Stake Land: getting its point across

stake land vampire movie poster

This is the apocalypse with fangs, indie-style, as envisaged by director and co-writer Jim Mickle. Stake Land tracks young Martin, orphaned by a ravaging vampire, who is taken under the wing of solitary hunter Mister (co-writer Nick Damici). Shotguns, arrows, spears and stakes (no fire) are their arsenal against a zombie-like plague of vampires who have turned the USA and, it is suggested, the world, into a wasteland. The pair have a plan — to drive to New Eden, an idyllic, vampire-free zone (once again, the American fascination with Canada as a haven is front and centre).

Along the way, they pick up passengers including a nun, a pregnant singer and an ex-marine. The group scavenge food and fuel on their way north via a series of fortified towns, which try to maintain the conventions of society amidst the carnage.

A map of America reveals a number of zones of control, each posing dangers to travellers, and none moreso than the realm of the Brotherhood: a fanatical bunch of religious nutters who not only think the vampire plague is a sign of the apocalypse, but revel in it, seeking to make it worse, not better. Rape and murder are their tools of trade and they pose the greatest obstacle to the travellers.

The story meanders a bit, struggling to find a high level of suspense and direct conflict. This is largely due to it being a road journey linking various separate set action pieces which don’t always serve the plot. The characters do make some overly stupid mistakes towards the end. However, it does carry a mood of melancholy and desperation you’d hope to find in such a bleak scenario, and is pleasantly understated — there isn’t too much chatting and the performances are restrained.

Stake Land is a gritty, realistic film where the vampires are very much monsters, essentially zombies with a vulnerability to sunlight and dicky tickers, if you can get a hunk of wood through their reinforced rib cage. The actual rules by which the vampires are created remain obscure, and this does weaken the credibility of the premise a little. While a degree of confusion about the origin of the plague is to be expected in a world gone to hell, and it isn’t necessary within the context of the film, I’d have liked a clear indication as to how the vampirism spreads so I could better appreciate the threat to the characters, who do engage in a lot of hand-to-hand combat.

There is a suggestion that there are different generations — some are too tough to stake and can only be stopped by a stake to the back of the head, for instance — and indeed there is mention of mutations of vampire — some are capable of higher thought, most seem to be little more than animals. But yet, a bite appears to be a likely way of making a vampire, which suggests vampirism as contagion.

But this movie is not about the vampires; in fact, a zombie plague would’ve worked just as well, and there is little difference between the two as depicted here.

No, the sharp end of the flick is aimed at the religious right as Mickle tests society’s thin veneer when it’s brought under stress, and vampires were just a handy critter for some cool effects and fight scenes. All that blood, and there is something cool about an ornery mysterious stranger riding into town and popping a bag of extended canines on the bar, isn’t there?

In some ways, the story has the mood of The Road, but that slice of post-apocalyptic America has far more intensity. Stake Land does, however, deliver a well-acted, good-looking and above-average adventure where the humans can be just as inhumane as the monsters. Tasty, but not overly filling.

Black Swan — a dark flight of fancy indeed

Black Swan is the latest offering from director Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler); it’s won a Golden Globe, amongst others, so yay that it’s finally reached Australia.

The buzz is warranted. It’s a gripping little drama, intensely personalised thanks to the bravura performance from Natalie Portman who handles her role with just the deftness required.

The story centres on a ballet dancer angling for the plum role of the Swan Queen in a new production of Swan Lake — Winona Ryder appears as the current prima ballerina. I went in knowing only that the movie was set in a ballet, and frankly, I was glad to not have read or heard any further information than that. The air of not quite knowing what was going on lasted right till the climax.

There were some delightful ‘ew’ moments, mostly from the simple realities of the physical toll of dancing, and some tasty little swipes at the industry as well.

Highly recommended.

Scott Pilgrim vs The World

Finally caught up with Scott Pilgrim, directed by Edgar Wright riffing hard on the original graphic novel, and really enjoyed the style. There’s a lot of graphic interplay to bring the fantasy home, ranging from unnecessary sound effects spelled out on screen to very cool sound waves and slow motion lines, and funky titles taken from computer games. But I can’t help thinking it’s time for the geeks to stop making wish-fulfilment movies. Michael Cera does a great job of portraying the title character, who must battle — arcade game style — the seven exes of the girl of his dreams (she’s smokin’ hot with dyed hair and aggressive sexuality, and she’s so into him because … well, it’s a fantasy, all right!). He also cheats on his current girlfriend, a 17-year-old virginal Asian school girl who proves adept with two swords, and has something of a history of being a cad, but you know, no harm no foul. Yes, I am old and cynical.

The Runaways

My liking for Joan Jett has been boosted by this biopic, which shows there’s more to Kristin Stewart than Twilight. Stewart takes the Jett role while the wonderful Dakota Fanning portrays troubled bandmate Cherie Currie. One is cut out for rock ‘n’ roll fame, the other ain’t. I enjoyed the ride of the all-girl band on the rise, and fall, but was a little miffed that the rest of the band didn’t score a ‘where are they now’ credit at the end, as the principals did. The soundtrack is, of course, rockin’.

The American: nice shot, man

The American is the second feature film from Anton Corbijn, following on from the brilliant Ian Curtis biopic Control, and though this thriller is a different beast, once again the photographer’s eye is up front and centre on the big screen.

The story, about an tired assassin/gun maker to the nefarious who seeks a seachange and lurv after a life of loneliness and violence, isn’t remarkable, and there are occasional, minor bumps in the logic road.

George Clooney, and his co-stars, are superb; Clooney is so understated, as is so much of the film. Funnily enough, if an American studio had made this movie, well, it would most likely have been such a different fish.

But instead of sparking, flipping, roaring car chases and huffing foot chases and cut sequences of martial arts and amazing volleys of inaccurate gunfire all set to a thumping techno beat, we have a far more contemplative movie: it still has car chases, foot chases and exchanges of gunfire, but this is a character piece, and it’s beautifully done. Even the soundtrack is treated with minimalist regard.

Much of the charm is in the direction, with almost still images striking such emotional chords: Clooney framed in a cafe window, looking out, seeming so small and paranoid and very alone, is one that sticks in the mind. But these remarkably evocative images are everywhere, whether in the twisting streets of an Italian village or the panoramic landscape or the framing of the characters, making this a real joy to watch.


Monsters – a thoughtful alien ‘invasion’

If you’re looking for a bug hunt, you should probably head over to the aisle with Alien vs Predators or Aliens or somesuch. Gareth Edwards’ Monsters is not about the critters from outer space, but our reaction to them.

The scenario is this: a NASA probe carrying alien life from somewhere in our solor system has burnt up in the atmosphere, but consequently, strange creatures have appeared in Central America, to such an extent that much of that region has been declared a quarantine/infected zone. The creatures have a seasonal migration during which things get particularly hairy for those caught in the zone. In this case, there’s a photographer, Kaulder (Scoot McNairy), and Samantha (Whitney Able), the daughter of his media mogul boss. Kaulder, who would rather be chasing fame and fortune with his camera as the creatures hit the road, is instead saddled with babysitting duty — daddy wants his daughter shipped out on the first available ferry to the USA, where her fiance is waiting.

Naturally, the travel plans are somewhat interrupted, and the two get to reveal certain truths about their personalities and lives.

There’s no real big picture to the alien encounter, and I don’t want to give away much about the nature of the critters, but this is a very localised story — the opening titles annoy with mention of ‘half the country’ without saying which country (we presume America, the movie is set in Mexico); there’s no mention of how the rest of the world is faring, or even why Sam has to leave by ferry rather than say, by air, or by going to a different country south of the zone. Maybe I was dense and missed the salient details. Certainly, at movie’s end, I wished I’d paid more attention to the opening scenes; now I really want to see those again, just to confirm some things.

The thing is, this IS a very personal movie. It’s about the two Yanks and the place they’re in, about how the politicians have responded to the arrival of the alien lifeforms — America, for instance, takes its Mexican border fence a massive step further and builds a modern Great Wall — and how this varies to the response of the people still living within the quarantine zone who are dealing with this change in their natural environment while the jets rain down bombs and chemicals and the tanks rumble through the streets.

Monsters is elegant and understated and beautifully acted, the dialogue so natural in fact I wouldn’t be surprised if some was simply ad libbed. The relationship between Kaulder and Sam unfolds at such an unforced pace, it’s a delight.

The director knows when to use handheld and when not to and the use of the aliens is wonderfully controlled to deliver moments of tension and of wonder. Not a bad effort for a low-budget flick! (IMDB says the estimated budget was a mere $200,000. Amazing.)

There are some clever Jurassic Park/War of the Worlds moments to add tension and action, but it’s the very believable portrayal of two ordinary people, and indeed a nation of ignored people, under stress that makes this movie one of the year’s best, and certainly a sterling addition — following on from District 9‘s alien-as-refugee scenario last year — to the canon of alien invasion movies.

Vale Ingrid Pitt

I was saddened to hear tonight that the wonderful Ingrid Pitt has died.

Strangely enough, the news came just before Kirstyn and I went into the Joy 94.9 studio for a Sci-Fi and Squeam segment on Hammer Horror with a particular focus on the Karnstein Trilogy. (Dear Christopher Lee, please do take care of your health!)

Pitt starred in one of my favourite movies, The Vampire Lovers, a classic from the Hammer stable and the first of the Karnstein Trilogy, and also the erstwhile Countess Dracula (trailer). Non-horror viewers might know her from war film Where Eagles Dare.

But it was the elegance and fragility of Carmilla Karnstein that I most associate with the Polish actress who made her way to cult stardom in England. Vampire Lovers was one of the first movies to break the lesbian taboo on the mainstream big screen, and it did it with a poignancy that still holds in a day and age of much fancier sets and production values, and of course much greater overtness.

As one of Hammer’s women of horror, she’ll always be remembered.

Let Me In – not the right one

Hammer Horror has returned to the big screen with a remake of a Swedish vampire film based on a best-seller by John Ajvide Lindqvist. The studio has left itself plenty of room for improvement.

Let Me In tells the story of a lonely 12-year-old boy who befriends a lonely 12-year-old vampire (‘I’ve been 12 for a very long time’) in the lonely snow-covered city of Los Alamos. The roles are played superbly by Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloe Moretz (she carries a real sense of otherness, that age beyond her apparent years), ahead of a cast who also perform wonderfully.

The love story between the two is the core of the book, a what can perhaps most kindly be described as langourous unfolding, set against the backdrop of a police investigation into cult-like deaths in the neighbourhood, a broken family and social disillusionment. The Swedish movie (for which Lindqvist wrote the screenplay), a beautifully photographed rendition, dropped the police angle, while the Hammer version has neglected the social dystopia.

Sadly, Hammer has also neglected the elements of Lindqvist’s story that gave it its impact — pedophilia and sexual ambiguity — and instead opted for twee CGI and some questionable narrative devices. An introductory discussion of religion and evil is left to wither, an attempted cyclical opening fails to deliver, a basement haven appears out of nowhere and, unlike in the book, serves no purpose.

Owen (names have been Anglicised, removing yet another layer of ambiguity from the vampire) is an only child with a single mother — mum is kept offstage, blurred, out of shot, while father is a mere voice on the phone. Camera work is excessively stylised, using blur and extreme close-up to magnify the sense of isolation.

There is no getting past the book’s lack of narrative tension, but I couldn’t help feel that the Hammer version is a watered down and uninspired echo of what is an emotionally effective and atmospheric text, thanks in part to the combination of the Swedes having already taken the arthouse road and the filmmakers lacking the fortitude to present the gutsiest parts of Ajvide’s story.

Recent viewing: Splice, Cube and Toy Story 3

Splice is a new SF flick from Vincenzo Natali, who directed Cube and has, over at IMDB, an intriguing note about having Neuromancer in development (about time someone did, if it’s Gibson’s awesome yarn).

It follows the travails of two scientists, the couple Clive (Adrien Brody, far geekier than his himbo turn in Predators) and Elsa (Sarah Polley), who create a new critter using animal and human DNA. It starts out really well. A little bit spooky a la Alien, some serious ethical issues being bandied about, the pressure of commercial considerations, ego: a lovely simmering soup of issues that we’re ready for, given the state of bioscience these days.

Then it turns into more a treatise on child-rearing — if you can’t do the time, don’t commit the crime — and then it kind of falls away into a warning about men being little more than dicks with the intelligence enough to get themselves into trouble, the primal drive to re-create, the way that upbringing can also spur a kind of hereditary legacy.

The acting is superb and the special effects stunning without being overstated, though I suspect it would not pay to dwell too long on the actual science represented on-screen. This is extrapolative SF: go with it.

Splice is enjoyable and skates along with some clever notions, but never quite fulfils the promise it carries.

I also watched Cube recently, and found it wonderful in its simplicity. A group of apparently ordinary folks, each bringing something special to the table, find themselves trapped inside a massive cube composed of many, many rooms, some with lethal traps. They have to work together to puzzle their way out before lack of food and water kills them. It’s a spooky premise because there is no prospect of outside intervention or even intention. What follows is a case study of the human rat under pressure, and how the characters, such diverse personalities, react is half the fun.

Toy Story 3 is the surprise movie of the year for me. I went only on the recommendation of a friend, and was swept away by its tight storytelling and enjoyable characterisation. It’s dark stuff, possibly too dark for really young viewers — some of the toys are downright mean and there are some nasty situations. The premise is that a bunch of toys, who have their own life when not under scrutiny by humans, face an uncertain future as their owner, Andy, prepares to go to college. Andy’s grown up, so what is to become of his toys: the attic or the dump? Themes of abandonment, hurt, family are prevalent, and they tug on the heartstrings with surprising power for the third in a series. Take a tissue for the closing scenes.

The Loved Ones – skin-deep Aussie torture porn

First, the good news: Australian horror movie The Loved Ones looks very good. Nice effects, effective acting — I really enjoyed Lauren McLeavey’s psycho killer Lola — and some wicked camera work (there’s a gorgeous shot, coming out of a cellar, with mirror ball highlights moving across the ceiling). Special effects were on the money.

It’s a high school horror drama, set in regional Victoria, in which, as you will gather from the trailer, a side-lined girlfriend gets even with the help of her good ol’ dad (best line: this one’s for the Kingswood!), while the victim’s girlfriend is left to pine and his best buddy gets it on with the self-destructive goth girl (sigh).

Note that the core plot ie boy being tortured, and the secondary plot ie sex with goth girl, have little to do with each other.

And therein lies the rub. The connection between the characters and even the scenes in this flick just don’t add up. Just what kind of movie are we watching here — high school drama, family grief drama, edgy comedy, sicko horror? I’m sure I was laughing at the wrong times for all the wrong reasons, here.

There is so little development of character — here is the guilt-ridden hero, feel sorry for him; here is the patient girlfriend, cheer for her; here is light relief in good-hearted side-kick and here is the total outsider who, in some strange act of self-humiliation, deigns to date the class loser for the night of the formal (I think the reason that she’s goth, or maybe emo, I can’t tell after a certain age these days without hearing the music, is because she HAS SUFFERED LOSS: hence the fashionable black, the drugs, the booze, the screwing). (Nice girl Holly gives blow jobs, but they’re for the good of others.)

Lola the psycho could’ve been fascinating, but sadly she’s psycho from the moment the light goes green and has nowhere else to go. I really wanted to know her, her and her dad, and how it had come to this, but nup, it was all power drills and emotional power plays. Oh, and there’s a quasi-zombie moment.

The movie could’ve been fascinating: a history of disappearances, guilt-addled and grief-stricken dysfunctional families, and some really cool defensive driving lessons were all on the cards here, but alas, style held all the aces.

Anyway, it’s a solid little slice and dice if you’re up for seeing some people suffer, even if it is short on logic and lacking in give-a-damn, and the actors do a great job with what they’ve got. And it really does look very good.

Inception – living the dream

Writer/director Christopher Nolan’s latest film is still looping through my mind after tonight’s viewing — it’s a tad exhausting.

In Inception, Nolan, who did a superb job re-energising the Batman franchise, casts Leonardo DiCaprio — far from the prow of the Titanic, thank goodness — as renegade spy Cobb who can enter a sleeping person’s dream and root out hidden or suppressed knowledge therein. Wanted by the law and with his wife, um, problematic, he sees an intensely dangerous mission as his one last chance of getting to live his life with his children. He leads a team of dream-shapers into a rich businessman’s dreams, not to extract, but to implant a ruinous suggestion that will earn Cobb his freedom to be a father.

There are dreams within dreams in this clever heist movie, where the treasure is an idea and the vault a man’s subconscious mind. Cobb’s relationship with his wife adds a gorgeous undertow to the movie’s arc as the action sequences, the kind we used to see in James Bond, pile up. My one negative about the flick was that there was perhaps too much bad shooting, too many shoot-outs and chases and fisticuffs that didn’t do much more than look pretty (some, very pretty indeed).

As the credits roll, we’re left with a question akin to that notably posed by The Matrix and a large section of the Philip K Dick canon: what is reality, and is it any more reliable, or preferable, than the dream?

A blog at NME suggests a few movies that cover similar terrain to Inception, and you’ll find a couple more amongst the at-times snarky reader comments (Dark City and Eternal Sunshine… were two that came to my mind quick smart, and I rate them both highly).

Another good thing about Inception was that it has completely erased (well, almost) the bad taste left by Predators, which we saw last week when Inception was all but sold out at the theatre and, well, since we were there… bad mistake. Should’ve got a takeaway and gone home to finish off Farscape: The Peacekeeper Wars. I had hoped Predators might breathe some life into the franchise, but it went from improbable to dull very quickly indeed.