Cinema of the North

I wrote this with a friend as a precursor for a new movie that was coming out which was set in Alaska. We framed it that way and used it to take a look back at many  previous movies filmed or set in the great North. All the Alaskan newspapers rejected it for some reason – both of them!

Movies are often an escape. So, here in my state of Alaska, we might be more likely than most to watch a movie set on the beach. Or during daylight. Or anywhere where the threat of being eaten by a bear is negligible. On the other hand, any opinions the rest of the country has about us are mostly shaped by films and Sarah Palin… we’ll focus on the movies in this article.  From the paranormal to the ordinary, they try and capture the unique beauty of our state with varying degrees of realization.

30 Days of Night or Vampires in Alaska – While this one makes effective use of its setting, it never reaches the claustrophobic tension of the ultimate “monster in the arctic” story, 1982’s The Thing (which was actually filmed here). In this case, the cold landscape’s main business is to symbolize the similarly unsympathetic and lifeless antagonists. What it lacks in suspense, it makes up for in decapitations and the startling amount of bright red, blood spattering the snow. The arterial gushers continue in the redundant sequel, and its equally redundant title, 30 Days of Night: Dark Days. Hardcore horror geeks will probably love both. For those who just appreciate the occasional scare and can stomach the carnage, the first is recommended. On a scale of 1 to 5, 30 Days of Night scores 3.5… frozen heads.

The Edge or Spoiled Rich Men in Alaska – While stars Alec Baldwin and Sir Anthony Hopkins have aged well, this movie has not. Baldwin plays a fatuous city dandy trapped in the woods. Hopkins plays an educated city billionaire trapped in the same woods. They must outlast the elements and each other (one suspects the other of wanting to murder him for his wife). Of course, they also must survive the bear – the bear, whose arrival is always signaled by creepy “serial killer music”.  Despite an impressive performance by the land itself (sweeping backdrops, exacting pitfalls, those hyper-intelligent man-killing bears) the whole thing comes off as a bit silly. On a scale of 1 to 5, The Edge scores 2… wasted signal flares.

Into the Wild or One Bad Roadtrip in Alaska – Based on the non-fiction book by Jon Krakaeur, Into the Wild follows recent college-graduate Christopher McCandless wandering across America in search of meaning and as many quirky characters he can find. He finally ends up in an abandoned bus perched on the outskirts of Fairbanks. How one feels about the movie will be largely influenced by what one thinks of Chris. Was he a spiritual investigator rebelling against the middle-class malaise of his parents to find truth in nature? Or was he just an idiot who’d read On The Road too many times? Regardless, there is plenty else to enjoy here.  The countryside is shot with both a magnificent luster and a persistent dustiness. The aching soundtrack, original compositions by Eddie Vedder, is quite worthy of the film’s tone. In the end, it seems Chris may have been a good-hearted but naïve kid who just didn’t want to grow up in a world where you have to grow up to survive. On a scale of 1 to 5, Into The Wild scores 3.5… hitchhiking thumbs up.

Insomnia or Sleepless in Alaska—Two L.A. detectives are sent to investigate the murder of a teen in the fictional Alaska town of Nightmute.  The cast is as star-studded as our state flag (Robin Williams, Hillary Swank, Al Pacino) but the plot of this thriller relies a little too heavily on some bizarre facets of the setting.  Instant fog! Tunnels that appear out of nowhere! Log roll! A town so empty no one notices someone firing a gun into a dead dog on Main Street! This is a town, incidentally, that must not have a grocery store since one roll of tinfoil taped to the windows might have alleviated a lot of the drama for the sleepless Al Pacino, who plays a famous detective growing more fatigued as the movie goes on.  So do the viewers.  There’s even a scene where he gets confused by the endless daylight and doesn’t realize it’s 10 p.m.  Yes, he can solve a murder mystery with nothing more than a torn photograph, and yet he has no idea what time it is. On a scale of 1 to 5, Insomnia earns 1… sleeping pill that could have solved all Pacino’s problems.

The Fourth Kind or Aliens in Alaska – Milla Jovovich made her name fighting the undead in the Resident Evil series.  Here, she takes on extraterrestrials in encounters of the fourth kind (that’s X-Files-speak for being abducted). In a jarring open scene, Jovovich looks into the camera and explains what character she will be playing and that much of the film uses authentic archival footage!  After a few minutes, it becomes clear that the sequence might as well have been used in her zombie oeuvre, where it would have been much more amusing and believable.  This movie suggests numerous people in the town of Nome, Alaska have been abducted and probed and possessed by something that speaks ancient, evil Sumerian. Nome, it seems, is an extremely hot spot for alien kidnapping, not to mention sheriff bumbling.  Dismissing the annoyance of the pseudo-reality segments for a moment, the movie is still dragged down by bad plotting, bad acting, and bad pacing. By the end, it is almost as if the audience has been treated to an hour-and-a-half long PSA for tourists to stay away from this town… but who is vacationing in Nome, anyway? On a scale of 1to 5, The Fourth Kind earns half… a demonic Martian.

Runaway Train or Runaway Train in Alaska – Many say the western is the genre that will not die. In reality, the out-of-control-vehicle genre is just as enduring. In the 70’s it was The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.  In the 80’s it was this movie. In the 90’s it was Money Train. Last year it was Unstoppable. That’s not even mentioning other forms of transportation (Speed) or the closely related genre, “criminal-takeover-of-a-vehicle” (Con Air).  Here, Jon Voight and Eric Roberts, both hamming it up as prisoners, one maniacal and one dim-witted, are on the run and a hop a train with no engineer.  The cinematography of the wilderness is oppressive as the convicts try to escape the despotic, crazy prison warden. Everything drags far too long, however, and lacks the snap of modern movies. It doesn’t lack another unfortunate staple of contemporary action flicks – the unwarranted inclusion of a female lead. Rebecca De Mornay shows up more than half way through the movie to do a whole lot of nothing. On a score of 1 to 5, Runaway Train scores 2.5… emergency brakes.

The Proposal or Rom-Com in Alaska – Sandra Bullock plays a bitchy publishing house exec who blackmails her assistant, Ryan Reynolds, into marrying her so she won’t be deported back to Canada.  But first they have to travel to his hometown of Sitka for his grandmother’s 90th birthday! Rolling Stone called The Proposal “a watery stew” of a movie, but it is really more like New England clam chowder, (which is where this was filmed by the way – in Massachusetts). It has all the good things about chowder like the steaming spoonfuls of potatoes, bacon, and garlic. Those would be the charming Sandra Bullock, Betty White, and Mary Steenburgen.  The clams? Well, there’s Ryan Reynolds – funny for the men and, at one point, naked for the ladies.  Biting down on disturbing specks of shell?  Those would be Oscar Nunez’s random appearances as a stripper with an unnerving accent.  They all come together to form a methodic romantic comedy – a couple goes from hating each other to falling in love. If one watches it with the same leniency  that comes with watching most Alaska movies (that is to say, putting up with the scenes of dog-snatching eagles and hacking at a log to make a canoe and become one with nature), it is quite enjoyable in spite of itself.  On a scale of 1 to 5, The Proposal scores 3… pleasurably guilty bonbons.

Alaska or Teen Adventure Twins in Alaska – Dirk Benedict’s plane goes down in the mountains. Somehow, he spent all those years as Templeton ‘Faceman’ Peck on the A-Team and never learned decent piloting skills. So his kids have to rescue him, and even they need help from a trusty polar bear cub to beat the odds. The odds include just about every stereotype possible of our great state: bad weather, canoes, native Indians, rapids, northern lights, panoramic country, and why not… Charlton Heston. He is a malevolent poacher, playing up the role so much he is essentially doing a parody of himself. That’s not say that any of the acting could be qualified as “good”. Both Thora Birch and Vincent Kartheiser went on to bigger and much better accomplishments in American Beauty and Mad Men, respectively.  The entire movie is pretty inane, but after all, it is a children’s movie that seems to have been marketed as an adventure flick. And as a children’s movie, one could do worse. One has to imagine if this debuted on Nickelodeon, it would have been more of a success and immediately been spun off into a series featuring the remarkable polar bear who helps new kids every week with their problems. On a scale of 1 to 5, Alaska scores 2.5… carnivorous sidekicks.

Snow Dogs or Misleading Facts in Alaska – This movie is so bad it was a relief when my modem shut down and the online rental stopped loading about 10 minutes into the movie. I felt guilty about being so happy since this was about the same time the Egypt government cut off all internet access to its protesting citizens, but they were clearly not being forced to watch this movie.  I was tempted to scrap this review, but the internet finally returned, and I hadn’t even seen any dogs yet.  Snow Dogs is a Disney movie, so I tried to pretend I was a seven year old boy who still liked burp humor and I hadn’t read Gary Paulsen’s lovely book Winterdance, which this movie was supposedly based on.  I’ll never again trust the phrase “based on.”  Winterdance is the story of a guy from Minnesota running the Iditarod. This movie is about a dentist (Cuba Gooding Junior) from Miami who falls for a bartender (Filipino Joanna Bacalso as an alleged Alaska Native). Then he learns he’s adopted and inherits his birth-mother’s sled dog team.  The only overlap with the book is a scene with sled dogs pulling an old car, but the movie adds a hilarious skunk… an animal we actually don’t have in Alaska.  The movie did get better, or at least cuter, when the huskies showed up, but it sends the dangerous message that the only danger a pack of sled dogs poses is ripping up jackets.  Children should know those dogs have been known to tear the hands off their owners.  Also, kids – it isn’t possible to outrun a brown bear. On a scale of 1 to 5, Snow Dogs scores half…  a lost skunk.

The Guardian or Rescue Team Alaska – The army has Stripes, the navy has Top Gun, the marine core has Full Metal Jacket, and The Coast Guard has The Guardian. Renowned rescue swimmer Ben Randall (Kevin Costner) mentors a troubled high schooler (Ashton Kutcher)… and both learn some lessons about life.  I’d like to be critical of a recruitment ad disguised as a film.  I’d like to tear apart this movie which was probably responsible for a lot of Coasties getting some action from adoring girlfriends, and as a result, a bunch of poor kids who have to move every 4 years.  But The Guardian was actually pretty good.  It was the most authentically Alaskan movie I’ve seen yet, partly filmed on the Coast Guard base in Kodiak. On the other hand, Ashton’s attraction to Costner was more convincing than the love story between him and Sela Ward. But that’s OK, because it was kind of nice to vicariously fall for Kevin Costner again twenty long years after Bull Durham.  The ending was cheesy, but not bad enough to negate the hope it instills for all the fishermen shipwrecked in the Bering Sea.  Not a lot of hope, but maybe just enough to keep someone from giving up.  On a scale of 1 to 5,  The Guardian scores 4… survival suits.

Salmonberries or Crapberries in Alaska – This movie is, thankfully, very hard to find. So this will just be a review of the trailer located on its Internet Movie Database page. It features a shirtless K.D. Lang. The camera circles her as she stands among the clouds and howls like a wolf.  Then she starts singing about walking through the snow without any shoes on. The movie is about an orphan teaming up with a German immigrant to discover their roots or something. Huh? On a scale of 1 to 5, the Salmonberries trailer scores 0… jars of jam.

Out Cold or The Screwball 80’s Come to Alaska – This is about a group of beer-happy dudes trying to save their beloved skiing mountain from being taken over a corporate shill (played by Lee Majors for some reason).  For some other reason apparent to only the writers, the romantic subplot is filled with references to Casablanca. Along the way there’s bouncing boobs, dumb jokes, and punk pop music playing over way too many skiing montages.  The most entertaining aspect of it all is playing the game of, “Hey, I recognize that guy from…” whatever much better TV show or movie he went on to act in (the list here includes The Office, Sex and the City, The Hangover, Bad Santa, and Anchorman). Naturally, the climax is a race down the mountain that saves the day… for reasons that, to put it kindly, again defy any sort of logic. On a scale of 1 to 5, Out Cold scores… an empty beer keg.

Mystery, Alaska or Mystery, Canada – Russell Crowe plays the sheriff of Mystery, Alaska, a hockey-loving village which hosts the New York Rangers after an article about the small town hockey team appears in Sports Illustrated.  The entire town of Mystery must have been built on a lake, because even in the summer people are skating along main street, skating in their yards, skating at night, skating in the morning… the only time they don’t skate is when they are sharpening their skates or watching other people skate. The thing is this: hockey isn’t really that popular in most of Alaska (though Levi Johnston’s hockey stick spread for Playgirl and Sarah Palin’s identification as a “hockey mom” helped further this inaccuracy).  Alaskans certainly do not have Canadian accents, say “godsakes,” or have mullets… at least not in the ratio presented here. Like all sports movies, this one ends with the big game. Unlike most sports movies, the good guys lose, but they’re heroes anyway. Then Little Richard and Mike Meyers show up!  Meyers was the perfect choice, as all jokes reference Canadian hockey trivia, Mike Meyers is Canadian, and the movie was filmed in Alberta.  The only bit of Alaska in this movie is the title. On a scale of 1 to 5, Mystery, Alaska scores 2… maple leaves, eh?

North to Alaska or The Duke of AlaskaSet in Nome but clearly filmed in California, North To Alaska is the story of gold miner, Sam McCord (played by John Wayne), who travels to Seattle to fetch his partner’s fiancé.  When Sam learns that she’s married to someone else, he brings a saloon girl named Angel back instead.  Naturally, they all fall for Angel. In the end the Duke wins the girl, though not before some claim jumping, shootouts, and bar fights. North to Alaska was filmed over 50 years ago, a time when entire novellas were written on movie posters. Here is it’s tagline: When Big Sam wanted somethin’ he got it—the best!  When he did somethin’, he did it big.  Like taming a woman the way you tame the land! Or fighting until the last man was down! Now Big Sam was set. He and the Seattle pleasure palace doll were on their way—to the top of the world! It sets up expectations for a pretty exciting adventure… which it largely delivers! And John Wayne is timeless.  It’s impossible not to hum along to the Johnny Horton’s catchy theme song and pretty hard not to enjoy this lighthearted western. On a scale of 1 to 5, North to Alaska scores 3.5… singing cowboys.