Tuesday, September 12, 2006

TIFF 2006: "THE LAST WINTER"

(Contemporary World Cinema)
(USA/Iceland, 2006, 107 minutes)
Written by: Larry Fessenden and Robert Leaver
Directed by: Larry Fessenden
Cast: Ron Perlman, James LeGros, Connie Britton, Zack Gilford

Genre-bending multi-hyphenate (actor, writer, director, producer) Larry Fessenden follows up his acclaimed indie thrillers "Habit" and "Wendigo" with a timely eco-horror tale--the second of TIFF 2006 along with "The Host"!--that aims for substance over shock, but since the latter is in short supply, what results is a medicinal finger-wag that will delight Al Gore and Green Party devotees. It’s too bad that the decent cast--headlined by Ron Perlman and James LeGros as the Right and the Left, respectively--and an arduous shoot are in service of a lugubrious tract that boils (melts?) down to, essentially, "keeping watching the skies", or the demon caribou will getcha.

North Industries, with a government contract to explore avenues of “energy independence”, is preparing to drill for oil from the once-protected Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Anticipating public outcry, they’ve allowed eco-watchdog James Hoffman (LeGros) and his assistant Elliot (Harrold) to study the region and report on potential environmental impact as a token display of moral concern.

A witness to the Exxon Valdez disaster and the Kuwaiti oil fields, Hoffman is convinced that the unseasonably warm temps and melting permafrost are indicators of a rapidly escalating cataclysm. This raises the bristles of the camp’s impatient and “rational” team leader Pollock (Perlman), who dismisses Hoffman’s warnings as hysterical college-boy nonsense. Given that Abby (Britton), Pollack’s ex, has cozied up to sensitive Hoffman doesn’t win him any more credibility, either.

After Max, a young intern (Gilford) goes missing, he’s tracked down at the site of a two-decade old test site, nearly catatonic from an encounter with something that he can’t describe. More strange incidents occur—power outages, lapses in communication, accidents, health problems, and then, deaths. Their camp now a gravesite, Hoffman and Pollock brave the blinding white terrain for answers, their modern conveniences and na├»ve world-views no match for the land and its original, immortal guardians, who are supremely pissed off…

It's with red-faced embarrassment that I admit that I've never seen "Habit" or "Wendigo" (I’ll make penance with a marathon viewing of the "Demonic Toys" saga). Not that I wouldn't like to see catch up at some point--but for whatever reason, Fessenden's just never synched up on my radar.

So “The Last Winter” is my introduction to his particular oeuvre, and while I can admire the conviction of his screed, my problem with this one is that it's all noble intention. The execution is woefully lackluster: the setup and characters are as generic as any "Carnosaur" sequel (except that periodically, someone stops to make a grand speech about the environment, blah blah blah—oh, wait…), so it's not entirely unfair to peer past its campaign button high-mindedness and evaluate it on the level of a straight thriller. The script is just one tiresome polemic after another, with too many similiar scenes playing out with the same momentum.

The locations are suitably stark and foreboding, but you've got to be inept on the level of a Phil Tucker to aim your camera at the untouched Icelandic landscape and not come away with an evocative image (not to belittle G. Magni Agustsson’s otherwise fine lensing, greatly enhanced by Anton Sanko's eerie sound design). The Third Act appearance of the heretofore unseen enemy might not infuse the Kubrickian awe intended (apparently, it repeats imagery from “Wendigo”), but I thought there was a certain majesty to what hoofs it dangerously close to hooey.

Fessenden is often compared to George A. Romero, but the Pittsburgh auteur knew how to have fun even when he was venting his dissatisfaction with the world--somehow, I can't imagine Fessenden tossing a custard pie into the face of a zombie.

The transfats would probably kill it...

Robert J. Lewis TIFF 2006