Anton Sirius on TIFF flicks STAKELAND, JOHN CARPENTER'S THE WARD, BLAME and LEGEND OF THE FIST!!
Published at: Sept. 19, 2010, 2:06 p.m. CST by quint
Another year is almost in the books, sadly. I'm trying to crank through these reviews as quickly as I can, with one more day of movies to go. Assuming Black Swan wins the TIFF People's Choice Award (and it feels like 95% of everyone I've talked to listed it as their top pick of the whole festival) there will be a free screening of it tonight at 6 which I may try to catch.
Stakeland (2010, directed by Jim Mickle)
Given the rash of vampire movies and post-apocalyptic movies that have seen the light of day recently, it was probably inevitable that we'd get something like Stakeland. Throw enough Book of Elis and 30 Days of Nights and I Am Legends into the collective unconscious and eventually a post-apocalyptic vampire road movie was going to spring forth from somebody's brow.
Which is why it's incredible, not that Stakeland exists at all, but that it's so damn good.
The plot is beautifully stripped down. Vampirism has swept the globe and destroyed civilization; wherever humans gather in numbers the vamps will follow, forcing survivors to stay isolated. In the States, a battle-scarred hunter known only as Mister rescues a young boy, Martin, after the rest of his family gets eated, and together they start a journey north to the rumored safe haven of New Eden.
It's impossible to over-emphasize how perfectly that rescue scene sets the tone for what will follow. Nothing says that the usual rules of decorum have been tossed out the window better than watching a vampire squat up in the rafters, suck Martin's infant sister dry and toss her aside like she was a piece of fruit. It's not the most gruesome thing you'll see in a horror movie this year, but it might just be the bleakest, and finding the right level of bleakness is the single most important job any post-apocalyptic film has. Stakeland finds it inside the first five minutes of the movie, and never lets it go.
As Martin and Mister head north, they find that the bloodsuckers aren't the only predators they need to worry about. A Christian cult owns the highways, preaching that the vamps are God's curse upon unbelievers, and the Brotherhood and their deranged leader Jebediah prove to be far more dangerous than anything with fangs.
One of the big things that sets Stakeland apart is the care that's taken with the world around Mister and Martin. The cause of the vampiric outbreak is never explained, but its effects on civilization are spelled out in meticulous detail. A Marine they travel with for a while, when asked who won the war in the Middle East, snaps back "No one. There was nobody left to fight it." Basic pharmaceuticals become valuable currency. And while the vampires themselves are fairly standard-issue mindless, blood-crazed, tough as hell killing machines, the implications of that form of vampirism get fully explored, both by Mister in his efforts to trap them, and by the Brotherhood's use of them as weapons. I won't spoil the movie's brilliant, jaw-dropping set piece, but it's a thing of pure genius in its execution and its understanding of how evil and inventive humans can be.
Stakeland is inevitably going to get compared to two films in particular: Zombieland, due only to the similar titles and the fact that humans are an endangered species in each, and Hillcoat's The Road. The first is just unfortunate, as Stakeland is deadly serious in ways Zombieland couldn't be -- there's no Bill Murray cameo here (oops, spoiler!), no silly graphics displaying the rules to the audience. The two are different genres entirely, really. But when it comes to the latter, I'd say that not only does Stakeland hold its own against The Road, it's actually the superior film.
It all comes back to that right mix of bleakness and hope. Stakeland doesn't have what you could call a happy ending, but it does give you that real possibility that there may be a future after all. And in a world as dark as this one, just that little glimmer of light through the black is all you need to get you through.
Blame (2010, directed by Michael Henry)
A troubled young girl kills herself. A group of her friends head straight from her funeral to the home of her former piano teacher, and lover, looking for vengeance and justice. What they find instead is more than they bargained for...
One of the real joys of a festival as big as Toronto is stumbling across a new talent, someone who demands that you tuck their name away in the back of your head and wait for their next offering. Michael Henry was one of those people for me this year. I walked into Blame with zero expectations for a little Aussie revenge thriller from a first time writer/director, and came out with another name tucker away in the back of my head.
Don't get me wrong. Blame doesn't re-invent the wheel. This isn't a debut on the level of, say, Reservoir Dogs. You know basically what's going to happen pretty quickly: the plan falls apart, new information comes to light, relationships are strained. But Henry knows exactly what he wants to do and where he wants to go, and the film marches forward with an energy and confidence that belies it being a freshman effort. Partly this a product of the script, which finds plausible reasons for its characters not to ask the obvious questions (or at least not ask them quickly enough) and avoids too many convenient coincidences. But a lot of credit has to go to the cast, particularly Kestie Morassi as the dead girl's sister Cate. She's the emotional center of the film, putting the pieces together just a step or two behind the audience, and plays it all with amazing strength. She, moreso than Sophie Lowe in the showier role as best friend Natalie, came out looking like the next A-list Australian acting export to me.
Blame is just a tight, taut thriller, with no tricks or twists. If it reminded me of anything, it'd be the early work of John Dahl, back when he was coming off the nouveau noir one-two punch of Red Rock West and the Last Seduction. But Henry's very much got his own voice and style, and I'm dying to see where he goes next.
Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen (2010, directed by Andrew Lau)
Although it mutates slightly with every re-telling, the story of Chen Zhen should be familiar to anyone who gives a damn about martial arts flicks. Bruce Lee played him in Fists of Fury. Jet Li played him in Fists of Legend. And now it's Donnie Yen's turn, picking up where he left off from his mid-90s TV show with Legend of the Fist.
The opening scene is hellacious, and maybe the best single sequence of Lau's career. Chinese conscripts, doing the shit jobs in the trenches for the Allies during WWI, get pinned down by a German machine gun nest after the French forces retreat (I know, totally unbelievable, right?). One of their number, Chen Zhen, vows to see them home safely, and then proceeds to tear through the Krauts like a hurricane using nothing but two bayonets and sheer awesome badassery. It's a ridiculous set piece that shows Yen at his intense, acrobatic best.
The movie quiets down considerably after that. Many years after the war, Chen Zhen turns up in occupied Shanghai under an assumed name, and begins working with the resistance to try and kick out the Japanese. From here Legend of the Fist either goes off the rails or becomes a total nuthouse of fun, depending on your perspective, as Lau seemingly tries to shoehorn every single genre he can think of into the movie. There's a Casablanca-esque nightclub run by Johnnie To regular Anthony Wong, a romance with the singer who turns out to be a Japanese spy, Yen running around in a Kato/Black Mask-esque costume to foil assassinations attempts (the movie's other great fight sequence, as Yen steals the costume right off a mannequin to beat up some Japs), rampant xenophobia against anyone non-Chinese, and probably a dozen other bits I'm forgetting.
The final battle in the dojo with the evil Japanese general who killed Chen Zhen's master, and his hordes of incompetent minions, is a letdown after the adrenaline rush of the opening and the street fight in the middle, but for the most part Legend of the Fist is a worthy successor to Jet's effort, even if it can't match Bruce's -- or for that matter, Yen's previous best offerings like SPL. But then, what can, really?
John Carpenter's The Ward (2010, directed by some guy)
A pretty young girl runs through the woods in her nightie, dodging the police searching for her, until she finds an old farm house. She sets it on fire, then collapses to the ground and watches it burn. When she gets picked up, this time the authorities are taking no chances. This time, she's being driven straight to an asylum and put in... The Ward. Dum-dum-dah!!!
Over each of the last few years Midnight Madness has featured a film from a true horror legend. 2008 saw Dario Argento's third Mothers film (which, while not great, was at least not a total disaster and had a baby being tossed from a bridge); last year saw George Romero's Survival of the Dead (a film that broke my heart, frankly, it was so terrible); and this year we got John Carpenter's The Ward, a throwback horror film about a Gaggle of Starlets trapped in an insane asylum that may or may not be haunted.
As throwback horror films go, it was fine. Carpenter doesn't do anything particularly inventive or showy, but he also doesn't botch a script that contains some glimmers of intelligence. He's an old hand at this stuff, and it shows in both good ways (it doesn't give the game away too quickly) and bad (it lacks that manic energy all the best horror films share). Maybe Carpenter's most positive impact came in casting. Amber Heard is very good as Kristen, the strong and resourceful girl trying to keep the other inmates together and alive, while Kick-Ass' Lyndsy Fonseca also has a couple of good moments as the sensitive artist Iris.
I want to say more about it, but it's hard to muster a lot of enthusiasm for it. The Ward isn't bad, but it isn't great. The monster is decently well done enough, the asylum looks creepy enough, the scares and kills are OK, and Jared Harris is appropriately ominous as the possibly sinister Dr. Stringer. By Carpenter's standards The Ward is definitely one of his lesser films, but it's at least a step up from Ghosts of Mars. By the standards Romero set in 2009 though, it's a goddamn masterpiece. Sometimes, 'OK' and 'competent' aren't just damning with faint praise. They're actually a relief.
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