“Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent” Review

I’d never heard of Jeremiah Tower before this documentary, but there are plenty of talking heads present in The Last Magnificent to correct this. After the aged Tower himself starts looking back on his life in philosophical quotes, cooking greats Martha Stewart and Wolfgang Puck talk about Tower as though he was the godfather of giving chefs a face outside of the kitchen. For a man that specialized in American cuisine, that’s quite the title. So how come I’d never heard of him until this movie?

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“That Guy Dick Miller” Review

You know Dick Miller, don’t you? He played that wannabe artist who murdered people into art in A Bucket of Blood. Never saw it? How about the sleazy resort owner from Piranha? The pawn shop owner who gets assaulted by the T-800 in The Terminator? Murray Futterman from Gremlins? If you’re still not sure who he is, don’t worry about it. The man has been in an endless stream of movies that once you see this documentary you’ll be saying “oh, THAT guy.”

In this loving tribute to the man’s career – still continuing after this documentary – we get to know more about Dick Miller through personal interviews and stories out of school. Even at 86 years old, the man is still going strong in both spirit and career. He stages a bit towards the end of picture that he’s thinking about retiring just as he answers the phone for another gig that he jumps at without question. During the filming of this documentary, Dick was in the middle of acting on a set with another legendary actor, Abe Vigoda (yes, he’s still alive). He just keeps plugging away and doesn’t seem to have lost any of that charm even with his wrinkled body and scruffier voice.

While there are plenty of great tales from the man behind the scenes – including a picture where he had to hold a monkey that kept assaulting him – it was more interesting to see what Miller did outside acting. He initially wanted to be a writer, writing several screenplays he would like to have sold. And while he didn’t sell many with the few he did turning out to be disasters, he still kept at it all these years. Dick’s wife shows off his packed filing cabinet stuffed with many scripts he has written. Look at the walls of his house and you’ll note some of his artwork. Dick spent just as much time drawing and doodling as he did writing – from sketches on scripts to large sheets of paper. His material is uniquely surreal – featuring twisted versions of the human form – and worthy of being in the likes of Heavy Metal magazine.

The interviews with his various colleagues and critics are mostly about them gushing over Dick’s warm presence and ease on screen. There’s certainly plenty of amazing stories to be told from his early years as Roger Corman regular to gem of a cameo for movies of the 1980’s – 1990’s. Some of my favorites include Dick Miller working with a rather fickle monkey and his unique experience on the set of Demon Night being surrounded by topless women. For a man who has been reduced to being a familiar secondary character, he certainly seems to have the most glowing spirit that never diminished with age.

But if you’ve somehow never seen a movie with Dick Miller, just what is his appeal? All of it comes from his natural presence. He’s attempted some different roles from the Corman era as a struggling artist and a sci-fi hero, but he’s far more memorable as the bright-eyed elder which he fits like a glove. He takes every role seriously from an acting perspective, but with a twinkle in his eye to let us know that he’s having fun no matter the project.

And what of his darker side? It’s hard to find, but Dick did have his struggles. During his early years, he aspired to be a writer, but it took a backseat to his acting. He managed to sell one script, but only after it was tampered with and nearly had his name removed from the credits. It’s easy to see why he stuck with more acting considering the work was more consistent and his name more widely known. Outside of some minor issues with contracts, Dick’s life seems just as sweet as the man himself.

The documentary maintains a casual and playful tone throughout with brilliant cartoons to dramatize the life of Dick Miller and the people around him. Plenty of movie clips are placed on display to make sure that any avid movie watcher will get a chance to point at the screen and remark “I remember that guy.” There’s even some astounding archival footage of Dick’s personal life and experiences on movie sets. All of this keeps the movie constantly moving and endlessly entertaining.

That Guy Dick Miller is a celebratory love-letter to the man who dominated the big screen in his own small way. That may not sound like the deepest of documentaries the way it doesn’t critically dissect his career. There are even parts of the movie where it feels as though you’re playing a game of Spot Dick Miller. But I couldn’t help getting caught up in his aura with this glowing tribute that is deservingly bestowed on such an actor. He’s funny, devoted, multi-talented and just a great guy to be around. I just recently saw him as a cop in the horror/comedy Burying the Ex – directed by his pal Joe Dante – and he certainly hasn’t lost that likable personality.

“American Hercules: The Legend of Babe Ruth” Review

Babe Ruth was a figure I first heard about through the classic baseball movie The Sandlot. The children of that picture talked of the man as if he were a god among men for his legendary skills at bat. It was only later through various documentaries and books that I learned more about the man and his historic career. So many features and segments have been presented on the Babe that this DVD actually loads up the special features with plenty of previously produced content.

So what more can this Major League Baseball produced documentary provide outside of a few more clips from the archive? As the title implies, this hour-long feature attempts to find parallels between Babe Ruth and the mythological tales of heroes. But if that seems a little out there as more of a thesis paper, the documentary thankfully pulls back enough to focus on Ruth’s major contributions to American culture.

Martin Sheen narrates this decent documentary that’s suitable enough for television with its motion graphic displays. There are plenty of talking heads from elders of the era, historians of Ruth’s work and baseball greats that talk up the legend as such. They all share some great stories about the man amid the amazing archival B-roll footage of Ruth on and off the field. It was especially entertaining to see how the man acts around his family in home movies and how he appears as a celebrity doing cameos for film. This footage is pretty neat to watch which baffles me why we get to see so little of it. This would have been an opportune selling point for the DVD to feature this footage uncut in the special features.

But let’s discuss what you’ll really get out of this documentary as opposed to any number of documentaries on Babe Ruth. Yes, the documenters do indeed compare the Babe to Hercules from both a story and character level. While there are some clever similarities discussed in the struggles and triumphs of both men, this is sadly where the documentary starts to go a little Ancient Aliens on us. You can tell that the people who wrote this picture went in with the best intentions of delivering a unique examination on baseball’s greatest player. But they ultimately struggle to fill up the meager running time by focussing far too much on the mythological aspects of the man. This leads to a lot of what-if theories that sounds like the words of a madly-obsessed Babe Ruth fan. If this documentary had been any longer, would they really go down the road of asking if Babe Ruth could defeat Hercules at baseball? I wouldn’t want to meet the talking heads for that segment.

Did Babe Ruth’s life really require such a documentary comparing him to Hercules? Probably not. After all, there’s enough interviews, archival footage/photos and plenty to talk about with the man’s legacy that it doesn’t need this extra layer of mythological discussion. Perhaps this angle was taken to give the next generation a new feature on the Babe with a more appealing aspect. But do kids really need history to go to this level to be interesting? It feels unneeded as if it’s trying to match the likes of Ancient Aliens with its wild ideas. Babe Ruth is already an amazing figure in his own right – he doesn’t need this extra fluff to convince the audience that he was larger than life. If only this picture had the confidence in its own source material to showcase the spectacular footage the MLB archive has to offer, it could have been a more engaging feature. Save that Herculean mythological comparison for a thesis paper or the next bickering bar fight about who would win in a fight.

“Antarctica: A Year on Ice” Review

Though this year-long documentary on working in Antarctica is one filled with many dangers and bitter temperatures, it actually feels more like a travel brochure in how appealing it displays the tundra. The empty mountains of snowy silence, the cozy comradery of the staff and the amazing sights make for a spectacular journey around Earth’s coldest destination. It’s no cake walk for sure, but even with all its faults – and there are a large number of them – I’m still drawn to this different world. And considering I live in Minnesota where it already gets snowy and cold in the winter, that’s saying something.

Documentarian Anthony Powell spends an entire year working in the Ross Island region of the continent – home to the American and New Zealand research bases. The engineers and scientists that occupy these bases have a unique culture. When not stooped in their monotonous work, they find plenty of ways to blow off steam and have some fun. Be it an outdoor festival of drinks, an indoor match of video games or just a good book, there’s no shortage of entertainment for a cold-climate environment. There are film festivals between all the various bases as a creative means of keeping in contact. They have parties outside with freezing dips and live music. All of this makes the isolated nature of the base seem as though it’s the best place to work. Their recreation sure beats the heck out of a company party at Applebee’s.

But Anthony does more than just film the people of Antarctica considering he’s here for work – shooting footage to be used for BBC’s Frozen Planet. He travels to the most desolate of areas to setup equipment for photo and videos. There is complete quiet and silence – a serene atmosphere for one of nature’s grandest displays of snow and mountains. That being said, I’m glad that Anthony doesn’t hold anything back the way he mentions the pungent aroma of penguin feces that pollutes the area. You won’t hear about that in March of the Penguins.

Aside from the temperature forcing a more indoor lifestyle and isolation from the rest of the world, living and working in Antarctica doesn’t seem all that tough. That is until the large dark winter months of February to October. This is where the true test of devotion lies for accepting such working conditions. A good chunk of the staff ends up leaving as this winter doesn’t allow for any flights coming or going out of the region. The skies grows dark and black as temperatures drop and blizzards kick up a storm. The remainder of the workers who stay behind for this period mostly have one task: maintain the bases until the winter is over. And this is by no means easy. Just ask Anthony who ventures out to one of the small bases to unfreeze pipes while a storm barrels down on the walls.

And as if the colder than cold weather wasn’t bad enough, the constant darkness and indoor lifestyle can lead to T3 Syndrome. This conditions refers to when the T3 hormones of the brain divert to keep muscles warm during winter. This causes a bad case of the cabin fever with memory loss and mood swings. Routine actions that workers go through everyday start becoming new to them. A general store cashier notes that her usual customers start believing their first-timers to the shop. Thank goodness the workers still find plenty of fun indoor activities to shake off the dark winter blues and maintain some sanity.

But Anthony keeps a chipper spirit throughout all of this and it’s easy to understand why. The majestic nature he captures on film is more than worth the trip, from the northern lights to the shifting plains of ice. And getting to experience it all with a group of unique and entertaining individuals just makes the continent seem like a little slice of heaven. It’s certainly a land of hard-working individuals that have to sacrifice much. Being cut off from the rest of the world has got to be a little depressing as one man finds himself regretting not being there for the birth of a new family member. There are even some sad protocols as when workers cannot intervene with a seal lost from ocean – doomed to die on land. But the experience is unlike anything on Earth with real struggle and joy. In another life, I would’ve jumped at such an opportunity. As it stands, I’ll settle for Powell’s documentary which let’s us come along for the ride.