Directed By: Nils Gaup
Starring: James Caan, Christopher Lambert, Catherine McCormack, Burt Young
North Star, set during the gold rush in turn of the century Alaska, features Christopher Lambert as half-Eskimo Hudson Saanteek. Saanteek has put his name against a claim for a gold rich cavern of social and spiritual significance to his people in order to prevent prospectors from defiling it. This puts him on the bad side of Nome-based sociopathic mining company boss Sean McLennon whose business plan seems to consist almost exclusively of purchasing large claims from people his men have recently killed, although he also dabbles in rigging the rules so that he can steal claims made by non American citizens. Santeek escapes McLennon's initial attempt to kill him, but when he subsequently confronts him at his home, McLennon's girlfriend, Sarah (McCormack) sounds the alarm, forcing him to escape with Sarah in tow as a human shield. At that point, the chase is on as McLennon and his men, aided by their own native tracker, pursue Santeek through the Alaskan wilderness.
This film was originally produced in 1996, never received much of a theatrical release, and also fell through the digital video cracks, showing up on VHS, but never getting a DVD release until now. Now, in its first ever release in its intended scope aspect ratio, movie fans can see what they were missing. Unfortunately, they were not missing much.
North Star is a strangely old-fashioned piece of filmmaking in multiple senses of that term, none of them particularly positive. Its base story is a very generic western trope about battles between honest hardworking men of the Earth and rich greedy homicidal land grabbers. There is not a hint of modernism, post-modernism, or any sort of ethical ambiguity anywhere in the screenplay. This is likely due to its adaptation from a source novel from the 1950s. It is also an international production where actors in smaller supporting roles appear to be dubbed by other actors resulting in some unusual and awkward vocal cadences reminiscent of 1960s Italian productions (but not necessarily the good ones). Finally, the cinematography makes it look like it was shot on 1980s film stocks rather then the faster, finer grained stocks that were in use in the mid-90s when the film was produced. None of these characteristics are inherently bad on their own, but when employed in the service of a poor script with sub-par direction, they become downright distracting. To be clear, when I say "poor script", I am talking about both the structure of the story, which is constantly introducing plot threads and character elements to which it has no intention of doing justice, as well as terrible tin-eared dialog filled with western clichés.
The film also occasionally insults the viewers' intelligence such as when a large claims recording book is flipped through with each page showing McLennon as the owner and the previous owner deceased. The prop design of the book and recorded information on the pages inside it seems to have come out of a cartoon. At least they stopped short of putting the title "Criminal Evidence agains McLennon" on the outside of the book.
While James Caan, Catherine McCormack, and Burt Young are all fine actors who have turned in good cinematic work, you will not find many examples of it here. This film serves as a good reminder of the interdependence of actors and directors when it comes to cinematic acting. All I can figure is that Nils Gaup was not giving James Caan feedback on his over the top mugging, Caan was ignoring such feedback, or Gaup and his editor were just plain choosing the worst takes. To be fair, the film was made independently with funds scraped together from multiple sources and must have been a difficult shoot with most of its footage consisting of exteriors shot in freezing temperatures. Perhaps Gaup and his editor did not have the luxury of too many takes to choose from. By far the most embarrassing moments of the film for Caan occur after a secret about his character is revealed late in the film and every subsequent shot has him making "crazy eyes" for no good reason. It is almost worth seeing the film just for the unintentional hilarity of these moments.
Christopher Lambert remains, as always, Christopher Lambert, and is most effective when eschewing dialog, which he is allowed to do for much of the film. Considering the poor script, the other actors probably should have considered such a strategy themselves. Lambert is a credited producer on the film, and, to his credit, other than doling him out a few more close-ups than were necessary, the film never comes across as a vanity project. In fact, after the film's prologue, he is absent from the screen for most of the first act.
The film's only two real strengths are its use of impressively scenic Norwegian locations to double for the Alaskan wilderness and its fairly exciting chase and siege sequences. (I was going to say "action sequences", but the fight choreography is actually pretty poor, so "chase and siege" it is.) One may question the plausibility of Lambert's character apparently outrunning a dog sled posse on foot for an hour or so (the timeline is fudged so you may be able to rationalize it), but at least the locations he is trekking through are easy on the eyes.
The 16:9 enhanced 2.35:1 transfer appears generally a bit soft with heavy grain throughout. This becomes especially apparent during the exteriors which constitute something like 85% of the film's running time. The film's most apparent source of production value is its location work with Norway doubling for the Alaskan landscape. The beauty of these locations still comes through, but is less spectacular due to the apparent deficiencies in the film element and transfer. The compression algorithm at times is given fits by the grain, and occasional instances of edge ringing further obscure the image. If the edge enhancement had been more pronounced, one could have mistaken this for a transfer that had been gathering dust for the past thirteen years.
The only audio option is an English Dolby Digital 2.0 matrixed surround track that presents centered dialog, but an otherwise wide stereo sound mix across the front channels with acceptable but not exceptional fidelity and little to no use of the surrounds.
The packaging lists "First ever widescreen video presentation" as a special feature which is never a good sign for fans of DVD supplements. The only real extra is a theatrical trailer for the film which is presented in 4:3 full frame video and runs about a minute and a half. I enjoyed the bit of marketing chutzpah that went into the trailer narration hyping "Catherine McCormack in her most exciting role since Braveheart" – especially since it was, at the time, her only film since Braveheart. To its credit, the trailer does accurately portray the badness of the film, with shots of a wild-eyed teeth-gritted overacting James Caan and clunky voiceover dialog from Lambert.
The disc is packaged in a standard Amaray case with no inserts.
A poor to mediocre film receives a poor to mediocre DVD presentation. I suppose this DVD release will satisfy James Caan, Christopher Lambert, and/or Burt Young completists, but there is not much reason for any other film fans to invest their time or money in it.
Edited by Ken_McAlinden - 7/9/2009 at 03:51 pm GMT