ALPHA – ENGAGING AND BEAUTIFUL PRE-HISTORIC “BOY AND HIS DOG” STORY

SHORT TAKE:

Family friendly (with provisos) pre-historic tale of an injured and lost teen who partners with a wolf for his perilous journey home.

WHO SHOULD GO:

With cautions, anyone.

LONG TAKE:

SPOILERS (but only for those who have seen no trailers)

A boy and his dog – a classic pairing that dates back all the way to the Roman legend of Romulus and Remus, who were raised by a she-wolf, and written into classics such as Kipling's Jungle Book and London's Call of The Wild. Movies have been made about this dynamic relationship from the family friendly Lassie franchise featuring such luminaries as Roddy McDowell to the R-rated cult favorite oddity starring Miami Vice’s Don Johnson, when he was himself a puppy, called A Boy and His (telepathic) DogAlpha is yet another installment in this litany of (how my friend Franklin describes all movies as) a love story with a twist. And I am a sucker for a well done dog movie.

The trailer for Alpha, as is unfortunately the case with most movies nowadays, gives away more than it should. So if you have seen any trailers there will be no additional spoilers. However, I did not find, having seen the trailer and the previews of scenes, take away from the suspense, or enjoyment of the movie.

The premise is about a teenage boy, Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee, the new Kurt Wagner/NightCrawler), the only child and son of Chief Tau (Johannes Johannesson, Lem Lemoncloak from Game of Thrones), is taken on his right of passage into manhood buffalo hunt. He is injured, separated from the tribe, and left, thought dead.

In a series of miraculous but plausible events he survives and begins his long and extremely perilous trek home, finding an unlikely partner in a wolf he calls Alpha,  portrayed by Chuck, a Czechoslavakian Wolfhound.

Set 20,000 years ago, in what would eventually be known as Europe, unlike other movies about prehistoric man, Alpha appropriately portrays these characters as perfectly recognizable, modern-looking humans, only without our tech. They are intelligent, with a close knit family structure, established spiritual philosophy and able to communicate complex thoughts with a detailed language. They're courageous problem solvers, in a defended village, who live in large dome-shaped thatched and mud reinforced wigwams – perfectly recognizable modern humans only without the modern conveniences.

I really like the dynamic portrayed between the wise and gentle, big and burly father as he attempts to train and teach his much gentler son to be the next chief of their tribe. It is a universal, even cliche, conflict and eventual resolution between the expectations of a loving father and the inherent predispositions and abilities of an anxious to please son, played out in what I thought was a new and interesting way.

And I thought especially well played out how the father's teachings provided the boy with invaluable assistance to confront the overwhelming challenges when on his own, how the boy used his father's wisdom, in combination with his own unique approach and instincts, to confront the harrowing trials he had to endure through his long, seemingly impossible journey home – how the unprepared boy, faced with almost certain death, embraces his father's lessons to meet these unplanned tests. Both the audience and he realize along the way, that if he survives his adventure, he will become the capable man and leader he otherwise would not have been.

A number of movies have been made about prehistoric man. The introductory music and landscape for Alpha reminded me of the first 15 minutes of Kubrick's 2001. And the premise of a long silent journey of hazard over primitive terrain without hope of outside rescue I found very reminiscent of Quest for Fire.

But this is where the similarities end.

The characters in Quest for Fire were brutish, and almost comically animalistic as they fell out of trees and laughed at injuries they inflicted on each other, taking food and sexual favors in behavior more akin to a tribe of gorillas than a tribe of humans.

Quest for Fire, though well made and interesting, was a very adult film full of graphic cruelty and casual sexuality, portraying humans as projections of the unproven and largely discreditable Darwinian fallacy of a descendance from apes, which nonetheless is still forced into our schooling system. It was refreshing that the makers of Alpha saw pre-historic homo sapiens as virtually identical to our current men, in all of the fundamental ways that unite us as humans.

Though Alpha does include some violence, most of it happens very quickly, and either in the dark or off screen. In addition, there are a few scenes with maggots and dead rotting animals. As a friend of mine noted, however, nothing you would not see on a hot summer day when you go to take out the trash in my hometown of Lake Charles, Louisiana.

Depending, of course, as always, on parental discretion and the temperament of your child, I would even venture to say this movie could be appropriate for the very young child, especially if they like dogs. I would not recommend it for a child who was upset unduly by jump- scares, or gross out images.

The cinematography is gorgeous, even occasionally breathtaking, in the panoramic vistas of undeveloped Canada, masquerading as prehistoric Europe.

So, go check out Alpha. Would make a wonderful first date movie for people who like dogs. And don't discount this even for the youngest members of your family, but do check it out first.

THE LONG KISS GOOD NIGHT – INTENSE, BRILLIANT AND LITTLE KNOWN CULT CLASSIC WHICH PAVED THE WAY FOR ATOMIC BLONDE AND BLACK WIDOW

SHORT TAKE:

A rare example of a wildly successful, female-lead, action adventure about MOTHERHOOD — for adults only.

WHO SHOULD SEE IT:

Any adult who enjoys James Bond or one of the reboot Mission Impossibles.

LONG TAKE:

With the quality-questionable Uncle Drew being the most promising of the new movie releases this week, I thought I might do a review of one of my favorite movies you've probably never heard of: The Long Kiss Goodnight.

In 1996, far before Charlize Theron became  Atomic Blonde, and back when Scarlett Johanssen was still a child, starring in low budgets like Manny and Lo, well before she grew up to be Black Widow, a unique cinematic excursion was released called The Long Kiss Goodnight. Geena Davis, from Stuart Little, A League of Their Own, The Fly, and Beetlejuice costarred with the truly ubiquitous and eternally youngSamuel L Jackson (who looks no different now than he did 22 years ago – see my comment about this in my review of The Incredibles 2) in a movie about a woman named Samantha Caine. Samantha washes up, two months pregnant, on the shores of Honesdale, PA, a sleepy New England town, with nothing but clothes on her back she doesn't remember buying, a few fighting scars and complete "focal retrograde amnesia". She remembers nothing about herself: not her identity, where she came from, her age, who the father of her child is, nothing, except her name and even that is a guess.

Honestly, the background pictures during the opening credits reveal WAAAAY more than they should or is necessary. So – if you rent or buy this movie, on first viewing, you should START AT THE THREE MINUTE MARK. You can go back and watch the opening credit images after you have finished the movie.

Eight years later, as the movie begins, Samantha is now a teacher in the local elementary school and a devoted mother to Caitlin. While riding in her adopted home town's Christmas parade, in what seems to be a complete non-sequitor, an inmate in a nearby prison, watching the event on a caged TV, suddenly goes into a fury. About the same time, Mitch, (Samuel L Jackson) the low rent detective Samantha hired then forgot about, unexpectedly comes up with a lead, and Nathan (Brian "Stryker" Cox), an old friend from Samantha's past, sets out to find her.

With the exceptions of Ms. Theron, Ms. Johanssen, and Gal Gadot, I generally find that action adventures featuring women protagonists fall pathetically flat. The Long Kiss Goodnight is the Gold Standard of exceptions and the predecessor to all the blockbusters in which the aforementioned ladies have starred.

Clever, rough, violent, funny, startling and profane, it is one of the most unusual, fascinating and memorable films about motherhood I know. It ranks right up there with Hotel Artemis (click to check out my previous blog) and Aliens. While the language, ironically, has even Mr. Jackson's character, Mitch, complaining, there is no blasphemy, and the sexuality is very low key for this genre. If you want to check the details of profanity and sexuality out for yourself click Screenit, if you are a member, before watching.

GENTLE SPOILERS

Geena Davis' slow transition from the sweet and charming, happily domestic Samantha to the fierce and indomitable Charley is a tour de force. Ms. Davis and Mr. Jackson make superb platonic team mates in the kind of movie relationship usually reserved for bromances. The plot is part James Bond, part North by Northwest, part Mission Impossible, with a little bit of Dr. Jekyl/Mr. Hyde thrown in for good measure.

One of the things I find most commendably endearing and notably rare about this movie in general, and Samantha in particular, is that there is not even a hint she ever considered killing her unborn child, despite the desolateness of her situation as Samantha. Even while Charley, the most unlikely of mother candidates,  lurks in her subconscious, she has and embraces her natural and powerful maternal instincts. And after re-embracing her distinctly ungentle previous life Samantha/Charley remains a profoundly dedicated mother.  The idea that motherhood would trump everything else, even for the fully re-realized Charley, is a truly inspiring thought.

MODERATE SPOILER

To the point about motherhood, one of my favorite all time movie scenes is the way Samantha/Charley protects Caitlin and handles the "One Eyed Jack" when he invades her home. That's a heck of a mom. I can picture Weaver's Ripley giving Samantha a standing "O".

So if you're in the mood for something different than your usual film fare, be sure the kids are in bed and no where near close enough to hear Mr. Jackson as he chides Charley for HER language, and cue up The Long Kiss Goodnight.

TOMB RAIDER – HARMLESS BRAINLESS FUN

Daniel Wu

SHORT TAKE:

Discount Indiana Jones style adventure thriller with a female lead that takes advantage of the popularity of the video game of the same name.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Mid to older teens and up but video game fans should be warned that while the spirit of the game is there, this is a mostly different plot.

LONG TAKE:

In the African fable of The Cow-Tail Switch a father, the leader of the tribe, is lost on a lion hunting trip. The youngest has not yet even been born when the father goes missing. Time goes by and eventually the youngest brother is born, toddles about, grows older and learns to speak. His very first words are, "Where is our father?" The six older brothers then realize their father has been gone a very long time and decide to go on a quest to find out what has happened. Many days travel away they eventually come upon the father’s bones. Each son has a magic gift of life. One puts the bones together. Another replaces the sinews and muscle. Another gives his father organs. Another flesh. Another fills his father’s body with blood. The sixth brother breathes life into him. They all return rejoicing and the father announces he will make the next ruler of the tribe the one who contributed the most to his return. Each of the six older sons makes an argument for the part they played in returning their father to life. But the father chooses the youngest, reasoning that he was the one who thought to ask about him – and as long as someone remembered him he was never really dead.

Such is the case of Lara Croft in Tomb Raider.

SOME SPOILERS

The premise of Tomb Raider is that a young woman, Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander – Ex Machina) decides to embark upon a quest to find out what happened to her long lost adventurer father. During this quest she must overcome everything from Chinese muggers to shipwrecks and an evil nemesis Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins, the perennial bad guy) who works for the mysterious Trinity, an organization seeking to control the world, who shoots the weak and offers up the predictable, "You should not have come," line. Based on the video game of the same name, fans of the game need to be aware that the Tomb Raider movie has virtually (pun intended) nothing in common with the video story except that the lead character is a female on an adventure on a mysterious island to find something. No mention of a missing father or a world catastrrophe she is tasked to stop is ever mentioned in the video game.

Missing for seven years, everyone else has given Richard Croft, (Dominic West with a diverse filmography from 300, the musical Chicago and 1999's A Midsummer's Night Dream) her father, up for dead. But so intent is Lara upon the idea that her father is still alive that she will not even lay claim to the inheritance which will get her off the streets and allow her to return to the life of luxury in which she grew up.

It is only when she is prevailed upon to meet with the family attorney that she is introduced to a wooden puzzle box which, according to the will, she is to solve upon her father’s death.

Solve it, of course, she does (or it would have been a very short movie) and off she is sent on an adventure that would have challenged Indiana Jones.

Until Gal Gadot put lie to my assertion that a really good super hero movie could not be made with a female lead, I did not think that a woman was as good a choice as a man for an action adventure……and aside from Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman I still think this is true.

Part of the problem is that the extremely physical stunts required of the character in Tomb Raider would have been a challenge for a circus gymnast with the power of Dwayne Johnson, much less a female bike courier who likes to kickbox for fun, which is what Lara is without her family dough. A video game character gets several lives, but the movie is more grounded in a real life scenario, and to have a female endure the abuse and survive the jumps, falls, hits, fighting and wounds she does and still have the energy to run with weapons into a battle, cartwheel through ancient booby traps and still have the strength to stand is beyond the limits of even my considerable powers of suspension of disbelief.

Another problem with this movie in particular is the plot. The very McGuffin is flimsy. The father spends much of his time away from his supposedly beloved daughter scouring the world in search of something that – well, truthfully he could have found in the nearest church.

It is never made clear exactly why Lara did not continue to live on the family estate even while her father was missing. Did she, at some point, decide – gosh, I think I’ll move away because if I CONTINUE to live here it will be like an admission of his death….? They never even explain why she left the home of her childhood to begin with. They show her there as a child and an older teen just before Richard leaves on his fateful last trip. When did she abandon the family manor so that returning would be an acceptance of his death? You have to LEAVE somewhere before you can RETURN. And if she left – why? And when? There is no logic, pretext, reason or excuse so much as alluded to. Doesn't make any logical sense.

Another McGuffin point is that the family executor, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, tells Lara if she does not sign papers acknowledging her father’s death that everything will be sold at auction. Um….why? It’s not as though they were going bankrupt. This seems like a very arbitrary threat which comes out of nowhere with no background explanation.

Lara is a newbie to the adventure scene. Indiana Jones' father took him to exotic locales since early childhood. Indiana grew up as an artifact hunter with a lot of experience fending for himself. Batman and Iron Man used LOTS of gizmos to get between their relatively fragile human bodies and the hostile punches, bullets, missiles and other assorted threatening challenges being thrown at them. Superman simply had … powers. Lara is a relative hothouse flower who…rides bikes fast and…kickboxes. Whoopie. This in no way demonstrates that she can survive: an ambush by three thugs, a shipwreck, a fall from a cliff, a landing through trees, picking up her own dead weight one handed – and these are only things you see in the trailer.

Lu Ren (Daniel Wu) is a significant and likeable supporting character who figures strongly in the plot yet is never given the clear resolution he deserves but is just kind of left…  hanging.

The main baddie Mathias Vogel  tells Lara he has killed her father but does not explain why he would murder the one man who, by his own admission, is the only way to find and open the tomb of Himika – the goal that will get him off the island. Then, let us say, in a surprise that takes no one unawares, that he is laughably bad at follow up.

Without giving away too much more than is already IN the trailer I find it difficult to determine who the real bad guy is – Mathias Vogel who only wants to "win" so he will be allowed to go home to his family, or Richard Croft, the titular good guy/Dad who, truth be told, abandoned his daughter to set off a search for an item that he should have predicted would get a lot of people killed, and all for some pretty lame reasons.

And I don't think it is much of a spoiler to reveal that this movie is primarily a great big set up for a sequel. But then so was Ron Eli's 1975 Doc Savage, and given you probably have never even HEARD of that movie you can see how well that turned out.

Not that Tomb Raider is a bad movie. It is certainly a mostly satisfying wild ride of a tale. But Lara Croft is no Wonder Woman. Nor is she Indiana Jones, Captain America, Hulk, Spiderman, Iron Man, Superman, Batman or even Zorro. OK Lara Croft is better than Doc Savage …. or Howard the Duck.

There is a surprise and very small role featuring one of my all time favorite actors, Derek Jacobi. Although the character provides almost nothing to the movie, Sir Derek would lend class and grace to a McDonald’s advertisement, so it was a joy to see him.

Movies like Tomb Raider are like the pleasure you get riding roller coasters or eating cotton candy – not harmful in moderation and a hoot if you don't think about it very hard.

In short Tomb Raider is a good old fashioned potboiler of a thrill ride with plenty of hair raising incidents, near misses, goofy but ignorable plot holes, preposterously unlikely survivals and…running. LOTS of running. So get your popcorn and malted milk balls, turn your brain WAY down to simmer and enjoy.

NOTE: There is NO nudity and NO sex as there is no time and virtually zero opportunity for the characters amidst all the chasing and shooting and RUNNING. There are a few profanities including one blasphemy which is spoken by the bad guy. The violence is on par with your average Indiana Jones movie.

But being a firm believer that people should check things out for themselves, especially when it comes to one's kids, who will VERY likely want to see this movie, I recommend you subscribe and check out: Tomb Raider on www.screenit.com http://www.screenitplus.com/members/tomb_raider_Full_Content_Review.cfm#p