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(In)Justice League: Goatees and Massacres
Anyone watching the Justice League animated movies in order: The New Frontier, Crisis On Two Earths, Doom, Flashpoint, and War, will notice that they have become darker and more nihilistic one after another. Now we arrive at Gods and Monsters, the depressing continuation of this trend.
Of course, they are all "anti-heroes" now, to put it kindly, although a combination of violent vigilantes and fascist army is probably closer to the truth. Batman's a vampire (how imaginative! A vampire bat!), and embarrassingly Superman (sporting a goatee which I guess is meant to make him look badass?) is a Mexican illegal immigrant, a move obviously intended to make a politically correct point, although not really exploited here. Truth Justice and the Mexican way ! Yay! Oh and his real father is the murderous General Zod.
Even worse is the new sword-carrying Wonder Woman. Her family has been massacred by Highfather, who in the real DC universe is the embodiment of goodness, while Darkseid, who Highfather betrays here, is supposed to be the embodiment of evil. (Hence the name)
Poor old Jack Kirby must be rolling over in his grave to see his creations being so abused. He understood the difference between good and evil, light and dark, something that modern writers (themselves gone over to the dark side?) no longer see.
So by what perversion of the word 'Justice' can this trio of murderous misfits call themselves the 'Justice League'? I refuse to call these impostors by their assumed superhero names, since they are NOT the beloved characters they purport to be or anything close, so I dub them Sword Woman, Goatee Man and Vampire-Batman.
This morally inverted universe could be interesting if there was some realisation at some point by the characters that they were actually the bad guys and see them turn it around. Now That could have been thrilling. The problem is that we are supposed to be on their side from the start and see their personality flaws (ie that they are all bloodthirsty killers) as badass.
The film is basically a series of massacres, each more brutal than the last. Leaving aside the destruction of Krypton, massacre #1 is the "Justice League" wiping out a terrorist organisation. At least 50 people are horrifically killed by the JL, when they could just as easily have been captured by this super-powered trio. Some are hacked to death by Sword Woman, some crushed to death thanks to Goatee Man's heat vision (which he uses indiscriminately) and one has his blood sucked by Vampire-Batman. Nice. But that's OK its alright since they are "terrorists" and therefore deserve to be summarily executed by our heroes.
A token protest by ordinary people is then shown as well as a critical report by Lois Lane, but this legitimate concern is depicted as a bunch of small-mindedness.
Massacre #2 is of a group of scientists, some beloved characters in the comic world. Oh and a kid who just happens to be a young version of Cyborg. Again the film goes out of its way to make this as sadistic as possible.
Massacre #3 is the aforementioned backstory of Sword Woman.
Massacre #4 is a continuation of the massacre of scientists, this time inside Magnus's house. The violence is even more graphic with one poor victim being literally ripped in two. Note that our heroes were not able to save one person.
At this point I was pretty stunned but was still expecting some big turnaround to come. This, after all, has received some 5/5 reviews.
Massacre #5 is when Goatee Man and Sword Woman decide "heroically" not to give up but instead fight the army. To be fair, this sequence is less graphic than the earlier ones; we don't actually see any soldiers being killed when their tanks and helicopters are smashed by our heroes. Maybe these all were drones. But I guess showing soldiers dying would make the shallow ending less palatable.
Then comes an almost literal Deus-ex-machina. Lex Luthor (channeling his inner Stephen Hawking) appears out of thin air and explains to the JL what's happening and they go and fix the "villain".
Cue general rejoicing. Lois Lane recants her former opinions. The JL are now exonerated. So what if they have killed dozens of soldiers unnecessarily in addition to over 50 "terrorists" and failed to save a single scientist? They saved the world! Oh, from a threat powered by Goatee Man's rocket ship and protected by their "Justice" tower's force field. But nevermind, that's not anything to worry about.
Terrible. But the only question is, how on earth has this dreck gotten some many good reviews?
Harry Brown (2009)
A nasty British Death Wish
I remember watching films like Dirty Harry and Death Wish in the 1970s and thinking that America must be a seriously messed up place to produce violence like this. England at the time was still a fairly genteel place, although crime was massively on the rise. Sadly, some 40 years on, I wish I could say that this film is a ludicrous over the top version of Modern Britain, but, from my own experience, I don't think it is.
Therefore, politically, I think the film is bang on. However, aesthetically it is rather lacking.
Only one sequence stands out as a striking cinematic vision. This is when Harry Brown visits a couple of coked up gun dealers. He enters a subterranean world, a little bit of hell on earth and part of the power of this sequence is that the dealers are too drugged up to realise the level of degradation about them. This section is extremely well shot and acted by all concerned.
The other parts of this fail to approach this level. Much of the film looks like it could have been made for TV. True, the scenes of the 'youths' being interrogated are energetic and realistically written with four letter words in every sentence, but generally the police scenes are rather dull and empty. The caring female PC and her officious male superior are too cliché ridden (and politically correct) to be effective. The writing of these characters just seems to be going through the motions.
The final bloody shoot-out again fails to convict, while the conclusion just has a dangling unfinished feel.
Basically a very long Family Guy episode
Anyone familiar with the work of Seth MacFarlane will know what to expect: a lot of 80s references and some very crude comedy. Here both aspects are ramped up to 11.
Here we have so many 80s "tributes" that I wondered if I was watching Hot Tub Time Machine by mistake. There's Johnny Carson, Return of the Jedi, Knight Rider and 80s pop. The homage to Airplane is actually a direct rip-off and Flash Gordon is embedded into the film's DNA.
The comedy is crude and tasteless in the best Family Guy tradition although lacking the wit and inventiveness of that series better episodes. Generally there's a few big laughs but long mediocre patches. Another problem I had was MacFarlane's Ted tended to sound rather too much like Peter Griffin, I thought that he would have more in his vocal locker.
I guess Mila Kunis relished her bigger part, being relegated to virtually one line per episode in FG.
Overall an OK movie, enjoyable if not very memorable.
The New Centurions (1972)
This is less of a story than a series of vignettes which take place over several years. They are loosely based around Stacey Keach's character. Although there is some attempt to inject humour, the general tone can be summed up in one word: grim. We see cops shooting innocent people, being shot and indeed shooting themselves. Other than that there's marital breakdown, alcoholism, child abuse and immigrant exploitation among other cheery subjects.
The only real comedy appears when Keach joins the vice squad. The comedy is not very successful and seems just added on. This part is notable for the appearance of James Sikking in what seems to be a trial run for his role in Hill Street Blues. HSB does seem indebted to TNC is some ways particularly the opening gathering in front of the sergeant (I almost expected him to say "let's be careful out there") and also the wide range of characters. HSB is much more successful than TNC however; there is much better character development and each individual plot strand is satisfactorily resolved. Also the comedy interludes are better.
In TNC the characters are rather sketchily drawn; they drop in and out of the film and we do not think we get to know them well. The vignettes jump quickly to the next scene sometimes months later which creates a disjointed effect. Certain plot elements are left dangling. For example, when George C Scott and Keach nab a suspect early on, there is talk as to whether the case will stand up in court or not. But we do not discover if it does or not. something which HSB would have clarified.
It also think that, despite the grim nature of the piece, the ending is unnecessarily downbeat and depressing. After watching this, one wonders why anyone would ever become a New York cop.
Laurel and Hardy do The Sting
This film is one of those films in which the elements fail to come together. It is clearly an attempt to recreate the lightning in a bottle of The Sting some years earlier. However it does not measure up for a number of reasons.
Firstly the truly boring title does the film no favours. It is not surprising the audience stayed away despite this having obvious star power. Like The Sting the main stars are a couple of con men. The comedy is very broad, almost slapstick at times. This tends to undermine any tension in the film. And I'm not convinced that either Caan or Gould have any aptitude for this kind of broad comedy (and neither, I think, do they, if their subsequent career moves are an indication).
However, there are certain times when nastiness creeps in, the most obvious example is when Gould is locked in a safe. Yes, that's comedy gold, having a man almost suffocate to death.
Not only are the con men much more buffoonish than in The Sting, but they are also more contemptible. When we first see them, they are stealing money from ordinary members of the public. Why on earth would we be sympathetic to their escapades from then on? While in The Sting the objective was to rob another (and worse) villain, here the target is a normal bank containing real people's money. An attempt to show the manager as corrupt and lecherous does not undermine the fact that the bank contains real people's money and at a time when banks could go out of business.
Ultimately, no one really cares about these two thieves and whether they succeed in their venture.
For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943)
Slow to start but then compelling
This film has a reputation for being somewhat boring, even turgid. For the first hour, I can certainly see the point of that. Not a great deal happens in the first 60 minutes or so, other than a rather predictable and over ripe Hollywood romance springing up between Cooper and Bergman. There's no action, no real sense of an external threat (surprising considering the setting) only a few not too interesting squabbles between the partisans.
This however changes pretty much when the weather changes. As the snow begins to fall there is a new urgency to the film. Nationalist troops show up and the squabbles take on a darker edge with a real sense of menace. There is a truly superb performance from the drunkard which deserved an Oscar. Then Pilar (well played too) recounts his past history and we see him in a more sympathetic light. From then on our feelings towards the drunkard constantly shift between disgust and pity, perhaps the subtlest aspect of the film.
One can say the dialogue is rather over-blown but this is typical of romantic films of the time. But the scenes of the atrocities committed in the name of 'freedom' are well done and surprisingly brutal even for a film of 1943.
The Blood on Satan's Claw (1971)
Folk Horror at its finest
When I was younger I greatly preferred Hollywood's slick approach to horror- these 70s British films always seemed to me rough and amateurish. In hindsight, I much prefer the British product and what I mistook for roughness, I now see as a mark of authenticity.
BOSC is one of the very few films of the sub-genre which Mark Gatiss in his history of Horror calls "Folk Horror" which also includes the more famous Wicker Man.
BOSC is probably the finest film in this genre. There is a strong feeling of pagan England desperate to burst free from the thin veneer of Christian morality, something that is made metaphorically visible at the very start when the plough exposes the demonic claw beneath the surface.
From then on, the film remains unsettling through out. Some scenes are somewhat confusing, inasmuch as they remain unexplained, but explanations here would be a hindrance.
It must be said, however, that BOSC rather runs out of energy towards the end, maling the finale less impressive than it might have been. Nevertheless this remains one of the creepiest British films ever made.
Star Trek VI The Wasted Opportunity
It is a pity that, by this stage in the Star Wars franchise, the torch was not passed to the younger generation of the crew. To have seen Sulu or Chekhov in command with perhaps cameos from Kirk and Spock could have made for an exciting adventure.
The story itself is rather ordinary, the sort of thing that would have struggled to make the cut in the original series. As with several episodes in TOS, the script leans heavily on Shakespeare as though the mere presence of the Bard can impart a gravitas which the script lacks. He can't and the only gravity here comes from the bulging waistlines of the aging crew.
Scott is the worst culprit, having obviously scoffed more than his fair share of haggis and short bread; the scene at the end when he has to waddle up some stairs in order to shoot a would-be assassin is obviously ridiculous (why not use a younger fitter and trained security guard?).
But it is Kirk, despite excellent work from his corset and an Oscar-winning performance from his bouffant wig (played by Hammy the Hamster) who is the most incongruous, since the script requires him to engage in some of the virile manliness which made him famous 20 odd years earlier. Unfortunately unlike Ricardo Montalban in WOK, Shatner has not aged too well, and we are subjected to the unedifying sight of a podgy middle-aged man not only fighting but also making love to an alien babe. Yuck!
Henry VIII and His Six Wives (1972)
Thumbnail sketch of a Tudor king
This is a film adaptation of the six part BBC TV series. I've unfortunately never seen the series but I know it is highly regarded, much more than this film version. The reason for the inferiority of this version is obvious: the original material is very compressed.
It is naturally very difficult to compress a life so colourful, and containing so much complex political and abstruse religious manoeuvring as Henry's in a 2 hour film. Events rush by so much that it requires a good working knowledge of the life of Henry VIII to be able to follow them. For example Henry's relationship with Thomas More is barely established (it comes down to one 30 second conversation) before Thomas is executed. Later, we suddenly see rebels kneeling before Henry, for some under explained reason, who he immediately betrays (this is the Pilgrimage of Grace, when northerners rebelled against the king's abandonment of the Roman rite). Nor is the fall of Thomas Cromwell properly explored among many other lacunae. I wonder what the uninitiated would make of these things? Bewilderment I guess.
The compressed nature of the film gives rise to much obvious expositional dialogue. Henry baldly states things rather than us subtly getting to know his thoughts through his actions. This violates the basic rule of drama "show not tell".
Because of this the scenes of Henry's later life, when a lot of the political and religious turmoil had died down, come off better. There is simply less to explain to the audience and most of the famous historical people (Woolsey, More, Cromwell) were dead. So the personal drama can be explored more fully. The scenes with Katherine Howard are probably the highlight of the film, even if the actress rather over-eggs her final monologue. The scene with the king weeping is especially moving.
I'm not sure if I could recommend this to a complete novice in Tudor history, it would be too confusing. But for those studying Henry's reign of general history buffs, it is moderately interesting.
"I expect the franchise to die, Mr Bond!"
As many have observed, there is something seriously wrong with modern criticism if this rather ordinary outing is hailed as a masterpiece. I've lost count of the amount of films given huge praise which turn out to be mediocre at best or often very awful.
It seems the critics now respond to empty spectacle and superficial gimmicks rather than tiresome things like characterisation or a plot that makes sense. So it is with Skyfall, a succession of action sequences with just enough story line to string them along. The opening action sequence, although not the equal of anything in Casino Royale, is the best. Then the film falls more sharply than Bond does from the train. And you can tell that the writers do not over trouble themselves with such things as making sense, since they make not even a cursory attempt to explain Bond's miraculous survival.
Javier Bardem, who was so mesmerisingly menacing in No Country for Old Men, is here merely unintentionally funny. Sporting an awful blond wig and giving a high camp performance, he channels John Inman so much that you almost expect him to say "I'm free!" Not exactly a frightening villain, then, but worse, his gay overtures towards Bond are immediately forgotten, a sure sign of a bad script.
A convoluted and unbelievable plot, most of which is lifted from other better sources, and with numerous plot holes, fails to convince. And the bombastic special effects, including Bond dodging a careening underground train (curiously empty for daytime and apparently driverless- the unions should have words) and an assault on Bond's childhood home (a sort of overblown version of Home Alone, by way of Death Wish 3), although designed to distract us from the weak story are not good enough to impress for more than 5 minutes.
One of the most disturbing aspects is Bond's sheer incompetence. He stands by and watches an assassin execute his target before intervening (why? Is this new Home Office guidelines?), he fails to save his latest Bond girl even though he knows re-enforcements are only seconds away (her death is merely because the film has no more use for her- and his quip after her unsavoury demise "a waste of good scotch" is very poor taste), he even fails to save M at the end, thus rendering the whole film rather pointless. No doubt these unnecessary deaths are inserted for 'gritty realism'.
The ending, set in a Scottish chapel, is very weak indeed, with M's death, (succumbing to a bullet from an anonymous lackey earlier) in particular, being anti-climactic. I sincerely wish that M had pulled the trigger on the double suicide that Bardem suddenly wanted (why? he showed no such suicidal tendencies before) only with the proviso that Bond's head was in Bardem's place. That might put this tired franchise (and us) out of its misery.