SIGNIS REVIEWS AUGUST 2011
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER
FIVE DAYS OF AUGUST/FIVE DAYS OF WAR
KUNG FU PANDA
MARS NEEDS MOMS
(US, 2011, d. Jake Kasdan)
A bit of cinema froth. Black froth. Easily blown away, but may leave a bad taste in the mouth. But, it is still only froth and to be judged accordingly. Anyone who goes to see Bad Teacher thinking it is a film about education obviously hasn’t done their homework.
The comedy is akin to South Park or those satires which take up a theme and imagine how it would play if you took and exaggerated the possible bad (which makes sense only if you appreciate what is good). So, Bad Teacher is something like a 90 minute unwashed shaggy dog story about a completely self-centred, go-getting, unscrupulous teacher, Elizabeth, played with full on energy by Cameron Diaz, manipulating people, ignoring students (until a bonus for getting best results comes into view), being rude to everyone. It’s the kind of satiric joke we sometimes like to spin. It’s also like a series of vignettes for a television series, rather hit and miss in its targets and its humour which, of necessity, has its many crass moments.
Farewelled from school after one year at work (how she got there in the first place is a mystery) but ditched by her fiance’s mother-in-law, she goes back to school, full of temporary surface charm but planning on getting another wealthy fiancé by undergoing breast enhancement. Some of the situations and jokes are obvious – her turning up for the grade 7 car wash day and making a mint because of the ogling men; her seduction of a city official to get an advance copy of tests. But, there are some funny black moments and wisecracks (and getting her class to watch teacher movies, Stand and Deliver, Dangerous Minds, Lean on Me – and the death of the principal, Henry Winkler, in Scream!).
Justin Timberlake gives a nice performance as the completely gullible nice and naive (wealthy) teacher. Lucy Punch has the unenviable role of being the rival for teacher accolades and for the nice teacher. Jason Segal is the gym teacher who takes a wry (but ogling) view of Elizabeth. John Michael Higgins is the harassed principal. Phyllis Smith is engaging as the large, simple and would-be friend.
Then it ends with Elizabeth back at school – but it is hard to tell whether the film makers are just being satirical or are trying to be romantic, or having it both ways.
BEAUTIFUL LIES (DE VRAIS MENSONGES)
(France, 2010, d. Pierre Salvadori)
Tres francais. This film is so French in its characters, behaviour and dialogue. Who else talks and behaves in this way? It would be very difficult to do a Hollywood remake. The French are so French. They have the phrase, amour fou, ‘mad love’ which does not capture the tone of the French words which are both fey and intense.
Audrey Tautou, almost a decade on after her Amelie, is sweet in her way but, as the film goes on, she is more shrewd, calculating (and fou) than sweet. She is Emilie. She co-owns a hairdressing business. Her mother won’t accept that her husband has walked out on her. She meets her father who wants to marry his pregnant girlfriend. She is more than exasperated with her mother. When she receives an anonymous letter, a genteel but passionate love letter, she throws it in the bin. It has been written by Jean (Sami Bouajila), who does the maintenance work at the hairdresser’s, but is too reticent to speak.
We expect that this will be the amour fou between Emilie and Jean. Not so. There is a further amour fou. Emilie retrieves the letter from the bin, copies it and sends it anonymously to her mother to get her out of her seclusion. It does. Maddy, the mother, (Nathalie Baye) hovers waiting for more letters in the post. Emilie has set in motion what becomes a series of deceits. The English title opts for ‘beautiful’ to describe the lies. The original title opts for ‘true’.
Elements of French farce (something else which is so French it does not easily translate to other cultures) now enter in as Emilie writes more letters. Jean becomes entangled with Maddy. He is fired, re-hired, fired. Jean unwittingly delivers one letter by hand and Maddy, no shoes and in her nightgown, follows him to the hairdresser’s. Who finds out the truth and when? And how do they all handle it? A quick answer is ‘badly’. Because this is l’amour, it gets more complicated but since when has ‘amour fou’ stood in the way of true love?
Pierre Salvadori also wrote and directed a film which was even more francais and starred Audrey Tautou, Hors de Prix (Priceless) which was an example of film idolatry of materialistic consumerism (as much as the Sex and the City films were)!
(US, 2010, d. Jodie Foster)
A serious film about Depression (with a credit note at the end that Depression is a family matter, that it is important for a family to be part of the treatment of this mental illness).
We are introduced to Walter Black, married with two children, who has sunk into depression and cannot find a way out. His family don’t know how to respond. His wife loves him but finds it more difficult to cope with his erratic behaviour and mood swings. His teenage son resents his father, fearing that he could become like him and noting behaviours that he will try to avoid in his own life. His little boy is closing in on himself. Walter compares himself to his father with resentment and senses that he is a loser. Workers in his toy company are bewildered. He finally gets to his limit and contemplates suicide.
Audiences who may be wary of mental illness may find the rest of the film puzzling or may try to laugh it off. Some psychiatrists may be wary of the method shown for dealing with the depression. Most of us in between may be absorbed by the struggle of a man trying to deal with his inner conflicts and his alternate self by the use of a puppet on his left hand, a toy beaver, who takes on a life and voice and accent, not of its own, but of an outer Walter Black who can argue with the inner Walter and evoke responses from others via the beaver.
One method used in counselling in the past was that of the two chairs. The client speaks from one chair and moves to the other to answer and continue a dialogue that can reveal inner puzzles and struggles. The Beaver seems a variation on this method.
There is a parallel sub-plot (which gets more attention, perhaps, than it needs to when we want to focus on Walter). Porter, the teenage son, is also a troubled young man. One of his activities at school is to write assignments for fellow students (at a price). In that way, he becomes a beaver writer and voice for the students. This comes to a dramatic head when the valedictorian asks him to write her speech. She also has problems, especially with her brother having over-dosed. She has expressed herself in vivid graffiti but has retreated into herself in ways similar to Walter’s withdrawal.
There is a great deal of personal drama for the family and their inability to cope with depression and with the beaver, except for the little boy who is able to communicate better with his father.
There are no easy answers to these problems but there is hope (which, for many tastes may be too much of American feel-good in the final images). However, there is some irony as Walter Black and the beaver are shown as becoming momentary media celebrities with TV and radio interviews (with Matt Lauer and Jon Stewart as themselves on their talk shows). A recent film that would serve as a companion film is Helen, with Ashley Judd as an academic who struggles with depression.
Mel Gibson is very good as Walter Black, showing the ravages of depression, using a different voice for the beaver, dialoguing with himself. Jodie Foster, who also directed the film, plays Walter’s wife. Anton Yelchin and Jennifer Lawrence portray the young man and young woman.
The performance stands on its own as a piece of acting, without reference to Mel Gibson’s own life, his beaver-like rants and his desperate behaviour. They are not part of the film itself, although as many would note, Walter Black, in some ways, may not be all that far from the real Mel Gibson, which does make it interesting that he chose at this stage of his life to act in this particular film.
(US, 2011, d. Mike Mills)
Beginners seems an odd title for this film about personal relationships and characters finding themselves. Ewan McGregor? plays Oliver, a 38 year old cartoonist who has four failed relationships, lives a rather lonely and morose life, and is grieving at the death of his 79 year old father. We see him, in silent stills, packing up his father’s house. Then, he takes his father’s dog home to his nondescript apartment. Beginning or end?
Oliver narrates his story, informing us of the death of his mother from cancer, and the fact that, at 75, Hal, his father (played with sensitive aplomb by Christopher Plummer) has not only come out but has taken up a gay lifestyle and has a younger partner, Andy (Goran Visjnic). That certainly heralded a new beginning.
Made up as Sigmund Freud (that has to be more than a clue), he attends a party and encounters an attractive young woman with laryngitis, Anna, a French actress (Melanie Laurent, so good in Inglorious Basterds and The Round-Up). They click or, rather, she clicks more than he, though he wants to click with her. Another beginning. (But, he laments that his life has been of separations and deaths, endings.)
The film moves fluidly in and out of the different time zones, the present, his childhood past, his father’s last years. There are also various devices that alert audiences to reflect, like the collage of images of the sky, and of presidents, in 1955 when Oliver’s parents married, in 2003 when his father died, in1971 when Anna was born. The Jack Russell, Arthur, who communes with Oliver (as well as letting the audience know what he is thinking in subtitles) offers some humanity and humour.
The story is very important for writer-director, Mike Mills, because Hal does what Mills’ own father did, coming out. Which means that the film is an opportunity for Mills to dramatise important events in his life as well as explore his middle aged self. While this is important for Mills, it is not always engaging for the audience as Oliver, despite a few valiant attempts at cheering himself up, for instance, by huge writing huge graffiti, is quite a sad sack of a human being and it is not so easy to identify with him or even empathise when he is obviously asking us to. This is much easier to do with Hal and with Anna. Which makes the film something of a take it or leave it experience.
CAPTAIN AMERICA, THE FIRST AVENGER
(US, 2011, d. Joe Johnstone)
Steve Rogers, the puny little fellow who tries to enlist in World War II, in the steps of his mother and father who served their country, but who is constantly rejected because of a long list of ailments, is a much more human character than Tony Stark, Iron Man, Thor or Bruce Banner, The Hulk. They are Marvel Comics four Avengers (and the end of this film has quite an enticing trailer for the 2012 release of all four together in The Avengers). Even when Steve is transformed into a heroic-sized hulk, he is sympathetic. And then he becomes Captain America, also sympathetic.
The advantage of this film is that it is set in 1942 and turns into a war movie – or a war movie that draws on Marvel Comic heroics. This is a re-interpretation of the war and its battles – if Quentin Tarantino can rewrite war history according to his lights, then why not the exploits of Captain America?
Dr Erskine (an always good value Stanley Tucci) chooses Steve for a transforming experiment. He has already had some success in Germany before the war, changing Nazi Johann Schmidt into the superhuman Red Skull. Hugo Weaving glowers and snarls very effectively, even when he removes his mask and is seen, Red Skull and all.
But, what to do with the hulk-hunk Steve? A senator decides that he is valuable as a war bond sales promoter (a bit like the Iwo Jima heroes in Flags of our Fathers) and he is sent around the nation with a costume, a set of dancing girls, a theme song and some theatrical pyrotechnics. On a trip to the troops in Italy, however, he is booed. Which means he wants to do something for the country that involves his strength. He discovers that these troops are the squad in which his best friend, Jimmy Barnes (Sebastian Stan) enlisted, and they have been captured by Schmidt. Despite the scepticism of Colonel Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones being Tommy Lee Jones) and the concern of British agent, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), he goes and conquers and frees them all.
The only thing left to do, of course, is to confront Red Skull. Which he does, though not quite with the ending we might have imagined.
This is good old escapist fare, a combination of action and patriotic gestures, a touch of romance, sinister uber-Nazi soldiery and Toby Jones as an evil scientist to match the good scientist. Captain America is the All- American hero – and, happily, he will be back.
(US, 2011, d. John Lasseter)
Cars has been the least interesting and appealing of the steady string of successes from Pixar animation. They have won most of the Oscars for Best Animation feature for the least eight years. Cars did not win. (Australia’s Happy Feet won that year.) On the other hand, it had its entertaining moments, the personalising of the cars, their way of talking (and the actors, from Owen Wilson, Paul Newman and Larry, the Cable Guy, providing eccentric voices), the action in the races and the comic touches.
Expectations for a sequel? Not so high, despite the fact that Cars 2 has been directed by the head of Pixar itself, John Lasseter. I gradually warmed to it, despite the fact that at the session I attended there were a number of unengaged very little girls for whom the film was definitely not made. Cars and Cars 2 are a bit macho in their plots and characters, though this one has a British female secret agent car.
The secret agent story was a bit of a surprise. And with a very evident Michael Caine voicing the main agent, with Emily Mortimer as Holly, his young aide, the spy story is the main focus. Which puts Owen Wilson’s Lightning Mc Queen, the champion racing car and his exploits and Italian rival, Francesco (John Turturro), somewhat into the background. But, into the foreground comes the comic character of the first film, Mater, the rusty old towtruck from Radiator Springs. If you want to know how Mater can become involved in espionage in Japan, Paris, the Italian Riviera and in London, collaborating with the British, you will have to see the film.
Larry the Cable Guy comes into his own as Mater and is the most prominent character in the film. He is the auto version of the Little Guy who is underestimated by everyone as more than a bit of a fool (the British think this is his genius as a cover for his work as an agent), is told off by McQueen, but who, of course, saves the day after a chase around London and is reconciled with everyone.
The basic message of the film is a green one, strongly critical of oil companies and manoeuvres to prevent the expansion of alternate sources of energy. The trouble is that the villain of the piece is obvious early on.
Not the greatest of Pixar’s efforts (thing of Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille,, Wall-E, Up and the Toy Story films) but more entertaining than expected.
(UK, 2011, d. Kevin Macdonald)
In 2000, Gladiator and its win at the Oscars gave the Roman Empire films a push with audiences. The television series, Rome, was one of the major results. There have been several films about the Roman legions in action around the empire. The Last Legion and Centurion both took audiences to Britannia, the latter focusing on the disappearance of the Ninth Legion in Scotland and the building of Hadrian’s world, beyond which was the world of the barbarians. The Eagle takes up this story again.
With the disappearance of the legion and its 5000 men, the family name of its leader fell into disrepute. Twenty years later, his son comes to Britain to bring back honour to the family name. He proves himself to be an alert commander and brave, saving his garrison from marauding Druids. However, he is injured, decorated by Rome but discharged. He takes the opportunity to go privately into the now Scottish highlands to find and bring back the eagle standard of the legion. He is accompanied by a slave whom he had persuaded a crowd at the gladiator fights to turn thumbs up for even though the slave offered no resistance to the fighter.
That is the first part of the film, a Roman legion story. The second part consists of the rugged journey and survival beyond Hadrian’s wall. The third part is the meeting with the Seal People of the northern coasts where tables are turned and the Roman becomes the slave of the man he saved.
Will Marcus find the standard? Will he bring it back? Actually, will he survive, and what role does his slave play?
That is what you will find out if you enjoy Roman empire adventures like this one.
The film has been directed by documentary maker, Kevin Macdonald (and some have complained that his meticulous documentary techniques mean that the film is not always interesting or exciting). But, while there are battles, this is more a story of a quest beyond limits and a friendship between servant and master.
The film-makers have opted for the accent policy of such films as The Last Temptation of Christ where (for American audiences) the main characters speak with American accents and the outsiders speak with British accents (as did David Bowie’s Pilate in Last Temptation). This is true even of British actors like Mark Strong who portray legionaries. The unlikely lead actor for Marcus is Channing Tatum, better known for hunk and heartthrob roles. His character is both honourable and sullen and he conveys this. Donald Sutherland appears as his uncle. The British accent is for Jamie Bell as the slave, Esca.
Based on a popular book by Rosemary Sutcliffe.
FIVE DAYS OF AUGUST/ FIVE DAYS OF WAR
(US/ Georgia/ 2011, d. Renny Harlin)
Which five days of war, in which August? The answer is early August, 2008, when Russia and Georgia were involved in a short war over the region of Southern Ossetia and whether it belonged to Russia or to Georgia. The Russians invaded – and are still in occupation.
The treatment of war is much the same as in many similar films. The interest is in being offered a glimpse of the war, the people, the suffering, the political issues, the response of the Russian leadership of Medvedev and Putin, the decisions of the Georgian leadership. While there are scenes of battle, the focus, in fact, is on foreign journalists and their role in bringing images of atrocities to the world’s attention (even when the networks show no interest and are concentrating on the opening of the Beijing Olympics).
There is no doubt that the film is on the side of Georgia. The Russians are presented as barbaric invaders. Some commentators have felt that the film is propaganda. Others argue that it is not propaganda even though it firmly presents the views of Georgia. There is an underlying desire in the screenplay, despite the war and cruelty, for peace and freedom. And the film opens with the quotation about the first casualty of war being truth. There is also a statistic that in the past decade over 5000 journalists have been killed in war situations.
The film opens in Iraq 2007 where casual chat on the way to an interview is prelude to a deadly ambush. The central character, journalist Tom Anders (Rupert Friend) and his cameraman Sebastian Ganz (Richard Coyle) go to Georgia at the invitation of their journalist friend, Dutchman (Val Kilmer). As the war breaks out and there are uncertainties, they go up country and film a local wedding which, we know, is going to be bombed. What follows is a rescue of the bride, her sister who has been educated in the US, and their South Ossetian father. They are helped, and later rescued, by a Georgian fighter (Jonathan Schaech), but they also have to hide and witness atrocities carried out by a Cossack soldier. They are captured and interrogated to find the memory card with the incriminating footage, especially by a Russian commander (Rade Serbedzija) whose son was killed in Afghanistan and who has a world-weary view of war.
In the meantime, the president (Andy Garcia) and his cabinet are appealing for US help, not forthcoming, and for help from the European Union (eventually).
To a large extent, the material is familiar, characters and situations from other war films: the bawdy journalistic chat and drinking, the heroic rescues, the split second rescues, the rounding up of the innocent, the long marches of people displaced.
Director, Renny Harlin, is better known as a director of action films like Cliffhanger and The Long Kiss Goodnight.
Despite these limitations and the fact that the hero is not particularly likeable, we become involved in the crises, perhaps remembering this war vaguely, how it impinged (or did not) on our consciousness, and being reminded of so many similar (and worse) wars in our time.
KUNG FU PANDA 2
(US, 2011, d. Jennifer Yuh)
Kung Fu Panda entertained millions of children and adults, a large panda, fond of eating and a touch lazy, was transformed into an action hero, despite himself. Voiced in his characteristic American voice, he made Po the panda, a comic creation, listening to his master (Dustin Hoffman) and surrounded by his fellow action characters (voiced by Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, David Cross and Jackie Chan).
Well, they are all back. Certainly, the novelty has gone but, despite the hustle and bustle, this sequel lacks the oomph of the original. No particular reason to see it, except to form a re-acquaintance with the familiar names and places.
The addition this time is a villainous peacock, Shen, who defies his parents, is exiled and makes plans to become the Emperor of China. He has a squad of goons and is involved in stealing metal to melt and mould into weapons.
For the most part, this is Po trying to find out about his parents after he realises that Mr Ping is not his real father and the battle between Po and Shen, lots of shenanigans, of course, entertaining but not so memorable.
Gary Oldman is the voice of Shen and there are cameo voices from Michelle Yeoh, Jean Claude Van Damme, Danny McBride?, Dennis Haysbert, Victor Garber. My favourite is Po’s father, the noodle-making Mr Ping, the goose who adopted Po, voiced by James Hong, who is worried about Po learning about his past and greatly relieved when Po returns home.
MARS NEEDS MOMS
(US, 2011, d. Simon Wells)
An expensive animation film which did not succeed at the box office. The title may be enticing, but it may also seem too absurd.
For those who thought the red planet could not support life, here is an alternative scenario. Under the surface is a huge world, rather mechanistic, where children are hatched and looked after by robot nannies and the men are just fools kept in custody. There is a witch of a supervisor of the women (Mindy Sterling, erstwhile Nazi-like harridan assistant of Dr Evil against Austin Powers). But, one of her helpers, Ki (Elisabeth Harnois) who picks out mothers on earth who teach their children obedience and who are then abducted to give their powers to the Martian nannies, has also been looking at some old earth TV from hippy days (and has absorbed their jargon). On Mars, there is also a human whose mother died there and he has grown up on the planet, Gribble (Dan Fogler).
Joan Cusack is the victim mom here and, speaking of Dr Evil, his son was played by Seth Green, who is Milo the boy who has spoken hurtfully to his mother, wants to say he is sorry and who finds himself leaping aboard the Martian spacecraft.
Which means that a lot of the film is about Milo on Mars, searching for his mother and being helped by Gribble. There is a time limit, a build-up to an emotional climax, the unmasking of the supervisor who has lied about Martians not being love-and-family-oriented.
By the end, this is a wholesome affirmation of parental love and the need for children to be loving to their parents.
Director, Simon Wells, has worked on a number of animation films including Fievel Goes West and Prince of Egypt as well as the live action version of his grandfather’s novel, The Time Machine. The animation process used here is that of live action where actors perform and are linked up to camera and sound, the animation being drawn over them: Performance Capture, which was used for Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol. That means that the adult Seth Green can be ten year old Milo with a younger voice dubbed. Part of the interest of the final credits is a fourfold divided screen presentation of many of the scenes being filmed and audiences seeing what the process is.
(US, 2010, d. Kelly Reichardt)
There is no denying that Meek’s Cutoff is a fine piece of film craft.
However, the director, Kelly Reichardt, belongs to the contemplation rather than action school of film-making, an approach that makes demands on the attention and patience of its audience so that they remain focused in their contemplation and reflection. Which means that her films (like the dog friendship story, Wendy and Lucy) are not for the easily bored and, especially, not for the quickly bored. ‘No sense of adventure’ was one complaint that missed the point of the film,
It is no real surprise at the end of the film to read that Kelly Reichardt also edits her films. Which means she is in complete control of how the film looks and how it is paced.
Almost any image taken from the film would make a beautiful contribution to a book of such stills. Each one is composed so a viewer could gaze on it for some time in some wonder and admiration. Her camera does not move a great deal. The movement is generally within the screen frame. And she holds the camera for much longer than the contemporary attention span usually manages. There is time for appreciation. There is time for reflection.
The story of Meek’s Cutoff is that of a small pioneer group making their way west to Oregon in 1845, taking a shortcut on the advice of their guide. There are three couples, one of whom has a young son, and their guide, Meek (who is not meek at all). Along the way, they encounter an Indian and capture him. Meek is a grizzled veteran of the west with no tolerance of Indians, full of vicious stories about Indian vicious behaviour. The group hope that the Indian, to survive himself, will lead them to much needed water.
The film opens with the wagons and the women wading through refreshing water. Without words for some time, the film reveals to us the people, their situation and how they are dealing with it. We come to realise that these are very ordinary people, walking on (and they walk and walk behind the ox-pulled wagons), hoping for their future but still uncertain of their present, coping with the mundane detail of meals, rationing, broken axles and trusting in Meek. The journey takes its toll physically and mentally, especially when racist superiority, much of it unconscious, begins to emerge in their fear of the Indian.
This is the material of a short story rather than a novel-like narrative. It is a glimpse of the pioneer treks and hardships. Sterling performers like Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Will Patton, Paul Dano and Shirley Henderson create credible and vulnerable characters (even Meek). Ron Rondeaux is the Indian who speaks no English, whose attitudes and behaviour, including his prayer, baffle the pioneers. With the realism of the vast plains and hills of the American northwest and the meticulous composition for each frame, from close-ups to the wagon procession in the far distance, this is a film of great beauty as well as an exploration of human nature under stress.
Winner of the SIGNIS award at the Venice Film Festival, 2010.
(Israel, 2010, d. Shlomi Eldar)
In a rather intense conversation during this moving documentary, Raida, a Muslim mother from Gaza who is in an Israeli hospital with her baby son who was born with no immune system, declares that, for her, life is not precious. Rather, she says, it is ‘normal’. So is death. She sees this as part of her Muslim faith. The director, Shlomi Eldar, offscreen, says that life is precious, from that of the little baby to all people. He has been a war correspondent for Israeli media in Gaza for many years and has witnessed death.
This conversation is at the core of Precious Life. It shows two vastly different points of view about life and the conclusions that can be drawn from those beliefs, especially in the context of the long conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis. The two go on to speak about Jerusalem, who owns the city (both lay claim) and whether it could be shared with the other side (Raida saying it could not). This makes Shlomi angry.
Yet, the film is about peace and life and being able to get to know the other side, helping and hoping that the next generation (or the one after) will have children who can play with one another.
The narrative of the film is not about peace and war as such although war is never far away and, in fact, erupts at the end of 2008, the film offering vivid footage of the bombardment of Palestinian villages and homes – and some Israelis asking whether such massive retaliation is in proportion to the attacks by Palestinian rockets.
The narrative of the film is about life. An Israeli doctor, concerned about the baby and the dangers to its life, offers the facilities of an Israeli hospital. The film director heads an appeal for donations for surgery and is quickly successful with money from an anonymous donor (whose son had been killed in fighting and who wanted to make his life one of helping people live). The doctor is admirable – and is called up to be a field doctor in the war which followed. The Palestinian couple are ordinary people. She has strong opinions (and can speak good English). He is more neutral, although, when his wife becomes pregnant again, we see he is of a patriarchal frame of mind. The divisions between Israel and Gaza are evident, not only in the war footage, but in the difficulties experienced by Palestinians at the checkpoints, at one stage, the baby allowed in but the mother kept at the border. The film ends with Raida’s first visit to Jerusalem and her feeling she cannot enter the mosque because she has just given birth. The camera focuses on her face.
Precious Life lives up to its title – and its message emphasises the need for talk, mutual understanding and co-operation so that precious life is preserved not destroyed.
(US, 2010, d. Jim Michle)
What is the meaning of the seemingly inordinate amount of interest in vampires on the big screen and on the small screen in recent years? Is it simply an enjoyment of the horror genre and the fans’ exhilaration at yet another variation on the themes? Is there more? It would seem that the Twilight series indicates that there could be more – and that the different films respond to different age groups.
Stake Land is a modest contribution to the vampire films. It is rather more like a zombie film rather than a vampire film that the dialogue indicates. But, it also joins a growing number of ‘post-apocalyptic’ stories where survivors roam a devastated and plague-ridden America, destroying the monstrous living dead and journeying in hope towards a promised land. Films as diverse in intention and tone as The Road, The Book of Eli and Zombieland come to mind. These films are wake-up calls to re-assess our attitudes towards the environment, the possibilities of cataclysms and the puzzle of the good and evil that is in all of us.
Not all has been lost in Stake Land. There are vamps and living dead but there are also isolated communities, healthy survivors, some of whom have travelled north to find ‘New Eden’. Older Clint Eastwood westerns have suggested themselves to some reviewers, especially The Outlaw Josey Wales. This means that Stake Land is not just your average zombie and slasher thriller. There is more substance (along with some gory despatching of the vampires) in the story and screenplay, more worth thinking about. There is much greater sense of humanity in the characters and their plight as a small remnant, like that in Josey Wales, follow a leader who could save them from the enemy and lead them to a hopeful future.
The leader is Mister (played by the writer of the screenplay, Nick Damici). He saves a young lad, Martin (Connor Paolo) when his parents are killed. Along the way, where Mister is the slayer of the monsters, they encounter a pregnant young woman, a black man and a middle-aged nun (who seemed to resemble an older Kelly Mc Gillis until the final credits tell us that it was Kelly McGillis) who is pursued by a madly zealot group, part fundamentalist Christian, part neo- Nazi. Her character, with habit initially, with crucifix and a small statue of Mary, gives the film an added level of interest, especially in the moral choices she has to make in situations of dire peril.
What adds to the quality of what is basically a genre piece is the fine photography of the American landscapes and their remote beauty, surviving the catastrophes, and the often quiet piano score which gives pause for reflection instead of out and out action.
A surprisingly better and more interesting take on survival in a post-apocalyptic world.