Documentary Review: Kon-Tiki (1950)

Also known as: A Aventura de Kon-Tiki (Brazil), Kon-Tiki 1950 (Swedish re-issue festival title)
Release Date: January 13th, 1950 (Sweden)
Directed by: Thor Heyerdahl
Written by: Thor Heyerdahl
Music by: Sune Waldimir
Cast: Thor Heyerdahl, Herman Watzinger, Erik Hesselberg, Knut Haugland, Torstein Raaby, Bengt Danielsson, Ben Grauer (voice), Gerte Wald (uncredited)

Artfilm, Janson Media, Sol Lesser Productions, 77 Minutes, 58 Minutes (TV edit)

Review:

For those who don’t know the story of the Kon-Tiki expedition, you are sorely missing out. Back in 1947, a brave Norwegian, Thor Heyerdahl, rounded up a team to construct a primitive style raft with local materials in Ecuador and Peru for the purpose of setting sail towards Polynesia to show that such a task was possible in order to prove that it’s also possible that the Pacific islands were populated by people who migrated from South America.

Heyerdahl also kept things as primitive as possible, as far as the method of travel. They did bring some military rations for food and had a radio, in case of emergency and to make contact with the outside world in an effort to check-in on their progress.

If you love nature documentaries or seeing real men do some really manly shit, than this is something you’ll probably enjoy. It’s really exciting, informative and kind of magical. It makes you wish that you were there, even though it was hard and strenuous. But these guys really tested their mettle and spirit but got through it okay.

Also, if you’re into history, science or just love things pertaining to South Pacific culture, this really delves into all of that.

There is a great scene with curious whales, another regarding the dangers of having freshly caught sharks on the boat, as well as the big climax where they have to work their way over a massive and dangerous, razor sharp coral reef in an effort to finally hit land.

I loved this documentary and it’s made me want to go back and watch the 2012 motion picture based on this expedition. Mainly, because I want to test its accuracy after having seen this documentary and just because this is such a great and incredible story.

Rating: 8/10
Pairs well with: The 2012 motion picture Kon-Tiki and the other Thor Heyerdahl seafaring documentary The Ra Expeditions.

Film Review: Wind Across the Everglades (1958)

Also known as: Across the Everglades, Lost Man’s River (working titles), Inferno Verde (Uruguay), Muerte en los pantanos (Spain)
Release Date: September 11th, 1958 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Nicholas Ray, Budd Schulberg (uncredited)
Written by: Budd Schulberg
Music by: Paul Sawtell, Bert Shefter
Cast: Burl Ives, Christopher Plummer, Gypsy Rose Lee, Chana Eden, Mackinlay Kantor, Emmett Kelly

Warner Bros., 93 Minutes

Review:

“Ah! The sweet-tastin’ joys of this world!” – Cottonmouth

I never knew about this movie, which is odd, as I have grown up and lived near the Everglades almost my entire life. I’m also a fan of Nicholas Ray’s films but I am also mostly just familiar with his work in film-noir. Needless to say, this was an interesting discovery, as I was perusing the content on FilmStruck (a streaming service every cinephile should get).

What’s fantastic about this film is its use of on location shooting. This was legitimately filmed within the Everglades, which is really impressive for a motion picture that came out in 1958.

Having lived on the edge of the ‘Glades, I know that the production must have been an insane undertaking. The swamps are a hell of an undertaking just trying to hike them and since this film really gets into the murk, lugging all that heavy equipment had to be a hell of a workout. Plus that heat, the humidity, the never knowing when the hell you’re going to get instantaneous downpour from the heavens, the bugs, the snakes, the alligators, the boar, the bears, the panthers, the snapping turtles, all of it, man. So I can’t give enough props and respect for the crew that captured this beautiful picture.

I really loved that this film put its focus on environmental conservation, especially in the Florida Everglades. I loved the opening sequence that showed a train arriving to Miami around 1900 or so. The lavish outfits of the women and their love of fashionable plumage was a good addition to the film’s backstory of showcasing how mankind doesn’t really give a crap about how it wrecks the planet, as long as they can achieve the level of status that affords them the luscious plumage of birds being hunted towards extinction. I’m not a super lefty or anything but pillaging nature for fashion is pretty f’d up, just sayin’.

Anyway, Christopher Plummer (in his first starring role and only his second film) shows up in Miami, which is pretty much just a swamp with a train station in 1900. He makes a goofy mistake and finds himself forced into being a game warden for the Audubon Society. He is warned about a man named Cottonmouth (Burl Ives), who has a posse that kills wild birds for their feathers. The two men cross paths and make their intentions clear to one another.

As the film progresses, Plummer’s Murdock falls in love with the job, the wild around him and pretty much sees God’s hand in it all. This isn’t a religious film, he just goes on some tangents about natural beauty and whatnot from the perspective of a dude from 1900ish America.

The two men, despite their rivalry and being on opposite ends of the law, develop a respect for one another, which all comes to a head in the film’s climax. This isn’t a predictable film. It actually feels a lot more realistic than Hollywood’s standard theatrics of the time.

It’s worth noting that Nicholas Ray was fired before the film was completed and Budd Schulberg, the film’s writer, took over and then handled the editing. His lack of experience is apparent in how the film is cut and paced but Ray’s vision still comes through in the framing of most of the shots and the general cinematography. There are just a handful of things that come off as weird in the film. For example, when Murdock, talking about the majestic birds, refers to the sun gleaming off of their feathers, a shot of birds in silhouette is cut over the dialogue. But maybe getting all the wildlife footage was difficult and this is all they had to work with in post-production.

I really liked this movie, despite its few flaws. Plummer and Ives had a good chemistry, the direction was mostly pretty good and it just taps into the history of a place I call my backyard.

Rating: 7.25/10
Pairs well with: Nicholas Ray films: Hot Blood, The Savage Innocents and Bitter Victory.

Film Review: Grizzly (1976)

Also known as: Claws, Killer Grizzly (alternate titles)
Release Date: May 12th, 1976 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: William Girdler
Written by: Harvey Flaxman, David Sheldon
Music by: Robert O. Ragland
Cast: Christopher George, Andrew Pine, Richard Jaeckel

Columbia Pictures, Film Ventures International, 89 Minutes

Review:

“Kelly, you’re a maverick. We don’t have room for mavericks!” – Charley

I saw this when I was a kid. I didn’t think it was good back then. I always wanted to revisit it though because I like killer animal movies in general. So when I saw that a RiffTrax version of the film was streaming for free on Amazon Video (for Prime members), I fired it up. Well, at least my popcorn was good. And laughing along with Mike, Kevin and Bill is always fun.

After Jaws came out in 1975, there was a big wave of animal horror films that followed. Almost all of them were terrible low budget affairs that used the shtick but lacked the magic. This one stayed on land and gave us a giant killer grizzly bear, which was probably apparent by the film’s title and poster.

Most of the killer bear footage is comprised of two thing. The first, is shots of a normal sized bear growling while the camera work tries to used some force perspective tricks but fails. The second, is a dummy bear arm with claws that is used to crash through balsa wood cabins before clubbing people in the face to poorly imitate a bear attack. The effects are bad, the editing is worse and some of these kills are much more hilarious than terrifying.

This has Christopher George in it. He’s not a great actor or anything but he was in Enter the Ninja and Pieces, two films the great Joe Bob Briggs would consider “drive-in classics”. Other than George, there’s no one of note in this and the acting is below average.

In all honesty, this feels like a TV movie from the era albeit with a bit of blood thrown in. It’s just not terrifying and the bear just looks slightly annoyed and not like the ravenous killer beast he needs to be.

Rating: 4.5/10
Pairs well with: Day of the Animals, Prophecy and Alligator.

Film Review: Hairat (2017)

Release Date: January 20th, 2017 (Sundance)
Directed by: Jessica Beshir
Music by: Tom Efinger (sound engineer)
Cast: Yussuf Mume Saleh

6 Minutes

Review:

If you love nature, animals and people not giving a crap about how much danger they are in, then this short film might be your cup of joe.

This is simple and really straightforward. The film follows an Ethiopian man named Yussuf who goes out every night to spend time with the wild hyenas near his village. He mostly just feeds them, teases them and tries to smooch them.

If you know anything about hyenas, it’s utter insanity to do this but Yussuf putting himself in mortal danger on a nightly basis is what makes this so interesting. Really, I would like to know more about Yussuf and why he feels compelled to spend time with these animals. I just feel like this sort of trust in dangerous wild animals will always eventually lead to tragedy. Watch the 2005 Werner Herzog documentary Grizzly Man for an example of this.

Regardless, seeing these animals so close is really cool. They are beautiful creatures even if they are savage carnivores always looking for unsuspecting prey.

The camera work and cinematography in this was great. It had a very high chiaroscuro effect to it but it served to highlight just Yussuf and his hyena friends, pushing everything else out of view, except for a few lights in the distance.

This is short, sweet but certainly quite compelling to look at.

Rating: 7.5/10
Pairs well with: I paired this with a string of shorts from the last 3-4 years. It’s probably best to watch most shorts in a mini marathon or festival style.

Documentary Review: Grizzly Man (2005)

Release Date: January 24th, 2005 (Sundance)
Directed by: Werner Herzog
Written by: Werner Herzog
Music by: Richard Thompson
Cast: Werner Herzog (narrator), Timothy Treadwell

Discovery Docs, Real Big Production, Lions Gate Films, 104 Minutes

Review:

Grizzly Man is a documentary by Werner Herzog. It follows the life and tragic death of Timothy Treadwell, who was killed and partially eaten by grizzly bears along with his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard.

Herzog, like in his other documentaries, weaves a wonderful tale out of extraordinary events and a very interesting character. This is one of my favorite Herzog documentaries, as it showcases a man, who many believe was out of his mind, and his crossing the line into living among the wild.

Timothy Treadwell was certainly eccentric and you can clearly see that, as much of the film is made up of the home movies Timothy shot while living with Alaskan grizzlies over thirteen summer seasons. One could bring his sanity into question and as the film went on, the less I liked the guy and thought he was off of his rocker. Did he deserve to die? No, but his incessant stupidity at being “one with the bears” eventually lead to him being one with the bears’ digestive track.

The videos that Timothy shot of the bears over the course of his time with them is nothing short of exceptional but he died for his work and very idiotically so. I understand passion but I also understand mental illness and I’m not saying that he was mentally ill but he certainly wasn’t all there and lived in a fantasy world where he thought he could tame the wild and thrive in it and among its apex predators. Even with thirteen years experience, one day the wild had enough of Timothy Treadwell.

This is a tragic story regardless of how you feel about Treadwell. In the end, I am glad I got to go on the journey and see things through his eyes, even though he wore rose-colored glasses.

And there is an awesomely epic bear fight about halfway through the film.

Rating: 7.75/10
Pairs well with: Encounters at the End of the World, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Into the Inferno, The White Diamond and Into the Wild.

Documentary Review: River of No Return (2012)

Release Date: April 18th, 2012
Written by: Kathleen Wisneski
Music by: Chris Biondo, Lenny Williams

Rubin Tarrant Productions, PBS, 54 Minutes

Review:

*written in 2015.

River of No Return was a pretty enjoyable episode of PBS’ long-running show Nature.

This episode or short film, as that’s what it is, follows biologist Isaac Babcock and his wife Bjornen on their “honeymoon”. Newly married, they set off on a year-long adventure to Idaho’s “River of No Return” where they observed the behavior of wolves, an animal that Isaac has carefully studied for over 13 years at the time of this journey.

The film is light-hearted and fun and it shows the rugged wilderness of Idaho in a way that I haven’t yet experienced. Isaac and Bjornen weather the elements and travel on foot to all the places that they expect to find the wolves they’re there to observe. The elements are often times harsh and Bjornen struggles with her arthritis but ultimately, they are able to accomplish their goal and capture the wolves on film for the viewer to enjoy.

I feel like the 50 minute or so running time was a bit short for two people who went on a year-long adventure but it is pretty customary of PBS’ time constraints for their Nature series.

If you like wolves, this definitely worth a watch. It is currently available on Netflix.

Rating: 7.25/10
Pairs well with: Other PBS Nature episodes.

Book Review: ‘Appalachian Trials’ by Zach Davis

*Written in 2015.

Appalachian Trials: A Psychological and Emotional Guide to Successfully Thru-Hiking the Appalachian Trail is what I would consider a must-read before setting off on the long journey. Granted, I have never hiked the Appalachian Trail but it is something I consider doing more and more each year.

Zach felt the need to create a book dealing with the psychological and emotional aspects of hiking the Appalachian Trail, which has never been the subject of a book before. I agree with him that penning something like this was pretty vital, as every field guide in the world can’t prepare you for the real challenges. And sure, this may not fully prepare one either for something so tough and arduous but at least it gives good information on what one should expect and it also provides tales and lessons to help the reader better understand the trials ahead on an emotional and psychological level.

The book gets straight to the point and doesn’t waste much time. It is concise yet packed with essential information. It is also well-written and an enjoyable read.

If you are like me and have seriously considered hiking the Appalachian Trail, this most definitely should be read before you start your trek into the wild.

Rating: 8/10
Pairs well with: A Walk In the Woods and Wild.