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.