Never Cry Wolf

February 7, 2012

It is written, somewhere in the annals of Hollywood lore, that “Even a man who is pure of heart and says his prayers each night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms, and the autumn moon is bright.”

We don’t find out whether Tyler, the scientist sent alone to the Arctic to study the habits of wolves in Never Say Wolf, is a praying man, but he seems reasonably pure of heart. Naïve, even. And as enacted by the lovably goony Charles Martin Smith, he has the wide-open eyes that wait to be illuminated by the bright, full moon.

Tyler doesn’t exactly turn into a wolf in the course of this film, but he does adopt some of the wolves’ behavior, and he develops not only a healthy respect for the beasts, but also a kind of kinship with them.

He’s been sent to the icy wasteland to find out whether wolves are the culprits in the drastic reduction of the area’s caribou herds. It is generally assumed that they are the villains; but Tyler discovers that the wolves are simply fulfilling their function in the natural scheme of things.

Indeed, they become, in his eyes and ours, much more likable—and even more human, with their carefully arranged family units and group behavior patterns—than some of the people in the movie. Man is about to put his paws on this untouched wilderness, and anything that gets in the way of manifest destiny—wolves, caribou, or Tyler—will probably be flicked aside.

For most of the movie, however, it’s just Tyler and the wolves, and the spectacular Yukon countryside. We see his struggle for survival, including an unscheduled dip in a freezing lake, and then his lonely vigil near a family of wolves. When Tyler sees the wolves chewing on field mice, he gets his first inkling that the wolves may not be the savage caribou-killers he was expecting.

By now, he’s gotten so fond of the creatures that he feels compelled to prove that a large mammal can live by eating only mice. Since the only laboratory animal around is himself, it’s soon a steady diet of mouse stew, fried mouse, and mouse au gratin.

This episode, like many in Never Cry Wolf, is immensely engaging. Director Carroll Ballard (The Black Stallion) keeps a sense of discovery very much to the forefront. For instance, he hooks a camera on to the bottom of a seaplane and films its landing on a frozen lake. That’s a stunning effect, with that great sense of trying out something new—not unlike the feeling Tyler has, setting off into the tundra.

Also crucial to the film’s irresistible spell are the gorgeous vistas that Ballard has photographed, and the Eskimo characters whose folklore provides some of the film’s mysticism. (The two non-professional Eskimo actors who play Tyler’s friends, Zachary Ittimangnaq and Samson Jorah, are quite wonderful.)

But the movie really revolves around the wolves. As Tyler watches them play—he feels so close to them, he’s even given them names—he sighs, “This is not a place for man. It belongs to the wolves.” So does this movie, and eloquently.

First published in the Herald, October 1983

The Grey, of course, has come along to set us straight on this movie’s hippie-dippy ideas about the predators in the tundra. I think of Ballard as occupying a spot in the Coppola-Malick section of the movie spectrum, with his strong instinct that the power of the pictorial image will put everything over. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Also, about my opening paragraph, I confess I’m the kind of person who can’t resist quoting The Wolf Man when I get the chance. Curt Siodmak ftw, as they say.

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Starman

February 1, 2012

In the opening scene of Starman, we see the Voyager probe, which was sent into outer space a few years ago. In a parody of the musical space ballets of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the vessel glides through the solar system—but instead of the strains of “The Blue Danube,” as in 2001, we hear the Rolling Stones singing “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” which, apparently, was included in the sampler of cultural artifacts as part of the message of invitation for alien civilizations.

Right then you know this is not going to be a stuffy movie.

The Voyager’s invitation will be accepted, by a highly advanced civilization, and this premise—a grown-up E.T.—is the story of Starman (which, by the way, is being touted as the science-fiction sleeper of the season, especially compared to the bigger-budgeted 2010 and Dune).

Starman had an air of notoriety even before the cameras started rolling. This is the project that Columbia Pictures decided to develop instead of E.T., which was then passed on to Universal. We all know how that one turned out, and Columbia had egg on its face for a while.

Starman makes Columbia look better. It’s not as good as E.T., but it’s got a similar innocence and hopeful view of man and alien. It’s also got unavoidably similar situations, such as the alien learning to eat, speak, and behave in the human world. Some of this stuff has been overworked lately (it’s going to turn up again in the upcoming Brother from Another Planet), but much of it is sure-fire in terms of engaging an audience.

Both films are love stories between the alien and his finder. The big difference between E.T. and Starman is that this story has an adult romance, not a child’s.

The Starman crash-lands in Wisconsin near the farm of a widow (Karen Allen, from Raiders of the Lost Ark). He scopes out her home and reforms himself to look like her late husband (so, he looks like Jeff Bridges).

He’s on Earth just to get a feel for the place and then return to his own world with information—and perhaps to help a little down here. But he went off course, and he has to get back to his pick-up point (in Arizona) in three days, or he’ll miss his ride and die.

So Allen is recruited as a reluctant chauffeur, and as a tutor—teaching the Starman, during their cross-country journey, about the joys of driving, language, truck stops, Dutch apple pie, and other intimate human functions.

A parallel story develops: the pursuit of the Starman by official forces. The government people, being government people, want to capture him and run all kinds of nasty tests. Not very good manners, considering that, as one expert puts it, “We invited him here!”

That UFO expert (a good role for Charles Martin Smith of Never Cry Wolf) tracks the Starman with the government officials (led by that mean guy, Richard Jaeckel). By the time everybody meets up in Arizona, he’s got more feeling for the Starman than for his official job.

This film should open up some doors for director John Carpenter, who has had a hard time breaking out of the horror genre (Halloween, Christine). He gets the humor very nicely and the performers are solid. I would quibble only that the film takes a long time getting into its groove, but it grows on you enough to make you forget that. When Starman reaches its rapturous ending, you’re with it all the way.

First published in the Herald, December 12, 1984

It may have opened some doors for Carpenter, but it turned out he wasn’t a guy to walk through them anyway. Nice movie, and it must be well-liked, but it sure doesn’t come up much in conversation; maybe there’s too much mushy stuff for it to hold a lot of nerdosphere cred? Jeff Bridges is terrific in it, and got a well-deserved Oscar nomination.


The Untouchables

November 9, 2011

For all its explicit violence and mayhem, there’s something gloriously old-fashioned about The Untouchables. Not just because it recalls the Robert Stack television show; not even because it’s set in 1930 and evokes memories of hard-bitten Warner Bros. gangster movies.

No, The Untouchables is old-fashioned in more crucial and meaningful ways. It has the simplicity, for instance, to suggest that might doesn’t necessarily make right, and that a small band of men on the side of good may triumph. These days it takes a lot of gumption to support ideas like those, and The Untouchables has gumption in excess.

Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) is the Treasury agent who rides into 1930s Chicago like a cowboy determined to rid the town of its black-hatted villain. The villain, of course, is “Scarface” Al Capone (Robert De Niro), who rules the city utterly, and has much of the police department in his deep pockets.

So Ness forms his own troupe of men: Malone (Sean Connery), a wise old-timer who tutors Ness in the Chicago ways; Wallace (Charles Martin Smith), a Treasury accountant who studiously discovers that the blood-spattered Capone might be tripped up on a tax-evasion charge; and Stone (Andy Garcia), a young Italian sharpshooter.

The film delivers this investigation through a series of tit-for-tat encounters between Ness and Capone, a bloody citywide war that eventually has no limits. The playwright David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross) has written characters and dialogue that manage to be fresh while conforming to historical facts (and certain Hollywood traditions).

And he layers the movie’s straight-forwardness with some ironies; for instance, that the law Ness was defending, Prohibition, was a bad idea, which allowed organized crime to take over in the first place. And Mamet doesn’t shrink from the fact that Ness’s tactics begin to resemble those of the very men he’s sworn to put away.

Choosing Brian De Palma to direct Mamet’s script was a brilliant stroke. De Palma has already cut his teeth on the operatic crime film (his Scarface was actually an update of the 1932 film based on Capone). De Palma and cinematographer Stephen Burum find the kind of clean, unfussy period look that the material demands.

Yet when opportunity presents itself, De Palma is capable of taking wing. Two set pieces stand out: Ness’s men charging across the countryside on horseback to seize a shipment of illegal hooch, and a delirious sequence in a train station involving Ness’s capture of Capone’s bookkeeper in a furious crossfire. De Palma’s thrilling staging of these scenes marks a new virtuosity in his work.

A slew of good performances, too: Costner does well with the difficult task of keeping straight-arrow Ness interesting; Connery is marvelous in a role he inhabits with warmth and authority; Billy Drago contributes a chilling cameo as hit man Frank Nitti. De Niro, who replaced Bob Hoskins as Capone, is effective as usual, never more so than in a stirring speech about baseball that ends in his Louisville Slugger connecting with the skull of an incompetent underling. It’s a whole new suggestion of the true American pastime.

First published in the Herald, June 3, 1987

I recall how satisfying this movie was when it came along; it didn’t have to be great, it was just so very good. Which meant a lot in 1987. A prequel has been rumored for a while, and I have a strong feeling somebody’s going to remake this soon, and probably not stray far from the Mamet screenplay.