Thursday, 5 January 2012

The Thin White Dude's Reviews - Stake Land

Directed by: Jim Mickle

Produced by: Derek Curl
Larry Fessenden

Screenplay by: Nick Damici
Jim Mickle

Narrated by: Connor Paolo

Starring: Connor Paolo
Nick Damici
Dannielle Harris
Kelly McGillis
Sean Nelson
Michael Cerveris
Bonnie Dennison

Music by: Jeff Grace

Cinematography by: Ryan Samul

Editing by: Jim Mickle

Distributed by: Belladonna Productions
Dark Sky Films

Release date(s): September 17, 2010 (Canada)
October 1, 2010 (United States)
June 17, 2011 (United Kingdom)

Running time: 98 minutes

Country: United States

Language: English

Production budget: $625, 000

Box office revenue: $33, 245

So, Happy New Year to everyone! Of course, me being my usual disorganised self, am reviewing movies from December 2011 in January 2012. Therefore, this review and the one I am doing for Takashi Miike's 13 Assassins will be as part of the month of December, and in due course followed by my Movie Of The Month for December. Also, January is my final month of reviewing of the year, so some cramming is in order. I have already seen David Fincher's The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo adaptation, and plan on seeing Mission Impossible - Ghost Protocol, The Artist, The Descendants, J. Edgar, The Way Back and Source Code. Of course, I will try to get in some others if I can. It may well end up that I have to do some capsule reviews, for I do intend to have my Best and Worst of 2011 done before the February 26 Academy Awards, so keep your eyes posted!

Today's film is Stake Land, a post-apocalytic vampire horror film from director Jim Mickle. There has been a bit of a cult build-up around this film, as it has been critically well-receieved and emerges from a particularly barren period of transition in American horror cinema. Vampires are running rampant throughout the United States, and Martin (Connor Paolo) is spared from the same fate of his family by a mysterious vampire hunter known only as 'Mister' (Nick Damici). Mister takes Martin under his wing, and the film follows their travels as they meet a number of people during their quest to 'New Eden,' a place surrounded by myth, due it's supposed absence of the vampires that populate the United States.

To start with the good with Stake Land, I must compliment the film's overall look. For a low budget film, it is surprisingly realistic in the extent of the design of its post-apocalyptic world. All of the details suggest decay and age, while little things such as the use of vampires' fangs as currency add to the believability of a vampire-run United States. Also, the costumes and props of the characters, mostly used and nearly all dirty, contribute to our idea of the 'Stake Land.' With elements like these, it helps to have strong technical filmmaking, and the cinematography by Ryan Samul contributes to our buying this fantastic concept. Much of his work consists of unbroken shots with the camera in a well-placed position, surveying the fallout of the vampire's carnage. Also, there is a fantastic three/four-minute shot involving a party (of which I will not go into details) that stands out as both a fine example of cinematography and choreography. Director Jim Mickle exudes tact and modesty in his roles as both director and editor. He lets the audience appreciate the chaos that presents onscreen, as opposed to heavily implying chaos by chaotically misjudged cutting. As such, his film ends up being a lot more contemplative and less disposable than so many similar post-apocalytic films of this nature. Finally, there are certain plot elements, such as the religious fundamentalist group The Brotherhood, who sacrifice humans to appease the vampires, that add to the atmosphere of Stake Land.

While there are good things about Stake Land, I am disappointed to say that this is a classic case of all style with no substance, or perhaps as a lowrider customiser might say, all hoods and no goods. As ever, the script is especially problematic, ensuring that beyond the film's central concept, there is not really much to be enjoyed. I mean, structurally it is not bothersome, it has a pretty consistent momentum, but the characters on the page and the dialogue written for them is rather base. Mister could be interesting, and is clearly the character who we are meant to have our chips in for, but he ain't no mysterious stranger in the vein of, say, Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name (a falsity in itself, I know, but for sake of argument). Also, every other character is written on the basis of tried and tested principles combined with a serious lack of development. These issues also translate over into the performances of the actors. While no one gives bad performances, they don't stand out as performances that make us care about these people. This is especially problematic with lead actor Connor Paolo. A couple of years ago, before he did The Social Network, Jesse Eisenberg did a similar role to much greater effect in Zombieland: better script or not, it is more or less the same role as Paolo's in Stake Land, the only difference being you do not care about Paolo's Martin. Speaking of Martin, the narration was a silly way to go. Cinema is a visual medium, and while dialogue is good, too much can be a terrible thing. Stake Land's mise-en-scene is a treat and speaks volumes, so why do we need Paolo's Martin telling us how everything is so barren, so horrible, so desolate etc, things we have gathered already? Also, the score by Jeff Grace is way too overt for a movie of this nature. It continues more or less throughout the film, and we do not need to have every moment punctuated by either score or narration, lest we actually get a bit of silence coming in. The better examples of the post-apocalytic film genre, such as Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later and John Hillcoat's adaptation of The Road understand that silence is golden. While there are loud moments (particularly 28 Days Later) both directors understand the balance of sound and silence. I know I've went off on one, but Stake Land, while a good film, is one very, in your face, 'tell, tell, tell' picture that is as irritating as it is good.

Don't let the greater amount of words dedicated to the negative aspects of the film cloud your judgement, my fault entirely. It's just that whenever there are parts of Stake Land that are so good, particularly the overall conception of the film's mise-en-scene, a great achievement considering the low budget, it is nothing less than frustrating to see it fall on its face in so many other areas. A shoddy script, murder-by-numbers acting, and some silly artistic choices prevent Stake Land from being as good as it could have been. That said, it is a good, watchable flick worth at least one go round.

The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 6.3/10

The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Content (well-slept, getting over a horrible virus I had over the Christmas holidays, looking forward to re-reading Frank Miller's Batman: Year One and then beddio! Toodles!)

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