Saturday, March 30, 2024

#2,952. Alone in the Wilderness (2004) - Documentaries


In 1968, 51-year-old Richard Proenneke, mechanic and veteran of the U.S. Navy, retired and settled in the Alaskan wilderness, specifically the Twin Lakes area. Skilled at woodworking, Proenneke arrived in May of that year and spent the summer building a log cabin.

Using 8mm films shot by Proenneke himself, and with narration (by producer Bob Swerer Jr) lifted directly from the outdoorsman’s personal journal, 2004’s Alone in the Wilderness brings his entire first year in the Alaskan wilds to the screen, and it is a fascinating watch.

Like all nature documentaries, there are some stunning shots of the Twin Lakes area, from ice breaking up on the lake to scenes of caribou, brown bears, and rams on the surrounding mountainsides. But the bulk of Alone in the Wilderness’s 57 minutes is dedicated to Proenneke building his retirement cabin from the ground up. At first, I wasn’t sure if watching a guy build a cabin was going to hold my attention. Proenneke went into great detail in his journals, laying out the process of not only assembling a comfortable, waterproof dwelling, but also the amenities he would need. At one point he carves a wooden spoon out of a stump, making it just big enough so that one pour from it would equal one flapjack.

The more detail he went into, however, the more intriguing I found the movie. Who would have thought watching a guy make wooden hinges for a front door could have me on the edge of my seat?

We see it all, including the construction of his icebox (buried in the ground and covered with moss, it maintained a temperature of 40 degrees even when it was 80+ outside); the building of his fireplace (an especially tedious, though entirely necessary process); and even his outhouse!

As interesting as the footage and narration are, it’s the sheer magnitude of the project itself, and Proenneke’s tireless dedication to seeing it through to the end, that really impressed me. From his smokehouse to the storage containers he rolled himself out of sheet metal, this guy thought of absolutely everything, and I sat in awe of what he was able to accomplish.

Alone in the Wilderness does feature some additional footage shot by producer / narrator Bob Swerer Jr, which, because the quality of the image is so different from the rest of the movie, proves a distraction. The extra shots are mostly inserts of wildlife in their natural habitat, but one late segment, where Proenneke describes how he made ram stew, which is then brought to life by this “new footage”, felt particularly unnecessary. And while Proenneke was an amazing survivalist and outdoorsman, he was not the best photographer. The scenes of him building the cabin, when he set up the camera from a distance and left it running, are actually better than his shots of the landscape. Still, these are minor quibbles, and do not detract from the experience of watching this captivating film journal.

Richard Proenneke would spend the majority of the next 30 years living off the land, finally returning to the Continental U.S. in 1999 at age 83 to live the remainder of his days with his brother in California. Alone in the Wilderness chronicles that first year, which saw harsh winter conditions and threats from bears, wolves, and other creatures. I doubt I would’ve survived that first year. I doubt most people would. To have done so for another 29 years on top of it is beyond amazing.
Rating: 8 out of 10

Saturday, March 23, 2024

#2,951. In Old Chicago (1938) - Don Ameche 4-Pack


On the heels of MGM’s hit 1936 film San Francisco, Darryl Zanuck and 20th Century Fox countered with In Old Chicago, a fictionalized biopic of the O’Leary family, whose cow is rumored to have sparked the deadly 1871 fire that destroyed a large section of the city.

While relocating his young family to Chicago, Patrick O’Leary (J. Anthomy Hughes) is killed in a freak accident. Left on her own, his widow Molly (Alice Brady) brings up their three boys, two of whom would make a name for themselves in the city.

Oldest son Dion O’Leary (Tyrone Power) is a schemer with big dreams. After convincing lounge singer Belle Fawcett (Alice Faye) to join him in a new business venture, Dion alienates Gil Warren (Brian Donlevy), Belle’s previous employer and the most powerful crime boss in the section of Old Chicago known as “The Patch”. Establishing himself as the new driving force of “The Patch”, Dion manages to get his younger brother Jack (Don Ameche) elected as Chicago’s new Mayor, using deception and backdoor dealings to steal the election from Warren himself, who ran against him.

A trained lawyer, Jack takes his new position seriously, and intends to clean up Chicago by wiping out the political corruption running rampant in “The Patch”. In so doing, he finds himself squaring off time and again against Dion. But when a fire started in the O’Leary’s barn threatens to wipe out the city, the two brothers put their differences aside and do what they can to save their beloved Chicago.

Tyrone Power has charisma to spare in the role of Dion, a swindler and crook who is always looking for the advantage in any situation. Whether it’s stealing a shirt from his mother’s laundry business to wear for the evening or making unwanted passes at Belle (the initial scenes between the two, where Dion comes on strong and refuses to take ‘no’ for an answer, don’t play so well today), this is a guy who usually gets what he wants, and won’t back down until he does.

With a smile on his face, Dion lies and steals his way to the top of Chicago’s underworld, to the point that he’s powerful enough to rig an election in his brother’s favor. By the time the final act rolls around, Dion is firmly established as the film’s true villain, and yet Power is so damn likable in the role that we can’t help but admire the guy!

Don Ameche is also solid as the straightlaced, well-meaning brother; as are both Alice Faye (who gets to sing a few songs) and Alice Brady (winner of that year’s Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her turn as the cantankerous Mrs. O’Leary), but from the moment he first strolls on-screen, In Old Chicago belongs to Tyrone Power.

As it was with San Francisco, all the drama, the family spats, and the political machinations are merely a set-up for the disaster yet to come: a reenactment of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Director Henry King and his crew spent $150,000 on this final segment, and the fire is a sight to behold. Walls topple, buildings explode, and houses burn to the ground, all at a fever pitch. There’s drama here as well; Gil Warren manages to convince many residents of “The Patch” that Mayor Jack O’Leary, who had been looking to have that section of Old Chicago condemned, started the fire intentionally. Warren even assembles a posse to confront Jack as Chicago burns around them. Still, it’s the awesome spectacle of a city on fire, presented so realistically, that makes this final act as hard-hitting as it is.

Yet much like San Francisco before it, In Old Chicago ultimately proves to be more than the sum of its disaster sequences. In fact, I found myself so wrapped up in the story of the O’Leary boys and their squabbles that I had forgotten about the tragedy to come! In Old Chicago works as an early disaster film, but it works just as well as an example of a big Hollywood production done right.
Rating: 9 out of 10

Saturday, March 16, 2024

#2,950. Don't Make Waves (1967) - Alexander Mackendrick 4-Pack


Don’t Make Waves gets off to a wild start, then barely slows down to take a breath.

Tourist Carlo Cofield (Tony Curtis) stops along a stretch of road in Southern California to admire the ocean view. Also nearby is temperamental artist Laura Califatti (Claudia Cardinale), who, after abandoning her effort to paint a picture of the landscape, angrily hops into her car and speeds off. Unfortunately, she clipped the bumper of poor Carlo’s vehicle on the way out, sending it careening down a hill and off the side of a cliff!

Stranded and with no money (his car exploded on impact, burning all of his worldly possessions), Carlo spends the night in Laura’s beach house, with the promise that she will give him her insurance information, to pay for the damages, the next morning.

Things take an uncomfortable turn when Laura’s “benefactor”, Rod Prescott (Robert Webber), president of a company that installs luxury swimming pools, turns up in the middle of the night and demands that Carlo leave immediately.

Forced to spend the rest of the evening on the beach, Carlo nearly drowns during high tide the next morning, but is rescued by the gorgeous Mailbu (Sharon Tate), a sexy skydiver who is dating body builder Harry (played by David Draper, at the time the reigning Mr. Universe).

Realizing the true nature of Laura’s and Rod’s romance (Rod is already married, and Laura is his mistress), Carlo weasels his way into a job with Rod’s pool company, promising, in exchange for his employment, he’ll keep his mouth shut and not reveal anything about Laura or the affair to Mrs. Prescott (Joanna Barnes).

Now gamefully employed, and having recently purchased both a beautiful house and a classic car for practically nothing, Carlo sets his sights on winning the heart of Malibu by forcing a wedge between she and Harry, going so far as to convince the bodybuilder, with the help of a writer / astrologer whose pen name is “Madame Lavinia” (Edgar Bergen), that sex wears the body down, and could keep him from winning the upcoming championship.

Everything comes to a head during a torrential rainstorm, at which point Carlo and the others discover why his house was so inexpensive.

A later entry in the Southern California beach movie craze, Don’t Make Waves is a breezy, lighthearted romantic comedy, with Tony Curtis giving a strong performance as the lead who, though likable, has a sinister streak a mile wide. Not only does he blackmail his way into getting a job (after first proving his talents as a salesman by talking none other than Jim Backus, who appears briefly as himself, into buying a pool), but he’s also slick and dishonest in the way he breaks up Harry and Malibu. In fact, by the time the final act rolls around, we feel a little guilty that we like Carlo as much as we do!

Claudia Cardinale is beautiful as always, but also demonstrates here that she is an able comedienne (her opening scenes are a riot), while Webber, Barnes, Tate, and Bergen hold their own in supporting roles.

Featuring a handful of crazy moments (including a skydiving fiasco and a pretty costly mudslide); a catchy title song (performed by The Byrds); and more than its share of bikinis, Don’t Make Waves flows along at a brisk pace, and manages to keep us smiling the entire time!
Rating: 9 out of 10

Saturday, March 9, 2024

#2,949. Moonfall (2022) - Roland Emmerich Film Festival


Neil deGrasse Tyson is one very, very smart dude. Having studied at Harvard, Columbia, and Princeton, he is the world’s foremost Astrophysicist. He’s penned a number of books, researched everything from cosmology to stellar evolution, and holds well over 20 honorary degrees. In 2001 President George W. Bush even appointed Tyson to a Commission tasked with laying out the future of the United States Aerospace Industry

In short, the guy knows his stuff, especially when it comes to physics and outer space. So, when Neil deGrasse Tyson appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert in October of 2023 and said Roland Emmerich’s Moonfall violated more laws of physics per minute than any other science fiction movie he’d ever seen, you can bet it’s the truth.

But then, Roland Emmerich also made The Day After Tomorrow and 2012, neither of which are known for their scientific accuracy. And let’s face it: a movie about the moon breaking orbit and hurtling towards earth is gonna require more than the usual “suspension of disbelief”.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson is a man of science. Roland Emmerich is a showman, and Moonfall, as insane and unscientific as it may be, is, first and foremost, entertainment. On that level, it is at least somewhat successful.

That said, there are characters and scenes scattered throughout Moonfall that had me longing for the subtlety of The Day After Tomorrow!

Eleven years after an accident in space was blamed on his “human error”, former astronaut Brian Harper (Patrick Wilson) has been struggling to make ends meet. Divorced from his wife Brenda (Carolina Bartczak) and estranged from his son (Charlie Plummer), Harper continues to insist he did nothing wrong that fateful day aboard the Space Shuttle. Unfortunately, nobody believes him. Not even his former friend and colleague, Jocinda Fowler (Halle Berry), who is now the Deputy Director of NASA.

Then something incredible happens: conspiracy theorist K.C. Houseman (John Bradley), leader of a small group that’s convinced the moon is not a planetary body but an alien-built megastructure, determines that the moon has changed its orbit, and is moving closer to earth.

Initially dismissing Houseman as a crackpot, Harper is stunned to discover NASA has also noticed the orbital discrepancies. What’s more, there’s a strong possibility the trouble is being caused by alien technology, which has altered the moon’s trajectory and put it on a collision course with earth!

As with most of his movies, Emmerich generates some genuine excitement and impressive destruction throughout Moonfall, with tidal shifts flooding out coastal towns and loose fragments from the approaching moon crashing to earth, leveling entire cities. There is also a plot twist in the last half hour or so that leaves little doubt what we’re watching (and what Emmerich intended) is straight-up science fiction, with no footing in reality whatsoever.

As for the characters, I did enjoy John Bradley’s turn as Houseman, a guy who hasn’t achieved much in life and is struggling to care for his mother (Kathleen Fee), who suffers from Alzheimer’s. As for Wilson and Berry, Moonfall is far from their finest hour. Wilson isn’t particularly likable through much of the film, with his Harper coming off as moody and kind of arrogant; while Berry doesn’t seem to be putting her heart into it at all. A few supporting players, including Michael Pena as Brenda’s new husband and Kelly Yu as Michelle, an exchange student acting as nanny for Fowler’s son Jimmy (Zayn Maloney), fare better than the main stars.

Yet the real stinker in Moonfall is its script, written by Emmerich, Harald Kloser, and Spenser Cohen. Along with its plethora of far-fetched situations, the dialogue is obvious and trite, and somne of the secondary characters are as one-dimensional as they come (worst of all being NASA Director Albert Hutchings, played by Stephen Bogaert, who is the typical “movie” official, i.e. – unreasonable, deceitful, and cowardly).

Bottom line: I didn’t go into Moonfall expecting to learn anything about space or science. I wanted a fun disaster movie, with decent special effects and a whole lot of destruction.

And it’s a good thing that’s all I wanted, because that’s all I got! If it was intriguing dialogue or believable characters I was after, I would have been as disappointed as Neil deGrasse Tyson!
Rating: 5 out of 10

Saturday, March 2, 2024

#2,948. Bitter Moon (1992) - Erotic '90s


Nigel Dobson (Hugh Grant) and his wife of seven years, Fiona (Kristin Scott Thomas), are on a Mediterranean cruise. Shortly after boarding the ship, they meet French beauty Mimi (Emmanuelle Seigner) and, later, her wheelchair-bound American husband Oscar (Peter Coyote).

An unpublished writer, the cynical Oscar invites Nigel back to his room on several occasions, regaling the young man with the entire story of his romantic past with Mimi, from the moment their eyes first met aboard a Paris bus through to their more recent history, when the two have come to despise one another.

Realizing that Nigel is smitten with his estranged wife, Oscar, who is paralyzed from the waist down, uses these meetings as a way to enflame Nigel’s passion, promising him that, once his tale is over, he is free to do as he wishes with Mimi.

But is that really why Oscar is revealing his deepest, most personal secrets to Nigel, or does he have another motive altogether?

The bulk of Roman Polanski’s Bitter Moon is told in flashback, with scenes of Oscar’s and Mimi’s tumultuous affair as related by Oscar himself, thus making him the narrator of these sequences. There are plenty of steamy moments during said flashbacks, everything from implied oral sex to roleplay and even bondage. “Have you ever truly idolized a woman?”, Oscar asks Nigel at one point. “Nothing can be obscene in such love. Everything that occurs between it becomes a sacrament”.

Polanski does not shy away from the early passion that drives Oscar and Mimi, nor does he hold back when the relationship sours, with first Oscar humiliating Mimi on a regular basis (and he is cruel as hell, criticizing her hair and make-up at a party while romancing two other women at once), then forcing her to have an abortion when she announces she is with child. Oscar even agrees to take Mimi on vacation to the Caribbean, then hops off the plane just before it takes off, convinced he has finally rid himself of her.

Even with him acting as narrator, we despise Oscar in these moments. So, when Mimi returns a few years later, as Oscar is recovering in hospital from being struck by a car, she begins to treat her now-crippled former lover in much the same way he treated her. These scenes are just as difficult to sit through, yet we can’t help but feel that Oscar deserves it.

Tying the flashbacks together are the scenes involving Nigel and Fiona. Nigel can barely conceal his attraction to Mimi, and a wounded Fiona, in response, flirts openly with a young man (Luca Vellani) she meets in the bar. Having witnessed the collapse of the relationship between Oscar and Mimi, we now watch as another is on the brink of destruction, and Polanski ensures that we the audience side with the ladies in both instances, even if their behavior does also, occasionally, cross the line.

The performances are spot-on, with Coyote standing out as the oft-loathsome Oscar; and Polanski (who also co-wrote the screenplay) shines a light throughout Bitter Moon on some very difficult subject matter as it pertains to relationships, presenting it all in such a way that even the most perverse sequences (whether described by Oscar or shown in detail) come across as honest.

A sweltering erotic drama that crosses into thriller territory (especially in the final act), Bitter Moon is a fascinating study of the destructive side of romance, and how it can not only wound, but destroy lovers.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10