Background: Each culture has a generally defined norm for what constitutes a family, my own being old enough that the term "nuclear family" applied. That meant a father at the head of the table (the breadwinner), a caring mother, and my siblings (with a dog, a single family house in the suburbs and all the trimmings, all that was missing was the white picket fence). This was how things were supposed to be, right up until my parents divorced, something decidedly abnormal though the practice became increasingly popular since then. There are benefits to such a family structure and the patriarchal model is one of the most common throughout the ages for a number of reasons, popular entertainment embracing this standard for a long time as well. But what happens when the structure breaks down and the family isn't prepared to deal with it? That's one of the driving forces behind a small movie I picked up this week to review, a movie called Alpha Male.
Movie: Alpha Male is an English tale by indie movie writer/director Dan Wilde (best known for his short film Bookcruncher that was a hit on the circuit 5 or 6 years ago). The patriarch of the clan is Jim Ferris (Danny Huston, no relation to this writer) and he is a popular guy all around with a sense of family, successful at his manufacturing business, and has the ability to balance all his roles in what anyone watching would immediately recognize as the title character. His family adores him and the world he has created for them is pretty much perfect. If that were the gist of the story though, it would be mighty short so he dies quickly and prematurely, leaving wife Alice (Jennifer Ehle) and two children Jack (Arthur Duncan) & Elyssa (Katie Knight) to fend for themselves. The movie took the confusing route to tell the tale of how they ended up by flashing back and forth in time, punctuating the choppy nature of the screenplay (like the Debbie Harry song goes: "I don't like flashbacks in movies, I like the story to proceed...") where the years have piled on the clan as the lives of the three survivors played out in vastly different form due to the death.
Desperate and clinging to each other initially, Alice finds somebody new in the form of Clive (Patrick Baladi) at some point after the death, the man serving as a surrogate for Jim albeit with a great deal more flaws that the children pick up on almost immediately. The children do not like him, still grieving for their father and holding any competing alpha male up to the standard he set, and the tensions continue to build over time. The majority of the movie takes place in the present where an adult Jack (Mark Wells) and Elyssa (Amelia Warner) have gone their own ways, aging Alice distressed that a 21st birthday party planned for Jack might suffer for his lack of attendance, the man not having visited from college in three years.
Pressured into attending, Jack comes to the celebration begrudgingly, showing a flair for the dramatic in his temperament, much like Jim had although with far less of the charisma that allowed the deceased to get away with his mood swings that the family was all too willing to forget about as we are shown over the course of the movie. See, Jim wasn't as perfect as the audience is led to believe and for every act of kindness he made, there seemed to be a counterbalancing gruff moment (the tree house he builds for Elyssa on a whim of hers is countered by him yelling over some silly misunderstanding over the kids making too much noise). Upon his death when Jack picked up the admittedly tentative reins of "man of the house", his resentment at newcomer Clive is so thick that the writer should have eased it in to make it more effective than the two dimensional offering he provided.
So if Jack is a muted version of dad when he ages, Elyssa is a withdrawn shrew, attacking her aunt Brede (Trudie Styler) for a perceived flirtation with Jim years back, acting a bit stranger than usual with the local wildlife (a fox grabs her attention) until a ghostly appearance sets her straight. What really didn't work for me the most is how neither of the children seemed particularly likeable, amounting to challenging the viewer to embrace a pair they wouldn't give a darn about all in the name of how unhappy they were growing up without daddy. The heavy handed comparisons between the characters then versus now also opened the movie up to interpretation, typically not in the direction that the director seemed to want either. I'm sure the audience would understand the trials and troubles of growing up without dad, especially these days, but whatever the final message, I suspect the production troubles by the film company (the director reportedly walked away when his edit was not viewed as commercial enough so his vision here is incomplete) resulted in this mish mash of ideas all tossed together to no substantive effect.
The direction seemed generally okay with the visual elements supporting the themes of the day and the writing looking like it was going somewhere at one moment but then changed all too quickly to say something else. The timeline comparisons suffered as a result and the personal nature of the film (having a writer serve as director helps that dynamic) was such that it might simply be a case where the cultural differences were too vast to make much of the movie for me or the final edit strayed from the desired result that all my attentive observations were dashed just as the hopes of Mr. Wilde were when his vision was left unrealized. As such, unless you are hard up for entertainment, I would suggest this one as a Skip It, though it is possible that some of you like overly dramatic tearjerkers full of unsympathetic characters, in which case I would tell you to rent it first.
Picture: Alpha Male was presented in an anamorphic widescreen color offering with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 as originally shot by director Danny Wilde to be encoded in the MPEG-2 codec for the standard definition release. The video bitrate varied considerably this time, some edge enhancement slightly marring the look of the already grainy film. It was reportedly shot on 16mm and printed at the higher resolution 35mm for the limited theatrical release, the master for the DVD probably weakened as a result, some compression artifacts observed right away and continuing through the release. The colors were somewhat muted as if they were projecting the dire life of the family, some moments in stark contrast such as the playful times with daddy in the earlier scenes, the sweeping estate shots looking well done overall. This was a flick about drama between people though so the settings looking nice did not impact all that much on my consideration as the boilerplate look of the show was in line with other indie flicks shot on small budgets.
Sound: The audio was advertised to have a 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround in English with optional English subtitles (that largely mirrored the vocals, though not exactly). This time, the cover was wrong since the only option was a 2.0 track using a 48 kHz sampling rate and the standard 192 Kbps audio bitrate one would expect of a modest effort. In most cases of a mainstream film, such a surround track would have the speaking coming out of the center channel, ambient noises coming from the rears, the thunderous bass coming from the subwoofer, and the balance of aural elements coming from the front stereo speakers. This time, there seemed to be an unfinished quality about the movie with all the speakers serving as one big melting pot of sorts, killing any directionality or separation between the channels. It is possible that Image was provided with a faulty master for this release but the lack of separation and weak dynamic range hurt certain scenes where a better headspace might have livened things up a bit. For the record, I lowered the score substantially based on the falsely advertised track.
Extras: The only extras were a photogallery and 3 trailers, one for the main movie.
Final Thoughts: Alpha Male was a story about what happens to a financially secure family in England when the dad dies of cancer, showing how the rest of the clan falls into various states of dysfunction over time. The humor was sparse, my favorite being where Jim reads the financial report to Elyssa as a bedtime story (using all the inflection and intonation needed to sell it as such), but the uneven nature of the movie was distracting and the characters such that I couldn't bring myself to care for any of them in the slightest. The extras were lean, the missing surround track a problem, and the DVD as a whole just seemed headed for the bargain bin.