My weekly movie reviews. You can also read these on letterboxd.
Against the Ice (2022)
Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
Before starting this new film on Netflix, I looked it up on Rotten Tomatoes (nearly always a mistake). What I found was a series of reviews calling the film subpar or mediocre at best. After that, I almost disregarded the film completely and I’m glad I didn’t. I do not know why the critics were less than impressed with this survival thriller (I present wild theory at the end of this review) but I think it’s one of the best films so far this year.
These types of adventure stories, especially when based on true events, never get old for me. Though some are told better than others, I am always intrigued by the story of humans in harsh conditions, fighting to survive. This is one of the strongest of recent years, on par with the Robert Redford-starring All is Lost. It’s strength lies in its straight-forward simplicity.
As these Danish explorers traverse Greenland on what seems like a foolish mission, director Peter Flinth captures the brutal reality of making such a journey. With little to no CGI, it feels like the actors are actually experiencing all of the dangers these men went through. The landscapes are both beautiful and terrifying at the same time. Even the scene with the bear is masterfully done. So often these kind of sequences become exaggerated moments of action but Flinth keeps it brief and effective. The threat of the bear then becomes a real danger that both the audience and characters are haunted by the rest of the film.
The last third of the film takes an interesting turn, shifting the conflict from nature to the nature of man and the way our minds can become our greatest enemy. I won’t spoil anything but this is where actor
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau gets to shine, reminding us why he is one of the best international actors working today. Ever since his incredible performance in Shot Caller (I never got into Game of Thrones), I’ve had my eye on Coster-Waldau and I only hope he continues to choose the right projects. Here, his performance doesn’t really take off till the film’s last act but it is worth the whole price of admission.
So back to that theory of why film critics did not highly recommend this well-crafted picture, I have two suggestions: 1. Movie critics are far too focused these days on how filmmakers should take cinema in new directions instead of admiring when traditional storytelling is done right. This is why they’ll praise artsy-fartsy work like Power of the Dog while ignoring another Netflix-released sleeper Munich: The Edge of War (still the number one movie of 2022 in my book). There’s a balance of both, championing experimentation while still heralding the kind of well-made movie that was so common in the Hollywood days of old, and the movie critics of today fail to strike that balance. 2. I suspect that (like some have said here on Letterboxd) they took issue with way Peter Flinth kills certain four-legged creatures. Make no mistake, this isn’t some Disney-fied snowy adventure and the filmmakers don’t cater to warm, fuzzy feelings. And even if they don’t admit it, I think that’s what most critics really want…
I don’t. I want more films like Against the Ice.
Watched on Netflix.
Jug Face (2013)
Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
This film creates a uniquely American spin on folk horror, creating a “hillbilly horror” which now feels like a subgenre of the subgenre.
Director Chad Crawford Kinkle does a lot with very little. There aren’t any fancy effects or big pieces. He only uses the woods, some trailer homes, and a hole in the ground to great effect. It’s a true lesson for independents on how to simplify and that story/characters are the number one priority in all genres.
Does anyone ever doubt the power of the pit? I didn’t and that’s a credit to Kinkle and his stellar cast who remain “in the world” at all times. Lead actress Lauren Ashley Carter is terrific, able to maintain our sympathy and frustration. But it’s the supporting cast who shine most from Fessenden’s reasonable yet controlling father to Sean Bridgers’ touched potter, a role played with such grace and subtlety. And of course, there’s Sean Young. It’s a shame she has not played more parts like this in recent years because it reveals a whole new realm for the actress to explore. Her scene in the bathroom with the cigarette is one I will never forget.
Though not gory by horror standards, the movie is definitely disturbing. From the aforementioned scene of family abuse to themes of incest, Kinkle does not shy away from going places most filmmakers wouldn’t. He has my respect for creating this bold work of cinema. It might be the most original take on folk horror by an American filmmaker.
Watched on Shudder.
Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars
This film has scenes you wouldn’t normally see in a suspense thriller. Take for instance, the playful encounter in the park between William Hurt and Sigourney Weaver, one on a horse and the other a motorcycle. It belongs more in a romantic comedy or musical but it could be the movie’s best moment.
And that’s not the only time where I asked myself what the filmmakers intended with some of their decisions? From the introspective moments between the two police detectives to other scenes of romantic and family relationships, Eyewitness focuses more on the people than it does the mystery plot. I have no idea what director Peter Yates was up to but I suspect he wanted to try a more humanist take on the genre. It’s a respectable ambition but unfortunately the results are mixed.
The greatest casualty of these choices is suspense. The film feels very low-stakes throughout its runtime, just floating along from scene to scene as if the murder plot really didn’t matter much at all. That tone is only interrupted by two of the film’s most thrilling moments: the dog attack (a scene I caught on TV decades ago and never forgot) and the unusual climactic action sequence with the horses. These two standout almost as if they belonged in a different movie and the rest should have been extracted for a relationship drama.
Ultimately, because it never feels important, I didn’t care about the what and why of the mystery here and if you choose to watch this movie, I recommend that you simply enjoy the incredible cast from the late William Hurt to James Woods and even Morgan Freeman.
Watched on rarefilmm.com
Pharos of Chaos (1983)
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Stars
I hate to give this film a bad rating but it’s a rambling portrait of a great, fascinating actor that I honestly struggled to finish. The filmmakers make a big mistake by placing some of the more interesting tidbits with Hayden and commentary about his career near the end after we’ve already been subjected to 90 minutes of unfocused meditation on sailing, alcohol, and Hayden’s stoner philosophy. Anyone expecting insight into his film work will be greatly disappointed. Sure, it’s interesting to see the actor’s alternative lifestyle but this portrait is far too drawn out.
Watched on Criterion Channel.
Blue Steel (1990)
Rating: 1.5 out of 5 Stars
I love Kathryn Bigelow and that’s why I gave this film a second shot, having seen it decades ago. It’s well-shot and has committed performances. Notice I say “committed”, not good, because it’s impossible for even the best actors to give good performances with a bad script. And this is one of the worst scripts I’ve come across in a long while…
Honestly, the writing is an embarrassment to all involved and, on an accuracy level, I can’t even a police officer having any respect for this film. Cops are consistently portrayed as imbeciles from beginning to end. Take for instance how the Curtis character completely ignores the obvious suspect of these killings in the first act. I mean, there is only one new, unknown addition to her life and it doesn’t cross her mine that he might be the cause of all this? And Clancy Brown’s supposedly experienced detective doesn’t doubt the coincidence of this dude’s appearance in her life around the same time the murders started either?
The second and third acts don’t get much better. For the next third of the film, we’re treated to an absurdly bureaucratic police chief who suddenly doesn’t believe a word out of his detectives’ mouths. Things continue to get more preposterous as Ron Silver’s maniac targets Jamie Lee’s personal life. I mean, once that was even a possibility, wouldn’t you call anyone and everyone you knew to warn them about this lunatic? I guess not if you’re one of New York’s finest…
Just when I thought it couldn’t get worse, it does. I won’t spoil it but some of the female protagonist’s actions in the last act of the film are so ridiculous, I had to cringe and laugh at the same time. As she and her newfound love interest (another big mistake by the writers) battle this psycho (a one-dimensional villain), the filmmakers come up with the most contrived ways to reach a dramatic climax. In the end, I only had one conclusion: the Curtis character should definitely NOT be a cop!
How could the great screenwriter Eric Red have turned out this crap? Perhaps it was his collaboration with Bigelow at the time that just wasn’t a good combination? Or neither of them really knew how to construct a plausible story with this concept? Again, I love Bigelow. I love Eric Red. So I just don’t know. But yikes!
Watched on Tubi