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Films I Neglected To Review: Grrrrrrrr

By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 08/17/18 11:29:39

Please enjoy short reviews of "Alpha," "Mile 22" and "To All the Boys I've Loved Before."

Coming out in what appears to be a mini-glut of canine-related films this month--we have already had the Garry Marshall homage ''Dog Days,'' the robot dog film ''A.X.L.'' is coming next week and the old warhorse ''Cujo'' seems to be popping up on cable a lot these days--''Alpha'' is attempting to set itself apart from other dog stories by purporting to show the very first time that man and canine came together in the spirit of friendship. Set 20,000 years ago, the film begins as young Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee) joins his father and the men of his tribe on a buffalo hunt to prove himself. Alas, he is grievously injured along the way and is left by the others for dead. He isn't quite dead, however, and sets off alone on the perilous journey back home. Along the way, he is set upon by a pack of wolves and injures one of them while trying to escape. When it is left for dead as well, Keda elects to nurse it back to health and the wolf joins him on his quest to get back home before winter fully sets in.

While my tolerance for boy-and-his-dog stories tends to run a little low, this one isn't entirely bad. Director Albert Hughes--yes, that one--tells the story in a reasonably effective low-key manner that mostly eschews melodrama for realism, right down to having the characters speak in their native language with subtitles instead of having everyone miraculously speaking English. (Although the trailers give no indication that it is subtitled, the basic story is easy enough to follow along if you are unable or disinclined to read along.) He makes a couple of inexplicable narrative errors (such as leading off the film with Keda's injury and then flashing back to the events leading up to it before showing it again) but he makes up for some of that with some striking imagery here and there and some nice work between the human and canine leads. The trouble is that it is apparent right from the start that Hughes is trying to make the equivalent of such classics as ''The Black Stallion'' and ''Never Cry Wolf'' and while it may be unfair to make comparisons, you cannot help but think while watching it what it would have been like if Carroll Ballard was sitting in the director's chair--that could have been a masterpiece while Hughes, for all his good intentions, has essentially given us ''Quest for Fire'' with more doggies and less. . . , uh, never mind. ''Alpha'' isn't a particularly noteworthy film by any means--it certainly isn't worth the additional cost for the unnecessary 3-D or IMAX upgrades--but if you have kids who are really into dogs and can handle a little bit of grimness and intensity in their moviegoing, you could do worse--that said, you could also do much better.

In their first three screen collaborations--''Lone Survivor,'' ''Deepwater Horizon'' and ''Patriots Day''--director Peter Berg and actor Mark Wahlberg have taken us on a deeply dubious and borderline exploitative tour of recent tragedies that have allowed the former to throw red meat to his target audience of easily aggrieved types who fancy themselves to be people of action and the latter to indulge in his increasingly obnoxious fantasies in which he somehow triumphs over those tragic events as a way of suggesting that yeah, 9/11 totally would never have happened if he had been on one of the planes to show those terrorists what for. For their latest pairing, ''Mile 22,'' they are working from a completely fictional framework but in a weird way, that actually makes what ensues even worse. Here, Wahlberg plays James Silva, a tightly would and deeply paranoid tower of rage who flies off the handle at the slightest provocation, threatening friends, enemies and co-workers alike. Here, of course, he is our hero and not only is he super-smart to boot, he also gets to lead one of those top secret government agencies that end up doing the work that all the other agencies arenít manly enough to pull off. The latest mission for him and his team (which includes Lauren Cohan, Rhonda Rousey and, perhaps inevitably, John Malkovich) involves going to some unnamed Asian country (one that I suspect is located just beneath North Korea) that is positively teeming with Asians in order to extract an important informant (Iko Uwais) and move him to a plane in exchange for information on the locations of where stolen nuclear material has been hidden. Alas, lots of other Asians don't want the guy to leave and so Silva and his group are forced to kill as many of them as they can while trying to make the 22-mile journey to the air field in time.

So basically, ''Mile 22'' is little more than the old Clint Eastwood chestnut ''The Gauntlet'' with a spiffy new coat of casual racism to make it more presentable. It quickly becomes apparent that Berg is trying to make a lean, mean B-movie, right down to it clocking in at under 90 minutes, but it becomes just as apparent that whatever grace notes he may have once demonstrated as a filmmaker in such projects as ''Friday Night Lights'' and ''The Rundown'' have been smothered by the bully-boy bullshit he has been wallowing in during the last few years. For the most part, the action scenes, for all the noise and gore on display, just play like badly reheated Michael Mann and the brief stabs at character development are more embarrassing than anything else. (Malkovich's character wear funky old sneakers on his missionsófascinating!) A bigger problem is that the screenplay by Lea Carpenter is complete garbage--a total hack job in which pretty much all the characters are singularly obnoxious, the plotting is nonsensical and the desperate attempt towards the end to set up a sequel rather than devise a satisfying conclusion to the story at hand leads to a final twist that all but gives the finger to anyone dumb enough to have invested anything in the store. Worst of all, Wahlberg's character is one that allows him free reign to indulge in all of his worst tendencies as an actor to such a point that most viewers will find themselves hoping that he catches a bullet early on that will take him out for good. (On another note--considering his slightly checkered past in this regard, wasn't there ever a point when Wahlberg or one of his people considered the notion that maybe the sight of him beating, shooting and stabbing lots of Asians would perhaps seem a little troublesome?) The only moments when the film comes alive are when Uwais, who became a god to action buff through his appearances in the two ''The Raid'' films, gets a chance to show his stuff--unlike his co-star, he is charismatic throughout without ever straining for it and when he gets to show his action chops (as in an extended beatdown in a medical office in which all of the nastiest implements on hand are put into play), the movie does briefly and thrillingly come to life, only to crash back to the ground once Wahlberg returns to jerk up the joint. However, fans of action films in general and Uwais in particular would be much better served by simply watching ''The Raid'' again and avoiding ''Mile 22'' like the plague.

I suspect that most of the reviews of the new Netflix film ''To All the Boys I've Loved Before'' will claim it to be a contemporary version of the teen-oriented films that John Hughes used to crank out like clockwork in the Eighties. In fact, this one plays more like a corrective to all of the dubious elements that those who venerate those earlier films tend to overlook during their fits of nostalgia (such as their casual racism and sexism and a tendency to overly and shamelessly flatter their target audience) while also working as a perfectly good and occasionally wonderful film in its own right. As a way of dealing with a series of crushes that she has nursed over the years (including one on her older sisterís boyfriend), suburban high schooler Lara Jean (Lana Condor) has written each a letter confessing her innermost feelings that she then stashes away. Inevitably, the letters are accidentally mailed and Lara Jean finds herself having to deal with the fallout from all the attention that her inadvertent admissions inspire, not only from the boys but from her friends as well. Yes the setup for the film, which is based on the YA bestseller by Jenny Han, is more than a little contrived but screenwriter Sofia Alvarez and director Susan Johnson are less interested in the more humiliating aspects of the premise as they are in using it as a springboard to quietly and smartly explore a girl's first tentative steps into the world of dating that values recognizable human behavior and quiet wit over broad jokes and gross-out humor. As Lara Jean, the insanely appealing Condor is a real find in the type of role that Molly Ringwald would have knocked out of the park for Hughes back in the day. Her presence also helps underline another aspect that marks this as an improvement over the Hughes films--the way in which it presents a far more socially and ethnically balanced depiction of American teenagers that the lily-white suburban twerps that Hughes favored without (for the most part) ever being self-conscious about it. It is kind of a shame that this is making its debut on Netflix--this is the kind of smart movie for and about contemporary teenage life that has been in short supply in recent years--but no matter how it is seen, ''To All the Boys Iíve Loved Before'' is a delight.

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