Tag: kodi smit-mcphee

Alpha


Alpha (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

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.

A Birder’s Guide to Everything


A Birder’s Guide to Everything (2013)
★ / ★★★★

David (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a young birder whose mother has passed away. He is unhappy that his father (James Le Gros) is about to get married to the nurse who took care of his mom during her last days.

While riding his bike, David comes across a duck that is believed to be extinct. However, he fails to take a clear picture of it since he does not have the proper equipment at the time. He proposes to his birder classmates (Alex Wolff, Michael Chen) that they attempt to find the potential Lazarus species. If what David had seen is, in fact, Camptorhynchus labradorius, it would be the biggest ontological find in recent history.

“A Birder’s Guide to Everything,” written by Luke Matheny and Rob Meyer, is a slow-moving, phony, unfunny, and profoundly unmoving bore. Just about every human relationship comes off either severely underdeveloped or forced and so we never really buy into the images on screen or the emotions being portrayed. And for a movie with a main character who is so into birding, the material never gets specific.

It is crucial that we understand David’s passion in great detail. What is it exactly that draws him into watching birds? Is it because he admires the diversity of these animals in terms of size, color, or the sounds they make? Since his late mother introduced him to birding, does he have the passion for it because of what the activity symbolizes? To him, do the birds serve as a metaphor? These are only a few of the many questions worth asking but the picture does not bother to go beyond expectations.

David’s friends are painfully boring and unlikable. They are played as nerds and that is supposed to be funny, I guess. There is no sweetness in David’s interaction with Timmy (Wolff) and Peter (Chen). As a result, when the would-be emotional arc comes rolling around in the latter half, I felt nothing from the performances. I felt the screenplay trying to reel in my sympathy and it made me angry because it had not been earned.

Perhaps one of the few bright moments in the film is the cutesy potential romance between David and a classmate named Ellen (Katie Chang) who is very much into photography. I enjoyed that it is obvious she likes him and David knows it. However, he is too shy to do anything about it. So, it is easier to assume that she will make the first move. The problem is, both of them are inexperienced when it comes to that department and so nothing much happens most of the time. We root for these two to take a chance.

The father’s upcoming marriage is an important part of the plot and so he should be written with complexity. Donald has as much character as a plank so none of the drama works. The so-called dramatic scenes between father and son are written so badly and executed with such a lack of energy, we do not believe that the characters have lived, let alone known each other for years.

The protagonist’s interests, friends, and life at home are neither written nor executed well. So, what else is there? There is a subplot involving a renowned birder (Ben Kingsley) who was acquainted with David’s late mother. Kingsley is either miscast or the actor made the wrong choice of making the character to be too much of an oddball.

Slow West


Slow West (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★

Sixteen-year-old Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) travels from Scotland to America so he could be with his one true love, unaware that there is a bounty of two thousand dollars for the heads of Rose (Caren Pistorius) and her father. Silas (Michael Fassbender) offers to aid Jay to reach his destination for a fee of one hundred dollars. Soon, however, a group of bounty hunters have figured out that all they have to do is follow the the boy and his guide and the reward will soon be theirs.

“Slow West,” written and directed by John Maclean, is a western with quirks and so although the pacing deliberately moves at snail’s pace, there are numerous small moments that are quite amusing and entertaining. The western genre is not my cup of tea but this one surprised me on almost all levels, from the pleasing performances to how the story unfolds. The writer-director has a knack for showing beautiful images.

One of the surprises involves the colors having the opportunity to stand out. Because Jay and Silas are constantly on the move, the environment always changes. We notice the hue, texture, and dryness of the desert background, how the water is blown by the wind during a flashback, and how the temperature of the temporary shade of interior structures must be like relative to being outside under the blazing watch of the sun. This is the kind of movie I can watch without sound and it is likely that I will still enjoy it.

I had doubts about the casting of Smit-McPhee. His look is so distinct—some may even claim bizarre because some of his facial features are so large relative to his bone structure—and I have not seen him do anything particularly outstanding. I was glad that these doubts were quickly dispelled. His character is quiet, polished, and thoughtful. I enjoyed Jay’s quiet musings and the way he looks up into the night sky and the stars. This young man is a dreamer and it made me wonder if people like him had a place in the American frontier where a person’s life is determined by a gun pointing at him.

The action sequences are nothing special but they do command a level of tension. The showdown at the very end is the loudest and the most complicated to execute, but the one that I will remember most is the scene in a shop where a couple busts in, pulls out a gun, and demands the owner to hand over the money. The scene resonates because the violence is used to remind the audience that there is a consequence to every death even though we may not remember a person’s name or face right after he or she hits the ground. A sense of melancholy creeps in when we least expect it.

I wished that “Slow West” had been more poetic because that is its strength. There are musings about love, death, and living—with a sense of irony tying them together—but none of these are explored thoroughly or enough to make a lasting impact. Also, I wanted to get a stronger sense of Jay and Silas’ relationship. What they share only becomes really interesting toward the latter third. At one point I imagined how the picture would have been different if Terrence Malick had a hand in co-directing.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes


Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)
★★ / ★★★★

The so-called simian flu having wiped out half of the planet’s entire population, a small faction that remains, led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), hopes to fix a dam and reactivate electricity. Doing so will allow them to send a transmission and reconnect with other survivors. However, the dam is located within the territory of Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his fellow apes, many of which have grown to fear and hate humans.

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” written by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver, is highly visually-driven, at times a feast for the eyes, but it lacks well-established human characters that function as Caesar’s sounding board. As a result, the story is only interesting up to a point and while the images are beautiful, the material is not emotionally involving overall. And with its overextended finale, it challenges the patience.

The computerized apes are convincing especially when their faces are front and center. There is a humanity in their eyes which is important because it helps us to buy into the gamut of emotions they have toward each other and those who threaten their existence. Perhaps most entertaining are the interactions between Caesar and Koba, the latter driven by revenge for having been treated badly by humans. Although both are apes, there is a significant difference between the way they act and reason. The former is very human-like while the other likens that of a rabid dog.

The apes eventually do speak but it is most effective when they communicate via sign language. With the latter, we get a sense of their camaraderie and culture. The former, on the other hand, comes across too forced. At times I found the speaking patterns to be uneven. For instance, earlier in the film, pronouns are uncommonly used. Later on, it is more prolific. Thus, the difference sounds jarring.

Malcolm (Jason Clarke), along with his girlfriend (Keri Russell) and son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), volunteer to go to ape territory and fix the machines that will enable the dam to work again. It is reasonable to expect that at least one of them will be a viable character worthy of exploration by the screenplay actively establishing subtleties and various shades with respect to human-ape relationships.

Instead, the changes that Malcolm goes through, if any, are quite elementary and so quickly presented that a believable arc is not created. And although there are instances when these characters are thrown into grave danger, I did not feel particularly moved by whatever fate awaits them. I grew worrisome of the possibility of yet another speech denoting how much they care about each other.

Directed by Matt Reeves, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” entertains on a visual level during the first hour or so but when firearms in the latter half get involved, there is a certain level of detachment often found in shoot-‘em-up action films. While I liked the subtle differences in firearm technical proficiency between apes and humans, this detail is not enough to save a limp, rather brainless third act.

ParaNorman


ParaNorman (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★

“ParaNorman” began with Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) sitting on the floor and watching a grindhouse horror flick where an actress, barely acting, screamed to the top of her lungs as a zombie crept toward her and finally lunged at her head to eat her deliciously juicy brain. Norman’s grandmother, sitting on the couch, asked him to turn up the heater because her feet were cold. Norman got up to see his family in the kitchen and when he informed them of his grandmother’s request, Mom (Leslie Mann) and Dad (Jeff Garlin) became upset: Grandmother had been dead for a while. Norman, as it turned out, had the ability to communicate with the dead. Written by Chris Butler, the film had a surplus of ideas in order to make Norman’s small town bizarre enough to be unique and yet relatable enough to be enjoyable. Clearly influenced by scary movies, the film was almost made for fans of the genre more than children, from its eerie atmosphere directly taken from George A. Romero’s undead classics to the menacing beats of Lucio Fulci’s score. Its first half was rather mysterious in that it took a bit of time for us to be fully understand what it was supposed to be about. At school, Norman was bullied by Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) for being a weirdo and befriended by socially awkward Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), a kid picked on for being fat. The picture could have used a little more interaction between Norman and Neil. Since the two had opposite personalities, when the script focused on conjuring reasons why the duo were a good fit for one another, the human factor really shone and made their universe more realistic. Their most effective scene involved Neil asking his new friend to throw a stick for fun. Norman, barely having any fun in his life, found it difficult to perform such a simple task. One could detect an underlying message regarding Norman’s reluctance to throw caution to the wind in relation to his negative experiences with the living: they wanted Norman for feel embarrassment or shame for his contentment in being different. Its more sensitive moments and dirty jokes, like a broken sign flashing “Itchy Wieners” which was originally “Witchy Wieners,” were clearly designed for adults. The exaggerated images, on the other hand, were aimed for kids. The young characters on screen were pleasing to eye but the adults had an almost toady quality to them. It seemed like the older the character, the features were bigger, saggier, more abstract. It was an interesting technique. Because a lot of its jokes were adult-oriented, the filmmakers had to make its younger characters visually appealing so that the children could root for them. About halfway through, the film finally found its footing with respect to Norman’s mission. Creativity was abound as Norman and Alvin were chased by zombies in the woods as well as the awkward but hilarious car ride with Neil, Courtney (Anna Kendrick), Norman’s short-tempered sister, and Mitch (Casey Affleck), Neil’s muscular but dense brother. Although “ParaNorman,” directed by Chris Butler and Sam Fell, featured a lesson about forgiveness toward the end which I found too slow and sentimental, its other severed parts were edgy and fun. When was the last time you saw an animated film in which its kid protagonist had a chance to engage with a corpse and its bodily functions?

Let Me In


Let Me In (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★

A man with a badly burned face had been taken to a hospital and a detective (Elias Koteas) arrived to interview him. But when the detective stepped out of the room to talk on the telephone, the person of interest jumped from a ten-story building. Cut to a lonely kid Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who was constantly bullied in school. He spent most of his time by himself as he tried to cope with his parents’ divorce. So when a girl named Abby (Chloe Moretz) and her guardian (Richard Jenkins) moved into the apartment building, naturally, Owen wanted to be friends with her unknowing of the fact that she was a vampire. “Let Me In,” directed by Matt Reeves, is very similar to Tomas Alfredson’s “Låt den rätte komma in” or “Let the Right One In.” While I did enjoy this film’s interpretation of the events, I constantly felt the need to compare it to the original. I found it difficult to separate the two because Reeves’ version did not really strive to do anything too different. From the cold locale to the grizzly murder scenes, it was just good instead of impressive because I’ve seen it all before. What I liked most about “Let Me In” was the actors. I immediately felt Smit-McPhee’s loneliness and desperation to connect with others. The scene when he called his dad to ask if evil truly existed was very sad and I just wanted to give him a hug. Moretz as the twelve-year-old vampire was accessible. I also felt her loneliness because she knew what she was and her capabilities but nobody understood her. For those who tried, such as Jenkins’ sympathetic character, they ended up getting hurt or dead. I’m giving “Let Me In” a recommendation because if I had not seen the original, I would have still enjoyed this vampire film. Its heart was always the focus instead of the blood. I always appreciate that quality especially with horror pictures because it is so much easier to deliver the violence instead of trying to explore what makes the characters tick. Further, the somber mood complemented the haunting score and vice-versa. What I felt “Let Me In” could have done was to explore Abby’s past much further. When Owen finally had a chance to enter Abby’s apartment, we saw pictures and other paraphernalia involving Abby’s mysterious past. Remaking a movie does not necessarily mean the remake should be confined to the original’s ideas. In order for the remake to be stronger, it must not be afraid to think outside the box (or even break the box) to surprise us.

The Road


The Road (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★

Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, “The Road” focused on a father (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as they traveled to the south of the United States, on foot, in hopes of finding a place where they could be safe from cannibals and starvation. A post-apocalyptic film in every respect, the look of the picture was very bleak–everything was grey and characters were covered in mud and grime. The only warmth that was present was the bond between the father and son as they evaded gangs who killed and ate people and who had stooped so low that they were willing to molest children. Mortensen did a great job portraying a father who wanted to be a model for his son just in case he met an untimely death. I was impressed because even though his character was nurturing (the mother, played by Charlize Theron, passed away), there was a certain toughness about him that was so precise when circumstances turned for the worst. On the other hand, I was very annoyed with Smit-McPhee’s character because he was so whiny about everything. For having a father who obviously tried his hardest to protect and provide for him, during the first half, the kid found every reason to whine and mope. I seriously wanted to shake (or punch) the kid to knock some sense into him. Fortunately, during the second half, he grew on me because he provided a much needed heart to the story, especially when they met an old man and a thief, Robert Duvall and Michael K. Williams, respectively. As much as this film was depressing, I didn’t think it was monotonous like some audiences suggested. I thought it was very suspenseful, especially the scene when the father and son went into a cellar to find the most horrific images. Strangely enough, I also thought it was hopeful because of the strong relationship between the two leads. They kept talking about a “fire” inside them (a religious implication, I’m not entirely sure) that helped them to continue their journey while at the same keeping their humanity. The tone was complex and it was definitely easy to get lost in bleak atmosphere if one was not emotionally invested in the characters. As the film came to an emotionally draining conclusion, I started to think about life and how it would eventually end for myself, my friends and my family. It just made me incredibly sad and I couldn’t help but turn on the waterworks. “The Road” may not have been as strong as critics expected it to be but it’s nonetheless a solid film with a heart despite the exploration of the darker side of humanity. There was something very poetic about the whole experience right from the start so I was glued all the way through.