Hillary and Jackie (1998)
★★ / ★★★★
Hilary (Rachel Griffiths) and Jackie (Emily Watson) are extremely close sisters. Because of their parents, much of their youth consisted of competitions: Hilary with her flute and Jackie with her cello. As adults, the sisters remain close, but the dynamics between them change when Jackie’s career begins to skyrocket. Hilary has happily chosen to marry while Jackie is left with prestige that she does not find all that rewarding. Eventually, the world-renowned cellist visits her elder sister in the country with a strange request shared over a game and a glass of wine.
Based on a memoir by Hilary and Piers du Pré, “Hilary and Jackie” has a fascinating story underneath the technical glitters that the screenplay has constructed for the sake of amplifying the drama. Instead of telling the story raw, it tries too hard to come off more poetic or artistic which puts a strain on the narrative. As a result, many of the thoughts and emotions that we are supposed to think about and feel are muffled.
The decision to divide the story in two perspectives is very necessary in order for the audience to have the chance to paint a complete portrait of the sisters. From the moment it changes gears, it begins to deconstruct some of our evaluations regarding their relationship. We get the feeling that the truth is somewhere in between the two versions, but it almost does not matter since Hilary and Jackie have sides to them that we can embrace and relate with.
Griffiths and Watson are wise in not playing their characters as complete opposites to the point where it is jarring. Hilary and Jackie have important differences but whenever the performers share a frame, they allow the similarities of the sisters to come through. When simplicity is shown on screen, like two just holding each other, the film is most effective. Having said that, I wished that the writing had done away with scenes that depict the two as having the ability to read each other’s minds. It hammers the point so strongly that eventually it starts to feel like a cheap device to allow those paying less attention to have a semblance of but ultimately shallow impressions of what the sisters are dealing with.
The latter half of the picture deals with Jackie being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The execution has some clinical touch in that it shows the disease for what it is. However, this brave approach does not last long. I suppose since the screenplay by Frank Cottrell Boyce wishes for the audiences to feel more sadness, the artificial dramatic elements seep their way through events that are better off without gloss. Some of these scenes appear manipulative.
Directed by Anand Tucker, “Hilary and Jackie” should have focused more on the identity of the woman underneath her extraordinary talent. While it touches upon Hilary du Pré’s ideation that perhaps she would have attained real happiness if she had been ordinary, it is unfortunate that the screenplay insists on injecting surreal elements that inadvertently serve as walls between her and us.
Devil’s Playground (2002)
★★★ / ★★★★
Lucy Walker’s eye-opening documentary “Devil’s Playground” follows about a half a dozen young adults who consider (or considered) themselves to be a part of the Amish community. Her subjects are participating (or participated) in rumspringa (“running around”), a time in their lives when they are allowed to leave home and break away from their strict upbringing, from changing the way they dress to partying and experimenting with drugs. It is a fascinating work, certainly educational, because it strives to pull back the curtains, even just a bit, so we can have an appreciation of a lifestyle that we may or may not agree with.
Two subjects stand out. The first is Faron, a teenager who is both a drug dealer and has an addiction to methamphetamine. He neither considers himself to be Amish nor someone who is not Amish. He makes no qualms that he is still in the process of figuring it all out. In the meantime, we look at his face, a facade that looks more like a boy than a man, and wonder about his future. Even his friend whom he lives with admits that Faron may not live for very long given his occupation. When the director allows the camera to rest on a subject’s face and captures confessionals that are direct and heartbreaking, the film is at its most effective.
The second intriguing subject is Velda, a twenty-three-year-old who admits that at the time of her rumspringa, she was suffering from major depression. She admits that she decided to partake in this tradition because she thought that by breaking the Amish rules and experiencing what the world had to offer, it would cure her depression. It did not. However, she enjoyed the freedom of being able to live her life the way she wanted to. We learn later that she has been excommunicated and shunned by her community.
Deeply humanist, the film is not interested in casting judgment. I admired that is interested in providing the audiences with facts of the curious Amish lifestyle and specific individuals’ circumstances. As for my personal feelings, I thought it was shocking, horrific even, that Amish children stop going to school after the eighth grade. They are expected to get a job.
Even adult Amish individuals admit on camera that a thorough education can lead to pride, that is encouraged that young people be satisfied with what is, not bothering to ask the reasons why, for example, things work a certain way or how. This is critical, at least in my eyes, because it puts the whole “running around” tradition into perspective.
It inspires the audience to ask: Is rumspringa really a choice or an illusion of choice? Think about it. If a community fails to provide a strong enough education so that its young people would be able to land on his or her feet after the fact, would it be fair to consider that a community was setting up a member to fail? Statistics show that the percentage remains high regarding teenagers who “choose” to go back home and become Amish via baptism. Devastating interviews here show that it is precisely because they feel they have no other choice but to revert to the comfortable, to what they already know. This is why Faron and Velda’s stories, particularly latter, are worth telling.
“Devil’s Playground” is at its most powerful when the subjects address the camera for extended periods. Velda takes us to her closet and shows us a dress. She made this dress for her wedding day and she describes how the clothing made her feel when she had put it on at the time—back when she was convinced she was going to be Amish. She puts it on for us… and she proceeds to tell us how it makes her feel now. Her confession will stay with me for a long time. It made me wish that she is out there somewhere—happy, healthy, and thriving.
Uninvited, The (1944)
★★★ / ★★★★
Most refreshing about the classic dark house picture “The Uninvited,” based upon the novel “Uneasy Freehold” by Dorothy Macardle, is its lack of overt elements designed simply to scare the wits out of those watching. Rather, we are asked to believe that within this particular story, the paranormal exists as if it were air we breathe. Characters wake up in the middle of the night due to strange noises, pets are shown to be afraid of particular rooms, objects move on their own, and an apparition appears by the stairwell.
But these are handled with class—certainly patience—and so our attention is almost always on the mystery rather than our reactions to images we see. This type of storytelling within the horror genre is rarely seen nowadays—most unfortunate because it is a chance to tell a ghost story in a different way, making the experience more personal. Those who wish to encounter gore and ceaseless jolts are best advised to adjust their expectations.
At times it functions as a screwball comedy. There is plenty of amusement to be had from the siblings’ decision to purchase a house by a cliff overlooking the sea. Roderick and Pamela are played by Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey and they share great chemistry as Londoners hoping to get away from city life and toward something new, more grounded. Notice the energetic dialogue as Pamela attempts to wheedle her brother into agreeing to buy the two-story residence even before they learn of the current owner’s asking price… and the rumors surrounding the place. The playfulness of the script captures what siblings say and do and so we buy into the strength of their relationship almost immediately. We wonder whether it would stand strong once they finally learn the house’s secrets.
Another comedic angle involves Roderick and Stella (Gail Russell), the latter a twenty-year-old who moved out of the house that Roderick and Pamela now own when she was only three. She has been living with her grandfather, Commander Beech (Donald Crisp), ever since. The commander is selling the house at a significantly reduced price, arousing suspicions from buyers. Take away the horror and mystery elements and we are left with an interesting romance between a music composer/critic and a young woman who wishes to experience more in life. In other words, as a potential couple, they are intriguing divorced from the machinations of the plot.
The picture is at its best when characters are discovering for the first time that their house is indeed haunted. Humor is never completely taken out, but at the same time images are created in order to provide the audience a creepy experience. The black-and-white photography is beautiful, particularly during scenes set at night when a candle is the only source of light. It invites the viewer to take a look around a once familiar place, formerly bathed in daylight due to the rooms’ large windows, and anticipate what might appear in a shadowy corner of a room. The door is slightly ajar—is there something behind there? It is suddenly silent—the scare is certain to follow soon… but it doesn’t.
“The Uninvited” is directed by Lewis Allen and it presents an amusing conundrum. On the one hand, it is certainly not made for the modern audience—a crowd that, in general, expects thunderous scares sprinkled throughout. On the other hand, I think that the same audience will enjoy the picture given that they keep an open mind. You go to it with a certain set of expectations but it provides something else entirely. I just wished that screenwriters Dodie Smith and Frank Partos had tinkered with the answers to the mystery just a bit as to not come across so melodramatic. It is best when serving light touches on top of rich subtext.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Twins Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette) are summoned by a notary (Rémy Girard) after their mother, Nawal (Lubna Azabal), passed away. The deceased has an unusual request. If the children do not follow through with her final wishes, she is to be buried faced down, with no coffin, naked, and no tombstone. Jeanne is handed an envelope that she is to deliver to her father, a person of whom they believed to have been dead. Simon is also handed an envelope but this is meant for a brother they never knew about. Jeanne goes to Lebanon but Simon insists on staying in Canada.
“Incendies,” adapted from a play by Wajdi Mouawad, is an elegant dissection of memory of both the past and the present of a family in grief, questioning, and yearning. In the middle of a picture, a character informs another that death is never the end because the final destination tends to leave tracks that life has left. They can be seen if one is willing to look hard enough. Through flashbacks, when Nawal is still a young woman in war-torn Lebanon, we learn about her tragic history and how she has ended up halfway across the world.
The fact that I do not know much about the civil war in Lebanon in the ’70s adds another epithelium of mystery to the story. We are given information about the factions and elementary reasons why they are at war with one another, but the focus is never on the politics. Instead, what is underlined is the human experience. We see soldiers with guns and trucks, families lining up on checkpoints, children getting shot by snipers, university students trying to make sense of and are angered by the destruction and inhumanity unfolding in the country they love.
One of the most memorable sequences involves Nawal searching for her first-born son’s orphanage. She is forced to be separated from him right after she has given birth because her affair with a Muslim refugee (she is a Christian) has already brought enough shame to her family. There is a lot of walking through regions ravaged by war, coupled with close-ups of her increasing anxiety and dread as she is pulled toward one place to another just so she can be reunited with her child. In a riveting scene, a bus is soaked in gasoline by armed men outside while Nawal and other innocent people are inside. We watch her from the chest up and Azabal does an excellent job in avoiding extremes, completely avoiding melodrama. Her silent suffering is enough to make us feel the lashes of disappointment in her discoveries.
“You’re looking for your father, but you don’t know who your mother is,” tells a respected older woman to Jeanne while visiting her mother’s village. Though it is tough for Jeanne to hear, it is not meant to be dismissive or mean. It is the truth. The elegance of the narrative is most clearly communicated here. Because of the flashbacks, we have grown to know the mother a lot more than her children. We note their incorrect conclusions and hoping that somewhere down the line they will realize and remedy their misinterpretations.
“Incendies,” directed by Denis Villeneuve, makes a statement that we should be aware of our roots. What we grasp may be ugly or painful but it is a part of us. We should take whatever it is and make an effort not to forget. It also has something to say about family. In my eyes, the twins never really knew their mother. Sometimes that’s just the way it is.
★★ / ★★★★
Despite the melodrama that unfolds for the majority of the picture, “Acrimony,” written and directed by Tyler Perry, is almost effective because it is tethered so tightly around Taraji P. Henson’s performance. Henson plays a woman so filled with unconsolable rage that those closest to her are afraid she will hurt those who she feels did her wrong. Told in flashback, beginning when Melinda (Henson) meets Robert (Lyriq Bent) in college (the younger couple played by Ajiona Alexus and Antonio Madison), the material is able to generate a slow but powerful forward momentum only to fall apart during the final thirty minutes.
Dramatic thrillers rest so much on the payoff, the catharsis the audience must feel in their bones or the reward for having the patience to try and understand the perspective of the key characters, even though some of them are not written as sharply as should be so that they come across as living, breathing people rather than mere pawns to be moved in and around the plot. Melinda’s madness is not as interesting as her suffering as a girlfriend and eventual wife who invests everything she has—money, time, energy, emotional and physical support—on her husband’s dream of inventing a battery capable of recharging itself. (Because many of Perry screenplays are notorious for being heavy-handed, this work not being an exception, yes, the battery is a metaphor for the state of the couple’s marriage.)
The first half is strong because we are made to understand why Melinda feels betrayed. I enjoyed that the screenplay shows she is capable of empathy, making huge sacrifices, and having the patience when it is extremely difficult to remain in control of a situation. At the same time, the material is willing to show us her flaws apart from her disturbing anger issues. For instance, she has a habit of taking certain actions or words so personally when there really is no malicious intent. Those who look beyond the anger will be able to recognize a person who feels so much that she ends up latching onto those who make her feel important or valued—even to the point when she is no longer treated as important or valued.
There are some fresh choices in photography. Although Perry employs a darker lighting in order to pummel viewers over the head that what they are seeing is, in fact, a thriller, particularly surprising are instances when the writer-director subjects Henson under particularly harsh lighting to the point where it is unflattering. And I admire Henson for being willing to look so unappealing because the material demands that her character be as ugly or as monstrous as possible at a given time. While some may consider this as a misstep, I applaud it because, unless a movie is supposed to be a contender for major awards toward the end of the year, directors usually do not wish to show their actors in unfavorable frames.
It does not dispel the fact that the last act requires major revisions, perhaps even reshoots. The violence is cartoonish, the slow motions command no effect, and the dialogue sounds as though it were written by a teenager who has seen one too many reality shows and not read enough books (or at least seen a good number of quality movies). During this time, I could not help but feel robbed because I know the filmmakers and actors involved are so much better than the cheesy and ridiculous confrontation on a boat—proven by the solid ninety minutes that just came before.
Lean on Pete (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Although the plot involves a fifteen-year-old boy deciding to rescue the titular racehorse from being put down because it is no longer deemed profitable by its owner (Steve Buscemi), it is not what the movie is about. It is about a young person without an anchor, without a home, and little hope for the future. The horse, I think, is a metaphor for his willingness to fight and take his life toward a direction that makes sense—even if the road required to get there may not make a whole lot of sense to us. I found it achingly beautiful, poetic, and moving.
“Lean on Pete” is based on the novel by Willy Vlautin—and it shows. Notice that nearly every single adult Charley (Charlie Plummer—perfect for the role) knows or comes across has been chewed up and spit out by life, from his own father (Travis Fimmel) who pays more attention to wooing women than ensuring the well-being of his son, a female jockey (Chloë Sevigny) who has had her share of broken bones but cannot seem to care deeply about the horses she rides, to the pair of young soldiers (Lewis Pullman, Justin Rain) who just returned from the Middle East. A humanist writer-director, Andrew Haigh underscores the loneliness and sadness that these characters attempt to cover up. So even when someone makes a cruel decision, we do not hate them for it. It can be interpreted that their actions are based upon what life has taught them.
And then we look at Charley—quiet, hardworking, smart, and not yet hardened by life despite the near poverty of his household. We suspect what might be in store for him, the challenges he will face once he takes the horse in the truck and drives to nowhere. Particularly impressive is how the second half rests on Plummer’s shoulders and there is not a moment that rings false. It is interesting how the writer-director keeps sentimentality at bay, often choosing to highlight the boy’s inner fire, his ability to push through even when he must sacrifice a bit of his innocence just so he can take one more step toward his destination, than the tough circumstances that plague his journey. Lesser filmmakers may likely have opted for tear-jerker moments.
I read somewhere that the movie is not for children—which surprised and frustrated me. I cannot disagree more; it is exactly the kind of movie, I think, that children will connect with, especially because they will have questions. But the questions, I think, will not be about plot points but why certain things are happening, why there is death, why children are neglected or abandoned by their parents. These are tough questions. I believe that those who think that the movie is not for kids are people who are not ready to face and answer the challenging questions for someone else. We often underestimate what children can process.
“Lean on Pete” is a story of a boy who does not have a home. He looks to the people around him: his father, a horse trainer, a jockey; to the gentle animal considered to be old and useless; to the strangers capable of both kindness and inhumanity. They offer no home. He even looks inside himself and finds nothing still. And so he forges on, looking to the past to see if remnants of comfort remain. As the minutes trickle away, we look at Charley, desperately hoping he’ll be all right somehow even if he doesn’t find what he’s looking for.
Devil and Father Amorth, The (2017)
★ / ★★★★
Regardless of whether one believes in God, the Devil, demonic possessions and the like, there is no question that William Friedkin’s “The Devil and Father Amorth” is a documentary that lacks an excellent reason to exist. Its opening sequences are telling: the director, who helmed the 1973 horror classic “The Exorcist,” revisits locations of various scenes from that film as if the viewers were interested in sightseeing. One gets the impression he is grasping for straws in order to inspire curiosity in us—which is redundant given that his subject is already interesting. After all, who wouldn’t want to watch an actual exorcism?
The woman named “Cristina” is to be exorcised for the ninth time by Father Amorth, a beloved and respected priest in Rome. The exorcism is nothing like the movies we are all familiar with—which I found to be interesting for about three minutes. For instance, the person to be exorcised manages to retain how they look like, nobody is tied up to the bed, holy water does not penetrate the skin like acid. (Holy water isn’t even used.)
Most amusing, at least from my perspective, is the fact that the room is actually filled with loved ones, observing every second of the exorcism, praying along with the main priest and his assistant. They do not seem bothered by the woman’s paroxysms, trance-like demeanor, and guttural voice. The entire showcase lasts about twenty minutes and I felt every second of it. It is repetitive, shot in a flat manner, and rather boring. Mayhap it is because I have been around an exorcism when I was a child.
The picture gets slightly intriguing after the exorcism as Friedkin turns his camera on physicians and asks what they think of Cristina’s exorcism. Friedkin’s goal is painfully obvious: to get a quote that runs along the lines of science not having all the answers. Of course it doesn’t. But it does not automatically mean that the Devil exists and it has in fact possessed Cristina. The way Friedkin manipulates the interview is quite insidious and it left me with an uneasy feeling. I had to remind myself that he is a better filmmaker than this.
It cannot be denied that “The Devil and Father Amorth” offers access into a subject that is mostly kept secret. It is beneficial to capture an actual exorcism on film, regardless of whether or not one believes in its effectiveness as treatment when it comes to spiritual diseases, because it provides us information of what it is, how it is executed, and what it entails. But the way the documentary is put together is quite amateurish at best and overreaching at its worst. There are stretches here when I felt I was watching propaganda.
Fort Apache, the Bronx (1981)
★★ / ★★★★
Two rookie cops are killed by a drug-addicted prostitute (Pam Grier) and so the hunt is on to bring justice for the slain officers. With Captain Dugan (Sully Boyar) retiring, Captain Connolly (Edward Asner) is to take the lead of the South Bronx precinct with big plans of clearing cases even if the cops must go through extraordinary measures to do so. Officer Murphy (Paul Newman), however, doubts that any real changes can be made given that the status quo is deeply embedded in the marrow of the community.
“Fort Apache, the Bronx,” directed by Daniel Petrie, is a sometimes engaging but largely unfocused drama, weighed down by subplots that do not lead anywhere particularly compelling. The material is at its best when simply showing the lifestyles in the Bronx and how the community responds when the new captain pushes it to change with his unwavering idealism. Asner plays Captain Connolly with such intensity, one wonders the lines he might be willing to cross to prove his naysayers wrong.
The love story, which is supposed to be the heart of the picture given what each character symbolizes, between Murphy and a nurse (Rachel Ticotin) are nicely performed by Newman and Ticotin, but it is not written well enough as to create lasting impact. Perhaps Murphy and Isabella are too far in age so the effortless charm that the actors possess are not converted into genuine chemistry. Not once did I buy into them as a real couple; I was more interested in the partnership between Murphy and Corelli (Ken Wahl) either out in the field or just bantering in the car.
One of the cops in the precinct (Danny Aiello) commits a heinous crime. Although the screenplay introduces the idea of cops taking advantage of their roles as authority figures, it neither delves deeply nor asks discerning questions about responsibility, guilt, and ethical conduct. Instead, we are shown scenes of Murphy asking those he cares about, directly or indirectly, what he should do since he was a witness to the crime. It comes across very superficial, as if the screenplay were written by someone who had not seen or was not inspired by great, dramatic social pictures released in the ‘70s.
Grier is underused as the streetwalker who sets the plot in motion. She has one great scene with a drug dealer which really showcases her presence. I wished we got a chance to learn more about Charlotte’s life outside of the streets. Did she have a family? How is she like when she is not high on smack? What does her home look like? She is an important piece of the puzzle but one that is often brushed under the rug.
Written by Haywood Gould, one of the problems with “Fort Apache, the Bronx” is its lack of a defined center. On the sides are memorable faces and solid performances but the screenplay’s messages are often superficial and all over the place. For instance, the cops often turn their heads the other way even if they witness an act worthy of an arrest. From what we see here, it all works out eventually. The dramatic pull is weak.
Crazy Rich Asians (2018)
★★ / ★★★★
Let’s get it out of the way: As an Asian-American, it is wonderful to see a movie that showcases an all-Asian cast be released by a major American film studio, one that is widely released across the country. I have reviewed thousands of American movies for the past ten years and, despite some positive changes in terms of representation throughout the decade, sadly, generally speaking, Asians remain pigeonholed as token characters, often comic punchlines (i.e.: the best friend with a motormouth, the flaming homosexual, the nerdy/unsexy dweeb, the sex kitten/object), becoming invisible again once the joke is delivered. Thus, in some ways, an argument can be made that in American movies, Asians are simply gags to be recognized for a split-second and to be forgotten about just as quickly once the plot moves forward.
I wish I could report that “Crazy Rich Asians” were a better movie. Based on Kevin Kwan’s novel, the picture suffers from a lack of a captivating central couple. They look good together and the performers share cute chemistry, but there isn’t much else to the relationship. We have seen this familiar plot before: a woman (Constance Wu) is invited by her partner (Henry Golding) to meet his family (Michelle Yeoh, Lisa Wu) and she learns quickly that they think she is not good enough to be a part of the family. The twist here is that her boyfriend’s family just so happens to be extremely wealthy, known even amongst billionaires across Asia.
The material fails to introduce enough wrinkles in the plot to remain consistently fresh and interesting. Halfway through, I found myself feeling bored by Rachel feeling out of place in Nick’s highly materialistic world when she herself is more fascinating than all the glitz and glamour: she is an economics professor at NYU, the youngest in her department, who was raised by a single immigrant mother. Instead, my mind could not help but think of Nick’s sister, Astrid (Gemma Chan), who feels she must hide her expensive purchases and numerous charity work from her husband because he, having come from a more humble background, possibly similar to Rachel’s, struggles in coming to terms that his achievements are good enough compared to his wife’s. You tell me with a straight face that this subplot is less interesting than the main one. This is one of the film’s biggest letdowns: Rachel and Nick are not the most interesting characters in the story. And it should not be this way.
The first hour shows great potential in that the material almost satirizes the excess of wealth and what it does to people born into it. Couple this aspect with the fact that social media is right on our fingertips, it is a great opportunity to skewer a range of people across every generation. Rachel meets a number of these colorful figures, from the “aunties” who follow Nick’s mother like moths to a flame as if her wealth and influence could rub off on them to Nick’s friends, or friends of friends, who live to party and be regarded by others as high-class. Appropriately, not one of them is supposed to be worthy of examination—they must serve as decorations, really—but the screenplay by Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim fails to turn extreme behavior into anything substantial, let alone as pointed commentary regarding the subject to be satirized.
Most enjoyable for me are the performances: Michelle Yeoh as the very traditional mother and Awkwafina as Rachel’s college best friend. These performances cannot be any more different—the former is uptight, elegant, and constantly in control while the latter is like opening the floodgates and the water simply obliterates everything in its path. It is impressive how Yeoh is capable of communicating paragraphs by, for example, employing a deafening pause… and letting those eyes pierce through her enemy. She even says a lot when she chooses not to look at Rachel. Equally winning is Awkwafina’s riotous energy—she takes on the role of the audience in that she says precisely what we are thinking… and then some. (I would love to see her co-star with Kate McKinnon and Tiffany Haddish in the future.) Once again, the co-stars overshadow the leads.
Of course representation matters. It means a lot, especially for young people, to be able to look at the screen and think, “Hey, that person is me. This movie is telling my story, showing my struggles. I can relate to what’s happening here.” What many white Americans do not have to do is to pretend that a character with white skin has brown, or black, or yellow skin. It is a privilege that is ingrained in most American movies with major studio financial backing. Because let’s face it—most of these movies are told through a white perspective.
I would love to be proven wrong, but because what “Crazy Rich Asians” offers is mainly a generic romantic comedy coated with Asian colors, I’m afraid it may end up just like another token character, to be noticed for a blip and then forgotten about in a snap. To make a difference that lasts, I think—not one—but many films with an all-Asian cast, or a cast with mostly Asians, will have to be so special that their content are able to stand strong among the likes of Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” John Singleton’s “Boyz N the Hood,” Carl Deal and Tia Lessin’s “Trouble the Water.” Still, I suppose we must start somewhere.
★★★ / ★★★★
Fans of adventure movies from decades ago are certain to recognize something special in “Alpha,” a boy-meets-wolf story set twenty thousand years ago when men must hunt for food in order for their tribes to survive the long winter. While absolutely enjoyable, particularly its moments of peril, it falls just short of greatness due to its short running time of a hundred minutes. There are two main ideas here: a teenager on the cusp of adulthood who must prove himself worthy of becoming the future leader of his village and the friendship between the young man and the wolf he befriends after both of them are injured. There simply isn’t enough time for these two ideas to reach a synergy, not when the ambition is also to create a product that is easily digestible by mainstream viewers.
Its impressive visuals attempt to overwhelm the senses. Notice that even the first ten seconds of the picture already attempts to paint an idea in the minds of those watching—that the world we are about to embark on is alive, daunting, and unforgiving. This work reminded me of adventure movies like the near peerless “Never Cry Wolf” and the thoroughly engaging “White Fang.” While those projects are less reliant on CGI and more interested in philosophical musings, all three works capture the drama of being out in the wilderness in which every creature, plant, or random occurrence can prove dangerous or downright fatal. We are inspired with awe as majestic images grace like screen like the finest, rarest silk.
Keda is the name of the young man we follow and he is played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, no stranger to independent projects, particularly in the realm of comedy-dramas. While not one of his previous work impressed me in terms of he being a perfect fit for the role (he came close in “Slow West”), here is the film in which his bizarre and intriguing look marries an equally captivating material. I believed him to be a person who lives in prehistoric times even when the material is not accurate when it comes to how dogs have become domesticated over time. I hope he takes on more roles like this in the future.
The picture might have been improved had the screenplay by Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt chosen philosophical avenues to explore because Smit-McPhee is capable of simply looking at a distance and communicating paragraphs. One of its strengths is the quiet moments after Keda is left to survive on his own because his clan had assumed him to be dead after a long fall. At times these moments of quiet and pause manage to underline why humans evolved as social creatures. In addition, a more elegant screenplay might have helped to bridge the gap between the subplots involving leadership and friendship.
It is of great relief that director Albert Hughes has chosen not to have English as the spoken language in order to commercialize the material further. Hearing a strange but interesting and beautiful language adds so much to the story’s mythos. Put this film on mute and it would still retain a significant chunk of its power because the images are so pure, sound only elevates an already gripping material. It remembers that adventure stories are universal.
All Nighter (2017)
★ / ★★★★
Despite two charismatic co-leads, the would-be comedy “All Nighter,” written by Seth W. Owen and directed by Gavin Wiesen, disappoints with a deafening thud. Just about every attempt at comedy comes across as sitcom-like, played out, devoid of inspiration. About halfway through, one cannot help but wonder what performers of J.K. Simmons and Emile Hirsch’s calibers saw in the script to sign up for a movie with barely anything going for it.
The plot revolves around a missing woman named Ginnie (Analeigh Tipton), a character whom we barely get to know, let alone care about. Her father (Simmons), a workaholic who is often overseas, contacts her ex-boyfriend, the good-natured, banjo-playing underachiever Martin (Emile Hirsch), for possible information regarding her whereabouts. Mr. Gallo has gotten increasingly worried since it is so unlike Ginnie to not to pick up calls or return them on a timely manner. The title promises misadventures but the events that transpire are neither funny nor fun. The movie exists simply to pass the time.
It is strange that the picture is at its strongest during the more dramatic scenes, its quieter moments of admission and confession. Whether it be at the dinner table on a mid-level fancy restaurant or in a car in the middle of the night, when the protagonists sit down and simply speak with and look at one another, we recognize the raw potential of the material. This is because Hirsch and Simmons know how to carry a scene. They are not afraid of introducing pauses and silence. They have the ability to extract every little emotion from the words their characters say and feel. These moments of gravitas are never earned, however. We get the feeling that characters are revealing something about themselves simply because the plot requires it in order to create a semblance of character history or development.
Supporting characters are so extreme at times that they are almost cartoonish, caricatures. The couple constantly at each other’s throats (Taran Killam, Kristen Schaal), the barista who couldn’t be bothered (Stephanie Allynne), and the drunk party girl (Xosha Roquemore) quickly come to mind. Sure, eccentric people do live in Los Angeles but is it truly necessary to paint nearly every character encountered as one-dimensional freak show?
A standout is a woman named Lois because she is actually normal. More importantly, however, she is played with winsome energy by Shannon Woodward. As soon as the picture was over, I had to look up her body of work because she knows how to get our attention without leaning on creating an exaggeration. I couldn’t believe I had never seen her before.
“All Nighter” could have used several dosages of fun and authenticity. With a cast of recognizable names and faces, it is unfortunate that the material isn’t willing to take enough risks by trying on different types of comedy to attempt to find which works best for itself. What results, for the most part, is a forgettable and occasionally soporific romp.