For a review of “Alpha,”
You know Sheila the SheWolf from “Glow” on Netflix? “Alpha” would be her favorite movie. She’d watch it every day on a VHS tape, memorizing each line of Cro-Magnon dialogue, fashioning her costumes in tribute to the furtrimmed Hot Topic looks sported by the characters, adopting a Czech wolf dog like the one in the movie.
It’s sweet, really, to imagine the kind of devotion “Alpha” might inspire, a film that’s very simple, kind of strange, but will melt any dog-lover’s heart. It’s the story of a young boy living in Europe’s last Ice Age, his fight for survival and the special relationship with a wolf that keeps him alive.
When it comes to sheer spectacle, “Alpha” is a stunning production, especially in 3D IMAX. Director Albert Hughes and cinematographer Martin Gschlacht recreate the untouched vistas of pre-civilization Europe shooting on location in Canada, while enhancing with visual effects. The camera soars and swoops across the prairies, fields and glaciers, creating the sense of flying for the audience. When the landscape becomes impacted with snow, it is epic, but less visually stimulating.
Kodi Smit-McPhee stars as Keda, the son of a tribal chief Tau (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson), embarking on his first big hunt. Tau is filled with pride to have his son learning how they provide for their tribe, teaching him lessons along the way about self-sacrifice and leadership.
Fortunately, the sensitive and shy Keda is cut from a different hide, and he’s the film’s true hero. During the hunt, everything goes haywire, and Keda is thrown off a cliff by an angry bison. The tribe must leave him behind, unable to lose their chief Tau to a risky rescue mission. He’s racked with grief, but he must do what’s best for the tribe and leaves his presumed-dead son behind, marking his place of death with stones.
Here sets off Keda’s remarkable survival mission, which he does his own way. All he takes from his father is his map home, a tattoo on his hand of the Big Dipper constellation. He’s no great hunter, but he’s a sweet and gentle soul: a healer, not a killer. When a pack of wolves goes after him, he injures the alpha wolf, then nurses it back to health. Soon Alpha is by his side, through blizzards and predator attacks, as Keda makes the arduous journey home.
“Alpha” is an epic adventure tale that tells the story of how humans and dogs came to have the relationship they do, one of devoted companionship and mutual support. It’s hard to survive out there without a loving, warmblooded creature by your side, whether it’s the Ice Age or the 21st century. Thematically, “Alpha” nails the idea that our survival is dependent on the love and support of others, and the idea emerges from the haze of faux fur and war paint in which “Alpha” is coated.
“Alpha,” a Sony release, is rated PG-13 for some intense peril. Running time: 96 minutes.
“Crazy Rich Asians”
Love and its complicated dynamics have been largely out of style in filmmaking since the witty, mature heyday of Norah Ephron (“When Harry Met Sally”) and Richard Curtis (“Four Weddings and a Funeral”). But now it’s revived by “Crazy Rich Asians,” a take on the moribund genre that’s leaps and bounds above anything we’ve seen for years.
Adapted from Kevin Kwan’s 2013 bestseller, the film is a fantasy tour of Singaporean high society. Rachel Chu (fetching Constance Wu of ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat”), a young economics professor at New York University who has never been east of Queens, takes her first trip to Asia as she accompanies her boyfriend back to his home, where he’ll serve as best man at a friend’s wedding.
Despite her expertise in finance, she has never detected that modest, adorable Nick Young (Henry Golding in his movie debut) has been concealing an important fact from her: His family is 12 times richer than God. Once inside his extravagant Pacific Rim never-never land of high fashion, spoiled socialites, debauched scions and marriage-threatening scandals, Nick’s sincere devotion may come at a cost Rachel can’t afford.
“Crazy Rich Asians” gives us a smooth, polished take on Cinderella in a context looking at cultural clashes that reach beyond ethnic similarities. Rachel, a first-generation Chinese-American, speaks Cantonese as well as anyone in Nick’s family, and most of the all-Asian cast speaks a plummy Queen’s English from their days in elite British boarding schools.
But there’s much Rachel doesn’t have in common with Nick’s kin, who follow ancient codes of duty to family, not allAmerican personal fulfillment and pursuit of happiness. As much as she tries to respect them, their traditions feel artificial, turning her relationship with Nick into an East-West snarl-up.
It’s told with a good deal of humor. As word of Rachel’s place in Nick’s heart spreads over the internet, there’s a great visual mosaic of the gossip spreading like an unending tide. Rachel begins firing culture clash jokes as soon as their flight arrives. And as Rachel’s strange old college roommate and local tag-along, Awkwafina is a one-woman riot.
In this universe, the men are largely eye candy to be shown shirtless whenever possible or serve as comic relief, with Ken Jeong hamming it up and Nico Santos going wry, dry and very out. As in a real-life wedding, the power roles go to the women. They’re all written with special care and given the camera time they need to make their characters well detailed.
Wu, who is inherently likable, covers a lot of feelings without overselling. When she overhears some rich glamour girls snip at her natural beauty, her rueful look says everything. They regard her as an immigrant gold digger, and when they threaten her with an act of bedroom belligerence straight out of “The Godfather,” Wu delivers precisely the right response. She creates a classic good girl in a poised, self-assertive and vulnerable way that doesn’t feel clichéd.
Michelle Yeoh is a treasure as Nick’s chilly, regal mother, Eleanor. What a rich character she is, dominant yet detached and high-minded, untainted by human pettiness. A Hong Kong film superstar for decades, Yeoh handles the part with the serene confidence of a born empress.
Eleanor rarely expresses criticism; implication is so much more elegant. She examines Rachel like a mildly bothersome mosquito to be waved away, too unimportant to swat. She’s certain Rachel lacks the refined cultural sensitivity needed to enter her lofty circle, let alone join her family. She expects Rachel to fly back to vulgar New York City, and Nick to return to his proper home with his mother.
With a minor glance or a subtle acoustic change in her voice, she’s as deadly as a torpedo. And yet she can be kind and inclusive as she tries to send Rachel packing, inviting her to make bao dumplings and chat about babies. Eleanor is difficult, but no Medusa.
The film has won a good deal of attention as the first U.S. studio feature with an entirely Asian ensemble since “The Joy Luck Club” was released a quarter century ago. It’s great to see a perpetually underrepresented group claim the spotlight stereotype-free, and the success of hits such as “Black Panther” surely prove audiences are eager for more diversity in familiar genres.
But the film’s strongest selling point isn’t that, or its dressed-to-kill costuming or its use of chic locations and appetite-exciting food porn. Its benefit is filtering all those elements through an old Capulets-and-Montagues story line and creating a deft, intelligent charmer as irresistibly fizzy as the champagne its characters quaff round-the-clock. It gives romance the royal treatment.
“Crazy Rich Asians,” a Warner Bros. release, is rated PG-13 for some suggestive content and language. ★★★★
“Crazy Rich Asians” tells the story of a young economics professor who accompanies her boyfriend to his home where he’s best man in a friend’s wedding, and she finds that he’s rich many times over.