Monthly Archives: August 2013

My Buddy is a Cage — The Frozen Ground (2013)

Frozen Ground Nicolas Cage

On top of governing the state of Wisconsin, Scott Walker must be a really big fan of David Fincher movies because his new film, The Frozen Ground, seems intent on aping the arch, brooding gunk of Zodiac’s obsessive investigations. Walker (okay, not that Walker) also mines his story from a real life string of Alaskan murders, Robert Hansen, a prize hunter and owner of the most obvious pair of serial murderer glasses in the western hemisphere. To spoil you, Hansen was eventually caught in June of 1983 by Sergeant Nicolas Cage. I mean Sergeant “Jack Halcombe,” who partners with one of Hansen’s escaped would-be victims (Vanessa Hudgens).

Actually “Jack Halcombe” is a stand-in character for Glenn Flothe, Hansen’s real captor, further solidifying Cage’s attraction to roles with Jack and/or John. Jack-John.

Half of The Frozen Ground (which Walker writes) plays like a television procedural, where Halcombe, Hudgens’s prostitute, and a slew of paper-pushing Alaska state troopers (including Breaking Bad’s Dean Norris!) sift through evidence files and testimonies, before proceeding to chase Hansen around town in ridiculous cat-and-mouse games. That brings us to Frozen Ground’s other half, which tails Hansen with a troubling amount of interest and detail. Hansen has a home life, a job, acquaintances in the community, and one hell of a trophy collection. Hansen’s secret life isn’t all that interesting, yet Walker is invested in showing how the man went about his murders and hiding his sordid crimes from his wife and children, stowing away battered prostitutes in his backwoods cabin before dispatching them with belabored plane rides to Bumblefuck County in the Alaskan wilderness. I don’t even like typing his step-by-step process. The film is as interested in Hansen as a person as it is with Cage’s Sergeant, but save for one disturbing sequence where Hansen hunts a victim like an animal, The Frozen Ground’s portrait is cold and objective, at odds with its very accusatory and uplifting ending.

That ending makes sure to include title card updates on Hansen’s victims, what became of the serial killer, and the fate of Cage’s sergeant. Again, it’s very much in the vain of Zodiac — gotta get that Courier New font! — but the throwback quality isn’t tirelessly recreated like in Fincher’s masterpiece. Save for the absence of cell phones, I’d have never known what decade this was in. Place is less of a discrepancy, as Walker establishes the barren snow-capped trees of the Alaskan wilderness with helicopter shots buttressed by booming tones in the score. Hans Zimmer isn’t even dead and his ghost already haunts this decade’s cinema like nobody’s business.

Despite the obvious misogyny of Hansen’s crimes — again, Walker’s rigid recreation of the torture and murder of Hansen’s victims is disturbingly cold– but that casual dismissal of women seeps into other areas of Walker’s script. Halcombe’s wife exists only as the most basic of indicator of a family life, and her decision to stay with her career-obsessed husband leads one to wonder why she protested at all about his overnight fastidiousness in the investigation. And Hansen’s wife may as well have been window dressing, her presence reduced to a loving answering machine message and a dinner table objection thats’ quickly squashed by Hansen — of course. There’s more than a hint of irony in Walker’s own treatment of women in his film, but their presence at all here is symptomatic of a larger issue. The Frozen Ground goes in search of the humanity in this story, but in all the wrong places. Rather than pay more screentime to its two male leads, more was owed to Vanessa Hudgens’ struggle. Now there’s something I never thought I’d type.

Hudgens’ isn’t spectacular here. Like her earlier turn in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, Hudgens continues to break from her rosy Disney typecast. The only difference is that she’s obviously trying in The Frozen Ground. At the same time, her position as Hansen’s escaped would-be victim seems poised for those personal elements Walker seems to strive for, and as a last bit of armchair screenwriting, one cannot file “ludicrous 50 Cent pimp side story” under “personal elements.” Sorry.

I have little desire to investigate how Robert Hansen ended up confessing to 17+ counts of abduction, rape and murder, but the manner The Frozen Ground chooses — whereby Cusack stutters out an angry series of rants — is wholly ridiculous and terribly un-cinematic. The man himself here is okay, but the role of Jack Halcombe as a cool, collected lawman never calls for spastic fits of frustration. Perhaps its the film’s closer resemblance to a televised movie than straight genre fare, but Cage sits comfortably in the “Jack-John Safe Zone” here, in line with Seeking Justice or a version of Red Rock West without the fucking of Mexico. It’s yet another paint-by-numbers Cage performance. Too bad someone forgot the color.

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Want more Cage? You got it.

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‘Bury This Weekly Recap Alive’

8/12: Hot Fuzz (2007)

Hot Fuzz Edgar Wright

“Movies” are their own own character in Hot Fuzz. Edgar Wright’s continuous callbacks to Point Break or Bad Boys II are clear signposts for an action homage that wears its influences on its bulletproof vest. But consider the less flashy references, too, like how one of Gloucestershire’s own actors was an extra in Prime Suspect or doofy Nick Frost’s perusal through the grocery store bargain bin yielding Chuck Norris’ Silent Rage and Jackie Chan in Supercop. (“The cop who can’t be stopped.”)

As obvious as Frost’s library of action DVDs and “Keanu in Point Break” mimicry are, the movies themselves are right there with Frost and Simon Pegg’s cops. Undeniable self-awareness is achieved when casting Timothy Dalton as a smarmy village overlord, because even behind the mustache we still see James Bond. When the Standford supermarket’s discount action bin spills across the floor in a wild firefight, on one level, it’s just a bunch of plastic DVD cases. On another, it’s a wealth of character turned into collateral damage. I’m all broken up over it.

8/15: Blood Simple. (1984)

Blood Simple. Coens

This filled a gaping crater in my Coen Brothers familiarity. I had attempted to watch Blood Simple. once several years ago and struggled through the first 30 minutes; I was far less patient then. In hindsight, my lazy criticism still kinda stands, because the Coens’ first feature film begins unbearably slow.

This neo noir’s trudging pace, I suspect, is somewhat intentional, considering how intrinsic characters are to delving into the film’s exploration of opportunity. Dan Hedaya’s bar owners hires a hitman (M. Emmett Walsh) to take out his unfaithful wife (Frances McDormand) and her lover (John Getz), and the implosion of all players’ shaky morality is when things get interesting. One can even spot seeds of 2009’s Burn After Reading in the layered psychologies of a crime and murder. (This is far more successful.)

Less notable than being the Coens’ debut is that Blood Simple. also marks the emergence of Barry Sonnenfield’s cinematography, a high mark of the film’s central thrust in playing the sandbox of a bygone period in classical cinema. Shooting Blood Simple. in black and white would have been a mistake on Joel Coen’s part, but thankfully Sonnenfield’s exquisite lighting makes full use of color committed to celluloid. Joel Coen places so much emphasis on the background of characters, even what’s behind their heads, operating in either/or pairings of blues and greens or golds and reds. The color schemes operate at the periphery of these characters, and an instance like bathing Hedaya’s grimy bar office in cheap pinks adds a visual dimension to Blood Simple.’s dimensions. If only those dimensions were attributed to fuller characters. John Getz deliver a relatively flat performance, and his arc — that of an adulterer slow self-immolation — isn’t nearly as satisfying as it could have been. Conveniently enough, the Coens’ debut peaks with a wordless sequence, as Getz struggles to bury a still-breathing body in a cornfield in the middle of the night. Lit only by the cars twin high beams and dominated by a shovel digging into hard soil, it’s a beautiful and horrifying prospect. At the very least, Blood Simple. delivers in that respect.

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In which I invite the Weekly Recap to dinner

8/4: The Perfect Host (2010)

The Perfect Host

Up until I hated The Perfect Host, I was really enjoying The Perfect Host, a thriller tone deaf beyond coherence.

Nick Tomnay’s home invasion film turns itself on its head when Clayne Crawford’s bank-robbing fugitive decides to hole up at the wealthy David Hyde Pierce’s California ranch home by posing as a friend of a friend. Little does Crawford know that the “dinner party” Pierce has been preparing for isn’t as it seems.

To spoil nothing else, the certain “turn” in The Perfect Host is an unexpected one, but given the dull water-treading that follows, isn’t enough to buoy a contrive plot mechanics. A series of double crosses does nothing to flesh out Crawford’s limp backstory and the coincidental bits of black humor jar with some actually twisted visuals. Pierce is truly the only redeeming element at work here, switching between accents, character tropes and even jobs. That last reversal sacrifices sensible characterization for a tighter story. Moments between Pierce and Crawford are tense and even sickly humorous, but this is a one trick pony and we’ve seen this trick before.

8/5: Grabbers (2012)

Grabbers movie 2012 aliens

When a small, sparsely-populated Irish island is invaded by bloodsucking, water-loving aliens, the townsfolk soon realize their only chance of survival is to ingest the aliens’ one weakness: loads of alcohol.

Eminently consumed by its style, Jon Wright’s genre proclivities are both a gift and a curse in Grabbers. Morning splashes of sunlight before a wistful Irish flute and a wobbly camera paired with two freshly-poured shandies are two wildly different aesthetics both informed by a love of hyper-stylized cinema. Aided by the score’s dynamic highlights, Tomnay mixes wildly distinct styles here, but adding bourbon and a few Oreos to your chicken low mein doesn’t guarantee this concoction of favorites is going to taste good.

Ruth Bradley’s Lisa is adorable, drawing in her overeager police officer with the unshakable green of that first day on the job. Bradley also makes for a convincing drunk, even when her lines become yet another victim of inebriated, thick Irish accents. Less of a delight is co-star Richard Coyle, an Andy Sekris doppelganger whose seasoned cop doesn’t feel nearly as textured as Bradley’s — nor as consistent. One morning, he’s an alcoholic grump, the next, a pitiable romantic.

Fortunately, Grabbers’ adheres to its conceit of an island of drunk defenders long enough to inform behaviors and decisions. That progression of buzzed to drunk to bombed is also a nice boost to Bradley and Coyle’s iffy sexual chemistry, as if their canned smooch were merely one hungover mistake. One can only hope screenwriter Kevin Lehane had a similar excuse for including it in the first place.

8/6: Zelig (1983)

Woody Allen Zelig 1983

Outside of Antz, Zelig marks my first Woody Allen film, and already I can’t help but attribute my preconceived notions of the director onto his Leonard Zelig persona, a “human chameleon” in early twentieth century America. By the very nature of taking on the mannerisms, personalities, and even appearances of those around him, Leonard Zelig isn’t a wholly defined or actualized individual. That is until he meets and falls in love with his psychiatrist (Mia Farrow), who sets out to study Zelig’s peculiar condition with a number of methods, including hypnosis. It’s in this half daze that Allen’s cinematic persona — at least its stereotyped version in my mind — comes out. Under hypnosis, Zelig ceases to be a copy of Farrow’s psychiatrist and switches into a neurotic, hyper-critical man, skewered by his own self-deprecation and sexual impotence. Isn’t that the Woody Allen persona?

Fashioned as a mockumentary, Zelig is wonderfully reconstructed, with regrained “old” footage and newsreels retconned with Allen’s face amidst a celebratory parade. Zelig is trying hard to be a product out of its own time, and with zippy, disposable big band music, there’s an undeniable element of Gatsby-esque frivolity. F. Scott Fitzgerald himself frames the narrative with personal accounts of his meetings with the human chameleon, but even blending Fitzgerald’s jabs with Zelig’s own problematic levels of self-esteem provide little support for Zelig as strictly “meta.” The film-within-a-film elements simulating Zelig’s faux cultural impact are as cheesily recreated as the film’s newsreel announcer, but every effort to fashion a lost piece of American social history is undermined by its own dishonesty. Zelig’s farcical elevation from scientific mystery to criminal menace to American hero is rigidly documented, but Allen’s mockumentary seems problematized by the same issue of truth in documentaries on real subjects. Perhaps it’s the director’s sexual insecurities seeping in or maybe it’s an intentional note of fantasizing, but Zelig never pokes holes in its one troubling idea: a psychiatrist falling in love with her patient.

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Subtle Hints of the Weekly Recap

7/29: Chasing Ice

Chasing Ice

As photojournalist and climate change activist James Balog notes in Chasing Ice, there’s something both miraculous and horrifying about the sight of an Icelandic glacier as its crumbles into the sea, a once ancient geological monument now reduced to fragments. Literally. In his documentary, director Jeff Orlowski makes ample effort to synchronize Balog’s dedication to climate change education with Balog’s private battle with the physical tolls that mission has taken on him, particularly his busted knees. It’s an immensely personal story, even inside of such grand, often terrifying images of serene beauty and irreversible change.

Yet Chasing Ice also peaks rather early, in part from its attention to that up close approach with Balog. Thirty minutes in, there’s a false swell. Orlowski moves from the rarity of Balog’s Extreme Ice Survey (EIS) team observing that falling glacier before transitioning to broader statements about climate change’s perils. There’s no use in disputing what has been a widely-accepted understanding in the scientific community for some time now, but Orlowski bungles the transition from one man’s calling in life to zooming out to a grander vision of utilitarianism and conservationism.

Nevertheless, I can’t help but be taken by the film’s exquisite visuals, even in spite of its finesse. There’s a particularly striking photo of Balog’s taken at night, one which the photojournalist claims situate his sense of place in the universe. I can see where he’s coming from. The moon’s high in the sky, surrounded by a net of luminous stars, while the glaciers radiate the coolest of blues. It’s a humbling portrait of our own smaller role in a world that, outside of photography, might not resemble how we know it much longer.

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“Duel of the Droids” — S1/E7

duel of the droids clone wars

After tearing the first part in this story arc a new one, “Duel of the Droids” gives me the wonderful opportunity to eat my own words. In this case, I’m more than happy to be wrong.

“Downfall of a Droid” left R2-D2 in the clutches of Trandoshan smuggler Gha Nackht, though it left quite a few unanswered questions about the Confederacy’s interest in a little ‘ole astromech. More frustrating was Anakin and Ahsoka’s new droid pinch hitter, R3-S6, who proved to be about as useful a navigator as a Sacagawea coin. That latter issue is resolved here, as R3 is revealed to be a saboteur for the Confederacy. Awesome kind of! Not only does this explain the ridiculous ineptitude behind the Golden Droid That Couldn’t, it adds some dramatic irony to a show that too often telegraphs its trajectory  ahead of time. Knowing that R3 was behind Grievous’ ambush of Ahsoka and the Clone Troopers shut my nitpicking self right up.

“Duel” resolves one issue but only provides a post hoc explanation for R2-D2’s importance in the hands of the enemy. Gha Nackht dismantles the little astromech, searching for anything of value that may aid Grievous’ chances of defeating the Republic — and anything that may aid Gha Nackht’s chances of doubling his reward. Lo and behold, R2’s memory bank, having never been wiped by Anakin, contains every Republic battle strategy. As revealed in the previous episode, this comes as no surprise, but it is news to Gha Nackht, who promptly uses this revelation to squeeze a few thousand more credits out of his deal with Grievous. And then the droid general makes his best decision thus far in this show and cuts the blabby smuggler down. Maybe the Separatists aren’t as dumb as I’ve made them out to be. Maybe, they’re even psychic.

Did Grievous know all along that R2’s memory bank wasn’t wiped? He seems genuinely surprised the droid contains every single attack plan of the Republic. Whether it was unclear character motivation or simply left unaddressed by this episode’s writers, it isn’t enough to ruin a strong episode, one that sticks its landing on Droid Appreciation Month. Obi-Wan’s stance on R2’s expendability, while harsh, takes into account his steadfast logic, obedience and consideration for the wellbeing of the Republic. When Anakin rebukes Obi-Wan’s order to simply sneak aboard Grievous’ new ship, Soulless One, and detonate everything on board, the moment polishes up what was once Anakin’s sloppily-executed appreciation for R2-D2 as well as blends into Skywalker’s tendency to make rash, emotional decisions. Because sneaking aboard a ship to rescue one droid is so very “Anakin.”

Also very “Anakin” is Ahsoka’s decision to take on General Grievous in a duel all by her lonesome. It may be ripping off Attack of the Clones’ Dooku/Obi-Wan/Anakin climax, but it’s great to see The Clone Wars consider Anakin’s headstrong influence on his apprentice. Ahsoka’s hide-and-seek antics and the eponymous “duel” between R2-D2 and the duplicitous R3-S6 are a touch ridiculous, but they both feel necessary. Ahsoka needs to prove her value as beyond the show’s perennial Mary Sue; meanwhile, we’ve spent so much time listening to characters’ adulation for R2-D2, actually seeing him kick ass is a relief.

Given the strong note it goes out on, “Duel of the Droids” makes this two-part arc look much better, if only through hindsight. At the same time, I can’t help but wonder if its first half may have benefited from tighter writing, replacing blatant storytelling gaps with genuine ornaments of mystery. When Anakin expresses no surprise that R2-D2 saved the day once again, it’s a touching reflection on the droid’s contributions, one that the previous episode hammered home in all the wrong ways. I’m still not sure if Anakin appreciates R2-D2 as a companion yet, but his admiration has at least been qualified, if only by virtue of R3- characters’ qualifying their respect for the little droid, then surely by comparison to an inferior droid’s short circuits.

Stray Observations:

  • I was weirdly uncomfortable seeing R2 dismantled. Contrary to C-3PO, whom I’ve always viewed as more of an adult, seeing this droid virtually dismembered was a tad bothersome. Maybe it’s the child-like personality.
  • From Anakin’s bum rush of the Magna-Guards to that hallway battle between Grievous and Ahsoka, there’s some great action in this episode.
  • Gotta love Grievous getting himself out of paying Gha Nackt with one lightsaber stab. If ever there were an indication the Trade Federation still has some sway in the Confederacy, it’s in the fine print of Grievous’ deals.
  • The Clone Troopers using jetpacks to soften their landing on the Separatist ship were straight up awesome.
  • Once again, the show incorporates an interesting blend of orchestral and electronic music. Still not sure how much the electronic half is working for me, but I at least respect the effort to branch out in soundscapes.

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