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Schultz reviews: 'Alpha' and 'Fighting with My Family'

Schultz reviews: 'Alpha' and 'Fighting with My Family'

Carl Schultz

Somerset County Direct Correspondent

“Alpha” Distributed by Sony Pictures Releasing and Columbia Pictures, 96 Minutes, Rated PG-13:

Set 20,000 years ago during the Ice Age, in “Alpha” young Keda, the adolescent son of the tribal leader Tau, is badly mauled and ravaged by a marauding bison during his first hunt. 

Thrown over an impossibly steep cliff by the rampaging beast and landing on a narrow ledge, the boy is presumed dead by the other hunters and deserted by his heartbroken father and the rest of the tribe. 

But after a few days, Keda regains consciousness and sets about the business of survival.

While defending himself against a roaming wolfpack a few days later, Keda badly injures one of the attacking animals. And in their mutual quest for survival, the boy and the wolf form a bond and begin to instinctively aid and protect each other in both recovery and endurance as they begin an odyssey together back to Keda’s tribe.

There’s a visual purity about “Alpha” that hasn’t been seen in too many motion pictures since Stanley Kubrick departed the scene in 1999. During its opening scenes “Alpha” resembles nothing so much as the first 20 minutes of Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” depicting the Dawn of Man. 

And despite the characters’ sometimes smearing themselves with mud, paint or another semi-solid liquid in preparation for a hunt or a ceremony, the movie looks almost as if it was produced in an airless and sterile environment. 

Directed by Albert Hughes, one-half of the Hughes Brothers filmmaking team responsible for movies as diverse as “Menace II Society,” “From Hell,” and the somewhat similar “The Book of Eli,” “Alpha” combines an elemental A Boy and His Dog story with 1971’s “Man in the Wilderness” and 2016’s “The Revenant,” and produces a beautifully-realized and deeply moving mini-epic of a motion picture.

Hughes’ magnificent cinematic storytelling in “Alpha” is augmented by Martin Gschlacht’s breathtaking photography of remote earthly vistas, displayed with a clarity reminiscent of science fiction, and making the British Columbia and Alberta filming locations seem almost eerily otherworldly and ethereal instead of earthbound during prehistoric times. This is truly a picture which will be enhanced with a television equipped with high definition capabilities.

As the young Keda, Kodi Smit-McPhee contributes to “Alpha” a wonderfully evocative performance in a difficult and challenging role. The actor’s open and infinitely expressive face communicates clearly every nuance of the boy’s hopes and fears, his insecurities and loneliness, his hunger and cold. Despite his appearances as the character Nightcrawler in the Marvel comics “X-Men” pictures, the Australian Smit-McPhee hasn’t received much of an opportunity for film acting since his performance as the lonely, bullied schoolboy who befriends a young girl with startling abilities in the often-overlooked 2010 horror masterpiece “Let Me In.” 

Keda’s bonding with the wolf, whom he names Alpha, is both eminently believable and warmly touching. 

When toward the end of the picture, the now-experienced wilderness survivor Keda communicates to the wolf in the colloquial language of his people the subtitled sentiment “You are my tribe,” you might be surprised to find yourself wiping away a tear. For animal lovers especially, “Alpha” might even be a movie you’ll want to download for your video library.

At the time of its release, “Alpha” attracted some controversy for its failure to earn the customary disclaimer that “no animals were harmed during the making of this picture.” 

Allegedly, four Canadian bison were killed during the picture’s production for a scene depicting the removal of hides after a hunt. 

According to the filmmakers, the bison were already marked for slaughter, and were harvested in a humane manner by (no kidding) experts from Canada’s Longview Beef Jerky Company.

“Alpha” received respectable notices from critics at the time of its 2018 release, including an approval rating of 84% from Rotten Tomatoes and an average score of 62% from the less-enthusiastic Metacritic. Exit audiences polled by CinemaScore at the time assigned “Alpha” an average grade of … well, Beta.

Although a movie like “Alpha” is likely not going to be anyone’s first choice in TV entertainment, occasionally it pays to take the road less travelled, and this is a movie you’ll definitely want to check out. During these troubled times, while many of us are locked down or even quarantined, “Alpha” has some interesting insights into the nature of solitude, loneliness, isolation and companionship. And afterward, try to think of something nice you can do for your pets. They probably deserve it.

Alpha himself is actually played in the picture by a Czechoslovakian Wolfdog identified in the closing credits as Charlie. 

Containing some scenes of intense peril, “Alpha” has been rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America, and is currently available for streaming on the Hulu and Sling TV subscription services, and for a fee on YouTube, Google Play, Amazon Prime and Vudu.


“Fighting with My Family” Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures and United Artists Releasing, 108 Minutes, Rated PG-13:

In 2019, actress Florence Pugh enjoyed the kind of year most young performers pray for.

With an exceptional ability as an actress, the 23-year-old Pugh began the year as a relatively unknown young talent. And through breathtaking performances in three critically-acclaimed and financially successful pictures, the young actress ended the year with a career that suddenly seemed to be on the lips of practically everyone ... and the solitary Academy Award nomination for a movie, which also contained performances from such heavyweights as Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Laura Dern, Chris Cooper and Meryl Streep.

Now streaming on Hulu and Sling TV, the first of Pugh’s three 2019 pictures, “Fighting with My Family,” is the kind of picture movie fans pray for — one that with zero expectations and virtually no advance notice seemingly comes out of nowhere and ends up blowing the roof off and soaring among the classics. Which, come to think of it, is also a pretty good synopsis of the film itself.

Based on the 2012 BBC documentary “The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family,” the 2019 motion picture “Fighting with My Family” depicts the formative years of professional wrestler Saraya-Jade Bevis, who rose to international fame as the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) champion known as “Paige.”

Raised in her native Norwich, England, by loving and supportive but ... well, unconventional parents, Saraya and her brother Zak from childhood forward desire nothing from life so much as careers in professional wrestling. But when only Saraya is offered the golden opportunity to travel to the United States and undertake extended training for a coveted spot in the WWE, she learns to her surprise that her most formidable opponent is not inside the ring, but in the mirror, in her own sense of insecurity.

Professional wrestling has long occupied some weird entertainment netherworld between show business and professional sports, combining the violence of boxing with the raw power of football and the grace of ballet, but existing somewhere on the periphery of each. Since its rise in popularity during the early days of live television in the 1940s and 1950s, the question has persisted: Is wrestling real, or fake?

“Fighting with My Family” finally answers that eternal question: It’s a little of both. But more importantly, the picture takes the viewer inside the ring and reveals the sense of dedication and self-discipline required of the select few who succeed in an attraction which each week draws the interest and dedication of millions of fans. 

Florence Pugh with her superb, and superbly persuasive, performance in the supremely unconventional role as Saraya/Paige gives the viewer a glimpse inside the soul of an insecure young girl so repressed and defensive of her humble background that she feels that nearly everyone else in the world is her enemy. 

So intimidated by the more glamorous rookie wrestlers that she instinctively rejects their friendship, Pugh as Saraya/Paige begins to triumph in professional wrestling only when she learns that both her colleagues and her opponents often possess circumstances even more desperate than her own, and pursue in wrestling not a life of luxury but a means of escape ... and survival.

But “Fighting with My Family” is not about revealing the tricks or secrets of the pro wrestling trade any more than a movie about magicians might reveal how a rabbit gets into a hat. Rather, the genius of the picture is that in depicting Paige’s struggle with self-doubt and simultaneous drive toward success, the movie recognizes another central truth: We all share with Paige that same sense of insecurity and self-doubt … as well as the drive to succeed. Some of us just better refine the desire, through persistence and ambition.

Florence Pugh’s ability as an actress is such that even when her physical appearance is more or less the same, as was the case with her subsequent 2019 performances as the hapless Dani Ardor in the brilliant and controversial horror picture “Midsommar” and as the determined Amy March in the critically-acclaimed remake of “Little Women,” her characterizations are so unique that she’s virtually unrecognizable from role to role. Had Pugh’s subsequent 2019 pictures not come along, based on her virtuoso performance in “Fighting with My Family” a lot of viewers would likely still have been looking forward to this young actress’ next movie.

Also featuring a supremely effective Vince Vaughn as the American WWE trainer who goads, taunts, provokes and insults Paige toward success, “Fighting with My Family” becomes as much of an entertainment hybrid as pro wrestling itself: Part biography, part comedy, and part inspirational drama. And the picture succeeds as each, and excels at all.

Everybody has a dream. And toward the end of the picture, as Paige is finally pushed beyond her limit but still finds within herself enough courage, stamina, and raw and undiluted adrenaline to climb the ropes and bellow with primal, savage fury, “Tonight I own this ring!” you’ll want to jump to your feet and cheer. And if in that moment you’re asked if WWE wrestling is real or elaborately rehearsed theatrical entertainment, you might be surprised by your own answer.

Written and directed by the British comic and actor Stephen Merchant and produced on a miniscule budget of $11 million, “Fighting with My Family” is a genuine triumph of the spirit for all concerned, and a real pleasure to watch. 

This is unapologetically a formula film ... but the formula works as beautifully and effectively as in the very best of the “Rocky” pictures. 

The movie might not turn you into a fan of the WWE, but it’ll certainly teach you to learn to respect those who spend their lives in pursuit of success in the profession.

Wrestling superstar turned movie superstar Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was the executive producer of “Fighting with My Family,” and appears fleetingly throughout the picture as himself, as does fellow wrestler-turned-actor John Cena. You might remember writer-director Stephen Merchant from his role on television’s popular “The Big Bang Theory” as the awkward scientist who briefly dates Mayim Bialik’s Amy Farrah Fowler following her breakup with Sheldon. 

Merchant also plays a small role in the picture as the socially-repressed father-in-law of Paige’s brother.

“Fighting with My Family” is rated PG-13 for sexual material and mild crude behavior, language concerns, scenes depicting violence, and some drug use. The movie is currently streaming on the subscription entertainment channels Hulu and Sling TV, and is available for a fee on Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu.

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