REVIEW: “Arctic” (2019)

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To cut down on any potential confusion, Mads Mikkelsen has two 2019 movies with single-word titles related to the cold. The first is the trashy and rather repugnant “Polar” (don’t waste your time). The latest is “Arctic”, a much more tolerable and considerably better movie (most definitely see it).

“Arctic” is an Icelandic survival thriller with a Danish star and a Brazilian director/co-writer. The film marks YouTuber Joe Penna’s feature film directorial debut and let’s just say it’s quite the start. There’s certainly no shortage of man-versus-nature movies and I’ve always been a sucker for a good survival story. While “Arctic” very much fits into that mold, within the first fifteen minutes I could see the film carving out its own path.

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The movie leans heavily on its star, Mads Mikkelsen who plays the lone survivor of a small plane crash deep in the Arctic Circle. We know nothing about this man other than he has been stranded for a while. What we do learn comes only from what we can observe. He’s a resourceful man who has turned the plane hull into a cabin of sorts. He has chiseled holes in the thick ice and ran fishing lines for catching trout. And like clockwork he hikes to higher ground where he churns on a hand-cranked device that emits a distress signal.

The movie seems fascinated with the how-to’s of survival and early on a lot of focus is put on his daily routine. But his situation changes dramatically after a helicopter picks up his signal. The chopper tries to land in a windstorm but violently crashes in the process. The pilot is killed but the co-pilot, a young woman played by Maria Thelma SmĂĄradĂłttir, survives although with serious injuries.

The man gets the unconscious young woman back to his plane and begins treating her wounds. The equation has changed and he knows he can’t keep them both alive. A map in the helicopter wreckage points him to a seasonal shelter which he estimates to be about a two-day journey. The film’s second half sees him heading out across the frozen tundra pulling the young woman on a makeshift sled and with only a few supplies in tow.

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“Arctic” is very much about the fight to survive against the most extreme elements and even nature itself. It’s just as much an exploration of the psychological toll. The man’s almost businesslike approach to staying alive changes when the young women arrives. She reinvigorates him and you see a new urgency. Penna shows a subtle hand in how he unearths the new emotions in the man, emotions that surpass simple sympathy.

It’s hard to think of anyone better equipped to lead this movie than Mads Mikkelsen. His tough exterior and rugged disposition is only outdone by his innate ability to speak volumes with so few words. And this is a movie of little dialogue which plays well to that particular strength of his.

“Arctic” was filmed in a remote section of Iceland over a 19 day span. Mikkelsen has called it the toughest shoot of his career, but the cinematic benefits make it worthwhile. The treacherous location makes for an often harrowing and utterly convincing experience. That’s key to what makes “Arctic” such a strong film. It’s a survival movie that does what the best ones do – immerses you in its setting and in the plight of its characters.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “The Salvation”

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Several years ago Westerns saw a bit of a resurgence. It didn’t come close to matching the genre’s popularity of the 1950s and 1960s, but it was great to see the visions for Westerns from modern perspectives. We still get the occasional Western from time to time which brings me to “The Salvation”, a Danish revenge tale from co-writer and director Kristian Levring. The film tips its hat to several classic Western movie tropes, but at the same time it maintains an evocative and unique edge to it.

One of the film’s strengths is found in its charismatic lead Mads Mikkelsen. He plays Jon, a Danish settler and ex-soldier in 1870’s America. With the help of his brother Peter (Mikael Persbrandt), Jon establishes himself and then sends word for his wife and son to cross the Atlantic and join him at their new home in the American West. But shortly after reuniting with his family, an encounter with two thugs ends with his wife and son being murdered. Jon tracks down and kills the thugs responsible.

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But Jon doesn’t realize that one the dead killers is the brother of a ruthless gang leader named Delarue (played with grizzled gusto by Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and the husband of the physically and emotionally scarred Madalaine (Eva Green). Delarue makes it his aim to find and pay back his brother’s killer. This sparks a conflict with the revenge-fueled Jon that (literally) bleeds into a small town held hostage by fear of Delarue. The town’s weak-kneed sheriff (Douglas Henshall) and opportunistic Mayor (Jonathan Pryce) are little help and they leave Jon to fend for himself.

Mikkelsen is the perfect man for his role. Jon is stern and rugged but also reserved and soft-spoken. Mikkelsen has always been able to convey through expression and Levring often relies on that. The story takes its lead character to some pretty grim places, and a quick gander at Mikkelsen’s filmography will show he’s familiar with taking characters to grim places. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the burly, gravelly voiced Morgan who seems to be channeling a nuanced Jack Elam vibe. Morgan’s character chomps up scenes with a playful abhorrence and he’s a nice counterbalance to Mikkelsen’s Jon.

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Another strong point is the revolving aesthetic that defines the film’s dry and dusty world. In shooting the movie Levring and cinematographer Jens Schlosser move between classic Western imagery and a type of visual hyperbole. At times the film looks as if it were plucked out of a Sergio Leone picture. Other times things look stylized and experimental. We see it in backgrounds, camera techniques, and color pallets.

One could say “The Salvation” is too generic and clichĂ©, but I don’t think Levring’s approach is that simplistic. The film certainly borrows from or pays homage (depending on how you choose to look at it) to certain Westerns that came before it. Yet the film has a unique feel and an intense visual flair that goes along with its violent self-awareness. Mikkelsen shines, Morgan is a hoot, Eva Green is a boiling mystery. When put together as a whole it is a stylishly focused and concise movie which happily embraces its influences.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4 Stars

 

The Public Movie Defender – “Clash of the Titans” (2010)

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The idea behind The Public Movie Defender is to take up the cause of a particular movie that I believe is better than the majority of reviews it has received. These are movies which I feel are worth either a second look or at least a more open examination considering the predominantly negative opinions of them. The films chosen are ones that I like so therefore I’m taking their case and defending them before the court of negative opinion. Let the trial begin…

DEFENDANT #3 – “Clash of the Titans” (2010)

CLASH POSTERWhen I first came up with the idea for this fun little thing called The Public Movie Defender there were several movies that immediately came to mind for inclusion. Some are personal favorites that I am deeply passionate about and others are simply movies that I feel are good yet that get pounded a bit unfairly. Some aren’t that difficult to defend while others are a REALLY hard sell. 2010’s remake of “Clash of the Titans” is one of those hard sells. And while I wouldn’t categorize it as a personal favorite, I do think it’s a good movie that doesn’t deserve the level of disdain it has received.

“Clash of the Titans” had its work cut out for it. It’s a remake of a cult classic from 1981 that featured a wonderful fantasy adventure as well as the final work of stop-motion special effects master Ray Harryhausen. This time advanced makeup and a ton of CGI would serve to bring the world to life and that in itself was quite the task. While my deep affection for Harryhausen’s brilliance trumps the new computer effects, this “Clash of the Titans” features some fantastic effects that easily overshadows the few visual hiccups that we get.

And then there’s the story. There were two different approaches that the remake could have taken. The film could have taken a grittier and more serious look at the material or it could try and capture many of the nostalgic elements of the original. By that I mean the over-the-top language, the massive cheese, the classic fantasy movie plot dynamics. The filmmakers made a deliberate choice to modernize the story a bit but also tip their hat and incorporate a lot of these late 1970’s and 1980’s approaches to fantasy storytelling.

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I think this is what alienated some people. I think this clashed with people’s familiarity with modern filmmaking and current cinematic storytelling that we get today. Personally I ate it up. The stilted and uber cheesy dialogue along with several old school plot mechanics brought back memories of the “Sinbad” films, “Ice Pirates”, “Conan”, and “Kull”. These are films that I grew up watching and I clearly see how the movie uses and embraces them. The great actors Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes ham it up as Zeus and Hades. Are they cheesy? Yes, more so than a pizza. But they are supposed to be. I completely understand if that doesn’t work for some people, but I don’t see it as a deep flaw in the movie itself. I responded to it with a nostalgic smile and appreciation.

Now it’s not like everything in the movie imitates the original. A tightly shorn Sam Worthington replaces a mop headed Harry Hamlin as Perseus. Some have had issue with Worthington’s character and performance. Not me. I like this grittier and more solemn turn. Considering all that his character faces I can understand him being a bit angry and coarse. I think Worthington brings a toughness and physicality to the role that I welcomed. Add to that an interesting and fun supporting cast of traditional survival-fantasy characters (again a tip of the hat to those old-school flicks). None are better than the great Mads Mikkelsen as the gruff and tough Draco, captain of the King’s Guard.

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The movie features the classic fantasy tale. A quest is in place which takes Perseus and crew on a ‘who will survive’ adventure. Along the way they face threats such as witches, Medusa, and of course giant scorpions. And what a scene it is when the giant scorpions appear. Incredible visuals and a beautifully filmed sequence. And then there’s the Kraken. There’s perhaps nothing in this film ridiculed more than Liam Neeson’s command to “Release the Kraken”. And while I wouldn’t call it the equivalent of a great thespian’s oration, it’s not that bad of a line. Sure it’s absolute cheese, but the mockery was really fueled by the the line’s use in the trailers and TV spots. The Kraken itself looks cool and Neeson’s over-the-top unleashing fits in perfectly.

I believe that your opinion of this film will be dictated by expectations and preferences. It’s worth recognizing what the filmmakers are doing and the type of movie they’re making. I think they set a cool nostalgic target and hit it dead center. Now to be clear, I’m not saying this is a perfect film. But I really like what they did. It took me right back to those movies that I would lay in the floor and watch on Saturday afternoons. That made this a fun and entertaining experience and when considering the film in that light I see it as a success. The sequel was a massive disappointment, but for my money “Clash of the Titans” was a blast.

VERDICT: “CLASH OF THE TITANS” – 4 STARS

Top 5 Performances of 2013 – Lead Actor

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This is it – the final ‘Best of’ list for the 2013 movie year. For me, narrowing down this particular category to just five was the most difficult of any of these best performance lists. It pained me to leave off so many great performances from 2013, but someone decided that Top 5 lists can only feature five picks so I’m sticking to it. No need to drag this out any further. Here are my five favorite performances from a lead actor:

#5 – Robert Redford – “All is Lost

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All is Lost” may be a film that feels too familiar for some but I felt it had more to it than you may first perceive. But regardless of that, no one can doubt the incredible work from 77-year old Robert Redford. It’s such a physically demanding role and we immediately notice Redford’s 100% commitment. But being he is the only cast member, he is tasked with having the audience invest in him and he definitely succeeds. Considering there are only three lines of dialogue in the entire film, it is amazing how much he tells us through expressions and gestures. It’s just brilliant work.

#4 – Bruce Dern – “Nebraska

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What a joy is was to watch the great Bruce Dern in Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska“. Dern’s career started in 1960 and since then he has shown a wide range of mostly supporting roles. But here he gives one of the saddest yet most endearing performances of the year. His character isn’t the warmest or the nicest. Yet over time you begin to sense he’s more than we may think. Payne’s script brilliantly hides little details about the character and the audience gets to put the pieces together as we go. But it’s Dern that keeps us fixated and invested. With so many big and showy performances this year Dern probably won’t take home an award. But he’s certainly worthy of one.

#3 – Oscar Isaac – “Inside Llewyn Davis

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I’ve always been a fan of Oscar Isaac and I was thrilled to see him get the lead role in the Coen brothers film “Inside Llewyn Davis“. He certainly didn’t disappoint. There are so many things I loved about Isaac’s work. First, he’s the perfect fit for the Coen’s signature unique and slightly offbeat lead character. But Llewyn Davis is much more than that and Isaac masterfully peels back all of these layers. Another beautiful element to this performance can be found in the music. Isaac performed all of his own songs and the musical scenes in the film were all recorded live, never dubbed. It’s just another reason this performance was so good.

#2 – Chiwetel Ejiofor – “12 Years a Slave

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Perhaps the most daring and courageous performance of the year came from British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor. What tremendous work he does in Steve McQueen’s gripping and bold “12 Years a Slave“. There is nothing disingenuous or halfhearted about Ejiofor’s depiction of Solomon Northup. With amazing commitment and a ton of emotion he brings this reflective and unsettling story to life. There are so many scenes that will cut deep and stay with you well after the credits role. You immediately connect with him. You root for him. You hurt with him. If done poorly this role could have sunk the whole film. Ejiofor never allows that to happen.

#1 – Mads Mikkelsen – “The Hunt

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Regardless of the criminal omissions by the Award types, Mads Mikkelsen’s performance in “The Hunt” was my favorite of the year. The story itself is tough and unsettling and it needed a good actor to give the film the gut-punch it was looking for. Mikkelsen is the perfect guy. It is painful to watch what his character endures both physically and emotionally. Mikkelsen’s performance invests us in this man’s story, his plight, and his emotional state as things unfold. We watch and shutter as this man’s life is changed forever. This is an immensely crowded field full of great actors and performances. It says a lot that Mads Mikkelsen is at the top of that field. Brilliant work. HONORABLE MENTIONS: Tom Hanks (“Captain Phillips“), Hugh Jackman (“Prisoners“), Christian Bale (“American Hustle“), Joaquin Phoenix (“Her“), Michael B. Jordan (“Fruitvale Station“), Ben Stiller (“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty“), Jude Law (“Side Effects“) So what do you think? Who did I miss or who did I rate too high? Please take time to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

5 Phenomenal Movie Car Crashes

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Yet another “Fast and Furious” movie hits the big screen this week. I’ve always been indifferent to this franchise, at least until the last movie “Fast Five”. It got away from the illegal street car scene and gave us a more appealing full-blown action picture. It’s a franchise known for the crazy things it does with its cars. So in light of that I thought I would focus this week’s Phenomenal 5 on some of the biggest car crashes in the movies. Now obviously filmmakers have loved to do all sorts of damage to cars, trucks, semis, etc. so there’s no way I could call this the definitive list. But in the cinematic world of vehicular destruction these five movie car crashes stand out as phenomenal.

#5 – “CASINO ROYALE

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I cry just looking at this…

In 2006 Martin Campbell’s “Casino Royale” turned me into a James Bond fan. There is so much I love about this movie – the fresh cast, the new grittier and realistic feel. But there’s also a lot of 007 traditionalism which I love. One of those things is Bond’s love for sweet cars which leads to its inclusion on this list. Why Bond thought he could have a nice, romantic dinner with his girl Vesper is beyond me. She ends up being kidnapped by the deliciously evil Mads Mikkelsen. Bond hops into his gorgeous Aston Martin and pursues. Flying through the darkness at high speeds, Bond doesn’t notice Vesper’s tied up in the middle of the road until the last second. He makes a sharp turn, loses control of his car, and it flips and flips and flips. This may not be the most eye-catching movie crash scene, but it brings tears to my eyes every time I see that beautiful car being destroyed. *sniff, sniff*

#4 – “THE MATRIX RELOADED”

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The first of MANY flying cars…

The Wachowski’s caught the attention of a lot of people in 1999 with their science-fiction mindbender “The Matrix”. It was followed by the 2003 sequel “The Matrix Reloaded”, a film best described as three insanely good action scenes threaded together by loads of boring, coma-inducing blabber. One of the great action scenes features a frenetic freeway chase where a horde of agents pursue Trinity, Morpheus, and the key maker. This long, mind-blowing sequence features cars, motorcycles, SUVs, and semis, all being blown up, flipped, and rolled in ways you would never imagine. It may be a bit of a cheat to include this entire sequence, but there’s just too many phenomenal car crashes within it to single out just one.

#3 – “THE ROAD WARRIOR”

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Soooo many pieces….

The second installment of the Mad Max series was “The Road Warrior” and it’s still my favorite. This Australian post-apocalyptic action series put Mel Gibson on the map and featured some insane vehicular mayhem. The self-serving Max redeems himself by taking a band of murderous marauders on a merry chase along the barren wasteland. Along the way cars flip, roll, and explode but there’s one particular crash that’s especially vicious. At the end of this great chase Max finds his tanker truck steaming towards a head-on collision with the evil Humongous. Lord H has no chance whatsoever and when his tricked out metal machine meets the huge plow blade on Max’s truck at a ridiculously high speed, well let’s just say you could sweep up what’s left of him and his ride with a broom and dustpan.

#2 – “PLAYTIME”

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You can just see it coming…

There have been a wide variety of car crashes over the years but none have made me laugh as hard as the huge pileup in Jacques Tati’s “Playtime” from 1967. This was Tati’s final film featuring his beloved Mr. Hulot character and probably the director’s most ambitious. Nestled within this unusual film is a hilarious car wreck which all starts with a little yellow sports car speeding through an intersection. This sets off a chain reaction of funky little cars bumping into each other, sliding across the pavement, and spinning in circles. The following scene of everyone getting out and simultaneously stretching their stiff limbs is a great topper. It’s hard to describe this so that it sounds as funny as it is. Just look it up on YouTube. It’s well worth a watch.

#1 – “THE BLUES BROTHERS”

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The mother of all car crashes…

When I thought of doing this list the insanely over-the-top cop car pileup in the 1980 musical comedy “The Blues Brothers” was the first to come to mind. Aykroyd and Belushi drive their ragged ride to the “honorable” Richard J. Daley Center but not before leading a ton of Chicago’s finest on a high speed chase through the city streets. Through tunnels, under bridges, and hitting speeds of 120 mph, the chase tears through the town. That is until a quick left turn leaves a police car pileup unlike anything you’ve seen. Totally nuts but loads of fun. The Blues Brothers is remembered for a lot of things – the hilarious script, the great songs. But I’ll never be able to think of this film and not recall this phenomenal scene! If you haven’t seen it, hop to it.

So there are my five phenomenal movie car crashes. With so many great ones to choose from, I can’t wait to see your favorites. Please take time to comment and share your picks!

5 PHENOMENAL WORLD WAR 2 FILMS

How on earth do you narrow a list of top World War 2 movies down to just five? Since the war itself, there have been so many high quality films from across the globe that focused on this troubled time in our world’s history. When trying to narrow down this list, I wanted to make sure that the war was a key character in the story and not simply the backdrop. Several classic films such as “Casablanca” are set in wartime but the war isn’t central to the picture. But I didn’t want to restrict the list to only combat centered movies. So while the war is a key ingredient in the films I chose, combat doesn’t have to be the main focus. These five films are war pictures that not only show the action of the battlefield but the horrible effects and atrocities of World War 2. As always, I wouldn’t call this the definitive list, but there’s no denying that these World War 2 films are absolutely phenomenal.

#5 – “THE PIANIST” (2002)

The Pianist” is a painful yet moving film about a Jewish-Polish pianist named Wladyslaw Szpilman. The movie covers the Nazi invasion and eventual occupation of Warsaw, Poland as well as the subsequent Warsaw Uprising by the Polish resistance. We follow Szpilman and his family as the Nazi’s invade. We see them confined to the horrible conditions of the Jewish Ghetto. We even see the Nazis begin shipping out Jews to the nearby death camps. Szpilman’s struggle to survive isn’t always easy to watch. There are some genuinely heart-wrenching and disturbing scenes that still stick to me to this day. But the entire film is done responsibly and it packs such an emotional punch that you’ll never want to forget this dark time in our worlds history. Adrien Brody won the Best Actor for his portrayal of Szpilman and it was well-deserved. It won numerous other awards and remains one of the most powerful World War 2 films out there.

#4 – “SAVING PRIVATE RYAN”  (1998)

A World War 2 movie from 1998, “Saving Private Ryan” was Steven Spielberg’s hugely popular film that also received several Oscar nominations. Spielberg’s movie has been praised for its intensely realistic portrayal of combat during the war. The intensity of the battle sequences mixed with the enormous attention to detail gives the movie a heightened realism that’s hard to forget. The story captures the extraordinary emotions which are fueled by both the camaraderie and the loss of soldiers in battle. We see it’s effects on the men and we see the effects on their family. A sensational cast led by the always diverse Tom Hanks lay the story out for us with honesty and grit. And the opening 30 minutes which features the Omaha Beach landing on D-Day will go down as one of the most piercing and powerful scenes in movie history. “Saving Private Ryan” is a movie that calls us to remember a war we should never forget and Spielberg’s accomplishment should never be forgotten as well.

#3 – “THE LONGEST DAY” (1962)

“The Longest Day” may have the greatest ensemble cast in the history of movies. John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Sean Connery, Henry Fonda, Richard Burton, Red Buttons, Robert Wagner, Eddie Albert, Roddy McDowall, Sal Mineo, Rod Steiger, and so many more star in this large-scale depiction of D-Day and the invasion of Normandy. The movie looks at D-Day from all sides, the Americans, the British, the French Resistance, and even the Germans. The attention and effort put in “The Longest Day” is evident. The movie was influenced by contributors from all sides of the war including those who fought on June 6, 1944. At almost 3 hours, the movie goes to great lengths to look at all that went into the planning and execution of that gutsy and dangerous invasion. Great performances and several classic scenes help make “The Longest Day” one of my favorite war films of all time.

#2 – “SCHINDLER’S LIST” (1993)

Steven Spielberg’s brilliant film “Schindler’s List” is one of the most devastating movies you’ll see. But it’s also an example of filmmaking at it’s best and, much like “The Pianist”, it looks back at a horrific time in our world’s history that we should never forget. The film revolves around the true life story of Oskar Schindler, a money-hungry German businessman who arrives in Krakow after the Nazi invasion in hopes of making tons of money exploiting the war. Instead we see a remarkable personal transformation. But the film should be most remembered for it’s realistic portrayal of the Nazi atrocities against the Jews. Spielberg’s use of black and white instead of color and his filming technique gives the movie an almost documentary feel. Also his careful attention to detail and honest depictions of the horrors that took place make the film even more potent. “Schindler’s List” is a monumental achievement even though it’s one of the most difficult movies to watch.

#1 – “FLAME AND CITRON” (2008)

I can see where it would surprise some to see a more recent Danish picture at the top of my list of World War 2 movies. “Flame and Citron” is a movie many have probably never heard of but everyone should see. It’s an enthralling film about two Danish resistance fighters who carry out hits on Nazi officers , key Nazi targets, and Nazi sympathizers during the German occupation of Denmark. It’s loosely based on true events and is told from a unique perspective that really grabbed me. Thure Lindhardt and the wonderful Mads Mikkelsen are brilliant as the secret assassins and Christian Madsen’s direction is top-notch. “Flame and Citron” is a gritty and unashamed look at the war through the eyes of a persecuted people who were willing to fight back. It’s a movie that’s flawlessly executed (no pun intended) and that reveals a side of the war that was completely new to me. It’s an incredible movie and one that I can’t recommend enough especially to those who love war films.

See something on my list you disagree with? Did I leave your favorite World War 2 movie off? Please take time to share your comments or post your list of the best World War 2 movies. The more comments, the better the discussion.