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Dark Fairbanks movie worth watching

Mike Dunham

How did anything as good as "Chronic Town" come out of Fairbanks? The gloomy cab ride through the dirty side of Alaska -- screened at Sundance and other major movie festivals this year -- features a strong story, great acting, superb cinematography and competent directing to create a movie that sticks in your head long after the final credits roll.

The script reads like David Mamet meets Cheech and Chong. Acid-tongued, drugged-out cabbie Truman loses his girlfriend and, after a binge at the Boatel Bar, winds up in a mental hospital. There he connects with a middle-age stripper with a heart of gold and a dimming senior citizen who wants him to check in on her dope-growing son.

Through a web of intriguing, flawed characters and a logical peeling through lies, Truman -- living up to his name -- slowly emerges as perhaps the most truthful and caring person in the mix, as clear and unadulterated as the double-shots of vodka he slurps like water. We first meet him lighting a cigarette before he can get himself out of bed to throw up. He grows more likeable by the end, but our hopes for the guy remain dismal.

To keep us interested in this utterly indie plot -- no slapstick, chase scenes, sentimental romance, impossibly beautiful people or violence -- requires convincing performers. "Chronic Town" has the closest thing to an all-star cast in any Alaska-made movie since Richard Burton and Robert Ryan came up to film the 1960 epic "Ice Palace." The cast is filled, Robert Altman-like, with veteran character actors, including:

• J.R. Bourne, a tense and engrossing Truman, familiar from guest shots in shows like "NCIS" and "CSI." He popped up as a scummy photographer in an episode of "The Mentalist" just last month.

• Emily Wagner, who played paramedic Doris Pickman on numerous episodes of "ER," as Truman's not-too-sexual love interest.

• Paul Dooley, whose guest appearances stretch from "Bewitched" to "Boston Legal," as her father.

• Dan Butler, thorny radio announcer "Bulldog" Briscoe from "Frasier," as the dope-grower.

Parts big and small use established professional craftsmen familiar from network television and big budget movies. Everyone delivers a credible, nuanced performance, adding depth and polish to each part without exaggerating what could be obvious stereotypes. There's no one on screen who we don't want to know more about. More remarkable, there's no one we wouldn't be surprised to run into in Fairbanks, where shooting took place in March 2007.

Cinematographer Yiannis Samaras, who cut his teeth with documentaries, exquisitely captures the low-sun-through-ice-fog feel of the city, the sense of clapboard urban survival amid scrub spruce and snow, the awe and dread of the still, lurking, omnipresent cold. As with our feelings for Truman, initial revulsion at the scenery slowly turns to acceptance and even wonder.

The story transpires in Fairbanks in part because that's where director Tom Hines was born. He left as an infant, only returning to shoot this movie. He has acted in secondary roles and worked the other side of the camera in associate and assistant capacities, including with Garry Marshall of "Happy Days" fame, who plays a doctor here. But this is his first stab as lead director.

For the most part, Hines' pacing sustains edge-of-seat interest. Examples of unneeded footage, like the opening shot of Truman in a crucifix pose on a whipping dog sled, are few.

The film mostly flows with eddies of constant surprise. Each time things threaten to lag, something happens to re-torque the tension. Choppiness emerges and a few twists get telegraphed closer to the end -- where I assume the money was starting to run out.

Nonetheless, I found myself riveted to "Chronic Town" and, days later, still reflecting on subtle yet powerful connections in the best made full-length film to be shot in Alaska since "Runaway Train."

Find Mike Dunham online at adn.com/contact/mdunham or call 257-4332.

Chronic Town

Director: Tom Hines

Featuring: J.R. Bourne, Emily Wagner, Jeffrey Scott Jensen, Alice Drummond, Dan Butler, Paul Dooley and Garry Marshall.

Unrated: Adult language, nudity, drug use.

99 minutes

Shows at 7:55 p.m. today and 5:30 p.m. Friday, at Bear Tooth Theatrepub. What they're saying

"Hines and screenwriter Michael Kamsky succeed against significant odds in creating realistic, sympathetic characters with rich, if traumatized, inner lives. To their credit, the filmmakers don't attempt to explain away Truman's profoundly troubled personality, instead leveraging his afflictions to create believably fraught personality conflicts.

"J.R. Bourne delivers a bold, brave performance that progressively reveals Truman as a desperate, needy character. Supporting cast members adroitly keep developments focused ... while infusing the film with markedly restrained humor."

-- Justin Lowe, The Hollywood reporter

AIFF special section
Blog: Art Snob
By MIKE DUNHAM
mdunham@adn.com