Winter Movies: 30 Days of Night

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Last week for my look at movies set in winter, I wrote about The Muppet Christmas Carol. This week I’m going in a completely different direction. There has been a resurgence in vampire movies in the last several years. One of the few to really try something different was 30 Days of Night. Usually in vampire movies, the way to avoid them is going out in the daylight hours when they hide in their coffins. 30 Days of Night solves that problem by setting the story in a time where a city is in total darkness. While the film got mixed reviews, it’s an interesting twist on the vampire movie.

As 30 Days of Night begins, the town of Barrow, Alaska is preparing for 30 straight days of darkness in the winter. As the city prepares, a stranger comes ashore and sabotages the town’s means of communication and transport to the outside world. Town sheriff Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett) sets out to investigate. At the same time, he learns that estranged wide Stella (Melissa George) didn’t make the last plane out of Barrow. She will be riding out the 30 days of darkness in Barrow. That night, a band of vampires lead by Marlow (Danny Huston) slaughter most of the townspeople. Eben, Stella, Eben’s brother Jake (Mark Rendall), and a handful of survivors take shelter in a boarded up house.

Marlow eventually runs into the stranger that was instrumental in their takeover of the town. The stranger thinks Marlow will reward him by turning him into a vampire. *SPOILER ALERT!* Marlow does no such thing.

Eighteen days into the month of darkness, the survivors go for a supply run during a whiteout. They get stranded afterwards. But Eben manages to create a diversion that helps them get away. He burns the face of Marlow’s lover Iris with an ultraviolet light. Marlow is forced to kill Iris. The survivors eventually make it to the police station, but not without some casualties. One of my favorite parts of this sequence is when a bunch of vampires get mowed down by a tractor. This movie has some pretty inventive vampire kills.

Two weeks pass. The Stella and Eben catch up with deputy Billy (Manu Bennett). The survivors later take refuge in the utilidor of a power and sewage treatment station that still has power. As the month ends, the sun starts to come up and vampires start burning the town to cover their tracks. There’s a twist at the end that I dare not reveal. Enjoy the movie on your own.

30 Days of Night may not be the greatest vampire movie ever, But it’s one of the most creative. The survivors do things that are more or less plausible (I mean this is a movie with vampires in it after all). I was struck by the great look of the film (Jo Willems was the film’s cinematographer). You can feel the cold and the isolation in a way I haven’t experienced since The Shining. I’m not putting 30 Days of Night in that league. But it does create mood very well.

Another thing I like about this film is that it features not just one vampire, but a band of vampires. It gave me flashbacks to the underrated vampire film Near Dark. Danny Huston is convincing as the vampire leader Marlow. And I liked the interplay between Marlow and Eben. Josh Hartnett makes for a believable sheriff. And the film even has some solid scenes between Eben and his estranged wife Stella. Their relationship isn’t some tacked on plot device as often happens in horror movies.

30 Days of Night works best when it shows off the inventive ways the survivors take on the vampires. There’s the scene with the tractor I mentioned earlier. Plenty of movies have shown us vampires being taken out with crucifixes and holy water. But in 30 Days of Night people get more creative. That’s part of the fun of it. Director David Slade, whose resume includes Hard Candy and directing episodes of Hannibal and American Gods, brings a creative edge to the material. This is not a by the numbers vampire movie. And I find that refreshing. If you’re looking for a clever twist on a played out horror sub-genre, then 30 Days of Night should be on your winter movie viewing list.

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Winter Movies: The Muppet Christmas Carol

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Christmas is nine days away. And with my focus this month being on winter movies, it feels fitting that my choice this week is a Christmas movie. A Christmas Carol has been adapted umpteen times over the years. But, for my money, one version stands out above the rest. That honor goes to The Muppet Christmas Carol. You wouldn’t think that such a dark story, festive as it is, would make for a good movie featuring Kermit and company. But it works. In addition to the Muppets, this version has some great songs and a great performance by Sir Michael Caine as Scrooge.

The plot is familiar to all of us by now. Miserly Scrooge (Michael Caine) is a banker and the boss of Bob Cratchit (played by Kermit the Frog in this version). He despises Christmas and does everything he can to take the joy out of the holiday for those around him. He gives Bob Crarchit and his staff of bookkeepers Christmas off, very reluctantly. That night when Scrooge goes home, he is visited by the ghosts of his former associates, Jacob and Robert Marley (played in this version by Statler and Waldorf). They inform him that he will be visited by three ghosts on Christmas Eve: the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and yet to come.

In the flashback to Christmas past, we see Scrooge at an early age seeing Christmas as a time to catchup on work rather than celebrate. And we learn of his romance during his business school days with Belle. The relationship doesn’t last because Scrooge won’t marry until his business is doing better. Belle rightly assumes he cares more about money than her. And they part ways.

Then Scrooge meets the ghost of Christmas present. One of the fun twists here is that since the spirit is always in the present he keeps forgetting things. The emotional moment in this sequence is when Scrooge is taken to look in on the Cratchit family. While they seem to be doing well for the most part, son Tiny Tim is ill. Scrooge realizes here how much Bob Cratchit needs his salary and wants to know if Tiny Tim will live. It is here that we start to see growth and Scrooge and the beginning of his redemption.

The visit of the final spirit is the darkest. The ghost of Christmas Yet To Come is played by the grim reaper. In this sequence Scrooge observes people gathered at a funeral. But no one is really mourning. They’re fairly celebratory. Who is the person people celebrate leaving this world? It’s none other than Scrooge. After this terrifying part of the movie, Scrooge wakes up on Christmas. He’s a changed man and goes through town being generous and doing everything he can to spread holiday cheer. He even stops at Bob Cratchit’s house with a turkey dinner and announces he will be raising Cratchit’s salary and paying his mortgage.

The Muppet Christmas Carol stays fairly faithful to the source material. A stroke of genius by the filmmakers was to incorporate prose from the original story. To do this, Gonzo is cast as Dickens and narrates the story along with Rizzo the Rat. They’re the comic relief, but they never completely take away from the deep meaning of the story.

It would be easy to for an actor to phone it in when acting with the Muppets. But Michael Caine plays Scrooge straight, treating us to his great dramatic acting chops. The transformation of Scrooge is handled really well here. And it’s believable because of Caine’s performance. Many greats have played Scrooge over the years. And Caine’s portrayal ranks up with the best of them.

It’s worth noting that The Muppet Christmas Carol was the first Muppet movie made after Jim Henson’s death. There’s even a dedication to him in the opening credits. But his son Brian Henson carried the baton beautifully. His skilled direction is part of why over 25 years later it’s still considered one of the best versions of the classic tale. The film also benefits from its great songs by Paul Williams (Marley & Marley is my favorite), the great sets that make you feel like you’re in Victorian England, and a smart scrip that follows the classic story as well as incorporates some trademark Muppet humor. The Muppet Christmas Carol has rightfully earned its title as a modern Christmas classic.

 

Winter Movies: Fargo

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It’s week two of my spotlight on movies set in winter. This week we go to the upper Midwest for a masterpiece of black comedy: Fargo. People today know it as a TV series. But before that is was a cinematic masterpiece by the Coen brothers. The film won two Oscars: for original screenplay and for Frances McDormand as Best Actress. Part murder mystery and part black comedy set in the part of the country the filmmakers grew up in, it remains one of the best films set during the winter season.

The plot of Fargo centers around the inept crime schemes of Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy). Jerry works at his father-in-law’s car dealership in Minneapolis. He tries time and again to make money for reasons that the movie never fully explains. Jerry eventually arranges to have two men kidnap his wife, have the wealthy father-in-law pay the ransom, and he can then make off with the money and pay off the kidnappers. Well, of course it goes horribly wrong. The hired thugs (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) and completely inept. What was supposed to be a bloodless crime goes south in a hurry. In the aftermath, three people end up dead outside of Brainerd, MN. On the case is Sheriff Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand). She uses her brains and folksy charm to  help solve the case.

What makes Fargo a classic are a few things. The first thing that must be said is that this is a very fun film to listen to. My favorite scene is the one where Sheriff Gunderson questions Jerry at the car dealership. Jerry is clearly stonewalling her, and the way she eventually sees through his BS is just priceless. Macy and McDormand play off each other perfectly. To this day I think Macy deserved an Oscar for his performance as the inept criminal. As I’ve just alluded to, another thing that makes this film work is the performances. I’ve already talked about Macy and McDormand. But credit has to go to Buscemi and Stormare as the hired thugs. They’re supposed to be menacing, but instead end up being an entertaining criminal odd couple. Even their conversations about everyday things are great, including one where they talk about going to a pancake house. But, let’s be clear. There is not one bad performance in Fargo. Even the supporting roles are a delight. The casting people hit it out of the park.

The plot of Fargo is honestly beside the point. We just want more time with Sheriff Gunderson and all the charming Midwestern people she interacts with. I’ve heard some deride Fargo for its exaggeration of Midwestern accents. But, to me, that’s part of its charm. It doesn’t mock Minnesotans. It pays them homage.

Fargo really does give you a sense of place. You can feel the cold on the camera lens. And much of the film was shot in the Minneapolis area. Minnesota winters are no joke. And you get a great feel for one in the film, especially in the iconic shot of the Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox statue. Credit to legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins for the films look.

The Coen brothers have amassed quite a body of work: Blood Simple, Barton Fink, Miller’s Crossing, No Country For Old Men, etc. But Fargo remains my favorite, especially for its portrayal of life in the Midwest.

Winter Movies: Winter’s Bone

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The weather outside may be frightful. But the good news is that it’s the perfect time to stay inside, be cozy, and watch some good movies/ This month my blog topic is essential movies set during winter. My first selection is the one that put future Hunger Games star Jennifer Lawrence on everyone’s radar. It’s a gritty mystery called Winter’s Bone.

In Winter’s Bone, Lawrence plays Ree Dolly. She’s only seventeen but has already taken on the responsibilities of an adult. She looks after her mentally ill mother, bother Sonny (Isaiah Stone), and sister Ashlee (Ashlee Thompson) in the Ozarks of Missouri. She teaches her siblings survival skills (a prelude to her role in The Hunger Games). She has to because her family is poor. Ree’s father Jessup hasn’t been home in ages. He’s out on bail for manufacturing meth.

One day Sheriff Baskin (Garret Dillahunt) shows up at the house to tell Ree some bad news. If her father fails to make his court date, the family will lose their house (it was put up as part of his bond). So Ree sets out to find her father. First she goes to meth-addicted uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes), then distant family, and even local crime boss Thump Milton (Ronnie Hall). All Ree is able to determine from her search is a story that Jessup died in a meth lab fire or skipped town to avoid trial.

Jessup fails to show up in court and a bondsman informs the family they have a week before their house and land are seized. Ree believes her father to be dead. The only way for the family to save their home is to provide proof of Jessup’s death. Only then will the bond not be forfeited.

Ree goes back to Thump Milton and takes a beating from his family. Teardrop saves her just in time, promising her assailants that she won’t say anything or cause anymore trouble. It is here we learn from Teardrop that Jessup was murdered because he was going to inform on other meth manufacturers.

Winter’s Bone is one of the best modern mysteries I have seen. It’s anchored by Jennifer Lawrence in a brilliant performance that earned her an Oscar nomination. In Winter’s Bone we see her displaying the resilience and humanity that made her a natural choice to play Katniss Everdeen. It would be easy to get lost in such a labyrinth of a story, but Lawrence proves more than equal to the task.

Another reason I love this movie is that it not only tells an involving mystery story. But it honestly portrays the struggles of people living in poverty. Ree’s family are not walking stereotypes at all. Their struggles are real and as viewers we feel for them. This is a segment of society often overlooked by Hollywood. And even though the family is dysfunctional, they never come off as caricatures.

Winter’s Bone feels like a noir film set in the Ozarks. Every noir doesn’t have to be set in a big city. The sense of isolation and desolation is palpable in the way the film is shot. Credit that to cinematographer Michael McDonough The story’s twists and turns are skillfully revealed. This is a film that does a great job of maintaining its feeling of suspense.

With Winter’s Bone, director Debra Granik does a superb job of bringing Daniel Woodrell’s novel to life. It was not a huge commercial success. But don’t let that stop from checking it out, It’s a taut thriller made with a level you don’t see very often. If you love a good mystery, you won’t want to miss Winter’s Bone.