Jim Mickle’s “Stake Land” features some surprisingly tender moments for a film that deals with a post-apocalyptic landscape teeming with feral vampire cannibals. Part horror film and part white-trash western, “Stake Land” exceeds all expectations by creating full bodied characters that we care about, wonderfully timed cinematography that never forgets about the human element in its carnage, and a soundtrack that evokes the coming-of-age duplicity in “Badlands”. In short, its one of the year’s best films. Starring Nick Damici (who also co-wrote the film) as Mister, the hard as nails vampire hunter traveling to supposed safe haven up north in a land called New Eden, he encounters teenager Martin (Connor Paolo) and the two form a family of sorts as they trek across the land fighting off the infected and Bible thumping fanatics at the same time. More survivalists join up along the way, including Kelly McGillis as an embattled nun and a pregnant teenager Belle played by Danielle Harris, and “Stake Land” severely ups the ante as the group travels day and night. As a genre effort, the film is good, but it’s the attention to humanity and glimmers of hope that propel “Stake Land” above its genre intentions. Just watch the little exchange between Mister and Belle as he carries her when she’s unable to walk…. Or the moments of sweetness that emerge as the group finds a temporary respite in a town circled off from the plague. “Stake Land” will throttle the nerves and supply the obligatory scares, but it also firmly implants a sense of emotional connectivity that far outlasts the horror. See this one.
The Tree of Life
Terence Malick’s Palme d’Or winning “The Tree Of Life” takes his abstract ideas of narrative filmmaking a step even further into the abyss of atmosphere, mood and sound, wrapping a story about a 1950’s Texas family against the backdrop of the creation of the universe itself. With an overbearing father (Brad Pitt) and enabling mother (Jessica Chastain) bearing the center of the story, “The Tree of Life” definitely feels like Malick’s most autobiographical work… as if the lifelong images that are said to flash before our eyes at the moment of death have been stretched across two hours and twenty minutes of screen time. This does provide some limitations, unfortunately. As an avid Malick admirer, “The Tree of Life” feels overlong and his use of the introspective voice over monologue feels more flat than before. But what does remain… the images of a mother playing with her child against a mirror… the white tapestry of a baby’s bed… the sounds of crickets that envelope the night air… all of these things do wash over the viewer in experiential waves. “The Tree of Life” is dense, ambitious and at times a head-scratcher. I think it may deepen and evolve over time, but it falls as my least favorite Malick effort to date. Bonus points for being filmed in my hometown of Waco, Texas though and that fleeting glimpse of the Alico building!
If only J.J. Abram’s “Super 8” was a sweet, coming-of-age film that focused solely on the budding relationship between teenagers Joe (Joel Courtney) and Alice (a terrific Elle Fanning) instead of the pop culture sci-fi alien invasion film it becomes. There are two scenes with Fanning- first her ‘audition’ and the second her revelation to Joe about the tragic bonds between their fathers- that elevate “Super 8” into a perfect “Goonies” like 80’s adventure film tinged with pure emotion. Then that CGI creature has to go and smash things. But seriously, “Super 8” is terrific fun, featuring an ending that snags the heart strings more than it probably should and kept me highly entertained.