31 Days to Scare ~ Anaconda

1




The Facts
:

Synopsis: A film crew traveling on the Amazon River is taken hostage by an insane hunter, who forces them along on his quest to capture the world’s largest – and deadliest – snake.

Stars: Jennifer Lopez, Ice Cube, Jon Voight, Eric Stoltz, Jonathan Hyde, Owen Wilson, Kari Wuhrer

Director: Luis Llosa

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: If there’s one thing you should have gathered by now if you follow this blog on any kind of regular basis, it’s that The MN Movie Man loves a good creature feature.  Though they often fail to meet their potential, I’m notoriously a sucker and pretty forgiving for any movie that has a slimy monster, razor toothed alien, or, best of all, some underwater beast.  Big studios have become averse to toss their money toward these movies because they’re often heavy on CGI or animatronic effects, which increases the costs significantly, making the possibility to turn a profit more difficult for a genre that gets the most bang on opening weekend. However, don’t forget that in the late ’90s the teen slasher film was back on the rise so young audiences looking for thrills were being catered to more than ever. So while Sony was getting I Know What You Did Last Summer into production and ready for release, they already had a stealthy sleeper hit ready to slither into theaters in early 1997.

Keep in mind that when Anaconda was released in April of 1997, it carried with it a $45 million dollar price tag and a cast not known for raking in audiences.  Oscar-winner Jon Voight (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) wasn’t exactly a cover story anymore and Ice Cube (21 Jump Street) the actor wasn’t nearly as popular as Ice Cube the rapper.  Eric Stoltz (Kicking and Screaming) was more recognized for his brief turn in Pulp Fiction than he was for his dynamite roles in 1987’s Some Kind of Wonderful or 1985’s Mask and Owen Wilson (Zoolander 2) was just perfecting  his California surfer boy cool vibe that would land him a number of roles for the next two decades.  Then there was female lead Jennifer Lopez (Second Act) who we now always remember as being a star but back then hadn’t yet fully capitalized on her sensational breakthrough in Selena — that would happen in 1998’s Out of Sight.

So there was nothing to suggest Anaconda would be anything more than a silly B-movie of with a decent mechanical snake that would be substituted for a semi-convincing computer generated one for the fast moving shots.  And you know what?  That’s exactly what it is…and it’s great.  Sometimes it’s nice to just kick off your shoes and relax into a horror film that’s going to give you a little zing but isn’t going to to send you leaping out of your seat every six seconds.  There’s a particular level of fun to be had with a film like Anaconda because it gives you exactly what it promises (and a little extra) and doesn’t overstay its welcome.  It’s campy but in all the right ways and takes itself only as seriously as the material will allow — to spoof it or make it joke-y would spell disaster so the cast (and even the snake) seem to have a tiny twinkle in their eye.

Not that it really matters, but the plot finds a film crew led by Stolz and Lopez floating down the Amazon that picks up a stranded man (Voight) who turns out to be a psycho snake hunter.  He’s obsessed with capturing a large anaconda said to lurk in the waters far off the beaten path and takes control of the expedition so that he may use their boat to get where he’s going.  Looping crew member Wilson into his plot, Voight (sporting an accent questionable for its authenticity and political correctness) may prove to be more dangerous than the snake as the rest of the cast fights to survive being offed by him before the snake can give them a good squeeze.  Director Luis Llosa keeps the action brisk and and, considering the deadly subject matter, surprisingly jovial.

When the snake does appear, the results are mostly good but can be mixed at times thanks to mediocre CGI that can make its actual size confusing.  The practical snake is finely detailed and quite effective but the computer generated one looks an awful lot like a cartoon in some shots.  Then again, the editing is so fast and quick that you don’t get much time to see it in full and Llosa goes the Spielberg route and keeps it out of sight as much as possible for as long as he can.

Ultimately, it’s a solid effort and for the time period the movie was made you can see where the money went…although you look at a movie like Jaws and wonder how they made such a realistic shark in 1975 with absolutely no computer effects yet twenty two years later they can’t make an anaconda go from point A to point B and appear mostly convincing?  Say what you will about Voight nowadays but he’s never less than fully committed to the role and the loopy performance…and his famous “wink” scene is well worth the wait.  You don’t get a huge sense of the star Lopez would become but there’s definitely something there that makes you want to see more.  Audiences clearly were charmed by this big snake film because Anacadona wound up rattling the box office with a final take of nearly $137 million dollars.  It’s no wonder it was followed with several sequels of gradually decreasing quality, many of which bypassed theaters entirely.  There’s nothing quite as entertaining as the original and it holds up well even now.

In Praise of Teasers ~ The Fifth Element (1997)

1

In 2013 I was feeling pretty blue about the state of movie trailers.  For a time, it was imperative for me to get to a theater in time for the previews or else some of the fun would be missing from the experience of going to the movies because, let’s face it, sometimes the coming attractions were more entertaining than the feature presentation.  That started to change when the previews became less of a creative way to market the film and more of way for studios to put all their cards on the table with little artistry.  Like I said back seven years ago, it seems like nearly every preview that’s released is about 2:30 minutes long and gives away almost every aspect of the movie, acting more like a Cliff Notes version of the movie being advertised rather than something to entice an audience into coming back and seeing the full product.

Sadly, in the years since I did my first run of the In Praise of Teasers series, not a lot has changed and it may have gotten worse.  It’s gotten to the point where I almost avoid watching a trailer all together because so much of the plot is given away.  This site used to feature a wealth of movie previews but I just can’t bring myself to post too many because they’re so spoiler-y.  Only the rare well-done coming attraction or preview for an “event” film gets through…and even then I can’t think of anything recent that could go toe-to-toe with the brief bites I’m going to share with you over the coming weeks.

That’s why I’ve decided to revive In Praise of Teasers now.  In this day and age where all aspects of a movie are fairly well known before an inch of footage is seen the subtlety of a well crafted “teaser” trailer is totally gone…and I miss it…I miss it a lot.  Let’s revisit some of the teaser trailers I fondly remember and, in a way, reintroduce them. Whether the actual movie was good or bad is neither here nor there; but pay attention to how each of these teasers work in their own special way to grab the attention of movie-goers.

The Fifth Element (1997)

Bless French director Luc Besson, he just marches along to the beat of his own drummer.  While directors aren’t necessarily involved with the marketing of their films, it’s hard not to watch these two teasers for Besson’s space operatic epic The Fifth Element and not see his influence all over them.  Both teasers feature no plot description or final footage from the eye-popping film starring a blonde Bruce Willis and a barely-clothed Milla Jovovich, to say nothing of hearing villain Gary Oldman’s Foghorn Leghorn accent in all its glory.  No, audiences would have to wait for a longer trailer to get a better picture of what Besson had in store, following on the heels of his well-liked but minor-hit Léon: The Professional in 1995.  Make no mistake, The Fifth Element was a risky endeavor (as all Besson’s films are, see Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets for proof) and while it made only $63 million dollars here in the US, it netted a total worldwide gross of almost $265 million…so clearly overseas took to it far better than we did.  I remember being in Spain the summer this was released and seeing the most gigantic billboards ever advertising this — truly an astonishing sight to behold.  Watching the feature film again recently I was struck by how ahead of its time it was.  It’s silly but fun and totally the Europop comfort food we’ve come to expect from Besson, though these early teasers hint at something a little less focused on style and more on inter-galactic adventure.  And no Diva Dance…that would have to wait for the main event.

For more teasers check out my posts on The Addams Family, Alien, Misery, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Showgirls, Jurassic Park, Jaws 3D/Jaws: The Revenge, Total Recall, Halloween II: Season of the Witch

Movie Review ~ Troop Beverly Hills


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A soon to be divorced Beverly Hills socialite is determined to prove to her husband and herself that she can finish what she starts out to do, by becoming a den mother to a troop of Beverly Hills Girl Scouts.

Stars: Shelley Long, Craig T. Nelson, Audra Lindley, Betty Thomas, Mary Gross, Jenny Lewis, Ami Foster, Carla Gugino, Heather Hopper, Kellie Martin, Emily Schulman, Tasha Scott, Aquilina Soriano, Stephanie Beacham, Karen Kopins, Dinah Lacey, Shelley Morrison, Tori Spelling

Director: Jeff Kanew

Rated: PG

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review (The Movie): I know this is going to come as a great shock to you but when I was a youngster I hung around our local movie rental store quite a lot.  This was before the big chains started to dominate so Good Neighbor Video had the, uh, good fortune of getting a nearly daily visit from me which included a lengthy browse of any given section and long discussions with the bored college age clerks about the latest releases.  My enthusiasm for not just the movies but for the rental business in general resulted in the eventual winning over of the middle-aged owners (a true mom and pop set-up) and they were kind enough to toss my way a few publicity extras they weren’t able to use.

Back then these stores were flooded with promo materials to hype even the tiniest of releases.  Anything from small desk displays of movie scenes to playful mobiles with actors heads dancing around a lit up movie title to full size standees, there was always something new coming out.  The most traditional of these and my favorite was the movie poster because they were so easy to display and they covered the aging wallpaper in my bedroom.  At this video store, they had room to display about eight posters and the owners always opted for, obviously, the latest and most exciting releases, far less than the 20 or 30 posters they’d get every month to coincide with the new batch of titles coming out.  I remember vividly stopping by the video store and getting a new roll of unused posters, bringing them home, and unrolling this one, which was right on top.

Even at a mere nine years old, I knew who Shelley Long was, having been taken by my parents to see her previous film, 1987’s Hello Again.  While Long had already starred in a handful of successful movies, I’d learn later how 1989’s Troop Beverly Hills was her first film after famously leaving her hit show Cheers at the close of its fifth season.  What I didn’t know at the time was Troop Beverly Hills had tanked at the box office, making a mere $8 million off of an $18 million budget and it’s pending VHS release was its final step before fading into obscurity…but I knew I had to see it.

Well, I eventually did see Troop Beverly Hills and it was everything I wanted it to be and more.  Fun, funny, with jokes that I understood and even more jokes that I didn’t, and it was all wrapped up in a bouncy bow by its star.  I was too young to scoff at the fact it was ignored at the box office and maligned by snooty toot critics but over the years any time I returned to it I never could figure out just what about this didn’t strike the right chord at the time.  Watching it again as an adult at a fun screening at our local Alamo Drafthouse (more on that below) I was kind of amazed by how well the movie holds up…and not just as a safe PG sleepover staple.  Providing a sturdy message for young girls on the road to figuring themselves out and not worrying about what icky boys want to see, Troop Beverly Hills earns its patches and then some for comedic longevity.

Spoiled California housewife Phyllis Neffler (Long, Outrageous Fortune) has signed up to donate her time before.  She’s tried giving her hands across America saving the whales but can’t quite follow through with anything due to her busy shopping schedule.  However, with her marriage to Fred (Craig T. Nelson, Poltergeist) in shambles she needs a new focus and decides to take on the role of Wilderness Girl troop leader for her pre-teen daughter Hannah (Jenny Lewis) and her seven gal pals from elite families in Beverly Hills.  Resistant to their new den mother at first after seeing a revolving door of previous candidates, the troop warms up once they realize she’s just as inexperienced and lost as they are and won’t retreat at the first sign of conflict.

That’s good for them but bad for Velda Plender (Betty Thomas, who eventually became a semi-successful film/television director, working with Long again in The Brady Bunch Movie) an ex-Army nurse now the de facto rule keeper for the Wilderness Girl troop leaders.  A bully and a cheat, she recoils at the way Phyllis tries to treat the organization as the fun experience it as and less like the survivalist preparation Velda would prefer it to be.  Dispatching her cronie Annie (Mary Gross, Big Business) to infiltrate Phyllis and her troop, Velda tries to stop Troop Beverly Hills from making it to the annual Jamboree and being named troop of the year.

Adding a dose of real life fun to the mix is knowing the movie is loosely based on the life of producer Ava Ostern Fries who turned her stories of being a Brownie Leader into the basis for the movie and it’s a concept that has a lot of legs to it.  Sure, it’s easy to plumb the mines of the vapid lives of the rich and famous for ways to get Phyllis out of her comfort zone but the screenplay never sets out to make her (or the girls) look stupid, inept, or less capable than anyone else if they just set their mind to it.  If anything, the movie levels its harshest criticism at those that demand rule and order above all else in refusing to let people dance to the beat of their own drum.  While a great many jokes are made about Phyllis and her monetary ways, that spend spend spend attitude is countered with a backstory about the lean early years of her marriage where her thriftiness helped keep her family together.

It’s a pity this first post-Cheers film wasn’t a success because Long (dressed in a never-ending display of hysterically artistic outfits by famed costume designer Theadora Van Runkle, Stella) is joyously winning as the effervescent Phyllis.  Too self-involved to know when Velda is making fun of her and, frankly, too above it all to care what she thinks anyway, Long works hard to give Phyllis more than just the cookie cutter image of the Beverly Hills stay at home and shop housewife.  Playing the villain, Thomas is a hoot and works well solo or pinging off of Long or the meek Gross playing the mousey Marcie to Thomas’s pernicious Peppermint Patty.  As the lone male with any significant presence, Nelson has to be beefcake sometimes and agitator at others and he manages to make both interesting without getting in the way of Phyllis or her girls.

Making up the rest of the cast, aside from a now-preserved in amber amount of 80s celebrities that many youngsters nowadays won’t even understand the references to, are an array of young starlets pulled from television shows, commercials, and minor roles in afterschool specials.  Aside from Kellie Martin who had a steady career on several hit TV shows watch for a fresh-faced Carla Gugino (San Andreas) as a snobby brat who realizes Phyllis and the troop are the closest thing she has to a dependable family environment.  All are energetic but there seems to be at least one too many as they fail to be quite as defined as they could be.  Of the ones that do shine, most memorable is Tasha Scott’s Jasmine who receives the best introduction and gets to sing the unofficial (and officially catchy) theme song of the movie, “Cookie Time” on Rodeo Drive while wearing a Tina Turner wig.

For a movie so locked in its time and place, it’s remarkable how little the movie has shown its wrinkles.  It still plays like gangbusters and I think the more trivial asides have actually gotten more meaningful when you consider how marginalized little girls/young women have become in the years since the film was released.  It may have packed up its theatrical campground early but Troop Beverly Hills found a new life in overnight rentals in the years since.  Give it a watch…you’ll be surprised by how much you enjoy it.

 

Review (The Quote-Along): So why review Troop Beverly Hills now, you may ask?  Well, first off, here was a chance to see the movie on the big screen, something I’d never had the chance to do until now.  The Alamo Drafthouse in Woodbury, MN has a way with their programming and finding the right mix between bringing back underseen gems and stirring fond nostalgia and when I saw this one was coming up I just couldn’t resist.  A bonus was that this was to be no ordinary screening of Troop Beverly Hills where the audience would sit idly by while noshing on their loaded fries, pizza, or cleverly crafted cocktail skillfully served by stealthy servers.  No, this was to be a two pronged bit of fun.

First…it was part of their Champagne Cinema signature series of screenings.  I’ll let Alamo’s website describe what that is in detail:

Just like a glass of bubbles, there’s a special type of film that can lift your spirits and add a bit of sparkle to your day. From movies you watched endlessly at slumber parties to new favorites that feel like old friends, Champagne Cinema provides a generous pour of heart, humor and happy endings. Each film is paired with a themed cocktail to match the effervescence on screen, and the audience is encouraged to toast, cheer and swoon along. So bring along a friend (or five) and prepare for a theatrical experience that pops. Bottoms up!

So while the theme drinks of the night were The Freddie and The Thin Mint Cocktail there were still more surprises yet to come because audiences would also be treated to a Quote-Along experience featuring animated subtitles and our own themed gifts.  The gifts were a green beret so we could all be Wilderness Girls (and Guys) and a set of stickers/patches modeled after the ones seen in the film.  All in all, a fun bit of swag to walk into and away with and while I didn’t partake in the cocktails both sounded better than other themed drinks at similar events.

As to the actual quote-along experience?  Well, I think living in the Midwest it all depends on the audience and the movie.  I’ve been to a number of movie parties where this kind of audience participation is encouraged and though the theater employs a nice hype-man that comes out at the beginning to get the crowd warmed up, the energy level just never rises above a low simmer.  Still, this was the first time the quotes were on the screen and that seemed to stimulate more shout-outs…and definitely more signing when “Cookie Time” came around.

Strangely, the front half of the movie seemed loaded with quotes at every turn with not every one being something I’d consider a valued line from the film but it definitely tapered off as the comedy went on.  I’m wondering if that was somehow intentional because it was in that final 40 minutes or so when the subtitles that appeared seemed to really select the most well known quotes.  What’s great about this set-up is that even if you are a little shy you feel a bit more emboldened sitting in the dark to yell out your favorite quote without feeling embarrassed.

If you have an Alamo Drafthouse near your residence you should check the theater out regardless but definitely keep your eye out for these types of special events.  The price may seem a little high (anywhere from $12 to $16) but that’s also what you’d pay for a normal ticket on a weekend and you don’t get the props or one of a kind experience this offers.  The best bet is to find a movie you really like and try your first Movie Party out and see what you think.  It really is a fun new way to spend a night at the movies.

Movie Review ~ Bad Boys for Life


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Old-school cops Mike Lowery and Marcus Burnett team up to take down the vicious leader of a Miami drug cartel.

Stars: Will Smith, Martin Lawrence, Joe Pantoliano, Paola Nuñez, Jacob Scipio, Kate del Castillo, Vanessa Hudgens, Alexander Ludwig, Charles Melton, Theresa Randle

Director: Adil & Bilall  (Adil El Arbi, Bilall Fallah)

Rated: R

Running Length: 123 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Though we’re in a time at the movies where it’s popular to revive old favorites that many had thought were done and over, it’s never a good sign to see a high profile movie star bruised by a string of box office duds return to the well of what was once profitable.  There was a time when having Will Smith in your film meant assured box office gold but one too many poor choices and a seemingly panicked desperation to be taken seriously as more than an action star led him down a path of wince-inducing downers and stinkbombs.  And while Martin Lawrence was never an A-List movie star, his eponymous landmark television show was a gigantic hit and, to be fair, he had his share of box office blockbusters, though none were what you would call challenging art.

When Lawrence and Smith first paired up for Bad Boys in 1995, it was Lawrence that was the bigger star and it showed on screen.  Re-watching the film recently it’s interesting to see how the movie, (originally intended as a much squishier comedy for other actors) was tailored around Lawrence’s style and how director Michael Bay (Pain & Gain) treated Smith more like Action Star Ken than as an actor who would go on to net several Oscar nominations.  By the time the sequel arrived a full eight years later, the tides had definitely turned and while Lawrence still received top billing, Bad Boys II was Smith’s film all the way.  It was longer and louder and absolutely horrible.  Returning director Bay took all the rules for making a bigger sequel too literally and delivered a ghastly horror of a movie, turning what was a fun buddy cop film into an offensively gross pile of mush that purported to be all style but was so far out of fashion it wasn’t even self-aware enough to realize it.  It made a killing at the box office but fans and critics revolted against it, waylaying any future plans…until now.

Normally, with sequels I’m of the mindset that it’s a good idea to watch the preceding films before catching a new one in theaters (unless we’re talking James Bond) because it helps you spot the consistencies, or lack thereof, throughout the series.  You’d be surprised at how good some franchise films are with carrying forward even the smallest of supporting roles through from film to film.  However, in the case of getting ready to screen Bad Boys for Life, I think watching Bad Boys II so close to seeing the third film was a mistake.  I was so put off by how smarmy that movie was that I went into the new one with a bad taste in my mouth, prepared to see the franchise sink lower.  That’s also taking into consideration after a 17 year break it just couldn’t be a good sign Lawrence and Smith had given in and come back to the roles that gave them both their first bona fide hit. Right?

Well, here’s the thing.  It turns out Bad Boys for Life is an energetic return to form for the two stars, a reunion that reminds us why their chemistry worked so well back in 1995.  By ditching hyper-kinetic director Bay and working with a script that forms the first semblance of a discernible plot in any of the films so far, the duo have righted a ship that was sunk on a massive scale almost two decades ago and given themselves a fine showcase on top of it all.  In addition to a fine supply of laughs, there’s genuine heart on display and a dedicated engagement from the stars which only serves to bring audiences closer along on this new rollicking ride.

Though a number of years have passed since we last took to the streets with Mike Lowery (Smith, Gemini Man) and Marcus Burnett (Lawrence, Do the Right Thing), not a lot has changed with the veteran Miami cops.  Lowrey is still a fast-driving playboy that takes the fierce protection of his car’s interior as seriously as he does ensuring the streets of the city are free from drug violence.  Still claiming he’s going to retire any day, family man Burnett becomes a grandfather at the start of the movie which gives him one more reason to want to ditch the fast lane life Lowrey is addicted to for the more peaceful existence resting in his easy chair.  Plans for the future are put on hold, though, when a mysterious woman (Kate del Castillo, The 33) escapes from a Mexican prison and is reunited with her son Armando (Jacob Scipio), whom she dispatches to take ruthless revenge on a series of high profile (and familiar to us) individuals.  Spilling her secrets would delve into spoiler-territory but just know the multiple credited screenwriters have given Bad Boys for Life an appealing villain and villainess with an endless supply of cronies that don’t take kindly to any outside interference in their mission.

In previous films, Lowery and Burnett have largely been working on their own but this time they are paired with a young crew from AMMO, an elite squad of specialized officers led by Rita (Paola Nuñez) a former flame of Mike’s that was never fully extinguished.  There’s some clear groundwork being set to either create a spin-off for these new officers or keep them around if future installments are called for. I didn’t mind this too much, mostly because Vanessa Hudgens (Second Act), Alexander Ludwig (Lone Survivor), and Charles Melton knew when it was their turn to step up and when it was time to let Smith and Lawrence take center stage.

While I wouldn’t exactly say Smith is revitalized in Bad Boys for Life, he’s surely more on his game than he has been over the past several years.  Though he gives in to his bad habits of overselling dramatics in several opportune moments, he’s largely the charming action star that could open a summer movie with little effort and I’m hoping he enjoyed his work on the film because it suits him.  Lawrence is the real winner here, with the long-absent comedian making his welcome return to the screen (or public view in general) as a more centered, worldy-wise fella that holds to his convictions.  More often than not, the movie shifts gears to his strengths and that’s the wise, more entertaining choice.

I don’t know if it’s just because the two guys are getting older and have been through parenthood but Bad Boys for Life is also noticeably less heavy on the profanity that was so prevalent in the previous pictures.  It was non-stop in the second film to the point of pathetic obnoxiousness but the change for 2020 was welcome, if only to make one not feel so bad at the number of children in the theater attending the screening as well.  Belgian directors Adil & Bilall instead fill the movie with dynamic action sequences that are true showcases of brilliant stunt work and skilled execution.  They may lack in overall ‘pow’ factor that Bay could deliver but on the flip side I found them far easier to follow and stay engaged in.  With Bay’s films, they are so overproduced that you tend to want to step away from the movie for fear it may blow up in your face.  Adil & Bilall have a big movie on their hands but it has a way of bringing you closer in.

If rumors are true, a fourth film may be in the cards and Bay (who has a cameo in the film) is said to be returning as director.  Boy, I hope that isn’t true because I can only imagine how he’d mess up the good thing Smith and Lawrence have got going in this third Bad Boys film.  As of now, that’s in the distant future so until that becomes a reality just bask in the glow of a rarity – a successful return to a dormant series that’s been revived with an electric jolt.

Movie Review ~ Little Women (2019)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Following the lives of four sisters, Amy, Jo, Beth and Meg, as they come of age in America in the aftermath of the Civil War. Though all very different from each other, the March sisters stand by each other through difficult and changing times

Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet, Meryl Streep, Bob Odenkirk, James Norton

Director: Greta Gerwig

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 135 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  It’s been 151 years since Louisa May Alcott wrote her classic novel Little Women and it seems over that time there have been as many adaptations of it on stage and screens big and small.  There’s just something timeless about Alcott’s tale of sisters moving through stages of their lives that has spoken to countless generations.  Whether you come from a big household or were an only child (like me), there’s something relatable and warmly familiar about the March family, allowing readers to latch on to a particular character and know them well enough to say “I’m a Jo” or “She’s more of a Meg”.  No matter how many times we’re exposed to the material, we still laugh at their comedic moments and cry when the reality of life steps in.

Having read the book on more than one occasion and keeping a certain fondness for anything it inspired (stage play, musical, miniseries, film), I could easily call myself a fan and am always willing to give any new interpretation the benefit of the doubt.  Heck, over the holiday break I even watched the made-for-television movie The March Sisters at Christmas, a modernized version of the story that took some giant liberties with the source material.  (For the record, it wasn’t half bad.)  What makes it difficult for me is that I think the much-loved 1994 version is the epitome of success in translation to the screen.  Though it had been seen in theaters before in 1933 and again in 1949, something about the ‘90s version just hit all the right notes for me, making it indelible and hard to measure up to.  Even so, when I heard Greta Gerwig (Mistress America) was taking on the duties of writer/director for a 2019 take on Little Women, I was interested to see what she would do with it and where it would land on the scale of successful retellings.

For those not familiar with the source material, the bones of Alcott’s story remain the same.  The Civil War is going strong and Father (Bob Odenkirk, Long Shot) is on the front lines, leaving his wife Marmee (Laura Dern, Marriage Story) and their four daughters to keep the household going for the duration.  Eldest daughter Meg (Emma Watson, The Bling Ring) strives to lead by example, eagerly anticipating a domestic life with a husband and children.  That’s quite the opposite of headstrong Jo (Saoirse Ronan, The Host) the de facto leader of the siblings who makes great plans to roam beyond the confines of their Concord, Mass homestead.  Shy Beth (Eliza Scanlen, Sharp Objects) is the calming presence, taking solace in her piano playing while the youngest Amy (Florence Pugh, Midsommar) longs for a romanticized life rubbing shoulders with the elite.

Drifting into the March orbit at various times are a sour Aunt (Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins) anxious to see her family lineage continue on well-funded and neighbor Laurie (Timothée Chalamet, Beautiful Boy) whose curiosity and friendship with the sisters quickly turns into something deeper and more heartbreaking.  Also playing a part in the episodic developments as the years go by are Laurie’s grandfather (Chris Cooper, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood), tutor John Brooke (James Norton, Mr. Turner), and Mr. Bhaer (Louis Garrel, The Dreamers), a professor staying in the same boarding house as Jo when she moves to New York City.  As the girls turn to women, they experience love and loss while striving to find their place not just in the outside world but in the small haven they’ve created within the walls of their childhood home.

Thankfully, there are a lot of things to recommend in this adaptation and I largely enjoyed it, even if there are some interesting choices made that don’t always feel effective.  It should please fans of the novel, although I’m not sure how easy it would be for newcomers to the story to get into the hearts and minds of our favorite characters. Though set in the appropriate period, Gerwig’s modern voice is front and center and while it doesn’t change the overall impact of Alcott’s novel the emotional beats are delivered in a different way than ever before.

Following up her semi-autobiographical breakout hit Lady Bird, Gerwig has made the intriguing choice to take a non-linear approach to Little Women.  Instead of a straight narrative that follows along the years with the family, events are chopped up and rearranged to function as memories or recollections.  What this accomplishes is giving the characters the opportunity to look back from the other side of conflict which eventually starts to wreak havoc on the way audiences are involved and invited into the story.  I found the first hour a bit of a struggle to stick with and, though well performed by Gerwig’s cast, difficult to keep up with because it bounces around so much.  The second hour is more of a challenge to talk about without giving away a crucial bit of plot but suffice it to say turns that in the past had me reaching for the Kleenex barely registered a sniffle in this telling.  That’s unfortunate because there’s such rich opportunity to explore the complexities of the heart but how can you take any time for emotion when the next scene may take place years prior, undoing whatever loss we’ve just seen?

The casting announcements for this were exciting at the time because Gerwig has assembled a dynamite team of actors that aren’t necessarily known for being overly earnest with their material.  What’s needed is honesty, not an overselling of what is essentially a near perfect piece of American literature.  In that respect, the cast is successful; however there are a few elements that I just couldn’t quite get over.  For one thing, it’s never clear the ages of the sisters.  Pugh looks the oldest of all and she’s playing the youngest while Watson feels like she’d be a more adept Beth than a Meg.  Ronan is a wonderful Jo, skillfully presenting her stubbornness without being obnoxious, eventually exposing the raw vulnerability beneath a lifetime of building up a hard-ish surface.  Amy is often seen as the flightiest of the March sisters but Gerwig and Pugh have confidently grounded her, showing the character is more worldly-wise than she’s ever been previously given credit for.  I quite like Scanlen’s take on Beth, even though she (like her character) gets overshadowed by the other women she shares the screen with.

Not surprisingly, Streep is a wry gas as a fussy relative who is “not always right.  But never wrong” and Cooper’s sensitive take on the kindly neighbor is fairly lovely.  The two main suitors Gerwig has cast are likely the most problematic for me.  As Jo’s elder boarding house friend, Garrel doesn’t create much in the way of sparks with Ronan.  It’s a distinctly flat performance and you wonder why Jo would ever have her head turned even a fraction the way Garrel handles the material.  I know Gerwig thinks Chalamet can do no wrong but he’s not well-suited for the role of the pining boy next door.  Certain finalities of his character don’t ring true, which is perhaps what Gerwig was going for, but it weakens Laurie’s relationship with two key March sisters.  Chalamet has the acting chops to give it a go but isn’t the right choice for the role.

In the car on the ride home, I became one of those purist people that wanted this new Little Women to be the way I imagined it to be.  I rattled off a list of things that didn’t sit right to my partner, citing the 1994 version as my ideal way to tell the story.  That’s not fair to Gerwig or her team, nor is it doing right to the movie as a whole.  Just as each generation has discovered Alcott’s everlasting story, so too should a new audience be exposed to the Little Women through their own version on screen.  I hold the 1994 effort in high regard and, clearly, this one trails that in my book, yet it shouldn’t ultimately define how it stacks up historically.  The tagline for the movie is “Own your own story.” and it can serve as a reminder that the version we have in our head will always supersede anything we can see from another perspective.

The Silver Bullet ~ Ghostbusters: Afterlife

Synopsis: The story follows a family moving to a small town, where they learn more about who they are and the secrets of the town itself.

Release Date:  July 10, 2020

Thoughts: In 2016, Paul Feig tried to do something different in continuing/rebooting the Ghostbusters franchise.  Reducing that effort to just being the ‘female Ghostbusters’ seems entirely reductive so I’ll tread carefully and say that the movie didn’t work and not because of any gender switching that happened.  It failed to capture the tone of the original films and, more than that, didn’t capitalize on the talents of it’s skilled stars – instead choosing to forcefully make them work in roles they weren’t suited for.  Unfortunately, it fed the hungry bellies of the haters already poised to take it down.

Unwilling to give up on a reboot of their precious franchise so easily, Sony pivoted in a rather clever way by enlisting Jason Reitman (Labor Day), the son of original co-writer/director Ivan Reitman (Kindergarten Cop), to write and direct a true sequel to the original films and our first look at the highly anticipated summer 2020 film has arrived.  Let me say, there’s a point in this two and a half minute trailer where a little tingle started deep in my spine and quickly rose through the top of my head like an exaggerated thermometer in one of those Bugs Bunny cartoons.  I get the feeling Reitman, having grown up around this world, is the right person to take the reins on this series and with the rumored return of many of the original stars (who showed up in the 2016 movie but mostly as different characters) I’m truly happy to this resurrected again.

Movie Review ~ Charlie’s Angels (2019)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: When a young systems engineer blows the whistle on a dangerous technology, Charlie’s Angels are called into action, putting their lives on the line to protect us all.

Stars: Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott, Ella Balinska, Elizabeth Banks, Patrick Stewart, Djimon Hounsou

Director: Elizabeth Banks

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 118 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Leading up to the screening of the brand-new 2019 reboot of Charlie’s Angels, all signs were pointing to something less than impressive.  Early trailers were considerably lackluster and the marketing of the film was…well, look up a few inches and check out the poster I selected to headline this review.  It’s the best one I could find and that should be saying something because it’s pretty bad on its own.  It’s like a major studio (Sony) had decided to revamp a key piece of IP and then opted to spend no creative energy or cash on seeing to its success.  If they didn’t have some faith or interest in the movie, why should I?

I had also come off a recent double-feature rewatch of the previous 2000 McG directed reboot starring Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz, and Lucy Liu and it’s 2003 sequel and was kind of ashamed of myself for having a poster of both films on my wall at one point. (In my defense, the first poster was a fairly sweet high quality shiny foil material.) Both movies are still cornball pieces of bubblegum entertainment but they now come off as pre-packaged raunch fests, pushing the limits of the PG-13 rating and filtered through a male gaze so much that you can almost feel your chin stubble growing as the film progresses.  And the butt shots.  Oh my goodness.  You could do a drinking game (there has to be one, right) at the amount of gratuitous gluteus shots that occupy a rump-shaking amount of the film’s running length.

So yes, I was feeling conflicted about yet another new take on Charlie’s Angels, adapted from the popular television series that ran from 1976 to 1981.  I also had some questions.  Written and directed by Elizabeth Banks (Brightburn) tackling her sophomore feature after 2015’s Pitch Perfect 2, would the star actress be able to switch from a frothy musical to a spy-adventure?  What about the involvement of Kristen Stewart? The hard to pin down indie darling isn’t wholly picky with her roles but even this seemed like an out of left field choice for her.  Overall, the movie was lacking in mega-star wattage, a big selling point of the previous revitalization.  The two other women starring with Stewart were Naomi Scott (Aladdin) and Ella Balinska, not exactly household names.  With the less than boffo box office of Ocean’s 8, would audiences line up for another female-led caper action film?

I would never advocate for arriving late at a movie because it’s rude to others around you and you might miss some important info that could come in handy down the road but in the case of Charlie’s Angels, it wouldn’t be an outright terrible idea.   That’s because the first 10 minutes of this are pretty bad.  So bad I feared all my apprehensions about the movie were being made manifest and I’d be sitting there for another 105 minutes watching the time tick by in agony.  Fear not, because after that rocky road of an opening the movie rights itself almost immediately and a rather solid film materializes right before your eyes.  One that feels of the moment and also one that’s in on the overall joke from the jump.

Acting as a semi-continuation of the two previous films (with a few poorly photoshopped tweaks), Charlie’s “Angels” have gone international and now have branches all around the world.  {Stick around for the post-credits to see just how star-studded the recruits have become.} Bosley is now an official rank within the organization, which is why Banks, Patrick Stewart (Green Room), and Djimon Hounsou (Serenity) are all credited by some version of the moniker in the cast list.  They are each responsible for specific areas and keep tabs on their Angels that are close by, in addition to recruiting and training new candidates. Angels come from all walks of life and are called in when their special talents are required, so it’s less like they work as a group but more as a team of experts based on the need.

The need that exists currently is to keep an eye on an engineer in Germany (Scott) who has discovered a flaw in a handheld electrical system she helped create.  Without spending more time and resources to mend the error, the tool could go to market and be used as a weapon by someone with advanced knowledge and kill anyone in close proximity.  With her company intent on moving forward with mass-producing the item and not fixing the issue she’s found, she reaches out to the Townsend Agency/Charlie to help her find a way to stop her invention from falling into the wrong hands.  Before she can pass her info off, an attempt is made on her life – which is when the Angels fly in.  Tomboy Sabina (Stewart, Personal Shopper) is an heiress that likes to live on the edge and Jane (Balinksa) is a former MI:6 agent who left the agency for mysterious reasons we’ll learn about later on.

The movie plays like an extended episode of a television show with little in the way of complex plot development, save for a couple of well-timed twists that would have coincided nicely with a commercial break.  It’s not aiming to be that deep, however, and I appreciated that it favored forward momentum instead of digging too deep under the surface.  That’s not to say Banks doesn’t ask anything of her three leads because she elicits fine performances out of all, it’s just clear that they all had a mission to create a movie that was entertaining and I think they accomplished that.  The elaborate wig and costume changes are fun but grounded and the most madcap Banks lets things get is a giggly little bit of choreographed disco led by Stewart and Balinska. (Speaking of Balinska, she’s a real find and manages to steal the movie away from her fellow Angels quite often).  Whereas the Barrymore/Diaz/Lu movie felt like it was amusing them more than anything by the end, Banks and company allow us into that fun arena on a more regular basis.

If the new Charlie’s Angels spreads its wings at the box office, Banks has set things up to be an intriguing franchise.  With the globalization of the Townsend Agency, the Angels can come from anywhere so even if, say, Stewart wasn’t available for the next film you can easily swap her out for another super spy from the opposite side of the world.  It leaves the playing field (and cast list) open for a myriad of interesting possibilities for future installments.  Just make sure to give these new Angels a chance past those first ten minutes – we’re in the culture of snap judgments now and if you stick it out I think you’ll like where this one lands.

Movie Review ~ Escape Room

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Six strangers find themselves in circumstances beyond their control, and must use their wits to survive.

Stars: Taylor Russell, Logan Miller, Deborah Ann Woll, Tyler Labine, Nik Dodani, Jay Ellis

Director: Adam Robitel

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 100 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  It’s the time of year when we are past the season to be jolly and across the Oscar hopeful finish line of prestige pictures trying to make their end of the year release date cutoff.  Now we’re into January, a month commonly known in Hollywood when studios will push their less than desirable products into theaters either hoping they will go away quietly or praying for a small miracle and have them catch fire with audiences and make them a buck or two.  Over the last few years the films that tend to do the best are low impact horror thrillers that are good for a jolt or two and quickly forgotten.

So it’s indeed a perfect time for Sony to release Escape Room, their modestly budgeted and mostly forgettable time waster thriller.  Though it boasts a good director that has shown he knows a thing or two around this genre and a concept filled with intriguing opportunities, it winds up being a strictly mediocre effort that sacrifices early hints of creativity for a messy finale that fails to deliver. It’s not that good but if I’m being totally honest it’s also not that bad.

Opening with my least favorite plot device, introducing a character in a dire situation and then flashing back “three days earlier”, Escape Room gathers six disparate strangers vying to win $10,000 if they can solve a new escape room that’s come to Chicago.  Though it appears they have nothing in common, over the next 100 minutes we’ll learn why they were chosen and how it came to be they are involved in a game that gets more deadly the deeper they go into the labyrinthine rooms.  Their weaknesses become their strengths and their paranoias become their downfall as each one faces their fears that pop up in a variety of ways.

Those familiar with the Saw series or the cult classic Cube will find a lot of common threads here and Escape Room starts to feel like a Frankenstein monster of better movies the longer it goes on.  Those movies at least had a concept that had an endgame, though, and it becomes clear around the halfway mark that screenwriters Bragi Schut and Maria Melnik may have had a beginning and end sketched out but failed to come up with enough twists and turns to keep the audience off balance.  I kept waiting for the film to take a different path than what was expected but it kept motoring on with no surprises along the way.  Even the escape rooms themselves start out with interesting clues to solve but gradually get less and less creative as the group moves forward and their numbers start to dwindle.

Director Adam Robitel gave us The Taking of Deborah Logan, one of my absolute favorite horror films of the last ten years as well as last January’s Insidious: The Last Key.  It’s clear he possesses a style that works well in this genre but there’s less focus here on the substance to go with that polish.  There’s also an extreme problem with the likability of the cast.  Aside from Taylor Russell as a mousy brainiac and Deborah Ann Woll’s (Ruby Sparks) haunted veteran, none of the other cast members seem worth keeping around, especially annoying grocery store burnout Logan Miller (Love, Simon)

Yet the movie moves swiftly without wasting unnecessary time in one location for too long.  This notorious watch checker was surprised to see the first time he looked at his timepiece was 90 minutes into the film.  Unfortunately, that’s when the film lost me in a major way with a bizarre denouement and even stranger stinger that didn’t feel like it matched up with the rest of the action.  It felt like a studio mandated add-on to keep the door open for future sequels.  Up until that point the movie had played mostly by the rules but then it seemed to toss out logic and reason in favor of extending the story past the closing credits.  I wish the filmmakers had spent more time rounding out the rough edges of this movie before laying the groundwork for another.

With movies like Aquaman, Mary Poppins Returns, and Bumblebee still easily occupying the top slots at the box office, Sony is hoping Escape Room might find a foothold with audiences that just want to sit back and not have to think too hard over what’s passing in front of their eyes on screen.  Escape Room fits that bill and should easily make its money back in its first weekend.  I’d say it’s one that you could hold off on catching in theaters, though, and put on your list for a rainy day at-home selection.

Movie Review ~ The Girl in the Spider’s Web

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Young computer hacker Lisbeth Salander and journalist Mikael Blomkvist find themselves caught in a web of spies, cybercriminals and corrupt government officials.

Stars: Claire Foy, Sverrir Gudnason, Lakeith Stanfield, Sylvia Hoeks, Cameron Britton, Stephen Merchant, Claes Bang, Christopher Convery, Synnøve Macody Lund, Vicky Krieps

Director: Fede Alvarez

Rated: R

Running Length: 117 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: When 2011’s U.S. remake of the 2009 Swedish phenomenon The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo failed to bring in the kind of audience Columbia Pictures and MGM was hoping for, the two planned sequels were put on an indefinite hold.  What a pity.  Though the remake had its share of detractors, it was a compelling mystery and expertly made film that took its time to explore the characters and wasn’t afraid to wallow in some dark material.  Director David Fincher is a master at what he does and the look and feel of the movie, not to mention the fantastic performances from Rooney Mara (who received an Oscar nom for her work) and Daniel Craig, has helped to keep the film a singular experience.

Deciding to skip the two direct sequels and start over with a new novel released in 2015 brought a challenge. With Fincher, Craig, and Mara all released from their contracts and on to different projects, when the time came to bring the franchise back to life for The Girl in the Spider’s Web the studio had to go back to the drawing board and find a new director and star.  Bringing on rising director Fede Alvarez (Evil Dead) and hiring Claire Foy (Breathe) as the titular character were impressive gambles that don’t completely pay off.  The resulting film works fine as a standard thriller if you didn’t have any previous knowledge of the characters but as a continuation of what Fincher started back in 2011 (and what really began with the original film trilogy in 2009) it misses the mark by a longshot.

It’s been three years since the events of The Girl in the Dragon Tattoo and computer hacker Lisbeth Salander has become a not-so-secret vigilante of sorts in Stockholm, coming to the aid of women wronged by men.  The opening of the film (spoiled, like much of the movie, by trailers that have given away far too many key plot points) finds Salander giving a wife beater a bit of sweet vengeance.  Foy plays the exchange like she’s buying carpet for her rec room at IKEA, it’s fine to be emotionally removed from these abusers but her monotone delivery suggests boredom rather than detachment.

Salander’s ally Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason) hasn’t seen her since her wrote an exposé centered on her family.  Though his editor and sometime lover Erika (a sadly underused Vicky Krieps, Phantom Thread) urges him to move on, he can’t forget the troubled girl. Much like Fincher’s film, Alvarez keeps Lisbeth and Mikael apart for a good half of the film but unlike the previous entry when they do share screen time there’s next to no spark between the two.  That’s partly because the dynamic in this movie feels like it’s shifted and Mikael is now more of a second banana to Lisbeth’s main character.

When Lisbeth is asked to retrieve a computer program that becomes a threat to the national security of America and Sweden, she’s thrown into a conspiracy that will bring her back to painful memories (and people) of her childhood.  If you’ve read the book The Girl in the Spider’s Web is based off of, be prepared for major changes.  For fun, after the screening I read the plot synopsis of the novel and was amazed at the liberties screenwriters Alvarez, Jay Basu, and Steven Knight took with David Lagercrantz’s original text, rendering it almost wholly new.  For what it’s worth, the novel sounded far more muddled and complicated, something that wouldn’t have translated easily to the screen.

That leaves Alvarez to cut his own course with the material, leaving out the connective tissue that helped make The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo such an intriguing mystery.  There’s no real thought process from anyone in the movie, they either just “know” the answer to a perplexing puzzle or whatever methods they use to figure things out happen offscreen.  One example is a character in the U.S. who is trying to locate a hacker by tracing their location.  The location is narrowed down to Stockholm, at which time the character grabs his coat and runs directly to the airport…because Stockholm is so specific. Part of what makes these kind of films fun is playing detective alongside our lead characters but here we are so far removed that it’s like someone is reading us a story instead of inviting us to follow along.

The screenwriters also make a giant leap in turning Lisbeth into more of a superhero than a heroine.  She takes a licking and keeps on ticking, bouncing back from explosions and beatings needing little to no recovery time.  One moment Lisbeth has been drugged and the next she’s snorted some crushed opioids and is driving a car in pursuit of cybercriminals.  She also has a curious knack for knowing the right way out of dead end.

I’ve enjoyed Foy in her films so far in 2018.  She was great in the paranoid thriller Unsane and good in October’s First Man.  Here she’s merely OK and it’s mostly due to her being miscast as an edgy character lacking bite.  Mara and her Swedish counterpart Noomi Rapace played Lisbeth as damaged goods, alternately withdrawn and feral which led to her being unpredictable.  Foy isn’t afforded much in the way of surprise so we’re just tagging along for what is largely an unremarkable ride for the actress.

As a jumpy NSA agent on Salander’s trail, Lakeith Stanfield is even more of an enigma.  There’s no backstory to his character by way of an introduction nor do we get any blanks filled in along the way.  We get a sense he’s good at his job but how spectacular can he be if he’s constantly bested by Salander and the thugs on her trail?  By the time he’s somehow called on to be an expert marksman in an admittedly nicely constructed action scene, I sort of stopped asking questions.

The best performance in the whole film is Sylvia Hoeks as a ice blonde specter from Lisbeth’s past.  Dressed head to toe in red and never speaking above a child-like purr, she’s intimidating without even raising a finger.  It does veer toward campy Bond villainess at times (the whole film feels like a gender-bending Bond romp, actually) but Hoeks knows exactly what film she’s in and sinks her teeth into every bit of scenery she can get her hands on.  Much like she did with her unsettling character in Blade Runner 2049, she becomes the focal point of any scene she’s in.

Alvarez shows off some style in his eye for imaginative camera angles with the help of cinematographer Pedro Luque (Don’t Breathe) and slightly macabre visuals but he is far more restrained than he was in previous films.  Aside from one rather ghastly sight of a man missing a key piece of his face it’s relatively tame.  I appreciated that he included a brief title sequence, nicely echoing the unforgettable pulse-pounding nightmare credit sequence of the first film.  The music by Roque Baños (In the Heart of the Sea) helps to set the mood, even if that mood too often requires Baños to veer into action movie histrionics.

I’m not sure what the impetus was for the studios to revive this franchise again in 2018 (were they about to lose the rights?) but they’ve given us another chapter in the Dragon Tattoo collection that doesn’t even feel like it’s in the same universe as what’s come before.  The characters deserve better, the actors deserve better, we deserve better.

Movie Review ~ Alpha


The Facts
:

Synopsis: After a hunting expedition during the Upper Paleolithic period goes awry, a young man struggles against the elements to find his way home, all the while developing a friendship with a gray wolf. This forges the tentative first bond between man and canine.

Stars: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Leonor Varela, Natassia Malthe, Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson, Priya Rajaratnam, Mercedes de la Zerda, Jens Hultén

Director: Albert Hughes

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Release dates are tricky things when it comes to movies. Studios look at a calendar and date films for release hoping that no other similar flicks lock in the same/near date to avoid major competition.  Place your movie on the wrong date and what was supposed to be a financial hit turns into a movie that appears at your local Redbox that much faster. Alpha has been through several release dates, pushing the film back almost an entire year from its originally intended 2017 debut.

Usually, a fluctuating release date spells trouble for the film, as the studio doesn’t know how to market it or has little faith in it but in the case of Alpha I can see why timing was everything for it to see the light of day. It’s not really a summer blockbuster or an end of the year awards contender, and its price tag would suggest that it wasn’t one that could just be dumped into theaters with little fanfare. So Sony has decided to set Alpha free at the tail end of the summer when most of the big dogs have come and gone and hope for some scraps from audience members. A late-breaking controversy in the past few weeks from PETA regarding some questionable animal handling hasn’t helped the film and that’s a shame because Alpha is a surprisingly moving bit of filmmaking with breathtaking scenery and its heart squarely in the right place.

The first thing you should know, and which trailers have played incredibly coy about, is the entirety of the dialogue in Alpha is spoken in an ancient language and subtitled in English, translating the words spoken by a primitive tribe in Europe over 20,000 years ago. It would have been much easier for director Albert Hughes and screenwriter Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt to nudge this into familiar territory and have everyone speak in English with a vague British accent but everyone goes full out here and the result gives the film its first dose of authenticity. It also could alienate families bringing in young children on the premise this is going to be a routine boy and his dog tale…it’s anything but.

Alpha is first and foremost a tale of survival against the elements, an intense journey of self-discovery for a boy just becoming a man. The son of a chief, Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee, X-Men: Apocalypse) is a sensitive soul that struggles with taking the steps toward adulthood that are expected of him. His father (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson, Atomic Blonde) wants to protect his only son but e recognizes he must educate him as well. Taking his son on their seasonal bison hunt hundreds of miles away from their home, he hopes to teach him the ways of his ancestors and give him greater strength. When an accident separates Keda from his tribe, he is forced to grow up fast as he fights the elemtents (both natural and animal) to make his way home. Along the way he befriends a gray wolf and develops a bond that will set the stage for future generations.

There’s nothing monumentally deep to the story that Alpha seeks to tell and the film reminded on more than one occasion of the type of adventure film Disney might have released in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Attempts to somehow tie the tale to the “origin of man’s best friend” aren’t as successful because the movie isn’t solely about that connection. It’s Keda’s story through and through and though Alpha (the name he gives the dog) becomes an important piece of that tale it’s ultimately about an internal maturity that develops within the boy as he treks across land and rapidly changing seasons to reunite with his family.

What pushes the film into recommended territory is the filmmaking and performances. Hughes and cinematographer Martin Gschlacht (Goodnight Mommy) go for an epic scale and the achievements are breathtaking. I saw the film in IMAX 3D and Alpha makes one of the strongest cases in recent memory to shell out the extra money for this premium experience. The vistas are rendered through a mix of CGI and natural scenery from locations in British Columbia and the unobtrusive 3D provides a wonderful depth that actually enhances the visuals ten-fold.

Smit-McPhee has had numerous successes on screen in his ten year career but this is a definite high point. Tasked with carrying much of the movie along with his canine co-star (also a mix of CGI and real dog), Smit-McPhee doesn’t say much throughout the film but conveys much emotion with his physicality. As the film progresses and the expedition gets more difficult, the young actor helps to relate the desperation and doubt his character begins to feel as more and more roadblocks emerge to prevent his safe arrival. As Keda’s father, Jóhannesson gives great emotional weight to a role that could just as easily have been a staid macho Neanderthal.

Chances are Alpha is going to get lost in the hustle and bustle of these waning summer weeks. If it’s showing in your neck of the woods in IMAX, in 3D, or better yet in IMAX 3D I’d strongly encourage you making the effort to see it. My advice would be to leave young kids at home but anyone older than 11 would be a good companion for this one – it’s worth your time.