Hey, folks. Capone in Chicago here, with a couple of films that are making their way into art houses or coming out in limited release around America this week (maybe even taking up one whole screen at a multiplex near you). Do your part to support these films, or at least the good ones…
One of the more enjoyable and adult vampire films in recent years, STAKE LAND takes the a little bit from THE ROAD, a little from "The Walking Dead" and adds a healthy dose of originality, and the result is a solid work in which vampires rule the world and humans scurry like roaches when the lights come on. With his second feature, director and co-writer Jim Mickle (MULBERRY STREET) has put together a tight little blood-and-guts, pseudo-Western that pits a mysterious vampire hunter known only as Mister (co-writer Nick Damici, who also appeared in MULBERRY STREET) against a legion of well-organized blooksuckers led by Jebedia Loven (Michael Cerveris).
On his journey/hunt, Mister picks up a young man named Martin (Connor Paolo) shortly after his family is ripped to shreds by vampires, and the two travel in search of the undead to wipe out. Mickle treats the vampire epidemic almost as if it were a plague that comes out a night. Most of the vampires are mindless zombies in search of blood, but there are a few with smarts, such as Loven, and they are the most dangerous because they are natural leaders. The pockets of humans Mister and Martin come into contact with are worn out, and the few stragglers they pick up along the way (including a kick-ass and pregnant Danielle Harris, a former nun (Kelly McGillis), and a one-time Marine (Sean Nelson)) certainly add strength to their numbers, but also make for easy pickings when the vamps attack. Just keep in mind that no characters' lives are sacred in STAKE LAND.
While director Mickle clearly loved to keep the action going and the blood flowing, he's not afraid to allow for moments of quiet and reflection in Stake Land. The stark, bleak landscapes are used to create an believable sense of isolation and danger. And Damici plays Mister in such an effective, understated mode that he almost vanishes from the screen when he isn't slaughtering hordes of vampires. The characters, for the most part, aren't dumb either--a common trait in horror films. These seem like thinking people, who understand the consequences of their actions and plan solid strategies for offense and defense. I think vampire-film lovers are going to be genuinely surprised by the quality of this low-budget work, but Stake Land's appeal extends beyond gore hounds. There's a great deal of artistry afoot, and I can't wait to see what Mickle has for us next.
QUEEN OF THE SUN
Something I have been told since I was a kid was that if the bees die, we die. I always kind of understood that this belief fell into that "Circle of Life" category, but I never really knew all the sections of that circle until I saw director Taggart (THE REAL DIRT ON FARMER JOHN) Siegel's latest work, QUEEN OF THE SUN, which alerts us to the fact that bees are dying at an unprecedented rate, and shockingly enough humans are probably to blame. But the good news of all agricultural-based documentaries is that we also could have a hand in solving or reversing the trend.
I almost wish QUEEN OF THE SUN was a little more alarmist, so that I'd be driven to take up arms in defense of bees, stop people from spraying pesticides over their crops or on their gardens, or start up my own amateur beehive on my back porch. But all of the bee experts in this film are so even keeled and laid back that they don't really inspire us to take action. I need a dynamic bee leader! Still, the movie exists partly to educate about the bee community's role in our day-to-day living and eating (beyond, you know, the honey), and how a hive works and can be disrupted or destroyed due to human mingling and chemicals.
It's also incredible watching person after person handle bees in such large numbers in these pockets of the world where apparently no one has to worry about bee sting allergies or issues with pollen. Still, I will admit, I was kind of envious of the beekeepers and the care and attention they give to their various hives. There's zero fear in their hooded eyes, plus they get all the honey they want. I'm not someone who is scared of bees, but I've also never been in favor of living in harmony with our stinger-wielding friends. That is clearly my mistake, and one I will hope to remedy, when the flowers in my garden start blooming again. As for QUEEN OF THE SUN, it's a small, non-aggressive movie about a serious subject, so most of you probably won't go see it, but I kind of liked it for its largely sunny disposition as farmers, philosophers, naturalists, and other bee experts told me the world was on the brink of a natural disaster.
At its core, the indie heist drama HENRY'S CRIME is about a man adrift who finds his calling in life in the midst of a massive criminal undertaking. Keanu Reeves gives a genuinely nice performance as Buffalo toll collector Henry, who seems to actually enjoy the solitude of the time he spends in the overnight hours in his booth. He finds that when he returns home to his girlfriend (Judy Greer), he doesn't have much to say, no does he seem to have caught the baby fever she has. When a long-absent friend (Fisher Stevens) arrives at his door one morning saying they need a lift from Henry, he's happy to walk away from the conversation with his wife. Turns out Henry is the unknowing getaway driver in a bank job, and ends up being the only one caught.
Henry spends a short stretch in jail, where he makes friends with Max (James Caan), who unknowingly inspires Henry to find something in life to love and strives for. Upon his release, Henry decides to heist from the very band he was caught with outside the first time around. The plan hits him when he sees old blueprints of the theater next door to the bank, which featured an old bootleggers tunnel between the two buildings. In order to have access to the inside of the theater, Henry must become a part of the company in rehearsals for Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard," and it turns out that Henry's a pretty solid actor. With his co-horts downstairs in the dressing room digging a tunnel, Henry gets more and more involved in the production and with the leading lady Julie (Vera Farmiga, doing a great job in as the snooty diva).
There aren't any real surprises in HENRY'S CRIME, but this film isn't about that. Despite the heist element, this is a character study of a great number of interesting people. For a man with no ambition, Henry has a great deal of depth, and Reeves plays him beautifully. I absolutely bought that Henry had been a man with no passion in his life before acting, and Reeves captures this period of discovery to perfection. Farmiga has some hidden comic chops, as a confident/insecure actress who is in constant need of assurances that she is talented. She is too easily broken by the production's director (Peter Stormare), and it bothers her.
The bank job elements of the film are fun, especially when the guard who caught Henry in the car the first time around discovers what he's up to. HENRY'S CRIME is far from a great film, but it's nice to remember that Reeves excels most often in these smaller films playing characters that don't resemble the Chosen One. Director Malcolm (44 INCH CHEST) Venville has a nice, unobtrusive, low-key style that suits the material, and I'll admit, I was a little disappointed that I didn't get to see the completed "Cherry Orchard" production; maybe it will be on the DVD. There are better films out there, but few that are this odd and charming.
AMERICAN: THE BILL HICKS STORY
About all I knew about Bill Hicks before his untimely death at age 32 from cancer in 1994 were the routines. I was a religious watcher of David Letterman's NBC show, and Hicks was on more than a dozen times. He was an angry young comic who talked about abortion, politics, racism, and what it means--the good and bad--to be an American in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I've seen slapdash documentaries about Hicks, featuring a parade of famous faces who claim to have been friends with him or been influenced by his work, and I'm not saying these people are liars, but none of them really knew him like the friends and family he knew since secretly sneaking into comedy clubs in his native Houston when he was still a teenager.
What makes AMERICAN: THE BILL HICKS STORY so special is the access given to co-director Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas--both access to people and to rare photos and footage of Hicks growing up and coming up on the comedy scene. What results in complete and total emersion into this man's life, as a Southern Baptist to early stand-up appearances to some ugly times when booze and drugs ruled his life (yes, there's footage of that too). Fortunately, we also get plenty of time to spend watching Hicks be as famous as he ever got, when he was the king of topical humor that served as a much-needed reality check for many Americans.
I didn't realize it watching the film for the first time a year ago at the SXSW Film Festival, but there are only 10 people interviewed in AMERICAN. But they are the right 10 people--his brother Steve, mother Mary, and several Houston-based comics that Hicks stayed friends with throughout his short life. The interviews with Mary Hicks are particularly fantastic, and she ends up becoming the forgiving, unconditionally loving mother we all hope to have (and some of us are lucky enough to have). This film isn't just about one man; it's about the nation that birthed him, shaped him, and hopefully will never forget him. It's a fitting and moving tribute, loaded with laughs and heart, that never gets sappy or overly sentimental. The balance Harlock and Thomas strike is damn near perfect, and you should make a point to find out when this film is coming within 500 miles of you, so you can start driving not to make the first show.
In Chicago, AMERICAN opens today for a weeklong run. Following the 8:30pm Saturday screening, I will moderate a Skype interview and audience discussion with London-based co-directors Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas, as well as Bill's brother Steve Hicks. Be there.
-- Capone firstname.lastname@example.org
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