Monday, June 20, 2016

DVR Diary: RAMPAGE AT APACHE WELLS (Der Ölprinz, 1965)



Winnetou, Karl May's Apache hero, had a number of white friends in his fictional career. Taking his cue from such American heroes as Old Hickory (Andrew Jackson), Old Rough and Ready (Zachary Taylor) and Old Fuss and Feathers (Winfield Scott), May made many of the white protagonists of his German westerns "Old" men. The best known of these is Old Shatterhand (played by Lex Barker in the West German westerns of the 1960s) but there was also Old Firehand (Rod Cameron) and Old Surehand, Winnetou's sidekick in Harald Philipp's adaptation of May's novel The Oil Prince. Stewart Granger was the token Hollywood star for the Surehand films. He makes Old Surehand more of a smartass than Barker's Shatterhand, who was nearly as stolid as Winnetou himself, as played by the improbably idolized Pierre Brice -- though to be fair I've only been able to judge Brice by the emotionless, charisma-less dubbing of the American versions of his films. Surehand is more likely to taunt his antagonists, especially when he has the advantage on them. There's an almost Tarantinian moment in Der Ölprinz when he's caught a villain in the act of imposture, pretending to be the scout he'd murdered, whose body Surehand has just brought into town and identified. "Is your name Billy Forner too?" Surehand asks with wolfish interest, repeating the question until his man is terrified. It's good to see that Granger invested what he may have seen as a thankless role signifying his decline from stardom with some personality, especially since Brice remains crippled, from an American perspective, by the robotic dubbing. But for all I know, a certain Spockish emotionlessness may have been part of Brice's appeal all along.

It's disappointing initially to see Philipp reuse the exploding oil refinery footage from the earlier Winnetou Part II (Last of the Renegades) to introduce his villain (Harald Leipniz), who is only ever known as "the Oil Prince." But after the blatant process shot placing Leipniz and another actor in front of the stock footage Ölprinz reverts to the good form of German westerns with spectacular natural locations. In this story the Oil Prince (so-called or self-styled?) wants to get rid of white settlers who are in the way of his prospecting. He proposes to eliminate them by having some Indians wipe them out, first by convincing the impressionable natives that the settlers are hoarding gold on their wagon train, then by having one of his own men knife an Indian searching a wagon, so that the settlers will be blamed and a massacre ordered by an angry chief and father who demands fifty lives for his son's. It's up to Surehand and Winnetou to track down the knife-thrower we know to be the true killer and convince the old chief that this man, and he alone, could have murdered the brave. It's all too neatly resolved, but from what I read this film is taken from one of May's more juvenile-oriented stories. Like other German westerns, this one's weighed down a bit by oldschool comedy relief, from both Surehand's white sidekick Wabble (Milan Srdoc) and from a fat, fussy German composer working on a western opera (Heinz Erhardt) -- the sort of role S. Z. Sakall would have played in the classic Hollywood version of this story. Like Winnetou Part II, Ölprinz features Mario (Terrence Hill) Girotti in a minor good-guy role as proof of the shared genetic pool, so to speak, of the German western cycle and the Italian spaghetti westerns. Unlike Klaus Kinski in Winnetou Part II or Mario Adorf in its predecessor, Harald Leipniz isn't that impressive a villain, apart from wearing a black suit very stylishly. Nor is Philipp the equal of Harald Reinl in directing action, though this film does sport an impressive flaming-arrow attack from a commanding height on a wagon train and an arduous rescue of rafters on dangerous rapids. Ölprinz has many of the seeming shortcomings that left the Germans far behind the Italians in the race to colonize the American west, but like the other German westerns I've seen it has an almost refreshing earnestness about it and a definitely refreshing approach to landscape, as opposed to the Italian preoccupation with desert and dust. Whether you like these films or not, all western movie fans owe the German genre a look.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

DVR Diary: HILLBILLYS IN A HAUNTED HOUSE (1967)

From the director of The Devil Bat and The Abbott & Costello Show comes a film that lives in infamy as the humiliating final film of Basil Rathbone, even though he made one more film in Mexico. This sequel to Las Vegas Hillbillys -- I believe the producers had to use the illiterate plural to avoid confusion with The Beverly Hillbillies -- better fits a narrative of tragic decline, especially when you see how far down in the billing Rathbone is, below not only the title characters but fellow horror men Lon Chaney Jr. and John Carradine, who presumably were more accustomed to such work by this point in their careers. It's not merely the badness of this Woolner Bros. production but the mere idea of these beloved actors stooging for second-rate hillbilly actors -- and that's being too generous -- that offends fans of the horror genre and classic cinema in general. Seeing it offered in one of Turner Classic Movies' eccentric moods, I expected something dreadful, and got it. A trio of protagonists returns from Las Vegas Hillbillys, the entertainers Woody (Ferlin Husky) and Jeepers (Don Bowman) and "girl singer" Boots Malone, originally played by Mamie Van Doren but now incarnated by Joi Lansing. They're on their way to Nashville but interrupt their trek to allow the allegedly agitated Jeepers some r & r. Told that there are no hotels or boardinghouses in the small town where they stop for gas, they decide to squat in a mansion recommended to them. This is our haunted house, but it's actually infested by spies for Red China who intend to steal an important formula from a nearby military base. The spies seem to be divided into two factions. Gregor (Rathbone) and Himmel (Carradine) are straightlaced, almost effete characters, compared to their handler Madame Wong (Linda Ho), her henchman Maximillian (Chaney) and his sidekick, Anatole the gorilla. Tension flares up constantly between Himmel and Anatole, escalating from insults to banana stealing and, finally, murder. Into this volatile setting blunder the hillbillys, who stand their ground despite the spies' best efforts to scare them away, and in spite of the fact that hillbillys scare very easily. There's a twist to come, however, that upends everyone's plans....

Hillbillys may be the worst haunted-house comedy I've ever seen. The reason has nothing to do with the performances or misuse of the horror stars, and everything to do with Lansing, Husky and especially Bowman being without doubt the worst scaredy-cat comedians I've ever seen. The singers have no comic timing at all, and while Lansing at least can scream when required, the men seem incapable of emoting in any way, and Duke Yelton's script leaves them helpless like fish on a haunted beach. Here's his idea of something either funny or scary. Jeepers tries to soothe his alleged nerves by watching some television. Luckily for him, some station is showing a performance by Merle Haggard. The spies are able to interfere with the broadcast, so that Haggard's singing is intercut with random shots of Rathbone, Chaney, Carradine and Ho staring at the camera or making faces, while Bowman tries to indicate in his stunted way that he's frightened. Maybe a laugh track would have helped.

Of the horror men, Carradine probably does the best with what he's given. He gets to have mood swings from his mounting rage at Chaney and the gorilla to his friendly, familiar banter with Rathbone. One of the few interesting things about the picture is the way Rathbone and Carradine seem to be competing over who can underplay better in their scenes together. Carradine in particular is unusually relaxed and casual in those moments, and the veteran actors succeed, at this if at nothing else, in convincing you that Gregor and Himmel are longtime partners and friends for whom this preposterous mission is just another day on the job. By comparison, Chaney is on autopilot at best, and at worst has a pathetic scene when Maximillian, in all the actor's sodden, grizzled splendor, infiltrates the military base and must convince a talkative janitor that he's a scientist with high security clearance. It's hard to tell whether his obvious unfitness for the task was meant to be a joke in a comedy picture or not, but Chaney's actually a sadder sight than Rathbone for most of the picture.

While most viewers will resent the lack of comedy or terror in Hillbillys, the producers seemed most concerned that audiences would think there wasn't enough music. Thus, after the spies are defeated, we get a square-up reel that finds the Hillbillys finally in "Nashville" hosting a variety show with guest performances by Haggard and other possibly-popular singers of the moment, as well as a comedy song by "the Great Jeepers," all before a stock-footage audience, apart from occasional insets of about a dozen people. Because it's a performance setting, the echo-chamber effect you get in all the film's musical numbers -- including Lansing's pathetic "Beautiful Dresses," in which she's supposed to be an 18th century aristocrat in a bouffant hairdo --  isn't as glaring, but this musical epilogue is strictly for country-western fans of the old school. For the rest of us, it simply keeps a terrible film going for another twelve minutes or so.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

DVR Diary: ALEXANDER HAMILTON (1931)

In 2015 Alexander Hamilton was reintroduced to pop culture in phenomenal fashion by Lin-Manuel Miranda's Tony-winning hip-hop musical, which has won guarded endorsements from historians like Ron Chernow, on whose biography it is largely based, and Gordon S. Wood, the dean of historians of the Revolutionary era. Miranda apparently has succeeded in making the first Secretary of the Treasury not only relevant but fascinating -- Chernow's book is a best-seller again -- through his choice of music and lyrics and aggressively inclusive casting in which almost none of the players are white. Miranda is 36 years old. He plays a man who died at age 49. Miranda follows in the footsteps of Mr. George Arliss (as movie publicists worshipfully called him), who wrote a 1917 play about Hamilton and starred in John G. Adolfi's film adaptation fourteen years later. Arliss's Hamilton -- on the strength of his Oscar-winning turn in Disraeli the actor had considerable creative control over his work at Warner Bros., Adolfi being little more than his stooge -- is microfocused on one episode in the great man's short yet eventful career, but opens several years earlier with the disbanding of the Continental Army in 1783. In this scene Hamilton, then 28, is played, as in the rest of the picture, by Arliss, then age 63. The principal action is set in 1790, when Hamilton was 35, and Arliss is still 63. Only our imagining of all the Founders and Framers as patriarchal figures can excuse such ghastly casting, but without Arliss there probably would be no Hamilton movie in 1931. What would we have missed?

Alexander Hamilton's subject is the Funding Act of 1790, better known as the Assumption Bill. If approved by Congress, the federal government will take responsibility for the debts the states owe to Revolutionary War soldiers, many of whom were still owed considerable back pay. Hamilton considers this step necessary to establish the credit of the new federal government. It is opposed mainly by southerners, including Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson (Montagu Love) and James Monroe (Morgan Wallace) -- James Madison is strangely absent from the movie even though he was one of the leaders of the opposition to the bill in the House of Representatives, while Monroe did not join the Senate until November 1790, after the bill was passed and signed -- along with the fictional Senator Roberts of nowhere in particular (Dudley Digges). They dislike the measure because it will compel states that have paid their soldiers, like Jefferson and Monroe's Virginia, to help bail out other states. Jefferson also sees it as part of Hamilton's overall program for a consolidated central government, which he sees as fatal to state autonomy. Another factor in the opposition that doesn't come up until later in the picture is the fact that speculators were swarming the country buying up veterans' IOUs from their state governments in the expectation of making a killing if the feds paid up at full face value. Hamilton can't be bothered with Jefferson's ideological paranoia, but at least the Virginian is making a principled stand. Roberts proves more dangerous because he's less principled. You probably could guess he'd be the bad guy once you realized he wasn't real, and if you recognized Dudley Digges as a regular heel actor in pictures.

Hamilton thinks he can win over the Virginians by promising them that the permanent U.S. capital will be built in the South. He'll get northern congressmen to sign off on that idea as long as Jefferson and Monroe can get their fellow southerners to support the assumption plan. The location of the capital really matters to the Virginians, so they'll willing to make a deal, but the unreconciled Roberts tries to sabotage everything by entrapping Hamilton in a compromising situation with a young woman while Mrs. H. is away in London. The trap sprung, Roberts blackmails the secretary, telling him to withdraw the bill or face public exposure. In real life, Hamilton probably would have challenged Roberts to a duel, but in reel life he preempts the senator by confessing his indiscretion. After that there's apparently nothing left to do but resign, but in a Charlie Brown Christmas moment the leaders of his own party and the opposition, including Jefferson and Monroe, and President Washington himself (Alan Mowbray) in full military uniform, show up to announce that the Funding Bill has been passed by an overwhelming margin and that of course Hamilton can stay in the Treasury! Imagine what the Clintons could have accomplished back in the 1990s if politics actually worked this way.

I suppose Mr. Arliss might not bother you if you didn't know how young Hamilton was, but he does look pretty ghastly. There's something immobile and lacquered about his face that seems exaggerated by his own knowledge that he's playing a much younger person. As a dramatist he does an okay job of setting up the issues behind the assumption debate, only to trivialize them with his pandering melodramatic subplot. Oddly, I can see the seeds of Capracorn in Arliss's tale of a principled man nearly broken by manufactured scandal but vindicated by other people's good conscience at the end. Capra did it better, though, because he was totally untethered from history, while Arliss's plot contrivances turn a promising historical picture into a travesty as well as a preposterous ego trip. A hip-hop Hamilton might seem authentic by comparison.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

DVR Diary: BLOODY MAMA (1970)

Imagine Christopher Nolan making a Batman movie and casting an actor from the 1966 TV show as the villain -- as the same villain he or she played on the show -- and the effect would be similar to Shelley Winters, Batman's Ma Parker, playing that character's real-life model, "Ma" Barker, in Roger Corman's film. I suppose it was a case of no other actress being imaginable for such a role at the time, especially if you take a "print the legend" approach portraying Ma as the violent mastermind of her family's gang, despite testimony to the contrary from contemporaries. There's really little difference between Winters playing the role straight and her camping it up, and given the strong hints of incest in the Corman film, and Winters' mature acting style, you could argue that she camped it up both times. For Corman it was a resumption of a gangster cycle he had started with 1958's Machine-Gun Kelly and resumed with 1967's St. Valentine's Day Massacre. By 1970 no film in that genre could go uninfluenced by Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde, and Corman shows its influence in an increased gore quotient and a concern with sexual dysfunction, from an incestuous bent in Ma herself dating back to a childhood rape at the hands of her brothers to the homosexuality of one of her sons. The drug addiction (and eventual overdose) of one son (Robert DeNiro) only adds to the decadence. Corman probably also owes to Bonnie and Clyde a consciousness of economic injustice that in this case doesn't really make the Barkers sympathetic. Bloody Mama is a more cynical film that discourages sympathy with Ma in many ways. It acknowledges the folk-hero popularity of country bandits like her family as Ma notes that she'd probably get more fan mail than Eleanor Roosevelt if people knew her address, but the film also makes clear that she doesn't deserve it, most pointedly in a narrative read over newsreel footage in which Ma notes with contempt the debate in Congress over an anti-lynching bill, then notes with relief its defeat with help from "some good people," aka the Klan. Ma is all too conscious of inequality, but no sense of solidarity results from it. "It's supposed to be a free country," she says at one point, "But unless you're rich you ain't free, so I aim to be freer than the rest of the people." Depression ethics are dog-eat-dog ethics as far as Ma is concerned, while her boys are too stupid even to consider ethics. If Bonnie and Clyde influences most of the film, Corman seems to take his cues for the climax from The Wild Bunch as the Barkers inflict far more casualties on the cops besieging their Florida hideout than history records. History apparently confirms the added satirical note Corman adds to the Peckinpah-style finish by having spectators arrive with picnic lunches to watch the siege and gasp whenever a cop gets shot. Overall Bloody Mama is an energetic film with decent shootout and chase scenes and the right amount of sleaze to make it contemporary. Your tolerance for it will depend on your tolerance of Shelley Winters, still playing a cartoon character but in deadly earnest.

Bonus Content: American-International Pictures sent young Robert DeNiro on press junkets to promote Bloody Mama, and inevitably to promote himself as a possible future movie star. Here's a typical interview from the Spartanburgh Herald Journal of March 22, 1970.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Too Much TV: the season in review

There are still new shows running in June and into the summer -- I'm currently watching Preacher and Outcast -- but the traditional "fall" TV season ended last month. So at a moment when I'm not finding much time to watch movies -- perhaps perversely, I'm going back and forth on Netflix between Jacques Rivette's Out 1 and Miguel Gomes' Arabian Nights, so don't expect to see my reviews of those monsters for a while -- I've decided to indulge in a little ranking. With no further ado, here are my ten favorite TV shows of the late season.

1. Black Sails (3rd season, Starz)
2. The 100 (3rd season, The CW)
3. iZombie (2nd season, The CW)
4. The Magicians (1st season, SyFy)
5. The Last Kingdom (1st season, BBC America)
6. Jessica Jones (1st season, Netflix)
8. The Night Manager (miniseries, AMC)
8. The Flash (2nd season, The CW)
9. Into the Badlands (1st season, AMC)
10. Ash vs. Evil Dead (1st season, Starz)

Honorable mention: Underground (1st season, WGN America).

Incomplete: Daredevil (2nd season, Netflix)

As a reminder, I don't watch everyone else's favorite shows, Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead, only because they began before I made my current commitment to series TV and I'll never have time to catch up. I'm too busy trying to catch up with shows from 50-60 years ago to even try, and I hope to say something about some of those shows this summer.

For the hell of it, here are my least favorite shows of the season:

1. DaVinci's Demons (3rd season, Starz - QUIT)
2. The Bastard Executioner (1st season, FX - QUIT)
3. Legends of Tomorrow (1st season, The CW)
4. Arrow (4th season, The CW)
5. Wynonna Earp (1st season, SyFy - QUIT)

No show fell in quality as rapidly as DaVinci's Demons, crashing from the pulpy heights of the hero's improbable Incan adventures in Season Two to unwatchable pointlessness as the writers indulged in the Hydrafication of the Renaissance by portraying a Turkish incursion into Southern Italy as a feud between two secret societies that had little to do, of course, with Islam or Christianity, and then stalled the invasion to have our hero hunt for a serial killer, while checking in dutifully on characters no one cared about in further subplots. Arrow has fallen nearly as far from its height, but it's taken the producers two seasons to reach those depths, while Legends of Tomorrow most likely will never have heights from which to fall. No show seemed more randomly or futilely plotted as that one. At least it moved, if only flailingly, which was more than could be said for the numbing inertia of Bastard Executioner. Wynonna Earp is by far the least offensive of these shows: it merely bored me. Gotham, which I quit in the middle of the "Rise of the Villains" arc, gets a dishonorable mention in this category.

Since there is always too much TV, stay tuned for my reviews of Preacher, Outcast and The Night Manager as well as some old but good westerns and possibly a few things more.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

THE GIRL KING (2015)

Any Swedish actress who takes on the role of Christina, her nation's most famous queen, has big shoes to fill. Greta Garbo most famously essayed the role in a 1933 Hollywood film, while Liv Ullmann took her turn in a 1974 British film. Each could claim to be one of the most famous and acclaimed actresses in the world when they played the role. Malin Buska can't say the same, though like her predecessors she performs the role in English for Finnish director Mika Kaurismäki's history play. While Garbo's Queen Christina and Ullmann's The Abdication were prestige pictures in their day, I suspect that Buska's Girl King is aimed at a niche market. Here, what is only hinted at by Garbo's infamous kiss of a lady-in-waiting becomes almost the main subject of the film. I say almost because The Girl King aspires to be more expansive in its portrayal of Christina as an Enlightenment intellectual and a woman ahead of her time. Unfortunately, it leaves you with the impression that the queen was a pretentious brat.


Christina was raised to rule despite her gender and grew up a tomboy who apparently never reconciled fully with her femininity and the expectations it created. Like Elizabeth I of England Christina resolved to be a virgin queen, going so far as to adopt an heir to the throne rather than make one herself. Like many women of her time, she had at least one special female friend, Countess Ebba Sparre (Sarah Gadon), but as in those cases it's unclear how intimate (by our standards) the women were with each other. By our standards, at least, it seems odd for Christina to flirt with Ebba at one moment, and with the Catholic Church in the next. Then in another moment she's assisting Rene Descartes (Patrick Bauchau) in a dissection of a cadaver's brain, revealing the pineal gland which the philosopher declares the physical seat of the human soul, while nobles and courtiers huff and hurl. Buska lacks Garbo's innate gravitas (I haven't seen Ullmann in The Abdication) and by giving her too many interests the filmmakers make Christina look flighty rather than enlightened.


The Girl King suggests that Christina's abdication was precipitated by the discovery -- apparently in the nick of time -- of her sexual attraction to Ebba, who is kidnapped and quickly married off to a blond, blank nobleman. Her Catholic hobby is an additional deal-breaker but the film's message seems to be that she can no longer be queen if she can no longer live and love as she chooses, so she'll go to Rome and hang out with the Pope instead. I guess he could commiserate about the celibacy, or perhaps explain alternatives to the new exile. The movie ends with Christina's abdication ceremony, culminating with her crowning of the new king and her shucking off the royal robes to march off in a man's costume, saying in effect that she's free, though to do what is left an open question, since she isn't able to take Ebba with her. It's closer to history than the Garbo film, in which Christina's great love is a Spanish nobleman, but that's pretty much its only advantage over the 1933 picture.In the end, I doubt whether Girl King is romantic, tragic or titillating enough for its presumed target audience, and it's most likely less of all these things for everyone else.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

X-MEN: APOCALYPSE (2016) in SPOILERVISION


"The third one is always the worst," a young mutant says of trilogies as she leaves a 1983 screening of Return of the Jedi, and the audience watching X-Men: Apocalypse laughs knowingly. It's a blatant dig at Brett Ratner's X-Men: The Last Stand, the third film in the series and the one most hated by comic book fans. It's also Bryan Singer's way of leading with his chin, since Apocalypse itself is the third film of a "prequel" series of X-Men films, all set before Singer's original 2000 production, starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence and Nicholas Hoult as mutants whose common attribute is a very slow aging process over 21 years of story time. Fortunately for Singer, the first film of this current series, Matthew Vaughn's X-Men: First Class, was bad enough that Singer could not curse himself. Instead of making the worst film of this particular trilogy, Singer has only made one of the most boring superhero movies to date. There's nothing really inept or incompetent about Apocalypse, but there's also nothing inspired or imaginative in it. Between the repetition of tired tropes from the two previous films and the reintroduction of characters already established in the original trilogy, the new film has nothing to say and, worse still, nothing to show.

It's named after its villain, apparently a major figure in the comic-book canon, but can't help making "Apocalypse" -- I don't think anyone actually calls him that name in the movie -- almost an afterthought in its preoccupation with continuing storylines and subplots from previous installments. The big problem with En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac), an ancient Egyptian god-man and supposedly history's first mutant, who somehow was overthrown by his subjects, only to return to malevolent life in 1983, is that he lacks the core of authentic grievance that drives both good and evil mutants in the X-Men films. If he rose to his exalted position from the bottom, or was ever downtrodden, we don't learn it here. Instead he combines a megalomaniacal sense of entitlement with a pseudo-Nietzschean philosophy favoring rule by the strong that makes the relatively egalitarian 20th century offensive to him. The obvious solution is to destroy civilization through a Man of Steel style catacalysm -- yet so uncompelling is the spectacle that no one to my knowledge calls this destruction porn -- and build his own pharaonic utopia in its place. But first he must recruit four attendants, since that's how he rolls. At this point Singer grabs the first four balls from the hopper and appoints Angel, here a demoralized pit fighter, having lost to a novice Nightcrawler thanks to outside interefernce; Psylocke, a sort of gangsta mutant with a magic energy sword and a blue Elektra costume; Storm, seen in something close to her origin story as a Cairo street thief; and the increasingly insufferable Magneto, whom En Sabah fortunately finds in a grumpy mood, given that a Polish policeman has just killed his wife and daughter with a bow and one arrow. This shows that En is no judge of character, for Erik Lensherr is as changeable as the wind. Over three films the X-Men's archnemesis has become intolerably wishy-washy. God help us if he ever finds out that the speedy new kid at Charles Xavier's school is his own bastard. He may never find out, however, since the boy shares his dad's indecisiveness,having initially decided to confront him only to chicken out toward the end. But I, like the film, digress. The villain's "four horsemen" are an utterly random assemblage whose flimsy motivation left me caring little about whether they'd snap out of it. As it turns out, seeing his old frenemy Mystique in mortal peril snaps Magneto out of his funk in a way her own earnest speeches -- she tries the technique Xavier used on her at the climax of the previous picture --could not, and the sight also flips Storm to the good side, since she, like many young mutants, idolizes Mystique for her role in the 1973 events recounted in Days of Future Past. There's a sketch of a subplot scrawled across the picture about Mystique's reluctance to accept the mantle and responsibility of a hero, but you might not notice it given how, for perhaps the first time in her mighty career, Jennifer Lawrence totally phones in a performance. But you might not notice that given how everyone in the film really does the same thing, even Oscar Isaac in what should be the flamboyant villain role.

Part of the problem is that threatening the world has lost its novelty in films (and TV shows) like these, but a bigger part is Singer's inability, especially shocking after the coup of Days of Future Past, to sustain any dramatic momentum for his story. Several times over the film stops dead for contrived set pieces, from a reprise of the last film's speedster-moves-so-fast-to-pop-standard-that-everyone-stands-frozen showcase to Hugh Jackman's obligatory pop-up amoklauf in the middle of a secret army base. Worst of all, when Xavier finally sics Jean Grey on En and she basically wipes the floor with him Phoenix style, you're left asking why he didn't have her take action much earlier, before cities were wrecked and thousands of people killed. I suppose it wouldn't be much of an action film had he done that, but the action itself is a mixed bag, and during the climax Singer has an annoying habit of cutting from real fighting to Mystique trying to lecture a pouty Magneto through a swirling cloud of iron filings. When it was over, I had the queasy suspicion that Singer had a lot of things he wanted to do in another mutant movie, but no real story that could hold them all together. En Sabah Nur is only a pretext for a movie and never really a character in it, and the movie as a whole (I almost typed "hole") has a hard time justifying its existence. It's too bad, really, since the last two mutant films, Days of Future Past and The Wolverine, are arguably the best of the entire cycle. Perhaps the studio should have quit while it was ahead, but that wasn't going to happen. Instead, we have an X-Men film with a lack of ambition that's all too obvious in this year of Dawn of Justice and Civil War, and a post-credits scene assures us -- or should I say warns us -- that Fox isn't done yet. But since I wouldn't have expected a film as good as Days of Future Past after First Class, I'll close by saying "better luck next time."