Skip to main content

Have you ever seen anybody do anything like this before?

The Frozen Ground
(2013)

Does John Cusack have troubles with the taxman, on the scale of Nicolas Cage and Val Kilmer? An actor who used to appear in a couple of movies a year showed up in seven during 2013, and has another eight pencilled for 2014. What gives, John? Nicolas Cage meanwhile, whose wigmaker also appears to have fallen on hard times, seems to be curtailing the quantity if not the dubious quality. So the two of them together, realising the vision of first-time director Scott Walker, didn’t bode well. The results bear this out, which is especially unfortunate as Walker’s subject matter had the potential for a gripping piece of work.


The Frozen Ground is based on the 13-year killing spree of Robert Hansen, outwardly a respectable family man and member of the community, but whose rap sheet testified to a history of criminal activity and violence against women. Hansen abducted, raped and murdered at least 17 women. A hunter, he would fly his victims out to the Alaskan wilderness where he shot and buried them. It’s a grisly tale, the sort of material one could imagine David Fincher casting a meticulous eye over (he does adore his serial killers, does David). Scott Walker is most definitely David Fincher. He may have the eye for a compelling story, but neither his script nor direction are up to the challenge of translating it to screen.


While Walker hits the essential beats of the tale, he also makes a right botch of Hollywood-ising it in all the wrong places. His attempts to amp up traditional thriller elements are never less than risible. This is particularly ironic, as he announces with great sincerity that this is Cindy Paulson’s story and ends the movie with a roll call of all Hansen’s (known) victims. This would be a nice touch if it the movie weren’t so ham-fisted and straight-to-video in its dramatic content.


Vanessa Hudgens does a tolerable job as panda-eyed Paulson, but she’s saddled with a character required to repeatedly put herself in harm’s way so as to maximise the tension. Are we really supposed to believe that Hansen hired a heavy (Justified’s Brad William Henke) to dispose of Paulson? Has Walker managed to convince himself he’s telling her story, complete with Fiddy Cent as Paulson’s pimp? The attempts to enliven the interrogation of Hansen are no better, with the crucial evidence of Hansen’s map (showing the sites he flew his victims to) introduced as a sudden revelatory moment. “I’ve got it! That’s what these little “X”s mean!” Hansen’s eventual spilling of the beans is toe-curlingly inept as devised and staged.


There’s little to commend him for in terms of the other characters either. There’s zero insight into Hansen, the hows and whys. He may as well be the standard issue boogeyman, despite assurances that we would be presented with the opposite. Cusack is okay, but just being subdued and glowering is no substitute for motivation. Cage’s Sergeant Jack Halcombe is standard issue Cage. He’s fine (I’ll big up Cage in any role; I’m fully aware of the brickbats he takes but I find him enormously entertaining, even when the enjoyment may be inadvertent on his part), but Halcombe is as wafer-thin as Nic’s syrup. He even has a wife (Radha Mitchell) ragging on him who then comes round to his way of thinking when she sees how important his case is. Poor Mitchell; her relocation from Oz has all gone a bit wrong. Also popping up uneventfully are Dean Norris (playing a cop!) and Kevin Dunn (playing a lieutenant; virtually the same role as in True Detective, but not nearly so auspiciously).


Even less assured are Walker’s stylistic flourishes. He appropriates handheld camera as if it’s going out of fashion. There are few directors with the assuredness to use handheld well. Paul Greengrass is one, so much so that his name is virtually synonymous with shakycam. Walker attempts no visual gymnastics, but his technique is horribly distracting. His camera moves and darts without rhyme or reason, an approach bereft of any understanding of the dramatic integrity of a scene and how it fits into the film as a whole. Close-up of a hand, a face, move the camera randomly to suggest import or momentum, cut; stir and repeat. If it looks like he doesn’t know what he’s doing as a storyteller, I’d suggest that’s because he doesn’t.  There’s a nice shot with an ethereal moose wandering the city, but it’s an ill-fitting affectation.


As straight-to-video fare goes, this is probably about what you’d expect. But it’s the sadder testament that lingers. Two stars reduced to slumming it in rote roles (is it really 17 years since Con Air?) and a true story executed in an at best mechanical and at worst borderline inept fashion. The morbid fascination of the crimes ensures The Frozen Ground holds interest, but Walker’s floundering take guarantees it will be another decade before anyone goes near Hansen’s story again and attempts to do it the justice.


**1/2

Popular posts from this blog

The Illumi-what-i?

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) (SPOILERS) In which Sam Raimi proves that he can stand proudly with the best – or worst – of them as a good little foot soldier of the woke apocalypse. You’d expect the wilfully anarchic – and Republican – Raimi to choke on the woke, but instead, he’s sucked it up, grinned and bore it. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is so slavishly a production-line Marvel movie, both in plotting and character, and in nu-Feige progressive sensibilities, there was no chance of Sam staggering out from beneath its suffocating demands with anything more than a few scraps of stylistic flourish intact.

Ziggy smokes a lot of weed.

Moonfall (2022) (SPOILERS) For a while there, it looked as if Moonfall , the latest and least-welcomed – so it seems – piece of apocalyptic programming from Roland Emmerich, might be sending mixed messages. Fortunately, we need not have feared, as it turns out to be the same pedigree of disaster porn we’ve come to expect from the director, one of the Elite’s most dutiful mass-entertainment stooges, even if his lustre has rather dimmed since the glory days of 2012.

What’s so bad about being small? You’re not going to be small forever.

Innerspace (1987) There’s no doubt that Innerspace is a flawed movie. Joe Dante finds himself pulling in different directions, his instincts for comic subversion tempered by the need to play the romance plot straight. He tacitly acknowledges this on the DVD commentary for the film, where he notes Pauline Kael’s criticism that he was attempting to make a mainstream movie; and he was. But, as ever with Dante, it never quite turns out that way. Whereas his kids’ movies treat their protagonists earnestly, this doesn’t come so naturally with adults. I’m a bona fide devotee of Innerspace , but I can’t help but be conscious of its problems. For the most part Dante papers over the cracks; the movie hits certain keynotes of standard Hollywood prescription scripting. But his sensibility inevitably suffuses it. That, and human cartoon Martin Short (an ideal “leading man” for the director) ensure what is, at first glance just another “ Steven Spielberg Presents ” sci-fi/fantas

All I saw was an old man with a funky hand, that’s all I saw.

The Blob (1988) (SPOILERS) The 1980s effects-laden remake of a ’50s B-movie that couldn’t. That is, couldn’t persuade an audience to see it and couldn’t muster critical acclaim. The Fly was a hit. The Thing wasn’t, but its reputation has since soared. Like Invaders from Mars , no such fate awaited The Blob , despite effects that, in many respects, are comparable in quality to the John Carpenter classic – and are certainly indebted to Rob Bottin for bodily grue – and surehanded direction from Chuck Russell. I suspect the reason is simply this: it lacks that extra layer that would ensure longevity.

Are you telling me that I should take my daughter to a witch doctor?

The Exorcist (1973) (SPOILERS) Vast swathes have been written on The Exorcist , duly reflective of its cultural impact. In a significant respect, it’s the first blockbuster – forget Jaws – and also the first of a new kind of special-effects movie. It provoked controversy across all levels of the socio-political spectrum, for explicit content and religious content, both hailed and denounced for the same. William Friedkin, director of William Peter Blatty’s screenplay based on Blatty’s 1971 novel, would have us believe The Exorcist is “ a film about the mystery of faith ”, but it’s evidently much more – and less – than that. There’s a strong argument to be made that movies having the kind of seismic shock on the landscape this one did aren’t simply designed to provoke rumination (or exultation); they’re there to profoundly influence society, even if largely by osmosis, and when one looks at this picture’s architects, such an assessment only gains in credibility.

That, my lad, was a dragon.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) (SPOILERS) It’s alarming how quickly Peter Jackson sabotaged all the goodwill he amassed in the wake of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. A guy who started out directing deliciously deranged homemade horror movies ended up taking home the Oscar for a fantasy movie, of all genres. And then he blew it. He went from a filmmaker whose naysayers were the exception to one whose remaining cheerleaders are considered slightly maladjusted. The Desolation of Smaug recovers some of the territory Jackson has lost over the last decade, but he may be too far-gone to ever regain his crown. Perhaps in years to come The Lord of the Rings trilogy will be seen as an aberration in his filmography. There’s a cartoonishness to the gleeful, twisted anarchy on display in his earlierr work that may be more attuned to the less verimilitudinous aspects of King Kong and The Hobbit s. The exceptions are his female-centric character dramas, Heavenly Creat

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

This risotto is shmackin’, dude.

Stranger Things Season 4: Part I (SPOILERS) I haven’t had cause, or the urge, to revisit earlier seasons of Stranger Things , but I’m fairly certain my (relatively) positive takes on the first two sequel seasons would adjust down somewhat if I did (a Soviet base under Hawkins? DUMB soft disclosure or not, it’s pretty dumb). In my Season Three review, I called the show “ Netflix’s best-packaged junk food. It knows not to outstay its welcome, doesn’t cause bloat and is disposable in mostly good ways ” I fairly certain the Duffer’s weren’t reading, but it’s as if they decided, as a rebuke, that bloat was the only way to go for Season Four. Hence episodes approaching (or exceeding) twice the standard length. So while the other points – that it wouldn’t stray from its cosy identity and seasons tend to merge in the memory – hold fast, you can feel the ambition of an expansive canvas faltering at the hurdle of Stranger Things ’ essential, curated, nostalgia-appeal inconsequentiality.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

Gizmo caca!

Gremlins (1984) I didn’t get to see Gremlins at the cinema. I wanted to, as I had worked myself into a state of great anticipation. There was a six-month gap between its (unseasonal) US release and arrival in the UK, so I had plenty of time to devour clips of cute Gizmo on Film ’84 (the only reason ever to catch Barry Norman was a tantalising glimpse of a much awaited movie, rather than his drab, colourless, reviews) and Gremlins trading cards that came with bubble gum attached (or was it the other way round?). But Gremlins ’ immediate fate for many an eager youngster in Britain was sealed when, after much deliberation, the BBFC granted it a 15 certificate. I had just turned 12, and at that time an attempt to sneak in to see it wouldn’t even have crossed my mind. I’d just have to wait for the video. I didn’t realise it then (because I didn’t know who he was as a filmmaker), but Joe Dante’s irrepressible anarchic wit would have a far stronger effect on me than the un