Superman IV: The Quest for Peace 1987 ***


The wheels had come off the Superman franchise for some time before Sidney J Furie’s final entry in the Christopher Reeve era; what’s notable here is how many of the original cast are on board for this famously awful film. Of course, Cannon were desperate for respectability, and the Superman franchise was one expected to generate a family friendly hit, even if Superman III was considerably bent out of shape by being reworked to showcase Richard Pryor. The fourth movie has an interesting premise; what is Superman took an interest, not in costumed foes, but real world issues like the nuclear arms race? The discussion about real world violence in Todd Phillips’ Joker movie has some echoes here, but Superman IV doesn’t go down that road at all. In fact, the movie doubles down on ludicrousness as Superman gathers all the world nuclear weapons, rolls them into a ball and shot-puts it into the sun. He does this after making a speech at the United Nations, which, for reasons which can only be to do with penny-pinching, is evoked by using the brutalist exteriors of Milton Keynes shopping centre in England. The real drama, if that’s the right word, doesn’t kick off until Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) takes advantage of the absence of nuclear weapons to create Nuclear Man (Mark Pillow) who looks like Trey Parker circa 2002. Superman and Nuclear Man fight on the moon in a blaze of sub-standard special effects; co-star Jon Cryer felt that the film was unfinished, and on this evidence, he’s right, Spotting Jim Broadbent, Mareiel Hemingway and Robert Beatty amongst the cast adds to the fun, and it’s strange seeing such an iconic cast phoning it in for a pay-check. Superhero movies have come a long way from this low-point, but for bad movie fans, Superman IV is a bottomless pit of amusement.

Joker *** 2019


Once the hubris created by ranks of combustible film-festival critics has dissipated, a press screening of Todd Phillips’ Joker reveals it as a somewhat unexceptional piece of work, a rather flat, by-the-numbers origin story held together by a strong production design and a manic central performance from Joaquin Phoenix. Doubling down on the deadly edge that Heath Ledger brought to the role in The Dark Knight, Phoenix locates the Joker’s heart in poverty, being downtrodden and humiliated; a decent enough conceit, but not a particularly interesting or involving one to watch.

Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) lives with his ailing mother in a tiny apartment in Gotham City; he’s a professional clown, but an encounter with some street thugs encourages him to start packing heat, his gun falls out of his costume during a performance at a children’s hospital, and Fleck is fired. Things spiral downhill in the patented Death Wish/Taxi Driver model, and Fleck’s fascination with an amoral talk show host (Robert De Niro) eventually leads to the formation of the character we know as Joker.

And that’s it, really, the trailer said it all in much more style, and there’s the usual rote staging of the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents, which looks pretty much the same as it did in every movie since the Tim Burton one. For a film so sensitive to the main character’s obsessions, the attitudes to mental health issues are not particularly helpful either; Fleck is portrayed as suffering from a ‘brain injury’ and carries a card that explains to curious strangers that he has a medical condition. Those who carry such cards in real life may well find such scenes unhelpful. Similarly, superhero movies have made a virtue of avoiding guns and real-life violence; having the Joker shoot unarmed people with a handgun, yet remain the film’s most sympathetic character, is somewhat problematic.

All that said, Joker’s feel for a gritty, grimy city, rife with porn and violence circa 1981, is accomplished, and Phoenix is terrific in the central role, bringing the same intensity he brought to the little-seen You Were Never Really Here. Joker is the kind of super-serious venture that lacks comedy, tragedy or humanity; it’s an exploitation of a well-loved but ancient IP that should work for fan-boys, but may well elicit shrugs from the rest of the audience.

Hellboy 2018 ***


The knives were out for Neil Marshall’s reboot, rehash, re-imagining of the comic book property Hellboy, which crashed and burned at the box office with barely a whiff of brimstone or sulphur. And yet, it’s not by any means as bad as might have been expected, with some flashes of wit in the script, some huge visuals and a decent centre in Stranger Things’s David Harbour. Having an enormous face seems to be the requisite for getting cast in this role, and while Harbour’s countenance is undeniably huge, it’s not quite of the ironing board dimensions of Ron Perlman. Harbour seems a little lost under the latex and make-up, but still makes a fist of Hellboy’s laconic attitude, with Ian McShane having some fun as his dad. The story, about secret societies, Nazis, sorceresses and the usual Hellboy elements is familiar, although Milla Jovovich is a memorable villainess. Truth be told, this isn’t much better or worse that the two Guillermo del Toro versions, which were no great shakes either; for Marshall, who musters a certain vulgarity as well as some big action scenes, it’s a setback perhaps, but one that suggests he’s got what it takes to deliver a great action film one day.

Red Sonja 1985 ***


‘I fought 167 men and only one survives. And he has no legs!’ is a representative sample of the ear-burning dialogue featured in Richard Fleisher’s slice of 1985 sword and sorcery buffoonery. A proud entry in the so-bad-it’s good film selection, Red Sonja somehow took Arnold Schwarzenegger, red hot on the back of The Terminator, and cast him in a violent action role that absolutely no-one wanted to see. Perhaps that’s because he plays second fiddle to Brigitte Neilsen as Red Sonja, a wild barbarian warrior who looks like she’d kick ass except for constantly needs rescuing by the muscle-bound Kalidor (Arnie). ‘He’s a real man,’ Red Sonja simpers, totally letting the air out of the balloon in terms of her being tough. Kalidor and Red Sonja have more than a few obstacles to overcome, notably Ronald Lacey and Sandhal Bergman as Queen Gedren of Berkubane and her sidekick Ikol. Complete with a giant pet spider and a goofy-looking sorcerer on call, Hyberian Queen Gedren talks like a Vegas showgirl and is one of the cattiest characters ever to appear on film; her every appearance provokes mirth. Red Sonja was co-written by the great historical novelist George Macdonald Fraser, and there’s some memorable flashes of imagination in the visuals, although the central foe in the form of fish machine monster is a complete hoot. Watching Arnie enthusiastically wrestle this rubbery creation in a large foot-bath, it’s hard to begrudge the star a future in politics; he seems like the working definition of a good sport.

X-Men: Dark Phoenix 2019 ***

Dark-Phoenix-Poster-X-Men-Day-Details‘Nobody cares anymore’ says a glum Magneto (Michael Fassbender) in writer/director Simon Kinberg’s latest and potentially last instalment of the X-Men saga of comic book adaptations. With big names like Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellern and Hugh Jackman not even bothering with cameos anymore, and Jennifer Lawrence barely featuring, the remaining cast are the ones who haven’t got anything better to do; Dark Phoenix’s ensemble feels like a reserve squad. Still, that threadbare quality can be a virtue, and Kinberg’s film certainly rattles along at a brisk pace as the X-Men square up to some galactic force which has ensnared a space shuttle, and return to earth only to find that Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) is not herself. A brawl sets Jean on the run from the other X-Men, and into the realm of Magneto, but there’s a group of aliens led by Jessica Chastain in hot pursuit. Who these aliens are or what they want is never explained; the set pieces are the thing, including a Central Park punch-up and some shenanigans on and around a speeding train. It all moves at a fair clip, but the carelessness with character and continuity will not appeal to fan-boys. When a minor character says ‘My kid used to like you’ to the X-Men, his disgruntlement makes him an ideal audience surrogate; despite evident effort to pump some charge into the franchise, a hot mess is still just a mess.

Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter 2013 ***


Neither a sequel or a remake of 1974’s Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter, this underrated comic book movies showcases the operatic style of Timur Bekmambetov, who made his name with Russian sci-fi thrillers Nightwatch and Daywatch before moving to Hollywood with all-action extravaganza Wanted.  Benjamin Walker plays Lincoln at several stages of his life, established as a follower of an accomplished vampire hunter (Dominic Cooper), Lincoln ascends to the presidency only to find his battle with the ruthless Adam (Rufus Sewell) has only just begun. The tone is surprisingly serious, mixing in historical details as if trying to establish an Oliver Stone-like alternate history, and Bekmambetov films the action on an epic scale. Audiences didn’t seem to get the joke, but Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter is never as silly as the title suggests, providing an entertaining genre mash-up that sticks in the mind.