Review of “Tomb Raider”

Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander) is trying to make her own way in the world. She delivers food via bicycle for a service and studies mixed martial arts at a neighborhood gym; however she is falling behind on her bills and an effort to win a bicycle race against the other delivery people at her job lands her in trouble with the police. Lara is the heir to a massive fortune since her father Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West) disappeared seven years earlier but she refuses to sign the papers that would declare him legally dead. While in police custody Lara’s former guardian Ana Miller (Kristin Scott Thomas) comes to bail her out and encourages her to sign the papers as she also works at Lara’s father’s company. Showing up at her father’s offices the next day Lara is about to sign the papers when she is given a Japanese puzzle box. Distracted, Lara plays with the box and solves it causing a secret compartment to pop open. Inside is a photo of a young Lara with her father and a note wrapped around a key. Lara realizes the note is a clue to what the key fits and leaves the offices without signing the papers. She goes to the Croft estate and enters the family tomb where Lara unlocks a secret door that leads to an office. Inside she finds lots of artifacts and boxes of her father’s notes along with a camcorder. The tape in the camera is a message for Lara telling her to destroy all his notes involving Himiko and warning her of an organization called Trinity. Going against her father’s wishes Lara studies the maps and figures out the location of an island that was her father’s final destination: An island off the coast of Japan that doesn’t appear on any map. Lara approaches Lu Ren (Daniel Wu) a ship captain whose father took Lord Croft on his final voyage and also disappeared. When they get close to the island a storm destroys their ship and both are captured by a group of men led by Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins). Vogel is looking for something on the island and can’t leave until he finds it. Lara has the information to take Vogel to the very thing Lord Croft didn’t want discovered.

The history of video game-based movies is littered with horrendous efforts to cash in on a popular title. The granddaddy of these stinkers is “Super Mario Bros.” from 1993. No one involved in the production has very good memories of it. According to co-director Rocky Morton the script they agreed to direct was vastly changed when shooting began, turning it into a production nightmare. Clearly nothing like that happened in the creation and production of “Tomb Raider” as it is a very workman-like creation with the requisite number of action scenes, emotional moments and stunning realizations. It’s perfectly fine but not terribly special.

Alicia Vikander makes a very good Lara Croft. She is able to carry off the attitude and the swagger we expect from our favorite tomb raider. While there were some fanboys whining on the internet about Vikander lacking certain physical attributes (specifically large enough breasts) to make her a believable Croft those complaints are mainly from those that judge women on an impossible scale of physical beauty. I hope since she doesn’t live up to their standards that they stay home and don’t subject themselves to having to look at her. I for one think she is perfectly fine to look at. Vikander’s performance has to be somewhat tempered since she isn’t the Lara Croft that we were introduced to when Angelina Jolie took on the role in 2001’s “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.” That Lara had been going on adventures for some time prior to the start of the movie so she was in full explorer mode from the get go. Vikander’s Lara is just learning about all the adventures and danger so she makes mistakes and takes a while to figure out the puzzles that stand between her and for what she’s searching. From the standpoint of introducing the character of Lara Croft, “Tomb Raider” does a pretty good job.

The villain and the quest are what let the movie down. Early on we hear about an ancient Japanese queen that made blood run in the streets and her tomb is what is being looked for. While Lara’s father sounds the alarm about finding the tomb the whole notion of this as the goal of an international conspiracy seems a bit silly. Of course all quests in video games are silly on their face and become more so when transferred to a movie screen; however it is the job of a screenwriter to come up with a story idea that makes sense in the modern world. The supernatural mumbo jumbo espoused in the first half of “Tomb Raider” is delivered with neither intensity nor conviction. It undermines everything that happens once the action moves to the island.

When I say the villain lets down the movie I don’t mean Walton Goggins. Goggins is a great actor with a long resume of great performances as a bad guy and he does the best he can with an underwritten and rudderless part. Goggins’ Vogel is never truly let off the leash to show what a murderous maniac he is. Efforts are made to make Vogel a sympathetic villain with a couple of references to his wanting to get off the island and see his kids. It doesn’t work as it makes Vogel seem more whiny than determined to succeed and go home to his family. The script has Vogel commit the required heartless murders of a tyrant as he forces his slave labor to work with little rest or food but Goggins seems to be just hitting the beats and doing the minimum. While his performance starts with some quiet menace as he talks with Lara right after her capture it quickly runs out of steam. While I have no pity for Vogel I do feel sorry for Goggins as he is clearly trapped in a poorly thought out character.

What follows is what I like to call me thinking too much about minor stuff in a movie. A couple of characters sustain fairly serious injuries during the course of the film as one might expect with lots of jumping and falling and shooting and such. Lara gets a branch impaled in her side and Lu Ren is shot in the shoulder. While Lara’s injury gets some attention it is largely ignored after that. Lu Ren’s shoulder is never mentioned after we are shown him holding the injury just after being shot. I know it is a well-worn trope that main characters receive injuries that would put anyone else in the hospital for a couple of days but they manage to live with and even thrive despite the damage. Having two characters suffer such injuries makes this tired bit of story mechanics stick out all the more. End of rant.

“Tomb Raider” is rated PG-13 for sequences of violence, action and some language. There are numerous shootings and fist fights throughout the film. Lara is mugged and chased by her muggers after she gets her bag back then threatened with a knife. There are other chases as well. There are a couple of scenes where characters are affected by a disease that appears to cause them great pain. Foul language is scattered and mild.

“Tomb Raider” will remind gamers of the 2013 game of the same name. It too finds a nascent Lara Croft on a journey to an island with a bunch of bad guys she has to defeat and an ancient evil that must be stopped. While the movie and the game share characters with the same names the story is vastly different. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been. While the game takes a more fantastical angle borrowing some of those elements might have made the movie more entertaining. As it is, its fine but it could have been more.

“Tomb Raider” gets three stars out of five.

This week sees five new films heading to your local multiplex. I’ll see at least one of the following:

Midnight Sun—

Pacific Rim: Uprising—

Paul, Apostle of Christ—

Sherlock Gnomes—

Unsane—

Listen to The Fractured Frame on the podcast app of your choice. Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman123@gmail.com.

Reviews of “The Big Short” and “The Hateful Eight” 70mm Roadshow Version

The Big Short

Seeing the impending collapse of the housing market, hedge fund manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale) creates a fund that bets against the massive mortgage funds sold by the biggest banks called a credit default swap market. Believing they will rack up huge fees and never have to pay off his investment, many major banks agree to the fund. Meanwhile, investor Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) hears about Burry’s fund and begins finding his own investors for the credit swap market. A chance wrong number phone call catches the interest of stock trader Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and he invests millions with Vennett. Two young investors, Jamie Shipley and Charlie Geller (John Magaro and Finn Wittrock), see a prospectus for Vennett’s fund and approach friend and retired trader Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to help them get in on the growing market betting on the failure of mortgage funds. Through greed, manipulation and lax regulation, the American economy and millions of home owners, retirees and small investors were about to lose trillions of dollars while a select few were reaping huge profits from their misfortune.

“The Big Short” is not a film for someone with a short attention span. The labyrinthine collection of funds, abbreviations and acronyms for various packaged mortgage debt is dizzying but essential to having a grasp on what’s going on in the film and why it led to the meltdown of the world economy. Director/co-writer Adam McKay (best known for his work with Will Ferrell) and writer Charles Randolph have done their best to explain what happened in the simplest terms and using Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez as themselves explaining the more complicated concepts directly to the camera in ways the audience can understand. It is a brilliant way to take a hugely complex issue and turn it into somewhat understandable nuggets with humor and a fair amount of rage.

The main cast is broken up into three segments with Bale’s Burry starting things off by figuring out the mortgage market was a house of cards with a time bomb ticking away at its base. Gosling and Carell get involved once the debt market is opened. Magaro, Wittrock and Pitt bring up the rear. While the three groups never interact, they are all dancing in the same financial ballet. The entire cast is pretty brilliant with Gosling and Bale delivering standout performances. Gosling is a slimy Wall Street investor with a slick pitch, spray tan and an utter disdain for his assistants. He berates them when they say anything during his sales pitch. He’s the boss from Hell that still manages to inspire loyalty. Bale has probably the most difficult role as he plays Michael Burry as if he was on the autism spectrum. In the film, Burry displays obsessive behavior, often staying up for days at a time, working in his office with loud heavy metal music playing through speakers or in his earbuds. His ability to focus on the intricacies of subprime mortgages and wade through mountains of reports allows him to see what others cannot. Bale makes subtle decisions with the character that keep Burry from turning into some kind of “Rain Man” caricature. While Burry clearly is wired differently from most others he doesn’t come off as someone who is completely out of place.

If there is any part of “The Big Short” that struck me wrong it was Steve Carell’s Mark Baum. Due to a personal tragedy, Baum is a constant ball of anger and frustration who can’t keep his opinion to himself. He has an investment firm with three other people and works directly with one of the major banks. It seems unlikely he could keep any of these business arrangements considering how quickly he flies off the handle. Carell does the best he can with the part and despite my finding his character grating, Baum is still one of the more sympathetic figures in the movie as his frustration at the impending collapse is based on his revulsion at how the system is so thoroughly corrupt; however, that doesn’t stop him from profiting from the suffering of others. Carell is also wearing an odd wig that looks like it doesn’t quite fit. I found his hair to be a distraction.

“The Big Short” is rated R for pervasive language and some sexuality/nudity. There are two scenes involving strippers. Foul language is common throughout the film.

Much like a liquid medicine that has a flavor added so your first impression is pleasant then once you swallow the bitterness causes you to shiver, “The Big Short” wraps its message of utter contempt for the banking industry and those who oversee it in a humorous package. There are some decent laugh-out-loud moments in the film. Once you reach the end, that shiver begins to run down your back as you realize the sins of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s are probably being committed again as you read this. There’s a saying about learning from history otherwise we are doomed to repeat it, making “The Big Short” required viewing for anyone with a mortgage.

“The Big Short” gets four stars out of five.

The Hateful Eight

Eight people are waiting out a blizzard at a store/way station called Minnie’s Haberdashery in the mountains of Wyoming in the late 1800’s. John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) is a bounty hunter who has Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) manacled to his wrist. She is on her way to Red Rock to be hanged. Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) is also a bounty hunter with three dead outlaws strapped to the top of a stagecoach he was sharing with Ruth and Domergue. Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) was picked up walking through the snow by that same stage coach. He claims his horse broke its leg as he was riding to Red Rock to be sworn in as sheriff but both Ruth and Warren have their doubts about his story due to his family history. Arriving at the store to wait out the storm, they find Oswoldo Mobray (Tim Roth) who identifies himself as the hangman for the territory, Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), a cowboy on his way to visit his mother for the holidays, General Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern), a Confederate general who is on his way to visit his son’s grave, and Bob (Demian Bichir), the Mexican handyman who is watching the store for the Minnie and her husband Sweet Dave while they go visit family on the other side of the mountain. Ruth is not the trusting type and suspects one or more of the people at the store are working with Daisy to kill him and set her free. Despite his reservations, Ruth enters an agreement with Warren working together to make sure Daisy meets her maker at the end of a rope.

I saw the much hyped 70mm version of Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight.” The things you won’t get in the regular version that will play in most theatres is an overture before the film, some alternate versions of some scenes due to the way they will look on smaller screens and an intermission. What you may miss most is the intermission as even the shorter cut is still two hours and 47 minutes. “The Hateful Eight” is filled with beautiful scenery, long tracking shots of characters crossing the one large room in which most of the action takes place and buckets of blood with chunks of flesh added for realism. It is an orgy of set and costume design as well as special effects provided by Greg Nicotero, the man behind the zombies of “The Walking Dead.” And despite all the cursing and racial epithets, the script is something akin to poetry as Tarantino has structured each bit of dialog to be like a verse of a song, providing both information and entertainment. We learn a great deal about most of the characters in “The Hateful Eight” and often times we are taught in a humorous way. And, as with all Tarantino films, there are homages to the westerns of the past that shaped the director’s vision in his youth and, of course, he uses a soundtrack done by Ennio Morricone, the man behind the music for Spaghetti western auteur Sergio Leone. This is probably the most “Quentin Tarantino” movie the director has ever made. Why then was I not that impressed.

Probably the biggest issue was the length. At just over three hours (overture and intermission included), “The Hateful Eight” is a film that takes its sweet time getting moving. Early on we get long views of snow-covered mountains and trees. There is a shot of a statue depicting Christ on the cross that agonizingly slowly pulls out to show us a stagecoach approaching the camera (this includes the opening credits but it still felt leaden). Later, there long dialog scenes that last an eternity. While I praised the script earlier, there are a lot of scenes that are unnecessarily long with Tarantino showing off how he can make his characters say awful things to one another, so much so that after a while it fails to have much impact.

The ending of the film I also found disappointing. After investing one-eighth of a day in watching these characters dance around each other and then endure an orgy of blood and viscera, the movie staggers to a conclusion that fails to deliver any kind of meaningful emotional payoff. It lays there like a fish out of water, the life slowly oozing from it as it gasps for a last breath. Tarantino asks a great deal from his audience in “The Hateful Eight” and he puts on, for the most part, quite a show; however, when he should have put forth his best effort, he seems to have done just barely enough to get to the closing credits. It’s like being on a plane for 18 hours thinking when you land you’ll be on the other side of the world but finding out you’ve just been circling your home airport. You’ve spent an awfully long time traveling but discover it really wasn’t worth the trip.

“The Hateful Eight” is rated R for strong bloody violence, some graphic nudity, language and violent sexual content. It’s a Tarantino film so the bloody violence is a given. I won’t give specifics as not to spoil it for you but there are numerous shootings with various degrees of bloodiness and goriness. Some limbs get separated from bodies at times as well as one head. One character is punched numerous times producing a great deal of blood. There is a scene showing a naked man walking through snow and there is full frontal nudity. A sex act is shown and graphically described. Foul language is common.

Tarantino has been interviewed numerous times in the run-up to the release of “The Hateful Eight” and has described in glowing terms how much better film is than digital photography. In the past, Tarantino has called digital projection “TV in public.” Having seen this film in 70mm widescreen, I would point out to the director I could see the graininess of the film. The print I saw already had nicks and scratches in it during what was only its fifth screening. Using a lens that hasn’t been on a camera since Charlton Heston’s “Ben Hur” was filmed is great for nostalgia but doesn’t really do anything to advance the art of filmmaking.

Tarantino loves old movies so much he bought a theatre in Los Angeles, CA and programs only the films he thinks should be seen and remembered. That’s great if you’re a rich director and need a hobby. As a moviegoer, I want directors to push the envelope and use all the tools science and industry gives them to create images and stories I’ve never seen before. While “The Hateful Eight” is a beautifully shot and impeccably designed movie, it lacks an emotional connection that Tarantino should be a master at creating by now. His desire to show just how good of a moviemaker he is has gotten in the way of connecting his story to his audience. It was nice to look at but I didn’t want to live there.

“The Hateful Eight” gets three stars out of five.

No new movies are opening this week so it will be two weeks when I review my next film and that is the horror movie, “The Forest.”

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.

Review of “American Ultra”

“To thine own self be true.” A character in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” says this to his son just before the young man boards a ship bound for Paris. Couched in flowery language, the father is telling his son to take care of himself in such a way that if the need arises he can take care of others; but what if you do not know who exactly you are. Is it possible to be true to yourself if you question your own existence? Some question their sexuality, their belief system, their choice in a mate, their career and many other aspects of life but in the film “American Ultra” the main character faces the kind of existential crisis the puts his entire life history into question. Adding to his stress during the predicament, he must also face down over a dozen trained assassins.

Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) lives a simple life with his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) in Liman, West Virginia. Mike works at a small grocery store, passing the slow times drawing comic book-like stories about a space travelling ape and getting stoned. Mike loves Phoebe and wants to ask her to marry him during a romantic trip to Hawaii. Sadly, Mike suffers from paralyzing anxiety whenever he tries to leave Liman and they must cancel their trip. Mike’s attempt to leave Liman triggered various alarms at the CIA as Mike was part of a secret operation to create super spies with exceptional training and combat skills. Called the Ultra program, it was led by Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton) who shut it down when it didn’t produce significant results and it appears Mike has had memories of the program blocked. Lasseter gets an anonymous phone call telling her Mike is about to be killed. Lasseter confronts her supervisor, Adrian Yates (Topher Grace), and he tells her he is purging what’s left of Ultra and there’s nothing she can do about it. Lasseter travels to Liman and says a phrase to Mike that should activate him but he doesn’t respond. Later, Mike finds two men messing with his car in the store parking lot. When he confronts them, they attack him. Armed only with a cup of ramen noodle soup and a spoon, Mike is able to disarm and kill both men. Panicked, Mike calls Phoebe. Yates is furious when he hears Mike killed the men he sent to Liman and figures out Lasseter activated him. Yates then calls in a full mobilization of troops and special agents to shut down Liman, find Mike and Lasseter and kill them both.

“American Ultra” is a good mix of action and humor. The movie never takes itself too seriously and makes fun of characters within it that do. It has the kind of irreverent tone one might expect from writer Max Landis, the creative mind behind the script for “Chronicle” and several other films coming out this year. Landis is an entertaining follow on Twitter as he has very little in the way of a filter. If a thought crosses his mind it will find an outlet within 140 characters. That reckless disregard for authority and the powers that be are on full display within the story and characters in “American Ultra.” It may be the most dangerous summer movie of the season that isn’t about rap music.

Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart make a believable slacker couple. They have a grungy chemistry together that works despite Stewart’s reputation as having only about one and a half emotions in any of her movies. She actually displays a fair range of feelings as Phoebe and manages to pull off the biggest shocker of the film with a twist about half way through. It isn’t telegraphed or made obvious in any way and actually surprised me when it was revealed.

There are several good performances in the film aside from the two leads. Topher Grace makes a terrifically obnoxious and power-mad bureaucrat as CIA mucky muck Adrian Yates. He also manages to be funny despite his odious character and his willingness to violate the constitutional rights of just about everyone he meets. Connie Britton’s Victoria Lasseter is the motherly figure Mike needs as things get dark near the story’s end. Britton is able to pull off the hard-edged agent as well as the caring and concerned parental symbol to this very confused stoner. The only other major character is Tony Hale as Lasseter’s assistant Petey Douglas. Hale is able to make Petey both a friendly and efficient agent but also I man with a conscience that struggles when given an order that contradicts his beliefs. One scene shows that struggle in such a way that I was gripping my theatre seat arms as his life and death decision needed to be made. From a story point of view, his decision could only go one way but Hale shows the frustration and anguish his character is going through in such a visceral way that it put his final choice in doubt for me. While he doesn’t have much in the way of screen time Hale puts every second to good use.

There is one other major player I left out that had me kind of scratching my head. John Leguizamo plays a character named Rose. Rose is a drug dealer and friend of Mike’s that seems to have been pulled from a completely different movie. Rose is a character I might expect to see in a major city or one of its suburbs. The film is set in what looks like a fairly small town (that also has a fairly large airport). Rose deals all kinds of drugs as well as illegal fireworks and has two guys working for him as what appears to be bodyguards. None of this makes sense within the small town setting of this movie. Leguizamo plays Rose like someone from the gritty streets of New York City. He refers to both Mike and his two African-American bodyguards as the “N-word.” His presence is probably an effort to throw an unusual character into the mix to stir up some humor and add a little color into what is a very white movie. I have no problem with creating roles for people of color even if they are a little stereotypical; however, this doesn’t really work within the whole universe of this movie. Perhaps if there had been some kind of explanation for Rose being in that town that tied in to Mike and his past then it would have been a somewhat better fit. Leguiazmo gives an energetic and entertaining performance that still had me a bit baffled as to what it was doing in this movie.

“American Ultra” is rated R for strong bloody violence, language throughout, drug use and some sexual content. There are some brutal fights in the film. Several people are shot at point blank range and there is a great deal of blood splash from these wounds. There are also some sound effects that imply necks being broken during some fights. Mike smokes weed through practically the entire film. Others are also shown using various kinds of drugs. The sexual content is brief with no nudity shown. Foul language is common throughout the film.

Despite having a character that seems to come from a 1980’s B-movie, “American Ultra” is a fun and exciting film. It starts the meat of the story quickly and keeps the momentum going right up until the end. Eisenberg, Stewart and crew all give winning performances and manage to pull off some pretty good stunt work as well. It isn’t finding an audience in its opening weekend but it deserves one. It may not sound like the kind of flick that appeals to you for some reason but I encourage you to give it a try as it may be one of the most interesting film I’ve seen this year.

“American Ultra” gets five stars.

Two new movies open this week. I’ll see and review at least one of them. Watch the trailers below.

No Escape—

We Are Your Friends—

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan. Send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.