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Movie Reviews

Tomb Raider

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Released: 14th March 2018

Directed By: Roar Uthaug

Starring: Alicia Vikander, Dominic West

Reviewed By: Van Connor

The inevitability of video game adaptations for the screen yielding… less than impressive results has, over the course of the past two decades, gone beyond a joke to become a straight-up fact of life. Why this is the case remains bewildering – the source material, after all, has evolved narratively in sync with the technology of its platform, so if the games themselves are now more akin to the complexity of a big budget feature film, why do the films themselves end up so unimpressive that a Karl Urban-led take on Doom can genuinely be regarded as one of the derided subgenre’s high watermarks?

The answer appears to lie in the balance between story and spectacle – a balance that typically tilts toward the latter in console format, but requires radically shifting toward the former to be taken seriously at the multiplex. In the twenty-five years since the release of the demonstrably awful Super Mario Bros., no filmmaker seems to have been able to particularly achieve that balance. And it’s not necessarily down to the calibre of filmmakers involved – let us not forget, after all, that even Warcraft sported then-hot button talent Duncan Jones in its director’s chair, and you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who can claim to have enjoyed it.

It’s a massive relief to be able to say, then, that Tomb Raider can genuinely claim to be the first actually good video game movie. Predictably enough, it’s not likely to strike anybody as an especially groundbreaking work of narrative fiction, but with some robust craftsmanship, engaging spectacle, a likeable lead, and a story set somewhere between The Last Crusade, and the five years of island-set Arrow flashbacks, director Roar Uthaug gets to hold his hands up and proclaim that he might not have churned out a gold brick, but he’s got a pretty slick bit of bronze.

More or less a straight adaptation of the 2013 ‘reboot’ game – which served as a stripped down origin story for iconic video game adventurer Lara Croft – Tomb Raider sees Alicia Vikander become the second actress to take on the mantle for the screen, amusingly seeing the character go two-for-two as regards Oscar winners in the role. This time around, our millennial Lara is a rather directionless nomad, cutting her teeth as a white-label Deliveroo courier and seeking out every potential adrenaline rush she can find in order to put off declaring her long-missing father dead in absentia and inheriting her long-languishing corporate birth right.

Wouldn’t you know it though, Lara soon discovers there’s more to her father’s disappearance than she ever imagined, as she discovers Papa Croft was hell bent on tracking down an ancient Japanese tomb whose contents hold the potential to enslaving humanity. Picking up on the trail herself, Lara journeys to a remote and deadly island in search of the tomb but, once there, our MMA-powered back flipping heroine discovers she’s not the only one trying to complete her father’s quest, and the race is on to stave off what might be the end of humanity itself.

Vikander makes for a rather likeable Lara, with Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons’s writing stripping away the wisecracking faux-Dwayne Johnson theatrics of the Angelina Jolie incarnation for something more deadpan and, at the same time, engaging. The Ex Machina star may make for a questionable “name on the poster” choice as far as marketing goes, but in execution Vikander’s absolutely all-in not only in the performance stakes, but also triumphs on the physical side as well. As you’d expect, the run-and-jump spectacle of Tomb Raider’s there to have fun with, and it’s a wise choice on director Uthaug’s part to tackle those set pieces with a refreshing absence of bathos and a doubling-down on the dangerous physical toll they take.

Jolie, admittedly, fared better with Croft’s memorable Estuary vocals then Vikander does here, but the performance that drives Lara this time around is solid and investible. Like the film itself, Lara’s a lean and muscular part not only visually but cerebrally as well, though it can’t be denied that Vikander’s deadpan take on the role does create something of a barrier for audiences looking for a more traditionally one-liner-driven “girl Indy” fix.

The supporting cast meanwhile can’t be faulted, with Dominic West as the elder Croft (having also played Vikander’s father in the terrific Testament of Youth), Kristen Scott-Thomas as Lara’s erstwhile stepmom figure, and the consummately reliable Walton Goggins as the rather cooly-menacing villain of the piece. Goggins has been waiting in the wings for his J.K. Simmons moment for years, and, though his villain here is written in such a manner as to effectively negate the need for real character depth, it’s still an admirable effort in a mainstream tentpole flick the southern actor has been in dire need of since his breakout turn in The Shield ended a decade ago. Amusingly, the film also stumbles across the exact right amount of screen time in which to enjoy the presence of both Nick Frost and Jamie Winstone, the pair serving up what’s really a reprised cameo as married pawn brokers.

For the fans, there’s doubtless tons of fun to be had – with numerous set pieces and story beats lifted straight from the smash-hit game. For those who don’t know their Tomb Raiders from their Relic Hunters though, there’s still a pretty romping – if predictable – adventure flick to enjoy. Nods to the obvious influences abound, and, hell, there’s even a successfully-utilised opportunity for the first genuinely engaging bicycle chase sequence since Premium Rush, surely the one thing nobody expected of a Lara Croft movie in 2018.

Visually, Uthaug offers up something noticeably softer and more generic than his far more grounded efforts elsewhere, though the intensity of his action beats do lean into his sterling work on, for instance, the pretty-great Norwegian disaster movie, The Wave. Robertson-Dworet and Siddon, meanwhile, build a pretty lively cinematic tale out of the property, with enough wit and charm to just about smooth over the more predictable elements in play, and Tom “Junkie XL” Holkenborg makes sure there’s always a decent undercurrent of excitement to his score keeping the blood pumping.

Tomb Raider’s never going to redesign the manner in which we see or the industry crafts video game movies, but with a serious filmmaker doing serious work, a solid cast made up of bonafide character actors, and a concept so ripe for the screen that it was literally born of it, this origin story adventure will serve a popcorn audience with admirable engagement and even garner a few new franchise fans along the way. There’s world-building, as you’d expect of any potential franchise feature nowadays, though it thankfully errs more on the side of Marvel than The Mummy as regards just how on-the-nose it wants to handle it, and, if a potential sequel were to come our way in the same vein, tone, and style as this – to be fair, pretty good – effort, it’ll be nice to see Vikander back in the vest.

Keeper of Lola M. Bear. Film critic for Movie Marker, TalkRADIO, and others. Producer of podcasts. Skechers enthusiast and blazer aficionado. All opinions my own.

Movie Reviews

The Little Stranger ★★★★

Adapted from the Booker prize nominated novel by Sarah Waters, the cinematic incarnation of The Little Stranger has much to live up to.

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Released: 21st September 2018

Director: Lenny Abrahamson

Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Charlotte Rampling, Will Poulter, Liv Hill

Reviewed By: Sinead Beverland

Adapted from the Booker prize nominated novel by Sarah Waters, the cinematic incarnation of The Little Stranger has much to live up to. At the helm is Room Director Lenny Abrahamson, with an impressive cast including Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson and Charlotte Rampling.

Set shortly after the second world war, Doctor Faraday (Gleeson) introduces us to the faded grandeur of Hundreds Hall, a place he envied feverishly as a child. Having belonged to the Ayres family for several generations, the house is now inhabited by just Mrs Ayres (Rampling) and her two adult children, Roderick (Will Poulter) and Caroline (Wilson). When Faraday is called to the house to visit the unwell young housemaid Betty, he recollects his childhood adulation of the place. Remembering the presence of a young girl, he is told that this was Mrs Ayres first daughter, Susan, who had died as a child. It seems the spectre of Susan (affectionately known as Suki) still lays heavily over the house, as housemaid Betty tells Faraday she fears something ‘isn’t right’. As he becomes more entwined with the family and their home, strange events begin to raise concerns and individually threaten members of the family.

From the very outset, the film breeds an unsettling feeling, the house is imposing with long shots conveying the sense that the characters are being observed. The audience follows Faraday in to this fading world of status and money, sensing his childhood desire and starched formality. The family are equally intriguing and unnerving. Roderick, badly injured during the war, is now an invalid struggling to cope and disturbed by the sense that something in the house does not want him there. Matriarch Mrs Ayres seems to be doing her best to keep the past alive and daughter Caroline (the best of the bunch as attested to by a fellow doctor) seems strong yet vulnerable. When Faraday begins an intriguing friendship with Caroline, their relationship evolves to hinge the entire ethereal story together. With fantastic performances all round, the characters all emerge fully formed, conveying depth without the need for swathes of expository back story.

The terror of the film gradually reveals itself, impacting in set scenes that are truly disturbing and realistic. Director Abrahamson has a subtle touch (as seen in the Oscar Nominated Room) and these climactic scenes engulf you, whilst revealing the fate of certain characters. Abrahamson knows how to accentuate the fear for the audience and uses restraint to devastating effect. As the house leaks secrets and the memory of the deceased Susan comes to the forefront, the story is told with an intensity that uses strikingly rich music and extreme close ups to create a claustrophobic atmosphere. However, to reveal too much of the story here, would spoil the experience of discovering for yourself what is happening at Hundreds Hall.

The Little Stranger is a mature and nuanced film, layered in such a way that it address status and class alongside desire and emotion. The period setting is detailed and worn, bridging the gap between transitioning eras in Britain.  This is no straightforward horror or ghost story and the film certainly feels to have done justice to its excellent source material. Rich in theme, characters and style, I would gladly take The Little Stranger home.

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Movie Reviews

Dogman ★★★

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Released: 19th October 2018

Directed By: Matteo Garrone

Starring: Marcello Fonte

Reviewed By: Rhys Handley

Dogman is the anti-Paddington. Antithetical to the marmalade-loving bear’s enduring mantra – “if we are kind and polite, the world will be right” – dog groomer Marcello (Marcello Fonte) carves out a life in the dilapidated outskirts of Rome modestly tending to his estate’s canine residents and enjoying the respect of his neighbours.

But Marcello’s submissive, accommodating kindness is pushed closer and closer to its limit by the hulking Simone (a terrifying Edoardo Pesce, surely masked in near-mutant prosthetic), a brutish ex-boxer who stalks the estate terrorising the residents. Unable to say no to a friend, Marcello facilitates Simone’s egregious coke habit to little recompense.

When Simone’s scheme to rob a nearby jeweller’s implicates Marcello and he is apprehended by the police, the Dogman takes the fall himself and goes inside for a year for the sake of the bully who pretends to be his friend. When he comes out, something has changed.

Marcello, diminutive and always sporting a toothy grin, strikes an unimpressive, but likeable figure. He is perfectly happy with his lot as the film opens – a divorced father who takes pride in his work and loves trips to the beach with his daughter. While director Matteo Garrone makes a meal of the grim, filthy aesthetic of the film’s setting, he peppers in moments of levity and blissful tranquility to reinforce the humble satisfaction of Marcello’s daily life.

To see him repeatedly indulge the cruel, selfish whims of Simone quickly becomes a source of frustration, as the brute encourages vices in Marcello that seems entirely at odds with his persona. Marcello is swept away on break-ins and hedonistic strip club nights in jarring scenes more in keeping with Garrone’s work in the gangster canon such as 2008’s Gomorrah.

In these scenes, the toxicity fuelling Marcello reveals itself. Fonte delicately skews the kindly facade when Marcello enters Simone’s world. Behind his courteous smile is a sickening glimmer of delight – Marcello loves the thrill and decadence of life of crime. His latent desires mix with his better nature, to create something more insidious than Simone’s overt depravity.

Dogman stumbles in its closing chapter as Marcello is released from prison, returning to a community who despises him for violating their trust and chasing Simone’s false offers of brotherhood and fortune. Marcello reemerges not exactly changed, but more honest to himself about what he is. Garrone and his co-writers steer this portion of the story with a steady hand, but it is hard to shake comparisons to other established squares-gone-rogue like Walter White.

Marcello’s resolve and vengefulness is convincing thanks to Fonte, but its emergence is sudden and teeters dangerously close to cliche. His push and pull with Simone is rote, which makes its languid pace a little irritating – this has suddenly become a very different film, and it can’t carry the slower moments of contemplation as well as it could before Marcello was locked up.

An inevitable confrontation takes place, bursting with brutality and gore. But rather than a release of tension, it feels like a betrayal of the thoughtful, measured character piece Garrone set up. The violence overreaches for shock value where Garrone had before been satisfied with something more pensive and empathetic.

Luckily, he pulls back in the final moments of the film and dovetails elegantly by concluding what is essentially his thesis on ‘little guy’ psychology. He frames Marcello not as a good man pushed too far, but as someone whose better and worse natures are intrinsically tangled to create a monster very different to the bully who ultimately leads him to snap.

No matter how kind and polite the Dogman might try to be, he cannot deny the malice that festers in his heart – and Garrone artfully distills Marcello’s melancholic final moment of self-realisation in a resonant closing shot that gracefully irons out the kinks in this curious, inconsistent little film.

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Movie Reviews

Superfly ★★

Director X’s flashy remake of the Blaxploitation classic is a thunderingly dull experience

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Director: Director X
Stars:  Trevor Jackson, Jason Mitchell, Michael K. Williams
Released: 14th September 2018 (UK)

Black Panther, A Wrinkle in Time, BlackKklansman – it’s proving an impressive year for top-tier studio-driven black cinema. The perfect year, as it happens, to release a remake of seventies Blaxploitation classic Super Fly. Or, at least, it would be, if the determining creative mantra behind this update weren’t presumably anything more than to make an episode of Power with all the stylistic glimmer of a P. Diddy video.

Superfly (neatly bringing the title right up to autocorrect standard by repositioning itself as a single word) sees Grown-ish star Trevor Jackson take on the iconic role of the hustling dealer trying to earn his way out of the game – albeit in a newly millennial take that supplants the character’s own drug use for what appear to be Sherlock-level powers of information gathering on anyone he might need to manipulate, charm, or blindside. He also sports the most incredible head of hair this side of Josh Brolin.

Alex Tse’s screenplay sees no gain in revisiting any of the subversive terrain that made Super Fly the enduring classic it became, his ambitions outright stopping at the point his writing could passably sell a made-for-cable urban crime series (such as – to pick a name out of a hat – Power?). Beyond that it falls to director Director X (of the Toronto Xs) and star Jackson to bring the proverbial funk, and – though X really knows how to sell a music video with all the tonal swagger of John Singleton’s Shaft remake (though, noticeably, none of its darkness or consideration) – Jackson simply isn’t a strong enough presence to sell the supposed gravitas of his lead. It’s a weakness no amount of style or gunfire can distract from, and it sinks Superfly dead.

There’s a top-shelf supporting cast in there, with the likes of Jason Mitchell, Michael K. Williams, and Rick Ross turning up for their two cents and subsequently failing in tandem to elevate this dross to become anything close to worthy of standing in its own brand’s shadow. Expectedly enough, it sports a kickass hip-hop soundtrack – with rapper (and the film’s producer) Future offering up a bevy of atmospherically charging beats to ensure you’re at least bored to music, though there is something faintly amusing (outside of context) about hearing an entire cast prattle on about wanting to wipe out “the Snow Patrol”, like they’re working for the NME in 2005.

Twenty years from now, film historians will likely regard Superfly in the same manner as we currently regard Gus van Sant’s 1998 remake of Psycho or Stallone’s 2000 remake of Get Carter – that it’s a pointless creation that completely missed the cultural point of its own iconic original – and they’ll be right to do so. Provided they remember that Superfly even existed in the first place – which they, and you, would be decidedly better off not.

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