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Moriarty Bundles Up For Fessenden’s THE LAST WINTER And Spins Craig Zobel’s GREAT WORLD OF SOUND!

Have you seen THE BRAVE ONE yet? If so, you know that scene where Jodie’s in the convenience store with the gun she just bought, and she’s all twitchy ‘cause it’s still new. And while she’s in there, this guy comes in and he’s all hopped up and he argues with the cashier. And then he shoots her. And then Jodie hides. And then she makes a noise. And he goes looking for her. And they sort of cat and mouse it and the music builds and they draw it out and draw it out and they’re right there and BLAM! She shoots him! You know that scene? Well, the guy she shoots... that’s Larry Fessenden. And, uh, he’s awesome. He’s one of those guys who’s not just in movies... he’s reeeeeally into movies. He lives and breathes it. He acts for other directors. He self-finances these small indie films. He loans a hand to other people in setting films up. He does it all. He obviously just plain loves it. Has it in his blood. And I think his movies, even when they don’t quite work 100%, have such an obvious voice, such a pure sort of focused pleasure in the craft of filmmaking, that it forgives some of his weaknesses as a writer. I think this film’s about on par with WENDIGO, his 2001 film, which I actually saw before I saw his earlier HABIT, which is pretty raw and great in its own right. I called WENDIGO a “supernatural STRAW DOGS” when I saw it at the Fantasia Festival, and talking with him at that Festival, he seemed to me to be incredibly down to earth and intent on making films he actually wanted to see. There was something almost blue collar about his approach to film, something that reminds me of guys like Fuller or Cassavettes. It’s a job, so do it well. I was reminded how much I like him when I spent a late night watching THE LAST WINTER this week. Two in the morning, lights out, sound up. This is a damn fine-looking movie. Fessenden’s working in wide wide widescreen scope, and he knows how to use it. His cinematographer here is Magni Agustsson, a native Icelander whose work is striking and moody, always appropriate, essential for the way the film works. When I spoke to Sean Penn this past week about INTO THE WILD, he talked about Alaska and the things he heard before heading up to shoot there. He talked about being changed by the experience, and how that was what he wanted to capture in his film. These places at the edge of mankind... they should humble you. This planet is so incredibly powerful, and if it wants to, it will shake us all off like fleas. The notion of poking and prodding this planet to the point where it strikes back with whatever means are at its disposal… that’s pretty crazy, but there’s a sick inevitability to it. If you believe that nature adapts, then we’re due for a cataclysmic correction of course in the near future after the way we’ve acted. And THE LAST WINTER takes place at one of those moments, in one of those places where things have worn a little thin, and nature has simply had enough. It’s a good cast, which allows Fessenden to really push them. Ron Perlman, James LeGros, Connie Britton, Kevin Corrigan, Jamie Harrold, and Zach Gilford all do really strong work, grounding the movie even in the craziest moments. Fessenden only occasionally resorts to what would be described as conventional scares, and even then, he handles them with admirable grace and restraint. It would be very difficult to sit through this entire film without thinking of John Carpenter’s THE THING, but much more of this film is set in bright, blinding daylight. The bleak snowscapes are the same, though, that sense of being completely cut off by both geography and nature. Here, an oil company is behind schedule in establishing a drilling operation, and they send in a specialist (Perlman) to get the project back on-schedule. Without getting into the exact nature of the horror, suffice it to say that bodies start to turn up, and things get very strange very quickly. You could certainly make the case for this being an environmental horror film, as it appears that climate change is responsible for releasing whatever is causing the disturbance among the men and women on Perlman’s team. There’s one creepy set piece in the middle of the film where they all watch a video of something that happened, and the film builds an unsettling mood that never quite erupts into something concrete. It may frustrate viewers who want a big finish or an easy explanation, but for those who like their horror to play with ideas and embrace the ambiguous, THE LAST WINTER is a small gem. Of similar scale but completely different intent, GREAT WORLD OF SOUND is an original and moving independent comedy that serves as a real announcement for director Craig Zobel. Zobel’s already made a mark on pop culture as co-creator of Homestar Runner, but this couldn’t be more different in terms of sensibilities. I think I expected something more acerbic or hipster cynical, but this is gentle and human and knowing. It’s more like the work of some of the other North Carolina filmmakers in recent years, like David Gordon Green or Jody Hill. Little wonder. Zobel was a co-producer on GEORGE WASHINGTON, and a production manager on ALL THE REAL GIRLS and UNDERTOW. He’s definitely part of that same film scene, and I have to say... I really like what we’ve seen from these guys. This is a canny mix of reality and fiction, and the way those things collide is part of the text of the movie, forcing you to think about what you’re watching and really weigh that reaction you’re having. Pat Healy (currently in theaters as Wilbur Ford in THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD) plays Martin, a guy who is trying to figure out his future, and he’s starting a new job in the hopes that he can sock away some money to help his girlfriend Pam (Rebecca Mader) with her art business. He’s a decent guy, but passive, and you get the feeling that life has sort of blown him sideways to where he is as the film begins. Responding to an ad, he’s applied to become a record producer for a company called Great World Of Sound, run by the charismatic G. W. Shank. If you’ve ever worked in sales, you’ll recognize the indoctrina... er, the training process. Martin finds himself paired with Clarence (the great Kene Holliday), the two of them sent on the road to “audition” potential clients. This is where reality comes in, because most of the people you see audition in the film are real musicians and not actors. These are just local acts who showed up in response to a real ad, and the thing that makes this different than the first few cruel weeks of AMERICAN IDOL each year is that Zobel isn’t making fun of these people. Some are great, some are bizarre, some are too timid to be good, but all of them are sincere in their belief that they have something to share. Martin finds himself moved deeply by the people they see on the road, even as he finds himself growing suspicious that Great World Of Sound is not what he was led to believe. The relationship between Martin and Clarence is the meat of the film, and both Healy and Holliday are exceptional in the way they play this for both humor and pathos. It would have been easy to try and make this something that was broad or something that was mean, but these guys always seem to make subtle choices, or push things towards quiet quirk. Neither one of them does the obvious, and it makes for a fascinating character study that is painfully funny in places, but ultimately after more than laughs. Low-key technical contributions make this a sneaky sort of pleasure, the kind of film that sneaks up on you. You never expect it to pack the punch it does. Here’s hoping this is just a start for Zobel, who appears to be a filmmaker of real substance his first time out. Both of these small films will be playing limited releases in theaters, and if you’re not lucky enough to see them theatrically, keep an eye out when they hit video. They’re well worth your time.

Drew McWeeny, Los Angeles

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