Things you may not know about Norway, if you are the average semiclueless American: First, it is quite gorgeous, in its spartan, Scandinavian way. Second, Norwegians have a thing about trolls, which function as half folkloric icon, half kitsch mascot. Third, the country has displayed a knack for accomplished, fun-loving genre flicks recently, first with 2009’s Nazi-zombie yarn Dead Snow, and now with André Øvredal’s TrollHunter (Magnet Releasing DVD and Blu-ray).
Tapping the all-but-tapped-out “found footage” gambit, Øvredal’s second feature purports to be the work of a fresh-faced college-student film crew (Glenn Erland Tosterud, Johanna Mørck, and Tomas Alf Larsen) investigating bear poaching, except the secretive woodsman everyone suspects of illegally killing ursines is, as the crew discovers, after bigger game. Hans (Otto Jespersen, who looks sort of like a more butch version of Inside the Actors Studio host James Lipton) is a troll hunter.
From there, TrollHunter proceeds a bit like a JV version of The X-Files, broken up by periodic set pieces involving the trolls themselves, hulking, gnarled CGI creatures helped out in the realism department by the species’ nocturnal nature. Øvredal’s action scenes get a boost from the found-footage approach, as the panicked film crew flees through dark forests or watches from a distance as Hans takes a pounding. Likewise, the film’s dry wit is a boon in spots: When Hans wants to lure a particular troll out into the open, he sets up an ambush on a bridge by casually staking out (wait for it) three goats. But the film’s light touch isn’t always a plus. The film-crew members are clean-cut ciphers and Hans remains opaque, thus the dramatic stakes remain low; only the final confrontation with a massive troll works up any hint of serious dread. TrollHunter is so blithely creative and seamless in its integration of Nordic folklore, modern bureaucracy/conspiracy tropes, CGI, and genre-flick staples that it’s hard not to have fun watching it, but probably only so much fun.
A film crew also features in Road to Nowhere (Monterey Video DVD and Blu-ray), the first feature film in more than a decade from Monte Hellman, director of existential road-movie cult classic Two-Lane Blacktop. Mitchell Haven (Tygh Runyan) is directing an adaptation of a true-crime story involving a rich Southerner and his young mistress and some stolen loot. He’s got a big star (Cliff De Young) signed on for the male lead and has fixed on a young unknown (Shannyn Sossamon) for the femme fatale. As filming commences (on the North Carolina side of the Smokies, as it happens), confusion only increases over who, exactly, Haven’s discovery actually is; an insurance investigator (Waylon Payne) certainly has his own ideas.
If all that sounds a bit vague and confusing, well, welcome to Road to Nowhere. A series of patient long takes and a jolt-inducing depiction of a plane crash stack up high hopes for Hellman’s de facto comeback in the early going. But the identities/realities that the cast cycle through start to blur (and not in an interesting way), and there’s no narrative motor running to keep the guessing game moving. It doesn’t help that Runyan is kind of awful, though in fairness, the script does him no favors. Either way, everything out of his mouth sounds dumb or douche-y, and since he’s the primary fixed point in this sub-Lynchian swirl of noir pretense, you quickly tire of life on the Road. Haven/Hellman get one thing right, though: There’s something about Sossaman, not well served in her fits-and-starts career to date, that makes her compelling to watch on film. If nothing else, Road to Nowhere offers that.
And it might take a particular type of movie nerd to enjoy what amounts to a stand-alone DVD bonus feature, but any such nerd who scores a viewing of Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff (Strand Releasing DVD and Blu-ray) will be grateful for it. Cardiff was best known, by those who know his name at all, as the British cinematographer who shot the Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger classics A Matter of Life and Death (aka Stairway to Heaven, 1946), Black Narcissus (1947), and The Red Shoes (1948), an unrivaled artistic hat trick that represents the height of Technicolor’s contribution to cinema. But he enjoyed a lifelong career in movies, beginning as a child actor in silents at age 4 in 1918. As Cameraman recounts, he soon moved behind the camera, where he was a prodigy, and went on to work with Alfred Hitchcock, Marlene Dietrich, Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Errol Flynn, and dozens of other legends. His c.v. encompasses everything from Hollywood classics (he shot The African Queen for John Huston) to cult classics (his would-be trippy 1968 directorial effort Girl on a Motorcycle) to modern blockbusters (he shot the rippling muscles and billowing explosions of Rambo: First Blood Part II), and he worked occasionally until shortly before his death in 2009.
Cameraman director Craig McCall shot fairly extensive interview footage with Cardiff, a mild-mannered gent with piercing blue eyes, though the “life” part of the film’s subtitle is a misnomer—Cardiff and McCall reveal little about the former personally, and the film’s style is strictly confined to a light overview. The “work” aspect is astonishingly, however, and anyone who loves the stuff of movies will regret getting to know Cardiff’s art a little better.