Youtube Film Club: Northstar (1986)

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“Pilots that crashed” is our wildly unpopular regular feature here at the ISCFC where we review a “TV movie” which is nothing more than a pilot for a TV show that failed for whatever reason; the reason we get to see it, is they spent enough money on it they feel obliged to try and recoup some of their losses by bunging it on TV, or selling it abroad (which seems to be the sole way most people ever saw this one, during its few outings on British TV in the mid 80s). Our favourite of the ones we’ve covered so far is “Virtuality”, the Ronald D Moore effort from 2009 where inhabitants of a corporate-sponsored trip to deep space have their own virtual reality machines to stave off the boredom, but will this knock it off its perch?

Immediately on the plus side is star Greg Evigan, beloved as star of “My Two Dads” (which would 100% not get made the same way today) and slightly less beloved as the butt of a hilarious running joke on British comedy show “This Morning With Richard Not Judy”, as Major Jack North, an astronaut. While on a spacewalk, taking a video of a total eclipse (with a wonderful, massive, clunky space-camcorder), he’s blasted by a pure beam of radiation, or the sun’s rays, or something, and is almost killed. The great Ken Foree, last seen by us a few days ago in “Zombi”, is also on the Space Shuttle with them, billed simply as “black astronaut”. Sorry Ken! This entire section, rather than seeming like the opening sequence of a movie, looks like a reconstruction of what space flight is like for a kid’s TV science show.

 

Anyway, after a refreshingly small amount of confusion, it’s discovered that North has some hellacious super-powers. When he’s exposed to direct sunlight it all kicks off, and there are three levels. First is blue, and that makes him super-smart. Second is yellow, and that makes him super-fast and agile. Then there’s red, which turns him into a pulsating-head monster with super-strength (maybe, it’s a little unclear); if he stays on red for too long, he’ll die. This is handily illustrated with what I think they called a clone, but is actually just a fancy shop dummy made up to look like him – when the red power kicks in, his brain pulsates to twice its normal size, and his neck catches on fire.

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To handle the power, they make him a pair of the ugliest glasses known to humanity. Now, I’m no genius, but if you hire a young, good looking guy to be your star, obscuring his face behind 1940s protective goggles seems at best counter-productive. So anyway, he’s goggled up, and has a mystery to solve; the mystery of who killed his other fellow astronaut. He’s also got a potential love interest, a vital building block to any potential TV series, Dr Alison Taylor (Deborah Wakeham), who’s also the “hey, you shouldn’t go red, probably” wet blanket.

 

The cast is also full of “That Guy” actors – as well as Foree, there’s sitcom regular Mitch Ryan as the Colonel of the base, and Mason Adams as the old, friendly scientist. The sort of people who’d have been quite happy with a regular easy gig on a TV superhero show, I imagine, but solid hands all the same. When North needs to contact the Colonel and thinks the phones might be bugged, he basically invents the modern internet and Skype (it’s a bit of technobabble, but he wires a normal camera up to a computer and broadcasts it all via phone lines, untraceable). Given that it was made in 1985, it’s one of the more remarkable bits of accidental future prediction I can think of.

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Of course, as most failed pilots are, it’s very…standard. The main villain doesn’t die; there’s lots of people with skills the star doesn’t have (and they don’t die either); and there’s also plenty of world-building which might seem irrelevant. The world-building here involves little mysteries that the show could spend some time solving; such as the colour thing. He’s obviously going to have to go full red at some point, and there’s also what happens if he gets some special glasses and can access other sorts of light? It’s clearly made by TV professionals who, while they don’t necessarily have all the talent in the world, know that B should follow A. Sadly, there are no surprises in the writing or directing department, no-one who’d go on to write A-list blockbusters (unlike, say, “Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD”, a fellow pilot, which was written by David S Goyer).

 

I understand why it wasn’t picked up. The idea is sort of odd, and having a guy who’d be contractually obligated to spend a minute of every episode on the floor, screaming in pain as he was forced to use the red light power, would be off-putting. But looking more widely at American TV, the well-regarded show “The Greatest American Hero”, a superhero show with a more comedic bent, had just finished its initial run a few years previously, so it might have been made to fill that gap. Problem being, it’s not that funny, despite having one of the great sitcom actors in the cast they used him completely straight.

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Available on Youtube, if you’re bored one evening there are worse entertainment options. But there are lots and lots of better ones.

 

Rating: thumbs in the middle

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American Hero (2015)

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As both an Englishman and a lover of inadvertent comedy, I feel duty-bound, whenever I see the name Nick Love, to share this clip from the DVD commentary to “Outlaw” of Love and star Danny Dyer, definitely not coked up to the gills, discussing what a classic their movie is and how it’ll come to be regarded as a socially important work. God love the pair of them.

Love has directed a very American film, but clearly someone further up the monetary food chain was less than thrilled with the finished product, so we’re given a very misleading trailer, with scenes edited out of order and the comedy element played way up. What you’d expect to be a light story of a loveable loser finally using his powers for good after suffering a heart attack is altogether darker. Stephen Dorff is Melvin, a drug-taking, hard-partying but ultimately decent low-level criminal who’s had telekinetic abilities since as long as he can remember. His family and friends tolerate it with good humour; this includes his best friend / foster brother Lucille (Eddie Griffin), who’s been in a wheelchair since getting shot in the back while serving in the Army. We start with Melvin losing visitation rights to his son in a court case; from then on it’s partying and aimlessly wandering the streets, until a heart attack makes him realise his life is a joke. So he decides to straighten up, train, and take responsibility for making his locality a better place, which mostly involves a group of drug dealers who live in one of the city’s many derelict apartment blocks.

 

The movie is framed like a documentary, and about halfway through I was pretty impressed with the way Love has managed to nail both the look and feel of those American indie movies and documentaries, with the washed out colours, the long music-backed scenes, and the progression of the plot – an enthusiastic thumbs up to him for doing his homework (or hiring an extremely good cinematographer). Although, as the movie goes on, you begin to notice a few scenes that the crew either wouldn’t have been allowed to film or wouldn’t have been able to, such as when Melvin falls off the wagon, buys some cocaine and take it to his friend’s house, where they all do it and party with what looks like a group of prostitutes. Perhaps everyone signed their releases? I don’t know, but the scene where a gunfight takes place and the cameraman calmly films it without cover of any kind is a bit farfetched if we’re buying the documentary concept.

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It’s set in New Orleans, and one thing Love doesn’t shy away from is showing how tough it’s been for the residents of that city, post Katrina. Everyone’s broke and living in tiny, cheap buildings, but on the other hand it’s not disaster tourism. There’s not that aspiration for bigger toys or more luxurious homes but there’s a lot of love for neighbours and friends. I like the people in this movie. But alongside all that there’s the story of the characters, and how dark it gets. Lucille gets shot in retaliation for Melvin’s first attempt to fight the drug dealers, and we see a lot of Melvin in turmoil over his life and how he’s wasting it, his lost relationship with his son and so on.

 

We’re  definitely being sold “Hancock” and not what it is – a low key indie drama-comedy about a man whose life is falling apart, and happens to have superpowers. A lot of its negative reaction (low ratings on IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes) seem to come from people saying “why was I tricked into watching this?” The scenes of him using his powers are really good, too, with surprisingly realistic-looking special effects. He tears a building apart to get to the drug dealers; slowly pulls the roof off a house while sat bored on a park bench; levitates Lucille to get money from tourists (as well as helping him hit on women using his powers). But it’s not really about his powers, or being special, it’s about him realising he has responsibilities. The story is a very human, if rather OTT at times one, and Dorff does really well with his perpetually dishevelled look, and Griffin as the conscience / morality.

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It’s a little over the top, the ending is (probably deliberately) confusing, and too much of it goes nowhere, but ultimately it’s got a good heart and it’s quite an interesting take on a story. It’s sort of interesting that he hid his power so completely, if a trifle implausible. Surely there’d be some proper scientist or government person wanting to experiment on him? Especially after the “documentary” movie came out? Ah well, small potatoes.

 

Rating: thumbs up

Captain America (1990)

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While the “new” Captain America movies are both excellent, the late 70s movies are so bad and boring that it feels like they reached forward in time to throttle any enjoyment we might get, and leave any fans with a sense of dread upon seeing the iconic outfit in any media. So with those two cancelling each other out, we’re left with 1990’s version, with a suitably odd backstory to it. Which side of the fence will this one fall on?

Cannon Films, old friends of ours (subjects of the documentary “Electric Boogaloo”) had the rights to create movies based on Spider-Man and Captain America, thanks to Marvel not realising how many billions of dollars they could make from these franchises. They’d hired our old friend Albert Pyun, and he had the truly insane idea of directing them both at the same time; luckily, Cannon had a cashflow problem at the time so sold the rights to Spider-Man.

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The only two things we really know about Albert Pyun is that he’s the guy hired to finish off films that are running way over budget, and that he’s completely uninterested in showing how one thing logically follows another thing in his movies. His best effort here is half a second of a plane in flight to show that action has moved from the USA to Italy, but he doesn’t usually even give us that much, leading to the feeling that poor Ned Beatty (the childhood friend of the President) can teleport from Washington to northern Canada and back in minutes.

But the film! After giving us a whole new Italian origin for the Red Skull, possibly because the actor they hired for the part couldn’t do a German accent, possibly because they were offered some filming time in Italy, we’re right in there with Captain America himself, Steve Rogers. As they couldn’t make him tiny by CGI means, a la Chris Evans in the recent movie, they make him disabled, as he walks with a stick, which is actually quite a clever way round it. Anyway, in shocking news for a film we review, they actually get on with it quite quickly, and Rogers is super-serumed and in full costume as the Cap by about 20 minutes in. Well done!

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It’s just everything after that that falls to pieces. Cap tries to stop a Nazi rocket bound for Washington, but just rides it across the Atlantic and only tries to divert it when it’s about 100 feet away fron the White House; he ends up then going to Alaska (all the way on the other side of the country from Washington) and getting himself frozen until the present day. Luckily, the freezing doesn’t age him in any way, so there’s that.

The Red Skull has set up a criminal empire in the intervening years, and from about 30 minutes in he’s just a guy with a normal-coloured face and some nasty scars. Whether the Red Skull-ness healed itself up after a while or they were planning to tear off his fake skin near the end and never got round to it is sadly never revealed. Cap has to go to Italy with his old girlfriend’s adult daughter (they do the reunion after 40 years rather well, I thought), rescue the President and save the day.

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Just as you’d expect from an Albert Pyun movie, the problems are legion, even if you ignore the lack of connective tissue between scenes. The first 20 minutes are sort of okay, then it just becomes boring – yet another movie that just doesn’t understand why people want to watch superhero movies. Captain America displays no evidence of super-powers at all, and they never bother explaining how he got his shield or why it’s indestructible and always returns to his hand. The guy playing him, Matt “son of JD” Salinger, can’t act worth a damn either…it’s just a boring waste of time pretty much starting at the time Cap is thawed out.

Actually, there’s a handy little reminder of how no-one involved in making this cared, at all. There’s the spinning headlines thing to illustrate the passing decades, and despite the camera focusing on this, no-one thought enough of the audience to do it again, only without the spelling mistakes:

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Albert Pyun has spent most of his adult life making movies, while I’m currently sat with a sore arm trying to get my cat to stop trying to climb on it and hurt me, after yet another day at the office. I just wish he realised how lucky he was to be doing what he’s doing and put some effort into it.

Rating: thumbs down

Captain America (1979)

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I wouldn’t call this the worst film I’ve ever reviewed, because the cast appear to be able to act, and the cameras are by and large pointing in the right direction. But I’d say it’s right up there with the dullest, as it resembles and feels like a below average feature-length episode of “Quincy”, with a star who’s more hippie Evel Knievel than American superhero.

I don’t have a patriotic bone in my body, and that “my country, right or wrong” attitude feels dangerous to me, so I was never the biggest fan of Captain America growing up (showing how different our national discourse has been, Captain Britain is a mostly forgotten embarrassment). The recent films have been a lot of fun, though, and while I’m unlikely to start reading his comic, he’s okay by me; but this isn’t anything about them. Marvel have had a few goes at doing “Cap” – once in 1944, a TV series in the 1960s, another film in 1990, and two TV movies in 1979, of which this is the first, starring Reb Brown as Steve Rogers, possibly most famous to bad film fans as the star of the MST3K episode “Space Mutiny”.

Steve is fresh out of the Marines and is driving a van down the West coast of America, generally being mellow (he actually says this). Visiting an old friend, he gets sucked into some police investigation about scientists getting murdered and secret papers going missing; while this is happening it appears someone’s trying to kill him too. Turns out his Dad invented a super-serum and spent his life helping people out with his super-strength, agility, vision and hearing, and his old colleagues are trying to replicate its effects. It doesn’t work, of course, because it’s keyed to Pa Rodgers’ specific genetic makeup. Guess who shares it? Impressively, Steve refuses at first, wanting to “look America in the face” rather than work for the Man any more, but after the villains nearly kill him, his friends need to dose him to save his life and Captain America is born.

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Get ready for lots of scenes of people in brown suits standing around offices discussing the details of a pretty boring-sounding crime. I’m yawning just thinking of it again…it’s 38 minutes before the words “Captain America” are uttered and 49 minutes before he gets the super-serum. It’s so slow! I don’t think it even counts as an origin story, it’s more a guy getting a new job story. What it also is, is the thing we know and love, the pilot that crashed. Check the list – sidekicks get lots of backstory, plus they have skills the star doesn’t; none of them die; the villain also survives; and there’s irrelevant world-building detail (although this one was so dull it forgot most of the last one).

 
After a bunch more standing around, Steve gets his Captain America gear. They fit his van out with a special bike, which manages to be far less convenient than his old bike-rack (there’s zero clearance, so he’d have to crawl into place to drive it out of the van). It has a “silent” mode, to which the only reasonable question is “why doesn’t he use silent mode all the time?” (perhaps it’s tough on petrol consumption, is the only answer I could think of). He’s given a bullet-proof plastic shield which also doubles as his bike windscreen, and then there’s the outfit. I wasn’t joking about the Knievel thing – he was a much bigger deal than some boring old superhero at the time, and I’m positive that’s how the movie was sold. I doubt it was sold as “it’s like the most boring elements of a lot of already boring things”.

Cap has to stop a neutron bomb and a plan to steal some gold (I think, I was seriously struggling to pay attention by this point). He takes a helicopter ride to the scene of the “action”, and the ride goes on for what feels like days. I said, after a really long time had passed “well, they’ve finally established he’s in a helicopter”, but then it just kept on going, making my poor attempt at a joke feel terribly sad. Anyway, he defeats the villain in perhaps the most hilariously low-key, low-stakes ending a superhero movie has ever had.

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None of this makes any sense, even if you assume it’s the first two episodes of a potential TV show. Captain America would never exist if the villains of the piece didn’t try to kill him – he was ready to drive away from it all, which would have made it a great deal easier for them to complete their nefarious plans. Anyway, imagine you’re a youthful comic reader in the late 70s, surely the only possible audience for this trash. You’re excited about a movie featuring an iconic character, ready for the guy you’ve seen take on supernatural foes to kick some ass, but what you actually get is a tedious police procedural with a good half of its running time devoted to middle aged men having conversations. Who thought this was even remotely a good idea? Who was this supposed to entertain?

Rating: thumbs down

The Wolverine (2013)

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Although it’s impossible to give a biography of any big comic character, due to reboots and reimaginings and resurrections and them just plain forgetting their own backstory (see if you can read the Wikipedia page about his history without your eyes glazing over at least a few times), Wolverine has always had links to Japan. So to set a Wolverine movie there, in a place other than a big city with lots of buildings to blow up, already sounds more interesting than “X Men Origins: Wolverine” and “X-3”.

After the problems at the end of X-3, which was seven years ago so fair play for them to even remember what had gone on, Wolverine left the X-Men and went to live in the Canadian wilderness, occasionally coming into a small village to buy a few beers. Thanks to a bear he sort-of befriended, a chain of events starts that leads him to Japan, to say goodbye to the Japanese officer he saved at the end of WW2 when one of the nuclear weapons hit. That guy is now the CEO of Japan’s biggest corporation and is terminally ill, but he’s been spending like it’s going out of fashion to save his own life.

Wolverine gets himself involved in the struggles between the family members to take over the corporation, with involvement from a mysterious ninja-like group, the Yakuza and supervillain The Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova, who plays evil very well). The cast is very strong, with a few faces you’ll probably recognise – Hiroyuki Sanada (Lost, Helix, Revenge) and Brian Tee chief among them; and the women new to Western audiences are great too.

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Best of all, though, is Famke Janssen as Wolverine’s great love Jean Grey. She’s been dead in the films for some time, so appears to Wolverine in dreams, and her performance is just amazing – taking a character from the comics I never really cared that much about and turning her into a really strong force. She represents Wolverine’s tiredness with immortality and longing to end it all, and adds a huge factor to his character too.

The fight scenes are extraordinary, every bit the equal of any great martial arts movie you could name, and they look great too. It definitely benefits from not being the same as the other Marvel films – the stakes in this aren’t world domination or countless lives, they’re personal, and for that reason there’s a million different ways the film could end (apart from Wolverine dying, of course, because he shows up in the next film). In fact, you could say this film has more in common with Bourne than the X-Men.

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Okay, it’s not perfect. Asking yourself “who does that character actually work for?” about one or two of the main “villains” will leave you scratching your head, and the twist at the end is so telegraphed they may as well have not had it in there at all. But it looks great, James Mangold as director should have been hired for the previous Wolverine film too because he nails the character perfectly, and Huge Jacked Man is so good as the character that you can’t believe anyone else could ever play him.

Rating: thumbs up

Agent Beetle (2012)

The only remotely true word on this poster is "Beetle"

The only remotely true word on this poster is “Beetle”

Watching this film was a puzzling experience. Several of the scenes were shot on what looked like a theatre stage (disguised with many many curtains) and the final battle took place in what looked like a backstage area, so it’s hard to shake the feeling that this is a rehearsal, or that a group of non-actors and non-filmmakers have borrowed equipment from after the real people have gone home and had a bash themselves.

It’s getting easier to spot the things that low-budget films do, the more of them I watch. When you see someone walking extremely slowly in a situation that doesn’t warrant it (in this case, a young woman walking on her own through a snowy industrial district with no-one else around) you know it’s because they’ve not got much set to work with, or their camera dolly is broken and can only move at 1mph. But this is just a way to introduce us to The Beetle, who definitely isn’t DC superhero the Blue Beetle, oh no, definitely not at all. Luckily, we get to hear a radio news show talking about the Beetle, with a helpful visual of a sound wave – only, a sound wave that seems to bear no relation to the sounds that are happening. Hurray!

This film takes place in city X, with the main baddies being Hive Pharmaceuticals. We get a CGI shot of Hive’s offices, a skyscraper in a literally endless sea of skyscrapers (I would not want to live wherever that is) and then get given the exceptionally simple plot. A company is using death row inmates and the insane to test out a new formula that gives people superpowers. Their group of people (Stinger, Roach, Widow and Mantis) are doing crimes, so a cop dumps his girlfriend then gets himself sent to prison so he can infiltrate their group. He gets superpowers too – just your generic set of superhero abilities, no surprises.

That’s it, really. Beetle’s girlfriend is an investigative journalist for a newspaper (sadly, all we see of the no doubt bustling office is one wall which looks like someone’s front room) so she’s trying to figure out what’s going on with Hive too. No irrelevant C plots, not really much of a B plot either.

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It’s a shade under 80 minutes, but that plot I described above would barely fill a 42 minute episode of TV, so there’s quite a bit of padding. Roach decides to visit what I presume to be some weird amalgam of a strip club and beauty pageant – four women in bikinis parade around the stage to the delight of the paying customers, but never come close to removing any more clothing. He says nothing, interacts with no-one, just watches semi-clad women for a few minutes then leaves.

Sadly, whatever budget this film possessed was not spent on microphones. The sound is poor at best, and absolutely incomprehensible at worst – that they didn’t even make an attempt to ADR the stuff you can’t hear indicates the budget was extremely low indeed. The main baddie is watching security cam footage of Beetle taking on her villains, and the footage is just the film, multiple camera angles and all. Right at the end, for no reason, we’re treated to a very crudely animated 30-second segment. It’s almost interesting in its complete lack of regard for the sensible way to make a movie, almost.

Beetle’s name in the movie is Dan Garret, which is the same name (down to the spelling) as the original Blue Beetle from the 1930s. Why do this? I guess they wanted DC to sue them for the publicity? I was really trying to think of something positive to say about this, but there’s nothing there. Proof that not everyone who wants to make a film should be allowed to do so, certainly. It’s just a horrible flat nothing, with no real reason to exist – it’s not even ripping off a character from an upcoming blockbuster. Let’s keep our fingers crossed these people go bankrupt soon, or are forced by a judge to never work in the entertainment industry again.

We’ve already reviewed one of this company’s films – “Captain Battle: Legacy War” – and it looks like Saint James Films is responsible for some real cinematic atrocities – http://www.imdb.com/company/co0352793/?ref_=tt_dt_co . They’re the place that people who are booted out of The Asylum for gross incompetence go.

Rating: thumbs down

AMAZING POST REVIEW EDIT: for its German release, this film was retitled “Die Fantastischen Fünf” (The Fantastic Five), just to make sure every comic company had reason to complain. Okay, there were five superpowered people in this film, but “fantastic”? Well played, sirs.

All Superheroes Must Die (2011)

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The ISCFC covered Jason Trost’s first film, “The FP”, a while ago – https://iscfc.net/2012/06/24/19-the-fp-2011/ and we loved it. Self aware, pretty exciting and lots of fun (and it certainly helped it was about a fairly unique subject – gang warfare via Dance Dance Revolution), and although Jason Trost is busy in various capacities in Hollywood, he still has time to make his own films, such as this one, which you might know as “Vs”, its title in various parts of the world.

Four superheroes wake up to find themselves in a strange town, with a large injection mark on their wrist, no superpowers and no idea how they got there. They’re called via messages on TVs placed nearby to a central meeting point, and we get some sense of who they are and their relationships – they were all clearly friends at one point, but have gone their separate ways, or had a falling out. None of this is really made explicit at any point, which is a nice bit of world-building from the film as we’re expected to fill in a few blanks for ourselves.

The person who brought them together is Rickshaw, played by James Remar, who will have a lifetime pass from me for his part in “The Warriors”. He’s annoyed at the way he keeps getting beaten by these superheroes and has decided to hatch a devilish plan to finish them off once and for all. It might be reasonably be asked that if he was so rubbish, how did he manage to drug, capture and transport four super-powered people to his empty town, but if you did say it you would not get an answer.

The four heroes fight through the deliberately impossible challenges, designed to make them feel the loss that Rickshaw has felt at their hands. The thing that surprises about this is that it’s played extremely straight, and where you’d expect to have a knowing wink to camera, there is none. Rickshaw forces them into difficult moral conundrums too, and the majority of the film’s running time is seeing these former friends try and work together and deal with the problems he’s set.

For all the good things in it, I have to give this film a big thumbs down. No-one seemed prepared to get James Remar to do any reshoots – some of his dialogue is very odd and presumably comes from him getting the words mixed up, although he chews the scenery so much that it’s hard to notice at times. Also, the four super-friends carry themselves off well, although Lee Valmassy as “The Wall” is the weakest link – and considering how much I liked him in “The FP” he seems to have forgotten how to act in the meantime.

I liked how the film jumped into things with minimal backstory, but its structure was extremely episodic and we were left with too little to get emotionally invested in. Anyone who’s seen a superhero movie will know the archetypes that are being dealt with, which takes some of the heavy lifting off, but even so you need some more reason to care for these characters.

Due to none of the characters having any powers (done presumably for budget reasons), there’s no real reason this has to be a superhero movie. It could have been four firemen, or police officers, or indeed any other profession. They don’t interact with the public at all, either (the only innocents we see are tied to fuel tanks as part of the challenges), so them being superheroes is pretty superfluous, other than having a ready-made fanbase to watch it. It also felt like a short film improperly stretched out to 80 minutes, and could really have done with a rewrite, or an extra sub-plot, or something. We don’t get any sense that these people used to be super-powered in any way, really.

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It’s not all bad, I suppose. The camerawork is excellent, and it looks like it cost ten times more than it probably did. There’s some scenery re-use for those fans of “The FP” with quick eyes, and the music is used well. I know Trost is a clever guy, but whatever story he was trying to tell with this, whatever ideas he was trying to get across, just isn’t written or directed well enough. I’m happy to still call myself a fan of Trost, I’m really hoping his next film is a bit stronger than this one.

All Superheroes Must Die on IMDB
Buy All Superheroes Must Die [DVD]