Tomb Raider

I’m going to say it. This may be the best video game film ever.

Now, that might be considered damning with faint praise. It’s not like there have been any masterpieces in this genre. The best example I can think of is Resident Evil which was a lark and good enough to generate a slew of sequels of varying (but always lower) quality.

Tomb Raider feels less like an exceptional video game movie, and more like a serviceable (if slightly cheesy) action thriller. But that’s not to say it doesn’t have some of the video game pretensions. I’ll get to those.

Viewers of the lame Angelina Jolie films from a few years ago will see very few familiar things in this film. For example, they hired someone who can do a British accent. (Alicia Vikander is actually Swedish, but you can’t tell from this performance.) For another thing, this is a true origin story. This Lara Croft hasn’t raided a tomb in her life. More interestingly, she has refused to accept that her father is dead, so she won’t take any of his money. She’s living on the streets, delivering food on her bike. I immediately like her better because she’s not flaunting ridiculous wealth.

Soon enough she get a clue that sends her on a quest to find out what happened to her dad all those years ago. (We see said dad in a variety of flashbacks, played by Dominic West.) She meets a Chinese boat captain who we almost care about, who helps her get to a mysterious island near Japan.

The most interesting performance in the film is — get this — Walton Goggins. If you’ve never heard of this guy, you’re probably not alone. He’s best known for his roles on The Shield and Justified. You might have caught him in The Hateful Eight. Anyway, he was hired years ago to go to this island and find the film’s macguffin, and he’s trapped, unable to return to his own family until the deed is done. I liked this angle, of a man who has been twisted by his exile to do evil deeds in service of reuniting with his family. At least he wasn’t motivated by lust or greed, so that’s different.

There are a handful of moments that do feel like you’re back in the video game. Things Lara has to climb across, or jump onto. I definitely felt that if I was playing the game, it would have taken me a few tries to get those right. And one crane (or drone?) camera shot following her as she runs through the jungle was delightfully nostalgic for me, and thankfully, not overdone.

The finale is kind of a weak retread of some of the stuff we saw in the Indiana Jones films. (I won’t spoil any of the details here.) Not to say it isn’t exciting. It’s just not super-original.

Is this high art? Nope. But it’s a great example of what it is, and puts another solid performance onto Vikander’s resume.

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The Hurricane Heist

It’s always a joy to see a new bouncing baby brought into the world. And when I saw this movie, I saw just that, because The Hurricane Heist is the child of Twister and Die Hard.

Sure, you could look at a film about a security guard driving a truck filled with treasure who seems way too intent on protecting this money even though it isn’t theirs, and notice the kindly sheriff who is actually a bad guy, and notice the reliance on inclement weather to advance the plot and think maybe Twister had an affair with Hard Rain. But I think Twister is more loyal than that. Let’s break it down.

First of all, this is a film by Rob Cohen, who brought us the first film in the Fast and Furious series, as well as the first in the XXX series. So he’s got some game. (Admittedly, his more recent fare, including Stealth and that really lame Mummy threequel don’t give me all the good feels.) And the fact that there’s a heist and dramatic weather? I’m there. And, what’s even better, I don’t have high expectations.

Which is good.

The film starts with two young brothers and their father, caught in a hurricane. The hurricane kills the father. (First Twister moment.) Cut to an impossibly cinematic weather center in the present day, where technicians we never care about are talking about an approaching storm. (Second Twister moment.) Then they call up the one brother, Will (Toby Kebbell) who is a nearly prescient meteorologist (okay) who is haunted by his father’s death (right) and who is delivering some flying technology to analyze the hurricane (okay, this is just ridiculous).

“Wait, Russell? Didn’t you say this was a Die Hard movie?”

Oh, yeah. After we meet Casey (Maggie Grace) and see her home base of a treasury building in Alabama, the place is overrun by a crack squad of goons (check) and their hammy hackers (check) and their gravelly-voiced, bearded leader (okay, good). Soon enough Will’s estranged brother, Breeze (Ryan Kwanten) is under the thumb of the bad guys because their generator went out. And the heroes get hold of a radio so that they can listen into and talk to the bad guys. There’s a figure of authority who gets shot in front of our hero. There’s a dramatic scene where the vault is finally opened (sadly without Beethoven playing). There’s even a goon who goes on a rampage of revenge after his brother is killed.

But the scene that made it all sing for me was the scene that effortlessly merged Twister and Die Hard moments into one. The bad guys have our heroes trapped in an abandoned mall during the height of the storm. The meteorologist is monitoring the atmospheric pressure which is impossibly low outside, so he ties himself and his comrade off, then tells her to shoot the glass. The pressure equalizes so dramatically that the bad guys are all sucked out of the window in the ceiling, but our heroes fly up into the maw of the storm, tethered to the mall. Then, once the rush of air dies down, they swing down around on their tethers and back into the mall through a window.

That moment made seeing this movie worth while for me.

But never forget. It’s really bad.

2018 Movie Pre-Review

Every year is a big year, so what’s big about this year. There wasn’t much to discuss in January, so I’m moving forward to February…

February

Annihiliation – Having read the series of which this is the first book, I know the weirdness we’re in store for. And I hope the film adapts it properly.

Black Panther – Another chance for the MCU to drop the ball. But they won’t.

Fifty Shades Freed – I hated the first one so much, I didn’t even watch the second. No chance on the third.

Game Night – This one looks hilarious.

Peter Rabbit – I really want to take my daughter to this one. For her. Really.

March

A Wrinkle in Time – I was a huge fan of the book when I was a kid, but the trailer doesn’t look anything like the story I remember. Maybe it will be awesome? More likely not.

Hurricane Heist – This is the kind of stupid action film I love.

Pacific Rim: Uprising – Most people liked the original more than I did. I can’t imagine this is better.

Ready Player One – I really liked the book, but this feels like it will run a course similar to Jurassic Park: disappointing on first viewing, followed by “yeah, that was pretty good” later on.

Red Sparrow – This one is just funny because it sounds like a Black Widow movie without Black Widow.

The Death of Stalin – There are many reasons I want to see this, but seeing Michael Palin on screen is at the top of the list.

Tomb Raider – Sure. Whatever. Reboot. I have zero emotional investment in the IP, but I do like Vikander.

April

Rampage – Hey, what if the 90s Godzilla was less serious?

May

Avengers: Infinity War – I’m honestly worried that there are too many characters. Still, this will be awesome.

Borg/McEnroe – John McEnroe may be the part that Shia Leboeuf was born to play.

Deadpool 2 – Remember when the Kick-Ass sequel was super-disappointing. That’s what I’m worried about here.

Solo: A Star Wars Story – I think might be fun. Or a waste of time. More likely fun.

June

Incredibles 2 – Well, I’ve only been waiting forever for this one.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom – I really enjoyed Jurassic World. This seems to be of a piece with it, so I’m looking forward. (Plus, Goldblum!)

July

Ant-Man and the Wasp – I would be worried that they overstayed their welcome, but they’ve got the same director back. I’m hopeful this will be even better.

Mission: Impossible – Fallout – These films just get better and better. I don’t understand how it’s possible, but I am pleased. (Plus, Monaghan!)

Skyscraper – Didn’t Dwayne Johnson star in an improbable action film three months ago? He did? I guess he’s due.

The First Purge – Okay, I think I have to actually catch up on this series now.

August

Scarface – I guess the DePalma version was a remake, too. So, have fun.

The Meg – I’ve been waiting for a prehistoric shark film. Soon, the wait will be over. Also, it will probably suck.

September

Robin Hood – I guess the Ridley Scott version (and the Kevin Reynolds version (and the Mel Brooks version (and the Terry Gilliam version (and the Richard Lester version…))) is a remake, too. So, have fun.

The Predator – I really enjoyed the 2010 Predators, but I have faith that Shane Black can do something awesome here.

October

Venom – Okay, I guess, if you feel the extreme need to have this movie, whatever.

November

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald – I really liked the first FB film, but mostly because of the promise it showed for future installments. Don’t drop the ball, J. K.!

X-Men: Dark Phoenix – I’m one of the three people on the planet who actually liked X-Men: The Last Stand. So I have no inherent interest in seeing this story “done right”. But the new batch of X-people have been largely effective. (Apocalypse was a dip in quality.) Hopefully this will be a reasonable send-off before the MCU reboots mutants from the ground up.

December

Aquaman – Jason Momoa was one of the brighter spots in Justice League, so I am not immediately giving up on this.

Bohemian Rhapsody – This Freddie Mercury biopic looks very interesting.

Bumblebee – Sigh.

Holmes and Watson – Honestly, I couldn’t care less about Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly. I am intrigued, however, by Hugh Laurie as Mycroft and Ralph Fiennes as Moriarity.

Mary Poppins Returns – I have zero investment in the IP, but I love Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Mortal Engines – It wants to be the next Lord of the Rings. However, it look like the next Maze Runner.

Black Panther

The MCU films are an interesting combination of “let’s follow our formula religiously” and “let’s have this one feel entirely different.” It’s a tough line to walk, but they seem to make it work every time.

There are elements of this film that remind us of previous films. We have a young ruler who has to come to grips with the history of his family (like Thor). This guy is chemically enhanced and aided by vibranium (Captain America). He was born into wealth, trying to do the right thing (Iron Man). And we have him facing off with his there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I doppelganger (every MCU hero by this point?).

Obviously, the biggest difference between Black Panther and the rest of the MCU films is that it’s cast is almost entirely black. Chadwick Boseman is the title character, with his whispery voice and his gravitas. He’s aided by Forrest Whittaker, Angela Bassett, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Daniel Kaluuya and (stealing her scenes) Letitia Wright. The bad guy is Michael B. Jordan, thankfully bringing in a breath of fresh air with his blunt American accent and his relatable backstory. There’s even a small role for Sterling K. Brown to dig his acting chops into.

The two white guys in the cast aren’t quite afterthoughts. Andy Serkis, reprising his Age of Ultron role as a despicable arms dealer is a lot of crazy fun. This guy should do more non-mo-cap work. And Martin Freeman, reprising his Civil War role, has, thankfully, spent some quality time with a dialect coach. He almost sounds American. Watching Gollum and Bilbo face off was a meta-joy for me. (Now I’m looking forward to Everett Ross sharing the screen with Dr. Strange and Justin Hammer.)

But, back to the main story. What the director, Ryan Coogler, manages to do is root this story of revolution in a secretive (and highly advanced) African nation in some heady themes: urban decay, racism, white colonialism and black slavery. But it never feels preachy or exploitative. It feels organic to the story.

I can’t say I’m chomping at the bit for another Blank Panther film, but the world-building going on here, and the impact that this story will have on the rest of this universe is potentially fascinating and should add a new texture to these films.

Well done.

2017 Movie Wrap-Up

How many films did I see this year? Actually, quite a few. So let’s get right to the listifying:

 

The Great (films that have something special, above just being good)

Logan – An amazingly good capper to the original X-Men series. Some of Hugh Jackman’s and Patrick Stewart’s best work. (And also orders of magnitude better than the other Wolverine solo films.)

Dunkirk – A poetic meditation on war, by turns haunting and exciting and thought-provoking.

Darkest Hour – The flip side of Dunkirk, we get to see Churchill’s early days of WWII. Oh my, is Gary Oldman a great actor or what? Lily James is turning into one of my favorites, too. Nice to see Ben Mendolsohn playing not-a-bad-guy.

War for the Planet of the Apes – This seemingly accidental franchise consistently outstripped my expectations. A reboot that feels organic? A trilogy that ends satisfyingly? This has it all, along with the best mo-cap ever.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

Atomic Blonde – A no-holds-barred crazy cold war spy thriller with Charlize Theron kicking all the ass. It’s complex enough that you have to pay attention, but that never bothered me.

It – I enjoyed but didn’t love the Tim Curry Pennywise from the 90’s. This version (solely of the kids side of the sprawling tale) is funny and scary and exciting. It hits all the right beats, and skips the ones you want it to skip. (If you’ve read the book, you know what I’m talking about.) I can’t wait for the sequel.

Thor: Ragnarok – Dang, did I forget to review every movie this year? I have a soft spot for The Dark World, but this is an excellent three-quel for everyone’s favorite blond-tressed god of thunder. It’s silly (thank you, Jeff Goldblum) and action-packed (thank you, Tessa Thompson) and hilarious (thank you, Mark Ruffalo). But there are also real stakes, which is a nice change for an MCU film.

 

The Good (films I would like to return to)

Wonder Woman

Beauty and the Beast – I’m in the minority of people who liked this better than the original. Sue me.

The Fate of the Furious – The series takes a serious uptick in quality from the annoyingly bad number 7. It’s crazy in mostly the right ways.

Spider-Man: Homecoming – Why is it good, not great? Maybe just a touch of MCU fatigue? And there’s that one absolutely insane coincidence you have to swallow. But Tom Holland and Michael Keaton both bring the awesome.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – I have no problem putting this in the good section. It’s not as tight as the first one, and the Yondu (Michael Rooker) subplot, though emotional and effective, still feels a little forced.

The Lego Batman Movie – I laughed throughout. And have forgotten most of it. So I’ll probably laugh at it all over again on the next viewing.

Split – I caught this one on video, and I’m glad I did, both for the film itself (creepy!) and for the surprise ending.

Blade Runner 2049 – Do I like this more or less than the original? Maybe a skosh more because of K’s relationship with Joi, which I found much more interesting than Rachel in the first film. Didn’t love the ending, but most of the film is pretty solid.

Justice League

Kong: Skull Island – I liked the rebooted Godzilla from a couple of years back. Folding in the Kong character to that universe in a Vietnam-era period piece? That’s kind of awesome. So I’ll forgive some of the creakier parts of the film.

Baby Driver

My Little Pony: The Movie – I went to this with my young daughter, but willingly. The TV show is irreverent and funny, and the film follows that same pattern.

 

The Okay (films I could watch again if I was bored)

The Last Jedi

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets – It’s as if The Fifth Element and Jupiter Ascending had a baby.

Ghost in the Shell

John Wick: Chapter Two – They kind of amped up the weirder parts of the Wickiverse without amping up the part where I care.

Born in China – Another young daughter film. Some spectacular photography, but it’s still just a bunch of animals being all cute and stuff.

 

The Bad (films I couldn’t watch again, even if I was bored)

Alien: Covenant – I didn’t like Prometheus. I guess, for some reason, I expected this one might be better? Nope. Worse. I didn’t even have the patience to write a scathing review. The only bright spot is Fassbender’s performance(s).

Transformers: The Last Knight

The Mummy

 

The Worst Film of 2017

Geostorm – Another one I didn’t bother trying to review. It’s dumb where you think it’ll be dumb, over-the-top where you think it’ll be over-the-top, and cheesy where you think… You get the idea. It wasn’t even bad enough to be fun. On top of that, I think Jim Sturgess turns in the worst performance I’ve seen in a very long time. He’s, like, Andie MacDowell bad.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

I really liked the original film with Robin Williams. It took a ridiculous premise (a magic board game) and handled it deftly. (And it was somewhat more involving than the similarly themed Zathura.)

This is a sequel, not a reboot, technically. The game reappears, looking just as it did before, but in an age of video games (i.e. the 1990’s), it’s ignored to the point where the game decides to change format, becoming a NES-style cartridge game. It pulls in one kid, then sits on a shelf until the present day.

Instead of a couple of young kids getting pulled into the game, we have a group of four mismatched teenagers: a dweeb, a jock, a pretty girl, and a misfit girl. So, no surprises there, I guess. The actors playing the teens do a nice job of setting up the relationships before they get sucked into Jumanji and they look like movie stars.

That’s the big difference between this film and the original. We heard that Robin Williams’s Alan spent some ridiculous amount of time in the jungles of Jumanji, but we never saw it. Now we get to see it in all it’s glory, through the eyes of Dwayne Johnson (playing the dweeb), Kevin Hart (as the jock), Karen Gillan (as the misfit), and, in truly inspired casting, Jack Black (as the pretty girl).

The substance of their quest isn’t particularly important. They’re trying to take a thing to a place. That’s just the plot’s excuse to put these fish-out-of-water through a series of trials, which includes each of them dying multiple times. (It is a video game, after all.)

There’s a new villain in this film (Bobby Canavale) which is interestingly a very different Van Pelt than in the first film, though he is ultimately forgettable.

This film is uniformly funny, enjoyably exciting, and surprisingly touching. I can recommend it.

Star Wars Episode VIII – The Last Jedi

Do I like the Star Wars film series? Yes. Do I love it? Sort of. I certainly enjoyed the original trilogy. I found some joy in the prequels. I thought Rogue One was a joyless (yet beautiful) waste of my time. The Force Awakens is my favorite of the bunch.

So I was looking forward to The Last Jedi, but my investment in the universe is still dramatically less than the love I feel for several other universes (Harry Potter, Star Trek, the MCU, heck, even the Jurassic Park universe).

There are things in this new movie I love. I love the interactions between Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Luke (Mark Hamill). Actually, I love grizzled Luke, full stop. I love the deepening of the character of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). I love Snoke’s (Andy Serkis) part of the story. All of this was dramatic and exciting and interesting and satisfying. I also pretty much enjoyed Leia (Carrie Fisher) in this one. She didn’t have a home run of a character arc, but I liked it. I also loved the porgs. I want one!

There are things in this movie that are okay. Poe (Oscar Isaac) is okay. Chewbacca (Joonas Suatamo) is (sadly) only okay. (He was so much more interesting in TFA.) Hux (Domnhall Gleeson) moves up from annoying (in TFA) to okay in this one. I’m hoping he will be more interesting still in Episode IX.

There are things in this movie I find annoying. Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) falls into this category. Her motivations were so muddy as to be nearly inhuman in the service of “drama”. But, you know, good line readings, I guess. Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) feels out of place. DJ (Benicio del Toro) is kind of a waste of space. Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o) is really shoehorned in. Why bother?

And there are things I hated. Everything Finn (John Boyega) does in the movie bugs me. His motivations, his actions, his confrontations. What a let down after his excellent arc in TFA. They better get him right in the capper or I will be mad. Everything on the casino planet should have been written out of the film. Everything to do with Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) was a waste of my time. Either make her a central character or leave her out. Having a three-minutes per film arc is stupid.

My biggest complaints about the film are structural. First of all, it’s just too long. It was exhausting. (And this is coming from a guy who loved every minute of every ending in The Return of the King.) I think it’s interesting to have the entire film take place over the course of something like a 24 hour period, but the pacing felt off, somehow. Another structural problem was that the four leads of the film didn’t interact nearly enough. (By this I mean other than Luke and Leia.) Yes, there was a good amount of Rey-Kylo stuff. But Finn and Poe were almost entirely on their own. (And, sadly, doing not very interesting things.)

What’s funny to me is that my problems with the film are entirely distinct from the “fan boy” hate. Everything they have problems with (Rey’s parentage, the handling of Snoke, the introduction of minority characters) I liked. So they’re being dumb. I’m not going to spoil anything, because the reveals are some of the best stuff in the film.

Now that we have a new Star Wars film, it’s time for me to update my order of preference of the films. (I’m not going to bother adding justifications.)

  1. The Force Awakens
  2. A New Hope
  3. Attack of the Clones
  4. Return of the Jedi/The Empire Strikes Back (tie)
  5. The Last Jedi
  6. Rogue One
  7. The Phantom Menace
  8. Revenge of the Sith