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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.

Movie Reviews

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again ★★★★

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Released: 20th July 2018

Directed By: Ol Parker

Starring: Lily James, Meryl Streep, Cher, Christine Baranski, Amanda Seyfried, Julie Walters, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgard

Reviewed By: Darryl Griffiths

The iconic Swedish pop group said ‘Thank You For The Music!’. An overjoyed studio said ‘Thank You For The Box Office!’.

Sure. Pierce Brosnan singing ABBA’s SOS had a hint of the Borat (Sorry Sacha!) about it. But the summer of 2008 bared witness to a cinematic juggernaut in ‘Mamma Mia’, a jubilant jukebox musical whose sense of joy and fun proved irresistible for audiences. Considering life’s too short. Ten years on we return to the sumptuous setting of Kalokairi Greece with ‘Here We Go Again’, as the sequel fleshes out the timeline, remaining keen to create more cinematic memories.

Content with her unorthodox triple father situation in Harry (Colin Firth), Bill (Stellan Skarsgard) and Sam (Pierce Brosnan). Sophie’s (Amanda Seyfried) fierce determination to honour her mother Donna’s (Meryl Streep) dream of renovating her surroundings into a lavish hotel, coincides with the severe turbulence she’s enduring in her ongoing relationship with Sky (Dominic Cooper).

Increasingly doubtful of her own capabilities. The dynamo duo of Christine Baranski’s Tanya and Julie Walters’ Rosie look to bolster her confidence by delving into Donna’s past, as Lily James’ enthused younger incarnation of the character guides us through her eventful youth with the dungarees intact, reliving her initial encounters in 1979 with Sophie’s dads (Hugh Skinner/Jeremy Irvine/Josh Dylan).

Previously unapologetic in its ramshackle charm and high camp. Director Ol Parker to much relief resists applying restraint to its energetic, big-hearted song and dance numbers, whilst technically and narratively tightening up the deficiencies that perhaps plagued its 2008 counterpart for the purists, with a sharper focus on emotional engagement. As a result, it may not be as quick to overwhelm us with its blindingly sunny disposition like its predecessor, occasionally labouring in its first half with its time-hopping.

Yet when those glorious highs arrive like a new take on ‘Dancing Queen’ and Cher’s stellar firework-heavy rendition of ‘Fernando’, whose cameo evoked hearty cheers in the screening i was in. They are now armed with a poignant and reflective slant, reinforcing the ingenuity in how these timeless songs are integrated into the framework, in order to offer fresh interpretations.

Lighting up the screen as a young Donna Sheridan. Lily James captures the carefree spirit and mannerisms of the character superbly, proving a solid counterpart to Meryl Streep’s original performance and Amanda Seyfried’s Sophie in the singing stakes. Speaking of Streep, much has been made about her (lack of?) involvement in this follow-up. Without slipping into spoiler territory, her gorgeous screen moments this time around epitomise why many fans deemed her an instant hit in the first film. Elsewhere, Christine Baranski and Julie Walters continue to provide fantastic farce, stealing much of the script’s zingy dialogue whilst Andy Garcia’s enigmatic hotel manager is a disarming and dashing addition.

It may not have been a sequel we were warming up the vocal chords for. Yet in striking a killer balance between emotive and euphoric. ‘Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again’ is a truly wonderful follow-up that brims with sincerity and show-stopping splendour.

Dig out the spandex and unleash your inner ‘Super Trouper’…

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Featured Review

Hotel Artemis ★★★

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Released: 20th July 2018

Directed By: Drew Pearce

Starring: Jodie Foster, Charlie Day, Sofia Boutella

Reviewed By: Van Connor

Iron Man 3 alum Drew Pearce makes his feature directorial debut with this slick future-set actioner – evoking the neon-tinged hyperbolic aesthetic of John Wick and applying it to a more stripped-down set-up akin to Joe Carnahan’s strangely forgotten Smoking Aces. Hotel Artemis sees the eponymous underworld hospital of the future come under siege by forces both outside and in, with a who’s-who of “hey – it’s….!” figures to bring its gleefully vitriolic war well and truly to life.

On Pearce’s part, Hotel Artemis knows its own playbook pretty well – tense action beats are played with coherence but don’t skimp on imagination, and the staging of it all is first rate. Jodie Foster, meanwhile, leads an engaging cast that includes a wonderfully sleazy Charlie Day, the brilliantly deadpan Sterling K. Brown, and an amusingly in-her-comfort-zone Sofia Boutella. It’s best to keep as much of its casting a surprise as possible, but there’s tons of fun to be had via mere cast reveals to keep proceedings engaging.

On the action front, though, it is strange that Hotel Artemis feels as subdued as it does as regards its own sense of internal rage. Whilst far from a bloodless PG-13, Pearce’s film never quite embeds itself as much in the hyperviolence of its world as you’d expect, or, rather, hope. It’s certainly no John Wick in that sense, and, though there is a decent share of world-building to kick things off, it’s quickly evident that this element of restraint is self-imposed by Pearce’s writing, rather than a by-product of now requisite franchise-creation. Hotel Artemis, incidentally, could easily garner itself a cheap and cheerful sequel or two, were there somehow a demand.

On the back of this pretty solid ninety minute actioner, that’s absolutely a consideration. The world it builds is fleshed out enough to intrigue, the cast are game for an intriguing balance of quirk and creepiness, and Pearce steps up to the director’s chair with unbroken confidence and a comic book sensibility that takes him deftly to the finish line. Stoker cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung astonishes as ever, and, while not his showiest work to date, Cliff Martinez’s score fleshes out the bonkers world of Hotel Artemis nicely.

Best aimed at those looking for another round of Smoking Aces-grade action – though, without quite the same singular ferocity – Hotel Artemis is a nice bit of bullet-laden fun with a lively cast and some slick visuals. It’ll never be one of the iconic points on the timeline of action cinema, but it’s a worthy stop-off on the way between the ones that are.

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Movie Reviews

Skyscraper ★★★★

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Released: 12th July 2018

Directed By: Rawson Marshall Thurber

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell

Reviewed By: Van Connor

Be honest. Sooner or later, you knew The Rock was going to make Die Hard. It was inevitable. As he ascends higher and higher thought the upper echelons of the – increasingly spartan – Hollywood star system, this was always going to be coming. The only question really, was going to be whether or not it was going to be either any good, or even welcome in a world in which even a bonafide Die Hardsequel now typically ranks among the worst of whichever year it’s released in.

Alas, Dwayne Johnson is no Bruce Willis, and that quality control barrier could not be any clearer as Die Hard meets The Towering Inferno – with a dash of The Fugitive – for Skyscraper. Rawson Marshall Thurber’s adrenaline-fuelled ride takes DJ to China as amputee and former FBI tactical agent Will Sawyer, an American tasked with signing off on the security of The Pearl – the tallest building in the world. When terrorists seize The Pearl, however, Sawyer finds himself the subject of a Chinese manhunt and forced to find a way back into the building in order to save his wife and children from not only the terrorists seeking to fulfil their own agenda, but also to the out-of-control blaze that threatens to consume them all.

Johnson’s played in the sort of arena on more than a few occasions now, with Skyscraper arguably skewing closest to San Andreas as regards the sort of tone and polished spectacle you’re in for. There are some offhand nods to more classical genre archetypes – hell, it makes more Die Hard references than Jake Peralta – and there’s the requisite degree of fistbumping and utilisation of the term “brother”, but those still unsure of what to expect can rest easy on the promise of what’s essentially an Irwin Allen movie with a Neal Moritz sensibility. It ain’t clever, it doesn’t want to be, it just wants you to sit on the edge of your seat and then cheer afterwards. Which you will. A lot.

Neve Campbell brings an impressive amount to what’s an already impressively sketched out female supporting character in Sawyer’s wife (take notes, Bedelia – that’s how you handle hostage takers), and Pablo Schreiber (Orange is the New Black) continues to make for an engaging added value element. Roland Møller, meanwhile, makes for a decent enough villain, but lacks the charisma needed to really sell the ludicrously named Kores Botha as much of an evil mastermind. Sure, he was never going to rival Hans Gruber on the scale of action movie villains, but Botha’s so thinly devised as a villain that he’s not up to the grade of Tommy Lee Jones’ Under Siege villain either. And that’s a real detriment when your action hero lead is someone as genuinely charismatic as Dwayne Johnson. Both Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Joe Manganiello took the wrong Rock movie, would be a decent takeaway.

In lieu of a captivating villain, Thurber nonetheless ensures value for money is had with a barrage of spectacle-fuelled set-pieces the likes of which will have you squirming in your seat biting your fist for dear life – IMAX could well inspire a sense of vertigo with this one. It’s a glossy-looking actioner – thanks to some smooth production design and slick visuals from cinematographer and Mission: Impossible alum Robert Elswit – and fight choreographer Allan Poppleton goes above and beyond to stage Johnson’s antics not as the all-powerful action commando, but a credible fighter dwarfed by the spectacle of what’s up against him.

It’s a good time for all. Sure, it’s in no way destined to become an enduring classic of the action genre – though, the spoilerific marketing campaign does well and truly show off what will become one of this summer’s more memorable movie moments – but it’s Die Hard on fire. With The Rock. In 2018. And if there’s an easier sell for a good time at the movies than that, it just means Dwayne Johnson has another movie out. In which case, still see Skyscraper first.

 

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