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On Blu-ray/DVD: ARCTIC (2019), THE HOLE IN THE GROUND (2019) and AMERICAN HANGMAN (2019)

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ARCTIC
(US/Iceland - 2019)


A showcase for the always-reliable Danish character actor Mads Mikkelsen, ARCTIC is a cold and punishingly harsh survivalist saga from Brazilian musician-turned-debuting filmmaker Joe Penna. Shot in some desolate locations in Iceland with nothing to see but vast, snow-covered nothingness, the film gets a committed and physically demanding performance from Mikkelsen, and opens in medias res with almost no backstory as his character, Overgard, goes about his daily routine after being stranded somewhere in the Arctic. He sleeps in a crashed plane, but spends his days mapping coordinates, checking various fishing lines, and hand-cranking a small distress beacon. The only sign of life in the area is an occasional sighting of a lone polar bear who invades his camp and steals some fish while he's away. He spots a rescue helicopter that gets caught in a snowy wind gust during a whiteout and crashes. The pilot is killed and the lone passenger, a woman (Maria Thelma), is severely injured and barely conscious. Overgard raids the chopper for food and equipment--including a sled--and takes the woman back to his plane. With no sign of a further rescue attempt and the woman's situation growing more dire by the hour, he makes the decision to embark on a several-day hike, pulling her on a sled over the snowy terrain to where he believes a remote seasonal rescue station might be.





That's really it as far as the story goes. Almost all of ARCTIC's effectiveness comes from Mikkelsen, who has minimal dialogue and lets his weary, exhausted, exposed face say everything. Penna put Mikkelsen and Thelma out in the brutal elements (except for a couple of composited moments that look like post-production reshoots and do somewhat stick out like a sore thumb), and in addition to fighting off a polar bear with a flare (another scene that's dampened by some obvious CGI), there's a long, arduous sequence where Overgard encounters a mountain that wasn't on the map, and tries to haul the woman and the sled over it FITZCARRALDO-style, eventually giving up and opting to go around it, which will add another five days to the trip at a time when every moment counts. Speaking of FITZCARRALDO, one is reminded of Werner Herzog while watching ARCTIC, as Penna isn't afraid to let things unfold in a way that captures the monotony and the hopelessness while never being dull. He tells you next-to-nothing about Overgard or the woman (we briefly see his pilot's license, and we're led to assume the dead chopper pilot was her husband), and we only learn who they are over the course of this journey, as Overgard is a man who's willing to risk his life to save a stranger. We've seen these triumph of the human spirit stories countless times before, and they live or die based on the star. Mikkelsen's work here isn't as showy as James Franco in 127 HOURS nor does he carry the iconic weight of the legendary Robert Redford in ALL IS LOST, but it's a study in low-key persistence and quiet determination. That, and the pervasive sense of isolation are the standouts in ARCTIC, a tough sell that Bleecker Street only got on 268 screens at its widest release, but it's a must see for fans of Mikkelsen and survivalist cinema. (PG-13, 98 mins)



THE HOLE IN THE GROUND
(Ireland/Belgium/Finland - 2019)


Released a week before Nicholas McCarthy's THE PRODIGY, this past spring's other "evil kid" movie, albeit on a much smaller scale (A24 put it on just 24 screens and VOD), THE HOLE IN THE GROUND has a handful of effective moments, but can't stop tripping over its own feet and more importantly, can't settle on what it wants to be. Right from the start, with a high aerial shot of a yellow vehicle driving down a road through a forest, director/co-writer Lee Cronin is letting us know that he's seen THE SHINING, and the entire film ends up feeling like warmed-up leftovers from other horror films, namely THE BABADOOK and HEREDITARY. Living in the outskirts of a rural Irish town, Sarah (Seana Kerslake) works in an antique shop and is a single mom to young Chris (James Quinn Markey). She's evasive about her past and has to style her hair to hide a large scar on her forehead that presumably came from an abusive, estranged husband. One gets the sense that she's fled rather than moved and doesn't want to be found ("I know Dad makes you sad," Chris tells her), and she's on edge enough that the town doc prescribes a mild anxiety medication. Sarah and Chris live in an old, dark house bordered by an expansive forest with a massive sinkhole. Chris wanders off near the sinkhole and from that point on, Sarah feels something is different about him. Her increasing paranoia isn't helped by two near-misses in the middle of a road with local crazy woman Noreen Brady (Kati Outinen), who gets right in Sarah's face and declares "It's not your boy." Noreen's husband Des (the great James Cosmo) apologizes for his wife, but the townies know all about Noreen: years earlier, she became convinced that her own son was replaced by an impostor and she "accidentally" ran him down with her car and has been in a virtually catatonic state since.





Shortly after, Sarah happens upon Noreen's dead body near the side of the road her head buried in the dirt. Chris' behavior grows more erratic, with Sarah finding all the proof she needs when he has no idea what to do during an affectionate game the two have played for years, where they each make a funny face to see who laughs first. There's some intriguing ideas here about motherhood, which is where the BABADOOK parallels are most prevalent (though Markey's Chris isn't grating like the BABADOOK kid), and the panic and dread Sarah feels in looking at Chris and wondering if he's just like his father. That psychological horror gives way to something more, with Chris eating spiders and crawling on the floor like one, and demonstrating enough strength to throw Sarah around the kitchen. Cronin wants to deal in both metaphor and reality, and the story begins working at cross purposes. The atmospheric look turns to murkiness as it goes on, with Cronin indulging in pointless directorial flourishes like a perpetually flickering light in a dark basement and an inevitable journey into the sinkhole, where something even more horrific awaits. A debuting Markey is fine, and the promising Kerslake delivers a strong performance--both stars could've benefited from more focused script instead of what feels like a greatest hits compilation of the last several years of acclaimed indie horrors. Though, to its credit, it does have one late-breaking development that kinda sorta prefigures Jordan Peele's US, which opened a month and a half later. (R, 90 mins)



AMERICAN HANGMAN
(Canada/UK - 2019)


It's not every day that you get a heavy-handed, SAW-inspired courtroom drama, but here's AMERICAN HANGMAN. A hectoring, finger-pointing lecture disguised as a suspense thriller, the film was written and directed by Wilson Coneybeare, a veteran of numerous Canadian kids TV shows in what appears to be a serious step away from his comfort zone in addition to being his first IMDb credit in a decade (back in the mid- '80s, he also wrote for the Don Adams-starring syndicated Canadian import CHECK IT OUT!). AMERICAN HANGMAN opens with two kidnapped men being carried into a concrete bunker of some kind. One is a guy named Ron (Paul Braunstein), who was sitting in his car in a fast-food parking lot, and the other is an elderly man (Donald Sutherland) who was unloading groceries in his driveway. Their captor (Vincent Kartheiser) snips off one of Ron's fingers and gives the two men five minutes to figure out their connection. When they can't come up with one, he shoots Ron in the head. All of this is captured by a dozen cameras in a complex tech set-up, with the captor broadcasting the events live across social media. It's soon picked up by cable news, the cops, and the public. The captor explains his actions: the old man is retired Judge Oliver Straight, who years ago sentenced a convicted child murderer to death. The convicted killer was executed that morning, but the captor, who says he's the victim's uncle, appoints himself "prosecutor," accusing the Judge of murder in sentencing the wrong man to die. Also on trial are the police and the media, who also joined in the mad rush to condemn the wrong man, and the millions of viewers who tune in as the stream goes viral are the judge and jury--"the voice of the people"--voting to sustain or overrule every objection and ultimately decide Judge Straight's fate.





AMERICAN HANGMAN plays like one of those CBS crime procedurals when they try to break from the formula and do something "deeper." It's pompously full of itself, taking rudimentary, fish-in-a-barrel shots at the "breaking news" culture of today's media, represented by ambitious USCN (United States Cable News) reporter Harper Grant (Lucia Walter), while at the same time utilizing every tired, generic trope in the book. The captor's motivation is supposed to be a third-act twist that's obvious from the start, and the wild goose chase he sends the cops on won't fool anyone who's seen THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. And Lt. Roy (Oliver Dennis), the cop put in charge of this as it unfolds over the course of the day, is also busy overseeing a shuttering precinct AND it's his last day before retirement (no word on whether he's "too old for this shit"). Judge Straight is apparently a man of renowned standing in his field, and the murder case in question was national news, but no one watching the stream in its early stages--the cops, the media, the public--recognizes him, and nobody seems to know that this is the day the girl's killer was set to be executed. And when Roy and his cops finally start getting an idea of who the captor is, one announces "He has a record for some sort of endangerment but he got off on a technicality, and get this...he's an IT guy!" like a bad LAW & ORDER: SVU episode, as Coneybeare is so preoccupied with pummeling the audience with messages that he loses any semblance of basic logic and common sense. Kartheiser, sporting dorky glasses and kind of unflattering bowl haircut that no normal, innocent non-creep would willingly have, isn't asked to do much other than yell Coneybeare's talking points, while Sutherland brings some effortless professionalism to a role that has him seated at a makeshift witness stand the entire time and was probably shot in a few days. He's obviously the best thing about AMERICAN HANGMAN, the kind of movie where a supporting character is named "Josh Harkridge" and we're still supposed to take it seriously. (Unrated, 99 mins)


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