The Clan of the Cave Bear

September 2, 2011

Advance reports suggested that the film version of The Clan of the Cave Bear might be among the most laughable goofs of recent memory—evidently preview audiences were hooting at the film, and Warner Bros. has been postponing the release since it was first announced for last summer.

The movie arrived a few days ago (without an advance screening for the press, often a bad harbinger). As it turns out, it’s not as inept or as ludicrous as had been rumored.

It’s not particularly good, mind you, but it’s certainly not Heaven’s Gate among the cavemen. Or should we say cavepeople, since the film projects a post-feminist attitude upon the hapless Neanderthals.

I’m one of the last English speaking people to have avoided Jean M. Auel’s book, but I assume this feminist theme is carried on from the source material. It has been adapted for film by John Sayles, who often writes screenplays for hire so he can finance his own, self-directed movies (The Return of the Secaucus Seven, Brother from Another Planet).

I hope Sayles makes something good from the fee he got for Cave Bear, because there’s certainly not much of him in it. Sayles’ gift for dialogue is, understandably, not in evidence, since the characters speak in grunts and hand signs (there are subtitles and narration).

The story is barely there: About 35,000 years ago, a young, blonde-haired tyke named Ayla, whom we are to understand is Cro-Magnon, is picked up by a band of dark, hairy Neanderthals and brought into their clan by a witch doctor (James Remar) and a medicine woman (Pamela Reed). The little girl is raised by these sympathetic people until she becomes the long-legged Daryl Hannah (from Splash), who shows early signs of wanting to play with weapons, heretofore a male domain.

Her struggles are primarily with a mean boy (Thomas G. Waites), an early espouser of the Playboy philosophy, who will someday lead the tribe. He wants her thrown out of the cave, and she must kneel in his presence and submit to his sexual needs. Only the men are allowed to hunt, and the women provide them with food. Jeez, these guys are really Neanderthals.

Ayla becomes the first feminist when she finds a slingshot and starts aiming stones at a stump of wood, which begins her journey toward self-sufficiency.

The film is really not that awful. But it seems there are some stories that can be conjured up in prose that can’t be similarly treated in movies, and this is one of them. It’s tough to believe the gorgeous Hannah (who is otherwise pretty good) as a Cro-Magnon woman who will someday evolve into modern man. She’s already there, even if she doesn’t shave her legs.

Michael Chapman, the former cinematographer whose only previous film as director was All the Right Moves, gives everything a respectful, ordinary gloss. However, there’s an exciting scene in which the young chieftains battle an enormous bear, and the bear is one of the greatest I’ve ever seen in the movies.

One question: if Ayla brought her proto-feminist ways to bear on such an early form of human civilization, how did we fall so far behind again in the succeeding 35,000 years? I guess we’ll have to look to the sequels to find out.

First published in the Herald, February 12, 1986

No sequel would there be for the movie series, thanks to this film’s reception. And when I say “Heaven’s Gate for cavemen,” I don’t mean Heaven’s Gate was bad, but that Heaven’s Gate was the standard for big-scale flops. Although I suppose if we apply the latter definition this movie was the Heaven’s Gate for cavemen.

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All the Right Moves

April 13, 2011

In the first shot of All the Right Moves, we see a smoking factory sitting in the middle of a small mining town. A young man and an older character actor walk out of the factory, carrying their standard-issue lunch pails and hardhats, and wearily making their way home.

I’m not clairvoyant, but it was at this moment—30 seconds or so into the film—that I leaned back and said to myself: “Uh huh. It’s going to be the one about the kid who has to win the sports scholarship so he won’t get trapped in this suffocating existence the way his father and brother did.”

It’s unfair to pigeonhole any movie based on the first few moments. Good movies can always surprise you.

But dog my cats if All the Right Moves didn’t go exactly where I thought it was going. What I couldn’t predict was how lame it would be about getting there.

Tom Cruise, who was so good as the enterprising innocent in Risky Business, appears as the football-playing hero who learns the true meaning of teamwork, loyalty and whatever else it is that kids learn the true meaning of in stories like this. He wants to wangle a football scholarship at a major college so he can become an engineer and enter the mining business with a whiter collar than his father and brother.

But Cruise derails his plans when he cusses out the coach after his team loses the Big Game—thanks to a coaching error. Not only that, but he gets drunk with some of the town’s rowdy alumni and throws garbage all over the coach’s house. Wrong move.

Pretty soon the coach has him blackballed from all the right colleges. It looks as though Cruise is going to get stuck in the small town.

But wait. Our hero’s steady date, a slip of a girl played by Lea Thompson, has other ideas. She has an excruciatingly dopey heart-to-heart with the coach’s wife, and the tide starts to turn. Now it’s up to Cruise to show a little decency.

But that’s enough synopsizing: you get the picture. The best thing about All the Right Moves is Craig T. Nelson’s performance as the coach. Nelson, who played the father in Poltergeist, has a bizarre off-center delivery that makes everything he does fun to watch.

The worst thing about the movie is that it bodes ill for the directing career of Michael Chapman, the excellent cinematographer (Raging Bull, Personal Best), whose first directing job this is.

A word about a disturbing trend in recent cinema: This is the second film this year in which a spunky kid pursues a goal that will allow him/her to break out of a Pennsylvania mining environment. The first, of course, was that phenomenon—one does not actually want to refer to it as a movie—known as Flashdance, a word that will live in infamy.

All the Right Moves should not have the same bewildering success; still, it’s time to nip this thing in the bud. We’ve got to put an end to the trend, and soon. It’ll be a tough job, but then it’s a chore just to sit there and watch these movies. Besides, maybe we’ll learn the true meaning of teamwork.

First published in the Herald, October 1983

A review from my first month at writing for the Herald, and I already sound plenty jaded. But one gets jaded quickly with a movie like All the Right Moves, my friend. The awfulness of the title itself seemed to point the way toward many an Eighties handle: vague and stupid, as fitting for an aerobics film or a martial arts picture. Michael Chapman directed again after this, with Clan of the Cave Bear, so there you go with that (strangely, it was during this time that he went from being one of Hollywood’s absolute top cinematographers—Taxi Driver, Fingers, the Kaufman Invasion of the Body Snatchers as well as the two mentioned above—to being a very, very good cinematographer. The movie was a step up the ladder for Cruise, who never looked back.