Review: TrollHunter (2011, Øvredal)

Found footage films, almost always taking place within horror, have certainly made themselves a cozy spot in the bevy of subgenres within cinema. Every time one comes out, its detractors call found footage played out and tired. Because these films have such an immediately recognizable and visually set format, it begs to be railed against every time a mediocre offering is released. Yet just because REC 2, The Last Exorcism, Paranormal Activity and now The Troll Hunter underwhelm, does not mean I will write off found footage. They offer a different way of presenting a story; one that places the audience front and center in any given situation, giving it as much potential as any other kind of storytelling. It is hasty to take down found footage just because The Troll Hunter is stuck in its own mild and forgettable limbo.

College student filmmakers Thomas (Glenn Erland Tosterud), Johanna (Johanna Morck) and Kalle (Thomas Larsen) investigate the recent illegal bear hunting taking place in their area. They quickly come upon Hans, played by Norwegian comedian Otto Jesperson, an eccentric hunter who they believe is the culprit. It turns out Hans is a troll hunter sanctioned by the government to control the troll population in the surrounding area. Out of spite for his superiors, he invites the students along while he baits and kills trolls with his UV light, which either turns them to stone or makes them explode.

The Troll Hunter can be appreciated for its humor and take on Norwegian folklore. It boasts an amusing lead performance by Jesperson and is occasionally clever. Perhaps its subtlety would have been more at home within a traditionally executed narrative. Found footage is anything but subtle, thus making itself tonally at odds with its format.

The claim cannot be made that the film is not scary enough because this never seems to be its goal. Not much here is even meant to be scary; the trolls themselves function as creatures to be marveled at more than anything else. They do not function they way other horror movie monsters do; the threat they pose exists only because Hans and the students are actively hunting them. Suspense is rarely built and scares are hard to find, but again, that was never its purpose.

So what is its purpose then? The film is an amusing take on folklore, but it is simply not enough. Never moving past being an agreeable way to spend ninety minutes, the film has a hard time eliciting anything more than the occasional smirk. Still, the creatures are impressively executed and we get a much better look at them than one might expect. There is also some lovely Norwegian landscape on display, albeit with the cinematography required from a found footage film.

Any and all characterization gets thrown onto Hans. Jesperson is putting on a one-man show with his dedicated earnest kook character. He delivers the goods, but the found footage format comes occasionally close to burying the performance. Jesperson is good enough to narrowly avoid that pitfall. The film may be called The Troll Hunter, but that should not mean all of the character development we get from the students consists of basic emoting without differentiate between the three characters. Amazement, amusement, fright and concern are doled out in equal measure. The students are very well cast; I just wish they each had even one simple layer of distinction to make them feel like individuals.

The Troll Hunter never gets off the ground the way it should, always staying one level above dormant. Its decision to steer away from straight horror is not substituted with anything else by writer/director André Øvredal. It may be kind of funny, kind of interesting and kind of clever, but ‘kind of’ is not enough.


Wish List: 15 Dream Director/Actor Collaborations

Do you ever think about which actor and director pairings would get you the most psyched? You wake up and go online to read confirmation that so-and-so signed on to star in so-and-so’s next production and you find yourself eagerly anticipating it more than most other projects solely because of the pairing? Well, here is a list of collaborations I would love to happen. These are not the pairings I want more than any other. Honestly, with all the actors and directors out there, grouping certain people above all others as definitive perfection is a little foolish. I am sure someone else could come up with a list like this and I would be just as excited about their picks. Hence the list being unordered. I would really love to hear what your dream collaborations would be. Be sure to comment and list some of yours!

Fatih Akin and Franka Potente – Sibel Kekilli’s role in 2004’s Head-On is my reference point for this. While Akin’s last film was the mediocre comedy Soul Kitchen, his Head-On and The Edge of Heaven are very heavy dramas that demand equally intense performances from all involved. Seeing Potente take on material involving his trademark exploration into German-Turkish relations would be so undoubtedly rewarding.

Woody Allen and Tom Hollander – Tom Hollander has been one of my favorite actors for several years now, and he got to show his comedic chops in 2009’s brilliant political satire In the Loop. Allen’s recent globe-trotting tendencies make it somewhat common for British actors to pop up in his films as of late. Hollander would fit in perfectly in a strong supporting role as part of an ensemble in an Allen film. He excels at villainous roles (Pirates of the Carribean 2 & 3, Hanna), but I hope he gets more opportunities to be as funny as he is in In the Loop. “A walrus? I’m not fat, I don’t even have a moustache. Fuck, they’ve given me tusks.”

Bong Joon-ho and Lee Byung-hun – This one is honestly bound to happen at some point. Lee is a superstar and Bong represents economic prosperity for South Korea’s film industry. It is just a matter of time. The reason this pairing would be exciting is because of what Bong could bring out of Lee. Lee is a fantastic actor and he has a strong ‘soap opera’ acting ability that works so well for him. Bong’s films are known for being so tonally distinct, often switching moods within the same scene or balancing many different varied genres at the same time. I have said it so many times, but again, he does something with his films that nobody else in cinema does. Seeing Lee function within this atmosphere would surely bring something different out of him. The potential here is endless.

Jane Campion and Claire Danes – While I kind of wish this collaboration had taken place in the 90’s as opposed to now, this would still be a pairing I would kill to see. Danes is exceptionally talented and seeing her in a Campion period piece would be a refreshing role for the actress to take. Additionally, she would be up to the challenges demanded of a lead actress in a Campion film.

The Coen Brothers and Peter Dinklage – How has this not happened yet? I kept having to double check and make sure this collaboration has yet to occur. Yes, Dinklage has been on my mind and in my dreams quite a lot lately what with “Game of Thrones” and all. Dinklage is commonly placed in roles that showcase his epically sardonic line delivery. His performance in his debut film Living in Oblivion really exemplifies how well he can be used in a comedy. The kind of humor the Coens excel at would be perfectly matched with how Dinklage fits into his comedic roles. In short; this needs to happen.

Sofia Coppola and Mia Wasikowska – It is not hard to see why I think this pairing would work. I am thinking mainly of the pose-heavy way Coppola frames and shoots her characters and how naturally Wasikowska would fit into the look of her films. My shallow reasoning is that the woman shoots beautiful people prettily. Pretty, pretty, pretty like a painting. While I want her to eventually focus on older actors (her work with Bill Murray is the best work she has gotten from anyone), for now, if this happened, I would be ecstatic.

David Cronenberg and Johnny Depp – Oh Johnny. My feelings about Depp have been a rocky roller coaster of the years. The man is a great actor, but the only performance of his I got excited about over the last decade is his Sweeney Todd. Cronenberg is at a place in his career where his films are rooted in harsh realism, largely leaving his mind-fuck days of body horror behind. Depp would do nicely in both eras of the director’s work. Cronenberg’s films fully maintain that edge and fascination with human psychology and I would love to see Depp in the kind of roles that Viggo Mortensen gets from his memorable collaborations with the director.

Michael Haneke and Tilda Swinton – This one is so obvious, it barely needs explanation. Haneke’s cold and distant works have gotten brilliant work out of actress powerhouses Juliette Binoche and Isabelle Huppert. Swinton would be a natural fit within a Haneke work as she is capable of performing the hell out of any role as well as her ability to exude the trademark Haneke coldness to a tee.

Lee Chang-dong and Bae Doona – Lee’s films deal with some ugly situations presented in a natural and honest light. His characters go on an extended journey, for better or worse, and he asks a lot from his performers. Jeon Do-yeon was justifiably praised for her exhausting performance in Secret Sunshine, and for not wearing any makeup in the film, which is a bigger deal than it is here in the States (most South Korean actresses are not likely to take a role with this requirement). Bae Doona, my favorite South Korean actress, has an inherent willingness to take the kind of stripped down roles others might be hesitant to. Her presence and talent in a Lee Chang-dong film would be a dream of mine.

Terrence Malick and John Hawkes – Malick’s obsession with nature and that earthy quality of Hawkes would be a perfect fit. Can’t you just see Hawkes taking on some of that heavy ‘why are we here?’ voiceover? It is really hard to expand on this one; it is the first one that came to my head when brainstorming for this list. It just feels right.

Christopher Nolan and Will Smith – When Smith almost signed on for Django Unchained, I found myself a lot more excited than I expected to be. Then that fell through. Smith always takes huge projects, and while he exacts a Nazi-like control over every aspect of the films he appears in, I still like the actor. While characters might not be Nolan’s strong point as a writer/director, seeing Smith in a big-budget Nolan flick would likely give Smith a chance to really shine in a project that would give him a chance to make the most of some strong material a la I Am Legend.

Alexander Payne and Leonardo DiCaprio – DiCaprio is the rare actor who has never taken a comedic role. Ever. Not even a remotely comedic one. The more serious the material, the more drawn to it he is. Which is fine; the man has given some incredible performances and I always look forward to seeing him on screen. Yet at this point, I am yearning for him to do something different. His upcoming role in the new Tarantino is exactly the kind of project I am intrigued to see him in (is that officially happening? I’m cautious about believing casting announcements these days). He would be pushing himself in a different way. Will we buy him as a villain? I wonder. But I am ecstatic to see him try. While I want to see DiCaprio in a comedy (seriously…how surreal would that be at this point?), even seeing him try a dramedy would be radically different and even jarring. The kinds of films Payne makes are the exact kind of project I want DiCaprio to align himself with, as his upcoming The Descendants illustrates.

Todd Solondz and Ben Stiller – I am a Ben Stiller fan despite his love for big paydays over meaningful projects. Looking at his writer/director projects, it is obvious that he is drawn to darkly comic material. Some of the stuff on “The Ben Stiller Show” and in addition, The Cable Guy and Tropic Thunder, go to some pretty dark places. Solondz’s desire to sincerely explore the dark side of humanity in a very matter-of-fact way somehow materializes itself as black comedy. Given the chance for a role in a Solondz film, I am overly confident that Stiller would absolutely shine.

Quentin Tarantino and Choi Min-sik – The director is arguably more influenced (and takes the most from) by Asian cinema than anything else. Yes, I am lumping together many different national cinemas there, but the point remains. With Kill Bill Volume 1, he created Go-Go Yubari specifically for Chiaki Kuriyama, and she remains among my very favorite characters in any film. I hope he can create other roles for Asian actors that he admires and/or idolizes from time to time, and Choi Min-sik would be my first pick. The man can play any type of role thrown at him and Tarantino’s obsession with Oldboy, and very likely other Choi performances, would make him a perfect candidate for a specially created character by the filmmaker.

Lars von Trier and Winona Ryder – Quite honestly, this is the kind of role Ryder needs right now, if she can get it. Something tells me she would be drawn to being Trier’s emotionally drained puppet and for someone trying to get her career back, she needs a game-changing project to push her into difficult places. I am sure kissing Channing Tatum is nice, but The Dilemma ain’t gonna cut it. In the end, neither are bit parts in Star Trek and Black Swan, although it’s a start. Ryder is an actress that has been a consistent presence in my life whose earlier performances will remain with me. I am seriously rooting for this woman, (for a 5th grade biographical project, others picked to write about Lincoln and Washington; I picked Ryder) and von Trier is the kind of director I want her to get a project with.

Weekly Screening Log: June 17th-23rd

206. The Hidden Fortress (1958, Kurosawa): C+

207. Lola (1961, Demy): B+

208. La Bête Humaine (1938, Renoir): A-

209. Irréversible (2002, Noé): B+

210. Midnight in Paris (2011, Allen): A-

211. The Tree of Life (2011, Malick): A

212. The Phantom Carriage (1921, Sjöström): B-

213. Diary of a Country Priest (1951, Bresson): A

214. The Troll Hunter (2011, Øvredal): C

Weekly Trailer Round-Up

The Last Circus – B: Magnet has really become a wonderful outlet for foreign films in the action/thriller/horror genre to get US distribution. While international genre films are more likely to get distribution here than most other kinds of international fare, I’ll take any distribution I can get, and Magnet does a nice job of picking up films for their label. The Last Circus looks particularly extreme and specially crafted in tone and pushing limits. This is one I will keep an eye out for.

Dolphin Tale – C: The second this trailer starts, you begin waiting for the ‘based on a true story’ visual, and sure enough it comes up. I certainly have nothing against a family-friendly narrative about dolphins; I just don’t really care to see it.

Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked – D: Again; what could I do with this one? I am so unbelievably sick of this trend where CGI animals do an empty and lazy parody of a song or famous film scene. It’s happening everywhere I turn (or at least it seems so) and I was done with it before it started.

Griff the Invisible – B-: At once too light and then too melodramatic and then too I don’t know what, Griff the Invisible is another take on ‘superhero realism’, this time in the guise of a romantic dramedy. The only thing that made me really want to see this is Ryan Kwanten, who looks absolutely wonderful in this, fitting so nicely into the idealistic character.

The Muppets – B+: My love for the Muppets makes this one of my most anticipated of late 2011 (although at this point, a hell of a lot of films are falling into this category). I am a little worried about the amount of screen-time Segel has but I really like him a lot and I understand that this is his project. Right now it feels like we are getting footage from two different films. I hope it all fits together nicely and according to this trailer, so far so good.

Flypaper – B-: I am rooting for Flypaper; I really am. It looks like it could go either way. Mainly though, I hope the film is better than the trailer looks, because there is a lot of potentially fun wackiness afoot.

Puss In Boots – B-: This does not look half bad. It looks far more appealing than the last two Shrek films, and utilizes arguably the richest of the franchise’s characters. There are a few cute moments and excluding the character name of Kitty Softpaws, there is nothing outwardly awful here.

Love, Etc – C+: Love, Etc. is a documentary that, judging by the trailer, looks way too scattered, slight and polished to resonate in any way shape or form. I’m sure it will be touching and uplifting, but also irrelevant and processed.

A Dangerous Method – A-: My utmost trust in Cronenberg has me clawing at the walls for this film. And now we finally have a trailer. It looks like its trying a bit too hard to package itself as a melodramatic love triangle. Cronenberg always has something more interesting up his sleeve, even when he’s not the writer (he hasn’t been since eXistenZ). Between the subject matter, the kinky light bondage, the cast, the director and the time period…nothing can derail my interest in this one. I’ve seen most of Cronenberg’s work and (favorites being The Fly, Dead Ringers, Videodrome and A History of Violence) I hope to see the few I am missing before this gets released, which will hopefully be in 2011. And yet, I am quite possibly even more excited about Cosmopolis.





Weekly Screening Log: June 10th-16th

195. Life of Oharu (1952, Mizoguchi): B-

196. Violent Cop (1989, Kitano): C+

197. Suicide Club (2001, Sono): B-

198. Caterpillar (2011, Wakamatsu): C-

199. Black Rain (1989, Imamura): B-

200. Floating Clouds (1955, Naruse): B+

201. Nobody Knows (2004, Koreeda): A

202. Vengeance is Mine (1979, Imamura): A

203. An Actor’s Revenge (1963, Ichikawa): B-

204. Fudoh: The New Generation (1996, Miike): B

205. The Eel (1997, Imamura): B-

Weekly Trailer Round-Up

Pariah – A-: I have been wanting to see this since it played at Sundance. It looks like a rather simple trajectory, but one that matters and told with a desperate forcefulness. Adepero Odeye looks superb in the lead role.

Tabloid – A: The new Errol Morris doc, so, clearly a must-see. Every single aspect of this trailer is right up my alley. Focusing on an eccentric personality? Check. Focusing on media coverage? Check. Darkly comedic tone? Check. My most anticipated doc right now along with Beats, Rhymes and Life and Senna.

The Guard – C+: One the one hand, Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle look like a an inspired comedic duo. On the other hand, the dialogue was the same joke over and over. Seriously; is that what the entire film will be like? I am not sold on the weak humor.

Lucky – B-: The trailer feels very rushed. Functions as a trailer working with the timeframe of a teaser. But I would definitely see this.

Dark Tide – C-: I am not sure this is the type of film Halle Berry should be making if she wants to get her career to the place it was several years ago. Tonally, this just does not work. It’s not scattered, but it is too paint-by-numbers. “From the director of Blue Crush and Into the Blue” does not exactly reel me in, although it does tell me this man likes the ocean a hell of a lot.


Review: The Sword of Doom (1966, Okamoto)

Originally posted on Criterion Cast June 11th, 2011

We open on a mountaintop. An elderly man (Kamatami Fujiwara) and his granddaughter (Yoko Naito) emerge. He tells her the Buddhist origins of the lands surrounding them. They stop to rest and eat their lunch before beginning their downhill descent. The granddaughter, whose name is Omatsu, goes to find water. The elderly man prays for death so that his granddaughter will be happy and “no longer a pilgrim”. Suddenly, a deep voice calls out “old man”. He turns around and sees a man in black garb, his hat covering his face, smoke all around him. He approaches the elderly man and tells him to step forward and look to the west. The elderly man realizes what is about to happen, but before he can elicit a response; he is struck down with his wish cruelly fulfilled. The murderer is a samurai named Ryunosuke Tsukue (Tatsuya Nakadai), and he is The Sword of Doom’s protagonist.

The Sword of Doom, a jidaigeki set in the tail end of the Edo period, follows the likely psychopathic Ryunosuke through several ‘incidents’. The first involves an upcoming duel with Bunnojo (Ichiro Nakatani). Bunnojo’s wife Ohama (Michiyo Aratama) goes to Ryunosuke begging him to lose the match because Bunnojo is so scared to face him. Ryunosuke agrees to if she gives up her chastity to him. She does, but Bunnojo ends up dead anyways. Outcast, the samurai now lives with Ohama (they also have a son) as a member of the Shinsengumi. It turns out Bunnojo’s brother Hyoma (Yuzo Kayama) has been training with a master swordsman (Toshiro Mifune in a rare supporting role) in order to exact revenge on his brother’s killer. We also follow Omatsu, the young woman from the film’s opening scene, as she tries to find her place in the world and makes a connection with Hyoma.

It is difficult to give a synopsis of The Sword of Doom because the film is, to a degree, open-ended. The source material is “Daibosatsu Tobe” (The Great Buddha Pass), a newspaper serial by author Kaizan Nakazato that ran for three decades. Many versions of the tale have been told, and it is presumably a very familiar story within Japanese culture. There were supposed to be sequels to Kihachi Okamoto’s adaptation, but they fell through, making The Sword of Doom forgivably scattered at times.

At the center of Okamoto’s standout samurai film is the great and legendary Tatsuya Nakadai, forever searing himself into the memories of all who watch The Sword of Doom. Ryunosuke seems at least partially convinced he is thrust into situations that force him to kill, and he does so with a sense of duty and fierce indifference. Nothing affects him; his eyes are glassy and empty but with the slightest hint of longing. He stares off into space, rarely the active participant in a conversation. His interactions with others suggest boredom. He waits for something to instigate a reaction; it is almost an unspoken challenge to everyone who speaks to him. He lives entirely in his own world, without feeling, remorse or connection.

Once Nakadai and director Okamoto get the concrete lifelessness of Ryunosuke across, the viewer’s fascination comes from seeing our protagonist slowly unhinge. Take Shimada’s (Mifune) swordfight in the snow and Ryunosuke’s reaction to the decimation of his associates. For the first time, we are seeing fear on Nakadai’s face. That fear emerges as he realizes he might have met his match in Shimada. That fear carries over into the next scene with Ohama, which Okamoto executes to marvelous effect. The camera is close to Ryunosuke, on his right, and we see that he is still very much shaken over Shimada’s swordsman skills. The emptiness in his eyes has been stirred and something frightened now lies behind them. The camera cuts to Ohama’s perspective, on his left and much farther away. It is clear that she cannot see any difference in his behavior, and from her point of view, it certainly looks like he is acting the way he always does. That first shot though, has shown us that he is not. We can see that Ohama is not failing to see what is in front of her face, because Ryunosuke’s internal dilemma truly is invisible from her point-of-view. Okamoto uses the camera to show how both Ryunosuke and Ohama perceive their conversation within the same scene.

Choreography becomes equivalent to performance art in The Sword of Doom. It is said throughout that Ryunosuke’s style of swordsmanship is very unorthodox; and it does not take an expert to see that. His stance and body language are off-putting and methodical; it is impossible predict what he is thinking, doubly so during a fight. He is alert yet slack and swift as a machine. My experience in this genre may be limited, but Ryunosuke’s style is unlike any samurai fighting I have seen. Several scenes show us how Ryunosuke fights, so we can compare said scenes to the final ten minutes.

The final ten minutes of The Sword of Doom are justifiably well-known to samurai film enthusiasts. It is gutsy and exhausting, showing a kind of physical representation of nihilism. Yes; this is what insanity looks like. Okamoto uses subtle theatrical techniques with lighting and space as Ryunosuke destroys everything in his path. Nakadai is entirely frightening here, and when I say this is a piece of performance art, I mean it. The use of choreography to represent psyche here is shockingly effective. Ryunosuke is haunted by his guilt as he slashes alternately at nothing and at dozens with uncontrolled precision. He stumbles with broad movements. How long can he last like this? This is a man truly unhinged. The Sword of Doom may leave us wanting the sequel we would never get, but in a way, it doesn’t get any more final than that concluding freeze-frame shot.