Alaska also kills a lot of unwitting people in writer-director Larry Fessenden’s unnerving global-warming ghost picture The Last Winter. Like his Wendigo, the film has a lot of mumbo jumbo about ancient spirits revived and angered by human disrespect—the old Indian-graveyard paradigm, as clunky as ever. But the context is overpoweringly eerie. The setting is the satellite office of an oil company—set in the middle of frigid, blinding white blankness. A company geologist (the intensely likable, underused James LeGros) has grave concerns about the melting permafrost, but the boss (Ron Perlman in one of his entertaining blowhard turns) puts profit (and authority) before all—even after members of the team begin dropping dead from some nameless terror and getting their eyes picked out by ravens. There’s something under that permafrost, encased for millions of years, now awake and pissed-off. The Last Winter was shot in northern Iceland and Alaska, and despite some too-explicit imagery in the final moments, the claustrophobia-to-psychosis continuum is harrowingly fluid.
For a heavy dose of civilization—the best kind—I give you Kristi Jacobsen’s marvelous documentary Toots. It’s the story, of course, of Toots Shor, saloonkeeper extraordinaire, confidant of gangsters and sports legends and competitive drinking buddy of Jackie Gleason (maybe showbiz’s most colorful and insatiable alcoholic). Jacobsen is Shor’s granddaughter and comes to revive not just Toots but what he stood for: the joy of playing host to celebrities and commoners alike, to creating an atmosphere of “palship.” The movie has a joyous swing that would have gladdened its subject’s heart: Even the old talking heads (Walter Cronkite, Yogi Berra, Mike Wallace, Frank Gifford, many more) seem to shed decades as they reminisce about “your grandfather’s” place and the boozy glamour of the forties, fifties, and early sixties—until Toots’s slow, heartbreaking slide into bankruptcy and irrelevance. Toots leaves you longing for a more public culture, for places where the palship isn’t just the upshot of intoxication. It’s a cinematic happy hour.