Review: Tomb Raider (2018)

Review: Tomb Raider

Movies based on videogames have a very bad history, with most of them ending up pretty horrible. In the last year alone, we got pretty tragic entries Warcraft and Assassin’s Creed. Tomb Raider relaunched a few years back with a solid story-based game and it looked like this movie might be trying to bring that story to life, so I had higher hopes than I maybe should’ve. Did this movie break the curse?

The gist.

We follow Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander), a young woman whose father (Dominic West) disappeared mysteriously. She picks up the trail of where he went searching, leading her to a dangerous island off the coast of Japan. She is aided by a sea captain (Daniel Wu), whose own father went missing as well. They must evade another party seeking to plunder this island of its supernatural prizes, led by Walton Goggins.

What works?

As the lead, Alicia Vikander knocks it out of the park. If you’re not familiar, she was incredible in Ex Machina and won the Academy Award for supporting actress in The Danish Girl. Here, she brings Lara to life in very cool ways. She’s not a superhero, she’s not indestructible. She messes up but she kicks ass and keeps trying. She gets hurt but she learns and she adapts. As a heroine, Vikander totally nails it.

The story that we watch unfold is interesting enough, like a more deadly version of National Treasure. The puzzles and riddles are fun to watch and don’t slow down the pace too much. When the action kicks in, I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s shot clean, not too much shaky-cam to distract from it. The stunts are interesting, deaths brutal, and effects are generally pretty good.

In my opening, I ask if this movie can break the curse of video game movies. It’s not perfect but it’d be 5/5 compared to most movies in this genre.

What doesn’t work?

Walton Goggins as the main villain here isn’t disappointing per se but underused maybe. He’s not that diabolical, he’s just a henchman that is the focus of Lara’s anger. I’ve seen Goggins be pretty downright evil and it’s just a shame that he’s so tame here.

The story I mentioned above is fun but the climax might really underwhelm you. It sets up a potential threat but throws a curveball at you in the last few minutes. Without getting spoilery, I understand why the curveball was thrown but that still doesn’t make the resolution satisfying. If you’re building up to something epic, you better deliver something epic.

And lastly, the visual effects are hit or miss. Some sequences are great, while others feel unfinished or straight from the video game this movie is based on. It’s just not consistent.

Overall…

Tomb Raider is excellent compared to the horrible video game adaptations we’re used to. Unfortunately that’s not enough. An incredible performance by Alicia Vikander can’t really save this movie but it keeps it from drowning. The story is up and down, with a climax that might have you a bit confused. The thrilling action is fun and interesting but inconsistent visual effects might detract from your experience. Overall, this is a fun time if you don’t have anything else to watch, but ultimately is pretty average.

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Review: A Wrinkle in Time

wrinkle headeradam review

A Wrinkle in Time.

Let me preface with this. I was never really looking forward to this movie. I never read the book, the trailers didn’t really lure me in, I just wasn’t that interested. So when I saw the movie opening night in a fairly empty theater, was my mind changed? Spoiler: no.

The gist.

We have a world-hopping adventure here as young girl Meg (Storm Reid) goes on an adventure to rescue her dad (Chris Pine) who has discovered a way to travel across the universe and is now trapped there by a dark energy called the It. She goes on this adventure with her younger brother (Deric McCabe) and school crush (Levi Miller). They’re guided on this adventure by three magical women, played by Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, and Mindy Kaling. We also get one scene cameos by Zach Galifianakis and Michael Pena.

What works?

I’m sure that as a book, this was a really fun adventure, full of worlds that your imagination can populate. What we see on-screen here is usually really interesting, with some worlds that are very odd and interesting to watch. The design at play is incredible, with vivid colors and out of this world ideas. When you leave the theater, some of these visuals will be your highlight of the film.

Aside from the fantastical, this movie also features a few emotional moments that really got to me. But unfortunately that’s not enough to keep a movie like this afloat.

wrinkle 2

What doesn’t work?

This movie is a mess. There are a lot of factors but I think it comes down to adapting this book and how to structure this film. People like to hype up director Ava DuVernay but ultimately, this is way outside her wheelhouse. Her only major feature film is Selma, which was not applauded for its direction especially. Transitioning to a movie like this is a huge feat and I don’t think she was necessarily qualified and you can tell. The movie is choppy and nonsensical and feels like a straight-to-DVD miniseries intended for children.

“Maybe this movie is for children.” That’s great, I hope they enjoy it. As a film though, this movie has a lot of things going against it.

When they adapted the book, it makes the same mistakes that a lot of adaptations make in that they literally just shorten each scene to make it fit and what we get here… is a sequence of 3-4 minute scenes that jump through the plot but miss the finesse and explanation and worldbuilding. We meet a character, advance the plot, insert a musical number as a montage, then repeat. It’s messy and jumbled and incoherent.

In the “what worked” section, I talk about the design. There are some incredible worlds and breathtaking visuals but unfortunately… for every cool visual effect, there is something really bad. Horrible greenscreen and CGI effects that are really subpar for a movie of this budget. I wanted to like the costumes and makeup but those too are really lackluster. The movie is full of (unnecessary) closeups and it looks like our leads are covered in cheap stick-on gems. Oprah especially looks horrendous, her “otherworldly” look instead looking like a last-minute Halloween outfit. Kaling and Witherspoon don’t do any better.

A WRINKLE IN TIME

And then let’s talk about miscasting this movie. Oprah is fine but both Kaling and Witherspoon feel miscast. Especially Kaling, whose character only speaks in quotes (for some reason…) but she lacks any sort of energy or enthusiasm. Even the kids are a bit miscast (or misdirected). Storm Reid as our lead is boring to watch, as every single scene is her moping around. She gets to travel to amazing worlds but her sense of wonderment is always trumped by being angry or sad. She sucks the energy out of this movie. She’s paired up with this schoolmate played by Levi Miller (who was Peter in the recent Pan film) and he too feels miscast and out of place.

The youngest actor in the film Deric McCabe plays the brother in the movie and he’s getting some negative feedback about his performance but at least he had an energy to him that kept me awake, which is more than the others in this film. I didn’t mind this young actor in the slightest.

Overall…

This movie is a bummer because I wanted it to be good but there are a lot of factors that keep this movie from succeeding. Yes, a few actors succeed here and there are some cool visuals, but ultimately the script was mismanaged, the roles miscast, and the production design misses the mark almost completely. The movie feels like a cheap TV movie instead of a major Hollywood blockbuster. If your expectations are low, I’d rent this for the kids later, but I wouldn’t spend money to see it on the big screen.

2

 

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Review: Jessica Jones, Season Two

Jessica Jones, Season Two.

I’m a big fan of the Marvel Netflix universe. The first season of Jessica Jones managed to take a D-list Marvel heroine and make her interesting, with one of the best villains that live-action Marvel has seen so far. There are big shoes to fill, as Jessica Jones season two hits Netflix. I binged 13 hours straight and here are my thoughts.

The gist.

Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) ended season one by killing her major enemy Kilgrave (David Tennant) and now she’s free to live her life, but why is she still unhappy? She’s attempting to get back into the groove of being a Private Investigator, alongside her new associate Malcolm (Eka Darville). Her friend Trish (Rachael Taylor) is obsessed with finding answers though and continues to dig deeper into Jessica’s mysterious past. Lawyer Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss) is also interested in finding out more about the genetic experiments done on Jessica. I don’t want to spoil where things go but it’s a very different arc than season one and a much more intimate and relationship-focused story.

jj 1

What works?

Krysten Ritter as our lead is just as interesting as season one, though the absence of Tennant’s Kilgrave is very noticeable and the season lacks that energy that he brought to the screen. We luckily got rid of a bunch of supporting characters that did not work at all and replaced them with some new folks that are much more interesting.

The standout in the cast this season is Carrie-Anne Moss who actually gets an interesting side story and delivers some of the show’s most emotional moments, which was a welcome change from season one.

With Kilgrave absent, I applaud Marvel for not trying to up the ante and instead of approaching this season’s villain a little differently. I won’t go into details but it’s not a traditional villain at all and one might even debate them being a villain at all. That being said, some people might not find this antagonist nearly as interesting or compelling as the first season.

What doesn’t work?

Unfortunately this season generally doesn’t live up to (what I believed to be) the great first season. The journey that Jessica goes on here is a very different one and many folks might find this journey boring, even though it’s taking place in a world full of superheroes. It’s a relatively calm ride and very far from the traditional comic book arc, especially compared to the Daredevil and Punisher series which had many huge action setpieces. This show doesn’t and some of you might not dig its change in tone.

Some characters also get sideplots that you won’t enjoy. Trish especially goes on a tangent that is ultimately unsatisfying and unnecessary.

This season isn’t bad per se. It’s just average, but compared to some exceptional seasons of Netflix Marvel television, this feels like a letdown.

jj 2Overall…

If you’re a fan of Jessica Jones, you’ll likely catch this season but there’s no reason to ever revisit it. I find myself wanting to rewatch Daredevil and even the first season of Jessica Jones, but this season just felt… fine. It’s a much more intimate and character-driven story, so some of you might dig that, but that also means it’s a slower and potentially more boring adventure too.

3

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Review: Annihilation

Annihilation.

This is going to be divisive, let me warn you of that. My thoughts here are entirely my own and I’m still not quite sure where I fall but I’m going to do my best to outline what I’m thinking and why this is so complicated.

Annihilation is a movie that makes you think. The studios know this isn’t ideal for a mainstream release and they have very little faith that the movie can break even, so they sold the international distribution rights to Netflix, meaning that it’ll release in the US, Canada, and China in theaters, but in other countries including the UK and Australia, it will be streaming on Netflix in just a few weeks.

Is that concern valid? Is this movie too smart for the people watching it?

The gist.

The movie opens with a comet crashing into Earth, through a lighthouse. This site becomes the beginning of a slowly widening circle called the Shimmer, which slowly mutates everything inside it. We follow Lena (Natalie Portman) as her husband has just returned from the Shimmer (Oscar Isaac) but he’s very sick and the answer to how to fix him may be inside. She goes along with a crew of scientists to find out what’s happening. With her on this adventure is Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, and Tuva Novotny.

What works?

This is a movie that will be debated and discussed for many years. I don’t think it’s as good as Ex Machina, director Alex Garland’s first feature film, but this movie possibly offers up more points of conversation afterwards. It doesn’t give you many answers and it doesn’t end in a way that many of you will like. The last 10 minutes or so is like the movie becomes (or mutates if you will) something else entirely. If you’re the type of person to love deep movies that you have to rewatch to really understand, this movie will offer up plenty. If you want escapism and a clearcut finale, this won’t do it at all.

The entire adventure is carried by Natalie Portman, who delivers a stellar performance, though incredibly subtle and nuanced. The supporting cast all get a chance to shine, including against-type performances from Gina Rodriguez and Tessa Thompson.

While not a person, the Shimmer itself is almost a character here, shaping and mutating the world in interesting (and terrifying) ways. The design here is spectacular, as these horrors come to life with vivid colors and nightmare-inducing images. There is a mutated bear that appears and the scene is gripping, though the movie really only has a few moments of any action whatsoever. When these moments do happen, they literally had me on the edge of my seat.

The climax of the movie is the controversial bit. I can’t tell you why, but it’s incredibly interesting, as you stare at what’s happening and try to understand it. This film is based on a book and they called the book impossible to adapt. This finale is likely why, as it’s a trip, bending reality and what we think we know. You’ll react one of two ways. You might love it, you might gasp and stare as you try to make sense of it, and you might have hours of talking points once the credits roll. Or, like my initial reaction, you’ll tilt your head and say “What?” I wasn’t impressed, I thought the ending was messy and confusing. But I was convinced, through a long conversation about the finale. It was maybe meant to be confusing and maybe it was meant to be weird and meant to be unexplainable. After talking about it, I’ve come around on this movie, but some of you won’t. Some of you will understand what it was trying to do but think it failed in how it did it, and I can totally see that perspective. For me, the finale was bonkers but ultimately fitting of the movie it was a part of.

What didn’t work?

The biggest thing, following what I just said, is some of you won’t buy this. You won’t be on board, you’ll find the movie slow and boring, and the nonsensical finale will upset you. Maybe even anger you. I can’t speak to how you’ll react, so know this movie is a risk going in.

On a technical level, there were some odds and ends that didn’t come together for me. The editing was jarring (maybe intentionally) and a few action scenes felt underwhelming because of that. They were over before they really got a chance to shock and awe us. The music was also a little too soothing for my taste, combined with a slow pacing that almost put me to sleep. I blame this on seeing the movie too late at night.

Overall…

I need you to know this score is how I feel and not necessarily how you’ll feel. This movie is a little slow and the action is a little rare. It’s a character piece that Natalie Portman carries completely, with an ending that defies explanation and gives you very little real answers. Some of you will flock to message boards or make reaction videos and gather around the water cooler. Some of you will scoff and say this is the worst movie you’ve ever seen. The spectrum of reaction here is vast. For me, I found it worthwhile though my reaction was very negative as I walked out of the theater. Hold your gut instinct for a bit and let the movie simmer for a bit, you might find plenty to think on.

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Review: Game Night

game night headeradam reviewGame Night.

I feel like we’ve been in a drought of good R-rated comedies lately, with even the best ones being simply mediocre. Game Night arrived with very little fanfare so I wouldn’t be surprised if you haven’t heard of it. Is it worth looking into?

The gist.

We follow married couple Max and Annie (Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams) who are both super competitive and into all sorts of board games and party games. This game night is special, as Max’s older brother (Kyle Chandler) comes into town and insists on a game night more intense than ever before, featuring a murder mystery. Well, things go sideways and they get wrapped up in a murderous kidnapping plot that is actually real, though our players have no idea that their lives are actually in danger. Our other players include Sharon Horgan, Billy Magnussen, Lamore Morris, and Kylie Bunbury. We also have Jesse Plemons (Breaking Bad) as their next-door-neighbor who wants desperately to join their game nights.

game night 2

What works?

This movie is actually really interesting, managing to blend quite a few different genres and resulting in something fairly unique. At its heart, it’s an R-rated raunchy comedy in the vein of Bateman’s other recent comedies (Office Christmas Party, Horrible Bosses). It smartly borrows from other genres as well, most notably 80s horror films, with all the jump scares and cliches and even synth-heavy soundtrack. It’s a parody of these horror films without resorting to Scary Movie standards. It’s also a straight up action film at times, including shootouts and car chases and one really visceral brawl. It weaves these things together seamlessly and perfectly.

This wouldn’t work if these three dynamics faltered. Luckily they don’t. The comedy is top-notch, especially if you’re a Bateman fan already. It’s dry and subtle but knows when to go for the obvious joke. It all works. The fight scenes are really great and the horror managed to scare me a few times, too, meaning that this movie really succeeded at this interesting balance.

Both Bateman and McAdams carry this film and luckily have a great chemistry together. The supporting cast is generally relative unknowns but they all do their job and some of these folks will be on the rise after this for sure.

Lastly, there are some really interesting stylistic choices, including the use of a photography method called “tilt shifting,” that makes locations look like models or miniatures. The very landscape of the city looks like a board game, it’s all fascinating. There are some innovative methods for shooting this movie that totally work.

GAME NIGHT

What doesn’t work?

Very little. If you’re not a fan of potentially raunchy comedies, this won’t be up your alley, but that’s really my only warning. You may find it a bit cliche and predictable but I didn’t mind.

Overall…

Game Night offers something really unique, a blend of comedy/horror/action that actually delivers on all three fronts. Our leads have great comedic timing and great chemistry with each other, while the haunting synth soundtrack and unique visual style will make Game Night stand out for a long time.

4

 

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Review: Black Panther

Black Panther.

I need to preface this because it’s hard to be a critic and critique a movie that means so much to people. That means that this movie might be your favorite Marvel movie yet, but that doesn’t mean it’s without flaws. Below I’m going to talk about Black Panther as a film and any critiques on the film aren’t meant to dissuade you from absolutely loving this movie, because many of you will.

The gist.

This is the 18th movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. We follow the soon-to-be king of an African nation called Wakanda, named T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman). In Captain America: Civil War, T’Challa’s father was killed and now it’s time for his reign to begin. He returns to Wakanda and reunites with an old flame Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o). The general of his female bodyguard force Okoye (Danai Gurira) assists T’Challa in tracking down a long-time enemy of Wakanda, a black market arms dealer named Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis). Turns out there’s another villain in the making though, a mysterious man named Eric “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan) who has a plan to usurp the throne of Wakanda.

We also have Angela Bassett, Sterling K. Brown, Forest Whitaker, Daniel Kaluuya, Winston Duke, Letitia Wright, and Martin Freeman.

What works?

This movie is incredibly special, especially in the lineup of the other MCU films. It manages to create a world that is absolutely alive and Wakanda feels like a real place, much more so than other locations like Asgard from Thor have been. The world is alive, the colors are vibrant, and the music is perfect. The setting for this film is the star and it absolutely takes your breath away.

The living and breathing people in the movie also do an excellent job. We’ve seen Boseman do T’Challa before but his supporting characters are all fantastic as well, including Letitia Wright as his youthful and exuberant younger sister, who is also a genius. Danai Gurira (from The Walking Dead) has the best fight scenes in the whole movie, while Lupita Nyong’o manages to balance being a love interest but also a strong and independent character. All of these women are nuanced and complicated and interesting.

We have three core villains over the course of the movie and they all deliver in different ways. The most minor of them is Winston Duke as M’Baku, the leader of a rival tribe. He’s charismatic and threatening and brings to life a character that begun in the comics as a very problematic stereotype (with the name “Man-Ape,” though that name is never uttered here). Andy Serkis returns as Ulysses Klaue, after last appearing in Avengers: Age of Ultron. He’s maniacal and a loose canyon and you can tell he’s having a blast playing this role. It all leads up to Michael B. Jordan though, who some people are calling Marvel’s best villain since Loki. I loved his performance here and throughout most of the movie you actually understand his motivations and might even agree with his methods. However he’s a tad underused, disappearing for a huge chunk of the movie and his absence was noticed.

In a nutshell, this movie succeeds because of its people, its setting, and its message. It’s relateable, even if the world seems so futuristic. It showcases different African cultures in a way that is celebratory and interesting and complicated, in all the right ways. In the light of our real-world struggles, its timing is perfect.

What doesn’t work?

Unfortunately, there are some drawbacks that keep Black Panther from succeeding across the board.

The most obviously apparent one is the lackluster visual effects. T’Challa spends a lot of time in his new high-tech suit and it looks horrible most of the time, like something straight from a video game. It looks unnatural when he leaps and flies across the screen. In Civil War, he had weight and presence and his fight scenes felt real. Here, his fight scenes are jumbled and full of quick cuts and toss him around like a rag doll, the whole time looking fake and distracting.

Because of this, the big climactic battle is underwhelming and disappointing, so the movie ends and we’re left with a bit of a shrug. There are fight scenes where T’Challa is not in the suit and those scenes were much much better in quality.

Overall…

Black Panther has so many strengths that it is understandable why so many people might claim this as their new favorite Marvel film. But as a critic, I can’t ignore some major visual effects hiccups and an underwhelming finish. It’s still very good but I wouldn’t rank it among the greats of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

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(Review) Maze Runner: The Death Cure

Maze Runner: The Death Cure

This series has a very hit or miss history with me. I really liked the original The Maze Runner, especially in comparison to most YA dystopian adventures, but its sequel The Scorch Trials was a convoluted mess. Can this finale redeem the franchise?

The gist.

We follow Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) as he tries to rescue a friend of his Minho (Ki Hong Lee) from an evil organization called WCKD. This organization, spearheaded by Patricia Clarkson and Aidan Gillen (Game of Thrones), seeks to find a cure for a zombie apocalypse by experimenting on kids that are immune to the disease. Thomas allies himself with a group of rebels led by Giancarlo Esposito (Breaking Bad) and includes his other friends played by Rosa Salazar, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, and Dexter Darden. Thomas also must confront a former romantic interest Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) who now works with WCKD. We also get an subplot involving Walton Goggins as the disfigured leader of another rebel group. There’s a lot going on here.

What works?

The acting here is good, despite a poor story. Dylan O’Brien shows definite potential and Aidan Gillen seems to be having a blast, delivering some incredible moments in the thrilling climax.

Some of these action sequences are also really enjoyable, including a train heist at the very beginning that is pretty great. They’re unfortunately undercut by some subpar CGI work.

What doesn’t work?

I liked the original Maze Runner because it was simple and unique, completely devoid of the cliche evil organization. It was a mystery and that totally worked. But now this franchise has devolved into every other YA franchise, feeling completely synonymous with Hunger Games and Divergent. This is bad. It feels done already, like it’s retreading the stories of these other (and better) franchises.

This movie also doesn’t ease you back into the franchise, giving zero context or explanation if you don’t remember all the details. Characters show up with cameos and reveals that could’ve benefited from some explanation. Moments that were meant to be meaningful therefore meant nothing, unless you just watched the prior two films.

The Death Cure is also too long, filled with subplots and moments that were completely unnecessary. I wanted to enjoy the action but I was so tired of sitting in that theater that I just wanted the movie to be over. Slow pacing caused me to not enjoy this experience but instead count down the minutes to when credits would roll.

Overall…

The Maze Runner should have just been a “one and done” situation but instead a unique story slowly transformed into a predictable and cliche dystopian adventure. It’s not even done well, poorly paced and with subpar CGI effects. Some decent acting redeems a few moments but overall this franchise goes out with a whimper.

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