Movie Review ~ Alpha


The Facts
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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.

Movie Review ~ X-Men: Apocalypse

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The Facts:

Synopsis: With the emergence of the world’s first mutant, Apocalypse, the X-Men must unite to defeat his extinction level plan.

Stars: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, Olivia Munn, Lucas Till, Evan Peters, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Alexandra Shipp, Josh Helman, Lana Condor, Ben Hardy

Director: Bryan Singer

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 143 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Dear readers, it’s OK if you are in the throes of Superhero Movie Fatigue. I’ve been suffering symptoms of SMF for over a year now and I’m sure it’s helpful to know that you’re not alone if you suddenly find yourself recoiling at the first whiff of a CGI created villain or needing to lie down from exhaustion when you try to tie all of the various multi-film storylines together. While I don’t see a cure for SMF in the near future (both the Marvel and DC universe are mapped out for the next several years), I think we’ll learn to adjust to an onslaught of comic book adaptations that will eventually start to compete only with films from their own franchises until a death rattle finishes them all off.

In the meantime, 2016 has brought forth the good (Deadpool, Captain America: Civil War) and the misunderstood (Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice) and judging from early reaction you might feel inclined to add X-Men Apocalypse to the miscalculated pile. I’d caution you to see for yourself though because this eighth X-Men movie is big (BIG!), rather exciting, and sets the stage for a new era with a careful hand and a gentle nod.

Admittedly, I’m not the biggest X-Men fan in the world. I was slow to warm to the series and never really had much of an interest or stake in the opinion of the overall quality or the consistency that true fans seemed to find the most fault with. The first movie was decent but half-baked, the second addressed the major concerns and righted a listing ship only to have the third one stank up the joint. Venturing into solo territory, Hugh Jackman (Les Miserables) tried to get a Wolverine series off the ground but fans weren’t interested. A prequel reignited the flame and led to another Wolverine film (which I enjoyed more than most) and the 2014 time-hopping head-scratcher X-Men: Days of Future Past.

I didn’t think the franchise could stuff more into its running length but X-Men: Apocalypse is the stone soup of the bunch…it’s got a little bit of everything. It’s going to divide many a fan/critic/movie-goer and maybe I was just in the right mood for it because I found myself highly engaged and, yeah, emotionally invested in the continued adventures of Professor X (James McAvoy, Trance), Magneto (Michael Fassbender, Prometheus), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, Joy), and their mutant co-horts that go up against their most formidable enemy yet.

His presence was teased at the end of X-Men: Days of Future Past and an energetic prologue in Egypt shows how Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac, A Most Violent Year) came to be buried under a pyramid until he’s uncovered in the ’80s by a faction of his descendant followers. Luckily, Moira Mactaggert (Rose Byrne, Spy) is there to see it all take place and sound the alarm that something big is about to go down.

Meanwhile, Mystique is spending most of her time sans blue skin (you can just hear Lawrence negotiating ever y second she has to be in full Mystique-garb), watching out for mutants being mistreated the world over. Rescuing Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee, ParaNorman) from a cage match with Angel (Ben Hardy), she brings him back to Professor X’s school where he falls in with Beast (Nicholas Hoult, Warm Bodies), Cyclops (Tye Sheridan, Mud), and Jean Grey (Sophie Turner). It isn’t long before the mutants find themselves under attack in their own home, culminating in a most impressive rescue sequence (it took the longest to film) led by Quicksilver (Evan Peters, The Lazarus Effect) who happened to be in the area looking for personal answers of his own.

With Apocalypse freed and intent on bringing the world back to square one by wiping the human population out, he gathers his four horsemen to assist him in his end of days plot. One will remain secret here but a young Storm (Alexandra Shipp) and Psylocke (Olivia Munn, Magic Mike) are part of the mix. Scenes of massive destruction and special effects threaten to overtake the picture but those that complain about director Bryan Singer (Jack the Giant Slayer) focusing more on computer generated mayhem instead of human heart must not realize they bought a ticket for a movie about superhero mutants fighting a doomsday villain.

On the disappointing side are McAvoy and Fassbender largely sleepwalk through the movie and Munn is totally miscast, mostly because she’s not that impressive to begin with. Isaac gets lost in his big blue bad guy but he does what he can in moon boots under all that make-up. It’s the younger generation that impresses here, with Hoult, Smit-McPhee, Sheridan, and Turner signaling that they have what’s needed to continue on with the franchise. This is reportedly Lawrence’s last spin and her absence will leave a big hole in the emotional core of the film. Even though she’s a top-tier A-List star now, Lawrence never looks down on her role or gives it anything less than her full attention.

For a PG-13 film, the movie has a questionable amount of bloody violence (especially in a sequence that involves a cameo that seems to be standard issue for any film bearing the X-Men moniker). Parents should likely see this one first before bringing young children, it’s not only heavy on viscera but at nearly 2 ½ hours it can start to feel long during its mid-section. It ramps up nicely to a whopper of a climax but even I struggled to stay alert as the film reached the two hour mark.

There’s a lot going on in X-Men: Apocalypse and for those living with SMF you could find yourself stretched thin by the time the credits roll…but if you can hang on it’s highly worth seeing on the largest screen you can get to.

Movie Review ~ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A growing nation of genetically evolved apes led by Caesar is threatened by a band of human survivors of the devastating virus unleashed a decade earlier.

Stars: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Toby Kebbell, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Enrique Murciano, Kirk Acevedo, Judy Greer, Karin Konoval

Director: Matt Reeves

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 130 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Okay, so we’re halfway through the summer movie season and, like every May-early August that has come before it, I think we’ve had our shares of high highs (Godzilla, Edge of Tomorrow, The Fault in Our Stars) and lowly lows (Jersey Boys, A Million Ways to Die in the West, Blended).  Some have incorrectly scoffed that Transformers: Age of Extinction will bring about the end of humanity but I say those critics just forgot to change out of their fuddy duddy pants.  Then there’s Tammy, the worst of the worst…the bubonic plague of the summer.

Don’t retreat to your lake cabins yet or focus solely on training for a fall marathon because July is just getting started and if Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is any indication, summer is about to heat up.  The sequel to 20th Century Fox’s 2011 surprise hit franchise reboot manages to be a hell of a good ride, emerging as a film that knows what it wants to achieve and uses it’s talent, budget, and running length wisely.

Three years ago I didn’t get much of a rise out of Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  Though the motion capture technology produced some impressively lifelike rendering of apes, it was bogged down by saggy leads (James Franco and Freida Pinto) and focused too much time on the human side of things.  It’s when the apes took center stage that the movie found its shape…but by that time the movie was nearly over.  Luckily, director Matt Reeves (Let the Right One In, Cloverfield) came onto the project wanting to make it an apes-first film so the sequel jettisons what didn’t work previously and gives us more time with the simian nation.

I’ll admit that the first 20 nearly wordless minutes of the picture had me squirming in my seat.  See, I’ve been trained so far in 2014 for my summer action flicks to come out swinging so it was jarring (but welcome) for a film of this magnitude to make the bold choice of starting off quiet, letting the audience get used to a world ravaged by disease where apes are the dominant species.  The beginning of the sequel re-introduces us to several hairy friends we got to know back in 2011, finding them communicating mostly in sign language (over half the film is subtitled) until they learn to literally raise their voices.

Caesar (performed by a flawless Andy Serkis, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug) is king of the colony of apes that escaped to the California forests 10 years ago.  In their getaway a deadly virus was unwittingly released, ravaging the majority of humanity that wasn’t genetically immune.  After a decade of toil, human and ape meet up once again when a small band of survivors led by Jason Clarke (Lawless, The Great Gatsby, Zero Dark Thirty), Gary Oldman (RoboCopThe Dark Knight Rises) & Keri Russell (Austenland) venture into the forest in hopes of using technology inside an abandoned dam to help power their dying city.

Meanwhile, Caesar battles rebellion within his own tribe as those less trusting plot to launch a deadly strike at the humans before they can destroy the apes.  With his scarred body and milky eye, vengeful rebellion leader Koba looks straight out of a nature run amok horror movie, which makes sense because he’s the scariest villain I’ve seen in quite some time.  Like Caesar, Koba is no ordinary ape and his subversive rampage is more Shakespearean in nature than paint-by-numbers evil-doer.

What I enjoyed most about the film wasn’t the nearly seamless blending of visual effects and live action but in the way it found room for good storytelling as well.  If we’re being honest, the plot isn’t much more than the oft-told mutinous parable of dissention within but it’s in the way that screenwriters Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, and Mark Bomback (The Wolverine) weave parallel themes of family, trust, and honor throughout the film that makes it more than your standard action sequel.

The motion capture technology has come a long way in the past three years, allowing Serkis and a full range of gifted performers free range to flesh out their primate characters.  While Serkis’ Caesar and Toby Kebbell’s Koba sometimes look a tad too animated, there are moments when the visuals are truly astounding and you start to wonder how Reeves directed two wild animals to perform with such vigor.  Best of show goes (once again) to orangutan Maurice who is not only amazingly played by Karin Konoval but rendered with 100% believability by the gigantic visual effects team.

If I’ve left out talking about the humans, it’s only because reviews sometimes have to leave out secondary characters which Clarke, Oldman, Russell, et. al certainly are.  Not knocking their talent or value to the overall effect of the picture but Reeves and his screenwriters have purposefully kept all humans on the sidelines and I’m positive that’s why the film works as well as it does.

Packed with action sequences that will keep you on the edge of your seat (check out the bravura and dizzying 360 degree shot on top of an armored tank and a high wire battle late in the film) and with an assured eye on the prize attitude from all involved, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is another step in the right direction for this happily burgeoning franchise.  I’m interested to see what’s next…as long as the future chapters keep those damn dirty humans at bay.

The Silver Bullet ~ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

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Synopsis: A growing nation of genetically evolved apes led by Caesar is threatened by a band of human survivors of the devastating virus unleashed a decade earlier. They reach a fragile peace, but it proves short-lived, as both sides are brought to the brink of a war that will determine who will emerge as Earth’s dominant species.

Release Date:  July 11, 2014

Thoughts: I find that my fear of primates grows with each new “crazy ape” film I subject myself to.  Officially gone are the days when I cried at the end of King Kong Lives and wished that Project X had turned out differently.  Though I think 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes was notable mostly for the amazing motion-capture work from Andy Serkis as smart ape Caesar, there was enough decent material remaining to warrant a sequel now three years later.  James Franco and the awful Frida Pinto are thankfully gone, replaced by new leads Jason Clarke (The Great Gatsby, Lawless) and Keri Russell (Austenland) with some added support from Gary Oldman (The Dark Knight Rises).  This first teaser may not make you pound your chest in ecstasy but it’s a nice whetting of your whistle for more ape antics coming in July.

The Silver Bullet ~ Romeo & Juliet (2013)

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Synopsis: When the star-crossed lovers of two enemy families meet, forbidden love ensues.

Release Date:  October 11, 2013

Thoughts:  I suppose every generation needs its own adaptation of William Shakespeare’s classic tale of love torn apart by conflict, right?  Though the storyline has been borrowed for many a film (most recently in the clever zom-com Warm Bodies), the last big-time screen appearance was in 1996 with Baz Lurhman’s love it or leave it Romeo + Juliet which catapulted Leonardo DiCaprio and its director to true cinematic stardom.  Will it do the same for either or both of the two young actors in this new adaptation by Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellows?  Released just in time for the back-to-school crowd to swoon over, this looks like a more faithful but no less stylish take on the Bard’s tragic masterpiece.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Congress

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Synopsis: An aging, out-of-work actress accepts one last job, though the consequences of her decision affect her in ways she didn’t consider.

Release Date:  TBA 2013

Thoughts: I’ve always found Robin Wright to be one of the more interesting actresses working in Hollywood.  Since her film debut in 1987 with The Princess Bride, Wright (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) has amassed a diverse roster of roles that thankfully never allowed her to fit into a certain niche market.  She seems to take on characters that speak to her heart rather than her pocketbook and her latest film looks to be a wonderfully bizarre meta experience.  Adapted from Stainslav Lem’s 1971 darkly humorous sci-fi yarn, Wright is playing a version of herself: an aging actress that has chosen family over fame tempted to make a comeback.  How she does it and what it entails provide the framework for a piece that I hope follows through on its promises to ask a lot of questions about celebrity, culture, and how much of oneself those that achieve fame actually have to give over to the public.