Kill List, Carriers, The Raid

Kill List was definitely one of the more striking films of last year, a British genre-defying one-off that melded grim down-to-earth drama, even grimmer hitman thriller and none-more-grim nightmare horror. Two former soldiers-turned-hitmen, played by Neil Maskell and Spaced’s Michael Smiley, take on a new assignment that becomes weirder and weirder the more they get involved. I wouldn’t want to give anything else away, but you won’t see the ending coming. When I first saw it last year, Kill List was unpleasant but gripping, bleak but morbidly funny, and superbly acted and directed. The first time you watch it, it’s so good that you don’t mind the seemingly unexplainable plot twists because, you know, it’s probably something you missed first time round, and that on a second viewing, it’ll all start to fall into place. Right? Not even close. Re-watching Kill List, it’s still a mightily effective experience, but I found myself less forgiving towards the – and there’s no way to sugarcoat it – big fat plotholes. Now, horror and rational explanations aren’t normally a good thing. What would you prefer, the Halloween that kept everything in the dark, or the Halloween that felt the need to explain just why Michael Myers ended up being such a naughty boy? I know which I prefer, but in the case of Kill List, the genre shifts feel almost bolted on, just a way of changing a standard crime storyline into something else, just to keep us interested. It’s sad but true that Kill List’s story promises much but then doesn’t really deliver, instead moving into horror-movie territory because, well, it’s crazy and unpredictable, yeah? Don’t get me wrong, I’m still mostly impressed by this film, and the two leads are really brilliant – Maskell switches from downtrodden husband to lethal killer with frightening believability, while Smiley manages to take the character of a killer and make him quite sympathetic – but in the end, it doesn’t quite hang together as well as I’d hope.

Still, I’d take an ambitious, flawed film like Kill List over a more modest, but ultimately average horror like Carriers, a passably watchable post-apocalyptic drama from a few years back about two brothers – one gentle and nice, the other arrogant and a bit of a dick, along with their respective lady friends, as they drive their way towards nowhere, just hoping to survive a contagious epidemic that has you coming out in gory sores and blood-spattered coughing fits. Chris Pine is the dickhead brother – this is before he played a lovable but ultimately arrogant, slightly dickhead-ish Captain Kirk in Star Trek, and a dickhead train driver in Unstoppable – I haven’t seen This Means War yet, but he might be a dickhead in that too. Pattern forming. Still, he plays this role well, and there are some good shocks, though it’s over before you know it, and the ending seems to give you the impression that the film was really about the sibling rivalry between two disparate brothers, but since I spent more time flinching at the occasional gooey scare than worrying too much about the characters, the downbeat ending didn’t really deliver as much on the pathos front as it would have liked to have done. Still, a fairly watchable film.

The hype for Gareth Huw Edwards’ The Raid has been quietly phenomenal, with talk of it being the best action film since god knows when, bold comparisons made with Die Hard and Hard Boiled, etc, but this is not in the same league. The plot is very, very simple. A  SWAT squadron ambush a Jakarta tower block which is the HQ of a drug dealer, but they find themselves way in over their head when the block turns out to be crammed with high-kicking lethal killers. There’s a bit of double-crossing, some sibling rivalry with a pair of wildly opposite brothers and shock-horror, a woman appears at the start. However, she’s pregnant and in snoozing in bed, so she doesn’t get to do anything interesting. The rest of the film is all action, and it is very violent indeed. Almost everyone here is a martial arts expert, so the fights are insanely complex and go on forever. The main characters are also virtually indestructible, taking multiple elbows to the ribs, head-smacks, back-bashes and all manner of physical punishment without flinching. Oh, they bleed, they sweat, they bruise and so forth, but come ON! These guys are like robots, and the fights are ludicrously overlong – it just feels like watching someone else play a dodgy copy of Street Fighter II where the life bar is 100 times longer and the countdown starts at three hours. After a while, you just get numbed to it all. Despite reports of The Raid being a real game-changer, it isn’t really that new. Visceral and hyper-kinetic fight scenes have been done before, and the only thing The Raid brings to the table is that there’s so much more of it than in any other film. However, it just gets too much, and almost becomes…. well, boring. It’s difficult to root too much for the characters since nearly all of the SWAT team don’t have anything in the way of distinctive personalities (or even names); it’s difficult to know what’s happening to whom, or to care much either. The ones that do have names are stock stereotypes, totally unmemorable – the sadistic drug baron, the noble brother/deadbeat brother, the treacherous and cowardly cop (though admittedly he’s the only one to enter the raid without protective headgear, so he’s a bit of a tough nut). Of course, things like character development are clearly going to be secondary in a film like this, but I just wanted something, anything to help bring some multi-dimensionality to the proceedings. It’s also a totally humourless film, though the sheer brutality of the violence does end up crossing the line and become funny. The insistence of high-volume impact becomes monotonous, even if the fight scenes, taken individually, are spectacularly vicious, with the odd moment of outrageous nastiness making you double-take. I really wanted to like this, but I was underwhelmed.

Haywire, Martha Marcy May Marlene and War Horse

Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire is definitely a step-up from his unfocused, underwhelming Contagion, but there’s something similarly lacking here too. Let’s call it human empathy. It was difficult to give much of a monkeys about any of the stock characters in Contagion, and the same applies for Gina Carano’s solider on the run either. This is Carano’s first major lead role, being better known as a Mixed Martial Arts star, and wow, can she kick arse. The plot is the usual soldier/spy/whatever being betrayed by her superiors and becoming a high-priority target, blah, blah, blah, and it’s easy to lose interest in all the scheming and double-crossing malarkey, which isn’t very excitingly staged. So it’s good that the action scenes are absolutely fantastic – real knife-edge brutality and kinetic ferocity. Carano has real presence in these scenes, and to be fair, does a solid enough job everywhere else, but it’s the fight scenes that everyone will remember. There’s various shady support from the Ewan McGregor, Antonio Banderas, and the always welcome Michael Douglas, and Bill Paxton’s suddenly old enough to play the main hero’s father, which was quite surreal. Michael Fassbender (hooray!) gets the best of the supporting roles as one of Carano’s contacts in the field, and their big scene together is the highlight of the film. Haywire is also amazingly stylish – the locations are great, the camerawork breathtaking and David Holmes’s terrifically versatile soundtrack a real bonus too. This is a real pleasure to watch, but only on the surface. Underneath, there’s nothing.

Much better is Martha Marcy May Marlene, an atmospheric, haunting and eerie drama about a young woman (Elizabeth Olsen, younger sister of the more famous Mary-Kate and Ashley) who flees a cult only to find her attempts to re-assimilate back into normality just as alienating. The plot switches from her return to her family (more specifically, her sister and her boyfriend) and then back in time to her experiences within the cult, which is a male-dominated world where the women are there for cooking, working and sex, sometimes against their will. The leader of the cult is played by John Hawkes, who gets saddled with worthless mini-roles in big-studio stuff like Contagion, but really gets a chance to shine in smaller-scale films like this and Winter’s Bone. Here, Hawkes exudes a quiet, understated but threatening presence, at once welcoming and scary. However, he is more than rivalled by Olsen, who is really superb here – she’s not a wholly sympathetic character, but she is a totally beguiling one. Director Sean Durkin effortlessly leaps back and forth in time, creating an atmosphere that’s dream-like, dazed with the hazy fog of memory, and subtle enough to make you want to watch it again to pick up on the little details that you might have missed out on. The ending is very inconclusive and will annoy the kind of people who got wound up with Inception’s open-ending. Open-endings can be used as a cop-out for writers and directors who simply don’t know how to end their plot, but in the best examples they can haunt and linger, and that’s the case here. The film’s obliqueness will frustrate some, but I loved it.

Steven Spielberg’s War Horse is an unashamedly brash and sentimental epic that leans towards overkill, but is too well made for it to be dismissed as soggy goo. Joey is the horse of the title, who is initially bought by reckless farmer Peter Mullan, who then gives him to his son (Jeremy Irvine) to bring up, only for World War I to begin, during which Joey is sold off to the war effort, where he begins a remarkable journey from new owner to new owner. Since our lead character is a mute and mostly inexpressive animal, War Horse doesn’t have much of a central hook to latch onto, and some of the film’s mid-section is too episodic. However, the film is littered with terrific set-pieces, beautiful photography and powerful moments. The performances are uniformly effective, especially Tom Hiddleston as the soldier who buys Joey to take to war and Anthony Worrall-Thompson lookalike Niels Arestrup whose granddaughter discovers Joey hiding in their barn. Yes, the film shamelessly tugs at the heartstrings, is relatively coy in in its depiction of war and so forth, but it is a stirring, pleasing bit of entertainment.

Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971) and Piranha (1978)

Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971) is a relatively little-seen horror that has built a nice cult reputation, and although its refusal to properly explain itself might frustrate some who like their horror movies to have everything spelt out for them, or god forbid, have their antagonists ‘fleshed out’ with a back-story or rational explanation, the film’s vagueness only makes it all the creepier. It’s about a mentally disturbed young woman (the Jessica of the title) who, with her husband and their friend, move to an old house in the country (bad idea), only for her to experience unnerving visions. The local townsfolk are not very hospitable either, and even though they’re all in their eighties, act like a bunch of no-good teenage punks when they start to antagonise the new kids in town. Oh, and there’s a squatter who looks just like the young woman in the 100 year old photo collecting dust in the attic…

This film was directed by John Hancock, which I thought was a pseudonym, like the kind directors use when they’re embarrassed of their work and use a phoney name to keep their integrity. Turns out he’s real, and any self-respecting director would be very proud to have this on their CV, so that’s my theory shot to pieces. Hancock hasn’t directed much else outside of TV work; in fact, his most famous film might be the one he got thrown off of – he was the original director of Jaws 2 before he was replaced. With this film though, he creates a spellbinding atmosphere, and gets a great performance from Zohra Lambert in the title role. She exudes sympathy and strangeness without resorting to cheap tricks or theatrics, and the decision to let us hear her thoughts is a masterstroke, perfectly capturing her paranoia and fear of madness. The use of location is lovely, with a hazy, rural feel that lulls us into a dreamy comfort zone before throwing us off-balance with some choice shocks and eerie touches. The electronic soundtrack is quite striking given when the film was made, and even though some of the fashions have dated (including one major moustache), that only adds to the old school feel. It’s always a pleasure to discover a lost horror gem after having watched so many already, and for those who fancy a late night chill down the spine, this’ll work a treat.

Less scary but just as entertaining is Joe Dante’s Piranha (1978), which was remade a few years ago in spectacular style (the remake gets a sequel in a few weeks) – Dante is best known for the two Gremlins films, plus other wonderfully funny and imaginative adventures like Explorers and InnerSpace, plus werewolf classic The Howling and one-off black comedy The ‘burbs. Like The Howling, Piranha is decidedly nastier and bloodier than his later works, with rivers of blood pouring freely to delightful effect. An unashamed Jaws knock-off, but made with a much lighter and tongue-in-cheek touch, Piranha sees a wave of genetically modified killer fish accidentally let loose in the direction of a summer camp for kids. Two teens get munched in the opening sequence, and a private investigator (Heather Menzies, who was one of the kids in The Sound of Music) teams up with an alcoholic local expert (Bradford Dillman) to check their whereabouts. They accidentally release the deadly piranha, and must race against time to stop them feeding on the poor children. Without giving too much away, I can nevertheless promise you that this film isn’t one of those that thinks that kids and gory death shouldn’t ever be put together – when the fishies arrive at summer camp, no one is off the menu… This is a modest but very enjoyable B-movie that throws in some genuine suspense amongst the lighter moments – a bit where the ropes connecting a wooden raft together are rapidly gnawed loose by the piranha is wickedly tense, and the shots of carefree legs and arms drifting in the water whilst the critters swim closer never gets dull. There is a mid-way lull when the army and suspicious scientist-types get in on the act, but the final act is a riot. As mentioned before, the copious blood-letting is gleefully excessive (though nothing compared to the remake) and the piranhas themselves are a fearsome presence, rapidly filmed so we don’t get to see them too much. Dante would go on to make better films, but this is a delightfully silly debut.

Blitz (2011) and Roadgames (1981)

Blitz is basically a hard-boiled, overheated cop thriller with all the US clichés, reworked for its London setting – Jason Statham’s proper hard nut cop breaks all the rules, but he gets results, you know the score. He’s actually a proper arsehole, a homophobic, sexist, reactionary bastard who treats more or less everyone like dirt, but since most of his victims are low-life informants, that’s okay, I suppose. His sidekick, played by Paddy Considine, eats vegetables, listens to classical music and takes care over his appearance. Statham’s having none of this – he says he doesn’t care if Paddy’s gay, but only if he keeps it to himself, you know? Paddy nevertheless earns himself a place in Statham’s heart when he confesses that he battered a paedophile’s bollocks so much they actually burst. The film works all too well in making its villain so irredeemably vile that you can’t help but cheer Statham and Paddy on when they start making their own rules.

Plot-wise this is total conveyer-belt, production-line exploitation, nothing special at all, but as junk-food entertainment, it works. A psycho is going around killing police officers, and for Statham, this won’t do at all. The film is very well made, fast-paced, exciting and solidly performed. Well, the jury’s out on Statham – to be fair, it’s a preposterously macho character he’s been saddled with, but his approach is just as much to blame. He’s made a mint out of these arrogant, one-of-the-lads, beer ‘n’ birds type action heroes, and Blitz is one more to add to the pile. Luckily, Statham’s backed by lots of great support to temper his tendencies down a notch  – the always-excellent Considine can never do wrong in my book. He can play sensitive, he can play terrifying, he can do comedy well too, the guy’s fantastic, and he takes a token role (his character’s sexuality is thankfully not stereotyped or made fun of, barring the moment when Statham says he’s a good copper, despite being ‘a poofter’, though that bit is more notable for making Statham sound like a right dickhead more than anything – I hope that was the intention) and does well with it. The supporting cast – Fresh Meat’s Zawe Ashton, Mark Rylance and an underused David Morrissey do well enough, but everybody here is upstaged by Aidan Gillen as the villain – he’s utterly despicable, but hypnotically evil at the same time. He asks to be given the opportunity to update his facebook status after being arrested. He batters one victim with a hammer, but then sticks around in his flat to watch some game show on the telly, loudly berating the contestant for getting the answer wrong. Me, I found this funny. If you don’t, then the odds are you won’t find much to enjoy in Blitz. The film is pretty nasty, but it’s about a cop killer, so what else do you expect? The thing is, Blitz really goes over the line with the violence. If there’s an opportunity to throw some really shocking violence in our faces, it’s taken. Head crushing, throat shooting, hammer-crushing, it’s all horrible, effectively vicious stuff, but if you’re in the mood for a nasty bit of entertainment, the fast-paced, slick fun of Blitz will do the job. PS: Aidan Gillen’s profile picture on IMDb proves he has good taste in cats.

Back to 1981 now for Roadgames, a cracking Australian thriller that used to be the kind of film you’d discover buried on BBC2’s late-night scheduling. It’s directed by Richard Franklin, an unashamed Hitchcock-devotee who got what must have been his dream job a few years later when he got to make the sequel to the Master’s own Psycho. For those who haven’t seen Psycho II, let me just say that it is far better than you’d think it would be, and I personally prefer it to the original… anyway, back to Roadgames, which is notably Hitchcockian with its use of long takes, drawn-out suspense, ‘wrong man under suspicion’ plot motif and themes of obsession, but Franklin makes it all his own, thanks to some great use of the open Australian vistas and never-ending stretches of road, and a fantastic performance from Stacy Keach as the man who drives a truck (but ‘not a truck driver’) who becomes convinced that the man in the green van up ahead is the one responsible for the murders of various hitchhikers. Keach has a cute pet dingo along for the ride, and it’s with him (and himself) that he shares plenty of conversation with, and it’s this element of his performance that shines the most – he’s essentially talking to himself, but he draws you into his world entirely. Jamie Lee Curtis, still revelling in her early slasher movie-queen era, is also great as ‘Hitch’, who could be the next victim…

Interestingly, Roadgames is almost entirely free of explicit violence – much is more hinted at than revealed, though the one moment of outright gruesomeness (wait for it…) is a gem. Franklin’s more interested in winding up the suspense gears, and he does a stellar job – I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the film’s major classic shock moment, but you’ll be thankful afterwards… I recommend Roadgames for those wanting some seriously chilling, exciting and stylish thrills – it’s better than Blitz at the very least!

Movie-round up – Marked for Death, Marley, The Cabin in the Woods, The Avengers, a Dangerous Method and The Langoliers

Okay, so what have I been watching? As ever – some good, some bad, some ugly. Off the top of my head, we’ve got Steven Seagal’s Marked for Death from 1990 – his third film and one that made predecessor Hard to Kill look like Playschool with its upping of the bone-cracking violence. Utter balls this one, but well shot and solidly performed – even Seagal has presence, because here he’s simply kicking arse without banging on about the environment like he would later, plus he’s not porked out yet so he’s still a lean, mean killing machine. This is the one with the Jamaican gangsters as villains – there’s a potentially bizarre supernatural edge to the story which turns out to be a sham since the main bad guy who is mysteriously able to turn up in two places at once turns out to be a regular nutter with a twin brother. Oh yeah, this main bad guy, named Screwface, proves to be the most enjoyable element of this film thanks to a phenomenal, scenery-devouring performance from Basil Wallace, who elevates the pleasure-factor of this film a ‘TAOUSAND TIMES!!!!’ whenever he’s around. Seriously, it’s less a performance than a force of nature, growling, scowling and wildly exaggerated ticks and mannerisms. Saying that, the best scene in the film doesn’t involve Screwface – I’m talking about the bit when Seagal takes on a bunch if Screwface’s henchmen in a jewellery store. They all try to kill the ‘little bloodCLAAAAT’ and end up with their arms and legs pointing in the wrong directions. Seriously, Seagal’s sadistic tendencies make his contemporaries like Arnie, Sly and Van Damme seem like even-handed arbiters of benevolence. Some of these bits of unnecessary violence were cut out in the UK version, but since I’m watching a non-UK cut, I can enjoy Seagal’s dispensation of justice in full. This isn’t a good film but Screwface, plus the presence of Keith David (who played Childs in Carpenter’s The Thing) and a Seagal performance that doesn’t embarrass itself too much make this a middle-tier guilty pleasure. The film make a small effort to ensure that not all Jamaicans are mad-eyed drug-dealers – in fact, less than one percent of migrants according to a fictional news reporter, and this is no Live and Let Die, where more or less every black character was duplicitous, evil, demonic or whatever, but there is a feeling that the decision to make the bad guys Jamaican was something along the lines of exotic window-dressing to liven up an old plot line. Funnily enough, Jamaican drug dealers were also an element in one of 20th Century Fox’s other grisly features of 1990, Predator 2, and in that one they too smoked massive spliffs, practised voodoo and hated Colombians.

A less stereotypical depiction of Jamaican people is on offer in Kevin MacDonald’s rewarding documentary on Bob Marley, simply entitled Marley. As someone who has good but not great awareness of Marley’s music (the singles, plus big albums like Exodus), I entered this documentary not knowing too much about Marley the man or the career, and I was handsomely rewarded with a straight-up, informative and well researched overview of inarguably the most culturally important reggae star in the world. The man himself still remained a bit of a mystery by the end, but even though the film was produced by Tuff Gong (his own label), this was no blinkered hagiography, and the footage of Marley himself was fantastic. Lots of cool interviews too, plus I never knew that Bob’s dad was a white Liverpudlian!

Other surprises were also in store for Joss Whedon’s absolutely mad The Cabin in the Woods – I was worried about this one. Whedon has a tendency for smart-arse self-awareness that threaten to derail his ability to conjure suspense and a good story. 2005’s Serenity had this problem. The Cabin in the Woods does not. Directed by Drew Goddard (who wrote Cloverfield), this takes the horror clichés of yore and lays waste to them, but not in the way that Scream did. No, no, no, this is something else entirely. The very first sequence hints that something odd is afoot, but the big twist that you think you’ve guessed early on is merely the icing on this crazy cake. To reveal more would be grossly unfair, so let me just say that horror fans who love their stalk-and-slash routine but also want it to get shaken up vigorously will be very pleased. One catch – it’s not that scary. Still, some of the later imagery in the utterly insane final act are very freaky, but more in a hilarious sense than in anything likely to give you nightmares.

Whedon’s control of the Avengers mantle also had cause for concern, but bloody hell, he’s made a modern gem with Marvel Avengers Assemble, which is a terrible, terrible title, but its named so in the UK so that audiences don’t get it confused with the 1998 adaptation of the cult TV series with Patrick MacNee, which is apparently the worst film ever. I may see that one day for the first time, but this new Avengers film is definitely something I’ll be seeing again sometime soon. Now, this is the culmination of years of anticipation, the long-awaited gathering of Iron Man, The Hulk, Captain America and Thor who have all had their own movies which, as fun as they were, felt like extended trailers for this big event. Luckily, the wait has been worth it. Rarely has a movie so crammed with action maintained such a high-enjoyment factor – this film, once it gets going after a relatively slow but delightfully well-made first half, is relentless in its spectacle and excitement. Too much action can lead to overkill and exhaustion, but this gets it so right the pleasure factor is through the roof. It’s a real joy to see all these characters finally interact, banter, scuffle and work together – Robert Downey Jr thankfully doesn’t hog the limelight with Iron Man/Tony Stark’s larger-than-life personality. In fact, he’s nicely taken to task by Chris Evans’ no-nonsense Captain America, and the tension between these two that makes for some of the films best dramatics. Chris Hemsworth continues to delight as Thor, Mark Ruffalo gets Bruce Banner just right, and his transformation into the Hulk is fantastic – the carnage he delivers in the second half is too much fun for words. Also, we have fine support from Scarlett Johansson as the frighteningly (but very pleasingly) agile Black Widow, the always-excellent Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury and Tom Hiddleston as Loki, who gives seriously great villainy. He’s the kind of villain you can’t wait to see done over but also can’t help but love his wicked nastiness. This could be the most purely enjoyable blockbuster since Star Trek a few years ago, and I would recommend this without hesitation, but for newcomers, you may want to catch up with the previous round of Marvel movies to appreciate this a little more.

So, what else? David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method is easier to admire than it is to love – it’s immaculately staged and performed, but despite a strong set-up, it sadly fizzles out by the end, failing to deliver much of a kick. The documentation (and if that sounds like a dry description, be aware that this a relatively no-nonsense film from the erstwhile visceral Cronenberg) of the fall-out between Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and their approaches to psychoanalysis is fascinating for the most part, but more in terms of the characters’ respective philosophies rather than their personalities. Keira Knightley delivers a very striking performance as Jung’s key patient who suffers from deep-rooted psychological and sexual issues- she might put people off thanks to the sheer intensity and unshackled physicality of her acting, but I found her to be quite brilliant in this. You can’t really fault the others either – Mortensen is a quiet, understated presence as Freud, and Fassbender is effortlessly brilliant. If we’re going to have an actor appear in about four films a month, I’m glad it’s this bloke.

Finally, a bit of B-movie madness with 1995’s The Langoliers, which isn’t really a movie per se, but it’s part of the long and wildly erratic line of Stephen King adaptations that I’m going to talk about it here. Based on a King novella, this three-hour TV mini-series follow a group of disparate strangers who find their fellow passengers on an overnight plane flight vanished without trace after they take their respective naps. Even the pilots have vanished, but don’t worry, one of the passengers can fly the plane. So where did the other passengers go? The cast is made up familiar faces – the evil neighbour from Disturbia, the comedy French stereotype from Beverly Hills Cop, the security guard from Silence of the Lambs, Al from Quantum Leap, and so on. The first half of The Langoliers is quite intriguing – the obvious lack of a budget is cleverly sidetracked by keeping the action plane-bound, making the film almost comparable to a play at times. You can forgive the stereotyped minor characters – the performances are solid enough, the mystery of the scenario strong enough, with the biggest question being, who are The Langoliers? However, the second half crosses the line, with the dialogue spilling over into near-unparalleled badness and logical plot holes so big you could fly a plane through them. Characters get murdered and no one appears to care. The precise laws laid out by the film’s science are then ignored. Characters make wild, out of the blue guesses to get them out of impossible situations which turn out to be amazingly correct. It’s not all bad though – it’s certainly watchable in a B-movie, low-rent kind of way, and the premise of the story is arresting right up to the end, it’s just the approach is so misjudged, culminating in a jaw-droppingly bad final shot which features probably the most hilariously awful use of a freeze-frame in modern storytelling. Depressingly, the film was directed by Tom Holland, who wrote the excellent script for Psycho II and who also made the wonderful original version of Fright Night.