Rating: The Good – 63.5 Genre: Horror Duration: 118 mins Director: Jim Mickle Stars: Connor Paolo, Nick Damici, Kelly McGillis
“All that goodness destroyed by some crazy Christians dropping vamps from the sky.” Any movie that can make those words sound unremarkable must surely do a job in (err…) sucking you into whatever messed up world it’s created. In Stake Land, that world is a United States overrun by vampires, cannibals, murderous religious cults, and pockets of humans struggling to survive the bloodsucking apocalypse. Our narrator is Martin, a young man being shepherded though this nightmare landscape by a notorious vampire killer known only as “Mister”. Characters like Mister don’t allow for much in the way of sentiment so what follows is a cruel story where any warmth seems to fight against the wider reality and inevitably fade away. It makes for a rather compelling reflection of the movie’s themes of self-sufficiency and needs-based politics but a bleak night in front of the TV. Where things could’ve been lightened up is with the Mister character. Nick Damici’s atypical physical presence tantalises at the outset and writer-director Jim Mickle’s refusal to elucidate his backstory sets him up for genre defining greatness. But however nice it is to see a lesser known actor get the opportunity to impress, he undeniably lacks the personality of an effective lead. Connor Paolo is equally slight as the narrator and although there are some nice turns of phrase scattered about Mickle’s script, he really doesn’t deliver them with enough punch. Falling back on its moodiness and some marginally imaginative obstacles, Stake Land thus becomes a somewhat occupying if ultimately cold addition to the genre.
Peter Weir’s thriller is a case of a standard enough plot elevated by superb direction and strong central performances. Harrison Ford plays John Book, a Philadelphia detective investigating the murder of a police officer where his only witness is a young Amish boy. When that boy identifies another policeman as the murderer Book is injured in a shoot-out with him and is forced to flee with the child and his mother to their Pennsylvanian community until he recuperates. Witness is a unique looking film which offers a subtle meditation on the wonder of the unknown and Weir captures it flawlessly. The tempered pace at which he develops the characters combined with Maurice Jarre’s gorgeous score and John Seale’s majestic cinematography results in an enchanting movie experience. He balances the explosive action sequences with the explorative dramatic scenes so well that each complements the other. For his part, Ford gives us a thoroughly interesting performance as the tough city cop out of his element and he is matched by Kelly McGillis who is quietly exceptional as the recently widowed Amish mother of the young witness. She brings just the right amount of innocence and undiscovered strength to the part which more than anything else sets the tone of the romantic relationship that develops. Lukas Haas does very well as the boy while Danny Glover and Josef Sommer are great as the nasty bad guys.
Rating: The Good – 75.7 Genre: Thriller Duration: 90mins Director: Abel Ferrara Stars: Peter Weller, Kelly McGillis, Charles Durning
Elmore Leonard adaptations are rare enough to come by so they’re worth investigating when you do. Cat Chaser flew so far under the radar that it barely counts as a footnote in either his, its star Peter Weller, or its director Abel Ferrara’s careers but nonetheless it’s an intensely curious and really quite engaging thriller. Weller stars as George Moran, a Miami hotel owner and former marine who is drawn into a dangerous love affair with the wife of a deposed general from the Dominican Republic, the same place he and his “Cat Chaser” platoon fought in during the US invasion. The affair coincides with the arrival of a number of eccentric yet in their own way threatening individuals and an intriguing game of cat and mouse develops.
Cat Chaser begins with a giddy momentum as Reni Santoni narrates us into a dreamy world of lust and danger. Santoni captures the tone of Leonard’s words intuitively to such an extent that we’ve rarely had a more appropriate entry into one of his stories. Being a Leonard adaptation, it’s not long before we encounter an array of tricksy characters who each add an unsettling air to the tidy premises of Moran’s hotel. Like the narration, the dialogue is darkly but playfully pitched and it’s only sharpened by the edgy characterisations and indeed its delivery. Frederic Forrest prods and nudges the plot forward in a fun manner as the slimy P.I. who shows up out of the blue with sketchy agendas and a general air of sordidness. Kelly McGillis shines in the role of Moran’s love interest and embellishes Ferrera’s soft film noir themes as a Femme Fatale with a twist. Best of all these support players is undoubtedly Charles Durning as the General’s treacherous and vicious bag-man. A cross between Eli Wallach’s Tuco and the Penguin, Durning’s sneering and manipulative killer moves through the film like a dark cloud and if this film was remembered better, he would surely have gone down as one of the great villains. So good is he that it’s a testament to Weller’s evergreen presence and charm that he doesn’t let Durning steal the film from under him. On the contrary, Weller is terrific as the one straight and unflappable shooter in the story allowing everyone else to play off him to the betterment of their characters while maintaining the integrity of his. Ferrara wonderfully captures the feel and mood of Miami during the 1980’s with a varied palette of light colours. It’s no Miami Vice pastiche as everything is toned down to believable levels but it does draw the audience willingly into a relatively dark story, a seduction which parallels much of the central drama. Of course, this is helped substantially by Chick Corea’s breezy and sultry score.
For all these strengths, one might wonder why Cat Chaser failed to gain mainstream recognition. Well there are some problems. Ferarra has all but disowned the film for the re-cuts that were ordered in post production and the film does show signs of conflicting interests. The early stages seem to build around a plot that abruptly ends towards the end of the first act. Sure, it guided Moran into the affair with the general’s wife but the lack of resolution or even continuation of what was clearly just a subplot is strange and off-putting. Furthermore, the film seems to lose momentum when the main plot ratchets up in complexity which is the worst time for that to happen. But still, there remains something uniquely compelling about this film. Like Reni Santoni’s narration, the film just has an abundance of personality thanks to those rich characters, that razor sharp dialogue, the wonderful performances, and Ferrara’s composed touch. It’s not one of the great thrillers but it is one of the more underrated thrillers and for that reason, we should all do our bit to raise awareness of it.