film is due to them. They did it right, and it changed film history. But then they did it wrong. And did it wrong again and again and again. For every Superman, there’s a pair of Schumacher Batman films and a Catwoman. When I ranked the X-Men films, I could say that a majority were good. When I ranked the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I could say that all of the films were worth your time and money. With DC…

If the best I can say about a film is that you shouldn’t put in an effort to avoid it, then things are looking pretty dark, and that’s as good a recommendation as I can give to two-thirds of these films. When I put Suicide Squad in the top third, this is not me singing the praises of Deadshot and his crew. It is a condemnation of Superman III and Batman Forever and Jonah Hex and Steel.

But it isn’t all bad, and sometimes you can have some fun with the failures. Come on, with the right crowd and a good deal of alcohol, Catwoman is a hoot.

This is a ranking of Superhero movies, so it doesn’t include other comic book properties like The Losers (which would not rank well) or RED (which would be up near the top). It also doesn’t include the DC Animated films–where DC does much better. I’ve already ranked those here. It does include 35 films, with two of them ranked twice due to different cuts. (Many of the others, including Batman V Superman, Suicide Squad, and Watchmen, have different versions, but while the changes were, in some cases, substantial, they didn’t alter the overall quality enough to warrant separate placement). This ranking has been updated several times.


#37: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Some movies deserve a calm, reasoned examination. This isn’t one of those. This isn’t a movie. This is cultural desecration. If you love Superman, you’ll hate it. If you love hope, fun, joy, life, you’ll hate it. If you love old comics, new comics, superheroes, plots, sense, your brain, you’ll hate it. If, however, you are deep into emo-whining, then maybe this film is for you. It shouldn’t be, but maybe.

If you are hoping for anything from this bleak midwinter agony, it is that the dreariness, dullness, poor characterizations, and gaping plot holes are worth suffering through because BvS offers a true vision of life. Keep hoping. There is nothing realistic here. People do not act this way. They do not speak this way. They do not respond this way. Nothing human is on the screen.

Do I hate this film? No. As a film, it isn’t worth hating. As a piece of pop culture, yes, I hate it.
(Full Review)
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Feb 162017
one reel

Manji, a samurai warrior of great skill, kills a mob of swordsmen who murdered his little sister. Fatally wounded in the encounter, an enchantress slips him magical bloodworms that repair any wound. Forced to live when he’d far rather die, he is in a shack outside of town when a girl looking much like his sister approaches him. Her father has been murdered and her mother raped and abducted by the members of a new fencing school. The girl wants revenge and the grumpy warrior eventually signs on to help. This leads to a lot of duels and a lot of blood. Allegiances switch and everyone ends up fighting everyone till the body count begins to make one wonder if there is a single adult male left alive in Edo.

What if Wolverine was a samurai warrior? That’s what we have in cult director Takashi Miike’s 100th film. Based on a manga, the characterizations aren’t layered and the story is simple. Each warrior wears a weird outfit or has a distinctive hair style or uses an unlikely weapon. And people do really stupid things—particularly children. And we get a lot of gore. Which is pretty much the point. Blood streams and splatters and limbs go flying. And no one, even the people who can grow back a hand, seem all that troubled when they lose a body part.

Between the fights—and there are a lot of fights—the lightly drawn characters ramble about revenge and death which was of no interest to me and I doubt to anyone else. It’s better when it is coming from the grouchy warrior than the kid I’d like to have died early on. But no one making the film cared who was saying what. Conversations are filler in a film that didn’t need filler. Anything that isn’t combat doesn’t matter.

As for the combat, it is exciting and bloody and fun. And then it is a little less exciting, but bloodier, and not so much fun. And then it is monotonous and dripping and unpleasant. It gets a bit more enjoyable at the end, but this movie is 140 minutes long. 140 MINUTES. For a film where the plot is, people chop up other people, this is way, way too long. At 90 minutes (including credits), I’d have been smiling at the end. A 70 min version would have been great with a couple beers and fried cheese. But this thing wore me down. The only way to really enjoy Blade of the Immortal is to leave half way through.

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Feb 152017
two reels

Sometime in the future, undesirables are forced into a desert south-ish of Texas. Arlen (Suki Waterhouse) is the newest resident. She is quickly captured by body-building cannibals who chop off an arm and a leg. Before they can devour more of her, she escapes and ends up in Comfort, a drug-laden party town ruled by The Dream (Keanu Reeves), that is at least as odd a place, but significantly safer. Her adventures result in her meeting Miami Man (Jason Momoa), one of the cannibals. And walking through the desert with his shopping cart, either wise or insane or both, is The Hermit (Jim Carrey).

Some films are compelling, almost forcing you to watch as you wait for the stunning, exciting moments. And some films do that without ever delivering the stunning, exciting moments. The Bad Batch is in the second category. It had my attention, but it’s hard to say why. Perhaps just from balls-out weirdness.

You could call this apocalyptic science fiction, but absurdist cinema is more accurate. A walled off desert wasteland is the setting, but don’t try to figure what that means for the characters. Normally you’d expect an escape attempt, but no. It isn’t that the characters don’t consider that, but that they can’t. That would be how a real world would operate, and this isn’t the real world. The cannibals spend their days, in the horribly hot dessert, working diligently on their pecs. In Comfort, a skateboarding park sits on the edge of the sand. Noodle carts are setup near outdoor photocopiers. Madmen babble and some guy works a Rubik’s cube. The Hermit requests a sketch as payment for information. Arlen teaches a child how to apply eyeliner. None of that makes sense in a traditional world, but then life doesn’t make sense, and that’s the point. Things happen and there is no meaning to any or it. Even kindness and cruelty have no currency. You find your companionship and that’s as good as it gets. Well, it is a message.

Reeves gives a solid performance that feels very familiar and Carrey gives the best of his career, finally toning his physical comedy down enough to work. Momoa is…well, it’s hard to say. It beats his work in Justice League. Physically he’s sells it, but his accent is odd enough that I’m not sure if he was high or if it was a planned part of the strangeness. Waterhouse’s doesn’t have enough energy to give Arlen life or compete with the others. They are all treated well by the camera and given some fitting music to bask in. It’s fascinating.

And then it ends and so does the fascination. With the hypnotic spell broken, The Bad Batch feels empty, pretentious, and a touch silly. Did I really just watch The Texas Chain Saw Massacre crossed with Zardoz and end up with the theme of friendship is magic? Yeah, I guess I did.

Feb 142017
two reels

Super villain August Kuratov is back from… somewhere… and he plans to take over the world. He was part of a cold war-era genetic experiment to make supermen. To stop him Maj. Elena Larina (Valeriya Shkirando) pulls together the other survivors of that project: rock-controller Ler (Sebastien Sisak), speedster ninja Khan (Sanzhar Madiyev), were-bear Ursus (Anton Pampushnyy), and invisible girl Xenia (Alina Lanina). These Guardians do not age, which has left them all depressed, except for Xenia, whose depressed because she’s lost her memories. They’ll have to over come treachery and find their secret group power if they are going to save Moscow.

A little under a year ago the trailer for The Guardians hit the web and geekdom went nuts. It was cool beyond any superhero film and it was in Russian. There was an upright bear with a gatling gun. How cool is that? And the ninja moved like Nightcrawler from X-Men 2, but also had over-sized curved blades that cut through cars. The girl was exceptionally sexy, squirming on a table while blue lights embedded in her skin flickered. The FX looked great and the Soviet-style imagery gave it a unique quality.

OK, it had good trailers, but the film was never going to live up to them, a fact that became clearer when it came out that the entire budget was $5 million. So is it any good at all? Not really.

First, I do have to give it its due. For that cheap a price tag, it looks fantastic. The FX aren’t up to US blockbuster levels, but the slightly less polished work actually look cooler (“cool” is an important word when talking about The Guardians). Walking robots, a fleet of helicopters carrying a giant antenna, force fields, and a devastated Moscow are far more interesting than the CGI that’s on display in most Western action movies costing 15 times more. The cinematography is imaginative and there are some amazing shots.

But that’s all you have. The script and editing are a mess. I’m going to be generous with the dialog as the subtitles were very poor, but there’s no getting around how very little that dialog accomplishes. Every character dials the emotion up to eleven, but nothing is earned. Elena has two minutes of interaction with the guardians before one starts talking of his great tragedy. Another barely speaks for an hour, but when he does, it is to suddenly related his own great tragedy. Fifteen minutes later they all announce they are best friends and Elena talks about how she’s learned the meaning of friendship from them. When? Sometime off screen I guess. There’s a betrayal that’s supposed to mean something, but doesn’t. There’s a death that is supposed to raise the stakes, but we don’t know the guy who died. These aren’t characters, just actors who occasionally over-emoted toward the camera. It’s as if a half hour of character interaction is laying on the editing room floor. Maybe they did run out of money so never shot the scenes where the heroes got to know each other, laughed, joked, and formed connections, though I suspect they were never written.

With the solid FX work the action should be good, but it isn’t. I’m sure budget was a factor, but it is still more of a script problem. We’ve got an invisible girl and a speedster so there’s all kinds of cool tricks that could come into play. But no, our heroes just walk straight forward and exchange a few punches with the big bad. It makes the Guardians appear weak and stupid, but far more troubling, it’s boring.

There’s a lot of silliness stuffed into the pictures (like their super-suits coming out of nowhere), but those many issues can be excused in a picture like this if it is exciting and gives us someone to care about. But it isn’t and it doesn’t.

My Two Reel rating is a little high, but it is interesting to see a Russian superhero film, and the FX is way beyond what I would expect, so I won’t say to avoid it.

Feb 102017
three reels

Lockhart (Dane DeHaan), a young, unethical businessman, is sent to a mysterious Swiss wellness center to retrieve his company’s CEO, but a car accident lands him as a patient. While the institute’s director (Jason Isaacs) expounds on the wonders of his water cures, Lockhart finds that everything about the place is a little off and mysteries abound. The patients, he discovers, never leave, and that includes the only other youthful one, Hannah (Mia Goth), who is encircled by even greater mysteries.

Because he is best known for a pop trilogy (The Pirates of the Caribbean), people tend to miss that director Gore Verbinski is a master of composition. That’s why those films are so successful. Yes, yes, Johnny Depp was hysterical, but just look at the film. Look at the framing and the lighting and the intricate and perfectly chosen colors, and how the camera pans and where the shot pauses and where it zips along and how that movement relates to the movement of characters and ships and what those characters are thinking. I don’t think a living director does it better. Which would make Verbinski the best director alive… if making a film didn’t involve anything else. But it does and Verbinski is better at the moments than the whole. Still, he does some pretty interesting things with those moments.

Many film critics have their film history wrong, trying to make A Cure For Wellness an homage to the Universal horror films of the ’30 and ‘40s, as it is clearly pointing backward to something. But it has absolutely nothing to do with those movies. Frankenstein and Dracula were firmly rooted in a kind of reality and in a plot-driven cinematic storytelling tradition.

A Cure For Wellness instead owes its nature to the Italian dreamscape horror of the 1960s and ‘70s, such as Operazione paura, where story is nice, but gothic impressions are far more important, or the colorful Suspiria where tension and atmosphere are king. Everything is beautiful and everything is odd. The background is glorious mountains which juxtapose nicely with the early industrial water tanks. At times the institute is spotless and other times it reeks of infection. But the strangeness doesn’t start after Lockhart leaves civilization. The world it twisted from the start, which puts A Cure For Wellness somewhere between a satire and a fairytale. Everyone we meet in New York is either a vicious bastard or a broken soul, but no one is happy. Thus, their wellness is in need of a cure, though not what is offered in the Swiss alps. So we slip from unpleasant dream to full on nightmare.

The last half hour still hangs to its Suspiria feel, but adds in another thread of old European cult films–call it trash cinema, but in the very best way. A Cure For Wellness dives in to the sensational and revolting in a way I found refreshing. We go from hypnotic and bizarre to lurid and… well, still bizarre, but the nightmare feeling vanishes as we wake up with answers to all the questions. The answers are not completely satisfying, and leave some substantial holes, but it was time to clear away the cobwebs.

And therein lies the problem with the film. At two and a half hours, it is easily thirty minutes too long. It needed a concrete ending because it was getting tiring. Dream stories need to be told quicker. With little to hang on to and a feeling of repeatedly starting over again, the nightmare became a bog. And Lockhart doesn’t help. He’s unlikable from the start and he’s all we get as a portal. A creep like him is fine in a briefer picture or one where we are following other things, but with nothing else to connect to, he’s the wrong protagonist.

Jason Isaacs mashes together sympathy and buried evil while Mia Goth personifies loss and need and the unknown. Add in that atmosphere and the macabre beauty and A Cure For Wellness is a picture to see, but there is a far better film that could easily be carved out of this one.

Feb 102017
one reel

A group of medical students—weird Courtney (Ellen Page), rich-kid Jamie (James Norton), easily-freaked Sophia (Kiersey Clemons), cute and capable Marlo (Nina Dobrev), and superior doc Ray (Diego Luna)—stop their hearts to have near death experiences. This super-charges their brains after they are revived, but then they begin having frightening hallucinations. Have they brought something back, cracked open a mystic door, or damaged their psychological health?

I’ve often said that it’s better to remake a weak movie than a strong one, so I’ll give the filmmakers of 2017’s Flatliners credit in that respect. Of course the idea is not to make a still weaker movie. The original did very little with its potentially interesting premise. This one does less.

The five actors are appealing enough—their characters less so, but they are functional if the story could do the heavy lifting. But the story just flops about. The final question in my description of the film is the key to Flatliners’ failure: Have they brought something back, cracked open a mystic door, or damaged their psychological health? It’s best if we know by the closing credits, and the film better know the answer long before that, but there is no revelations here. One by one our team members, while alone, find themselves in dark places getting visions connected to some not-that-interesting bad thing they’d done. Since none of it is explained, none of it means anything. They just see scary stuff and then chat about it to no purpose. That is all that happens for two-thirds of the film. Perhaps if this was a character study, but that would require more than the surface level we’re given of these five people.

Flatliners has nothing to say and no stylish way of saying it. I didn’t care about anything happening and just wanted it to be over. There are worse horror film out there—if this is a horror film—and worse films released in 2017, but this is one of the most pointless ones.