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Mads Mikkelsen in Arctic.EXPAND
Mads Mikkelsen in Arctic.
Courtesy of XLYZ Films

Arctic Tells an Icy, Intense Tale, While the Oscars' Documentary Shorts Fall Flat

Arctic. The feature film debut by writer-director Joe Penna is a rather grim and grueling survivalist action movie peppered by a handful of startling OMG moments. Underneath all that, however, lies powerful subtext about how purpose adds meaning to life.

Arctic follows Overgård (Mads Mikkelsen), the only survivor of a plane crash over a snowy wasteland. We meet him waiting patiently for rescue as he carries out a meticulous daily routine. He keeps snow and any light colored stones out of the giant S.O.S. sign he has dug near the wreckage of his aircraft. He has carved fishing holes into the ice manned by makeshift rods that snag a regular amount of food to keep him nourished. He climbs a rocky outcrop at regular intervals to hand crank a beacon that might be picked up by nearby aircraft. An alarm on his watch keeps him all on schedule.

During this time, Overgård hardly speaks, save to mutter to himself. Beyond the howl of wind, composer Joseph Trapanese provides an ominous score to remind the viewer of this man’s desperate situation, even though it seems he has survival down pat. However, another crash that unfolds before his very eyes pushes him to do more than he would have done for himself. He rescues a young woman (Maria Thelma Smáradóttir) who is so badly injured, she hardly ever opens her eyes or speaks above a whisper. All she can do to affirm she still has a will to live is squeeze Overgård’s hand, an action the taskmaster asks of her regularly.

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Were it not for this nearly dead woman, however, Overgård would have never set off on an adventure to find a clearing where rescue might be handier. Despite a couple of tense scenes featuring polar bears and treacherous crevices, Arctic is fundamentally about that greater will beyond us to do something and hence find meaning. Penna, who brings varied experience to filmmaking from his popularity as a YouTube creator, knows how to keep the pace despite the film’s minimalist feel. He never allows for contemplative, lingering shots, but chooses precise moments to cut away from the routine before things feel suffocatingly mundane.

It takes a lot to expect one character to carry a movie, as Smáradóttir’s unnamed woman offers little more than dead weight to Overgård. Yet Mikkelsen, who most will recognize as Hannibal Lecter in the TV series named after his character, never hams it up. There is real reservation and determination against the elements that feels grounded in humanity. Some moments in the movie bring to mind Werner Herzog, a notable flag bearer of man vs. nature, but Penna has made his own movie on his own terms, making for a strong debut by a new filmmaker worth watching. Opens Friday, February 22, at AMC Sunset Place 24 and AMC Aventura 24. — Hans Morgenstern

A Night at the GardenEXPAND
A Night at the Garden
Courtesy of ShortsTV

Oscar Nominated Short Films 2019: Documentary: It's not a stretch to call the documentary shorts this year an overall disappointment. Most of them lean into a certain level of exploitation that renders them an uncomfortable viewing experience. Where the Live-Action and Animated shorts that were nominated for Academy Awards were at least a mixed bag, these are exhausting to sit through.

A Night at the Garden proves the most egregious of all, even at its astoundingly short length of seven minutes. (The documentary program usually features films as long as 40 minutes, though this year's output thankfully clocks in at under 2.5 hours in total.) Director Marshall Curry has some worthy footage on his hands—that of American Nazis led by Fritz Kuhn and gathered in Madison Square Garden in 1939 to give speeches about mistrusting the media and freeing America from the influence of Jews. But Kuhn has no idea how to shape that footage into a compelling tale. The addition of overbearing music over the scenes, emphasizing a sense of horror and "timeliness" about the footage, is more than annoying. It's a lazy attempt at manipulation that nonetheless has worked on some viewers, given its Oscar nod.

Skye Fitzgerald and Bryn Mooser's Lifeboat then bounces between two differing states: a genuinely interesting exploration of Sea-Watch, a German nonprofit that aids Libyan refugees, and a series of gorgeously composed shots that linger far too long on refugee bodies. When it allows the refugees themselves to tell their story, it works. The problem is it's far too interested in showcasing their pain with proper lighting and shot set-ups.

Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's End Game falls into similar territory, looking into end-of-life care for a number of patients. "Grief isn't easy, but it can be poignant and gorgeous," one of the directors of the hospice project states, but the film doesn't quite know how to focus on exploring that theme, instead simply documenting those dealing with this state and never really pushing for depth.

Period. End of Sentence and Black Sheep are mostly able to overcome any issues they feature. The former, directed by Rayka Zehtabchi and Melissa Berton, really interestingly explores a village in India where women are able to make sanitary pads by a recently installed machine, additionally finding financial security by selling their own products. Aside from an insistence on featuring young adults laughing at the word "period" and a number of music cues that attempt to aim for a badass attitude, it's fascinating to get a glimpse into this society.

Black Sheep, directed by Ed Perkins and Jonathan Chinn, is the best of the bunch; a deeply intriguing look into the life of Cornelius Walker as a young man dealing with racism in his new community and adapting to survive within it. Where the Live-Action short Skin had no idea how to handle race, here Walker is allowed to narrate his own story, explaining how he "wanted to feel love, so yeah, just made friends with monsters." The results are occasionally breathtaking. An overbearing score and reenactments that veer between effective and melodramatic can't take away from the fact that it is genuinely compelling. Showing at Miami Beach Cinematheque. —Juan Antonio Barquin

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