This Is a Movie Review: The New ‘Tomb Raider’ is the Old Everything Else

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CREDIT: Ilzek Kitshoff/Warner Bros.

This review was originally posted on News Cult in March 2018.

Starring: Alicia Vikander, Dominic West, Walton Goggins, Daniel Wu, Kristin Scott Thomas

Director: Roar Uthaug

Running Time: 118 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Bloody Violence in Which the Camera Cuts Away Before You See the Worst of It, and Indiana Jones-Style Skin Decomposition

Release Date: March 16, 2018

The latest big screen version of Tomb Raider supposedly justifies its existence by positioning itself as Lara Croft’s origin story, but it could hardly be considered untold, as it is fundamentally derivative of every other entry in the globetrotting action-adventure genre. Even if you have not seen the Angelina Jolie TR films or never played any of the video games (like myself), chances are you will still feel like you have already seen this “new” one. This is basically a video game transferred to a different medium, but without actually adapting it into cinematic form. To wit, Alicia Vikander’s Lara spends most of her time solving puzzles (like arranging rocks to open a cave door) or jumping across platforms (like bouncing around all the boats in a crowded dock to escape some baddies). Again, the conclusion to be drawn is: you’ve seen this all before, better and elsewhere.

The mythology that kicks Tomb Raider’s plot into motion is fairly fascinating: Himiko, Queen of Yamatai, is said to have had power over life and death, with the ability to kill people just by touching them. Lara’s father Richard (Dominic West) has spent much of his life tracking her down. After disappearing for years during his search, he is presumed dead, and an absentee dad is only the first classic genre trope TR makes sure to give us. We also get the timeless purity-vs-profitability conflict, as naturally enough the villain is Richard’s rival archaeologist Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins), who only cares about getting rich off Himiko’s remains. Furthermore, the climax is essentially Indiana Jones-lite, with giant rolling rocks and unwise choices resulting in consequences akin to drinking from the wrong grail.

But despite all these shortcomings, I must accept that a fundamental aspect of my criticism (and all good criticism, I would argue) is identifying whether or not a film is exciting or boring. And on that score, Tomb Raider kept me engaged enough to feel like it was not a complete waste of time. Plus, it has a decently satisfying feminist bent, as any skin displayed by Lara primarily emphasizes Vikander’s athleticism, and at the moment when she thinks her father is being his most patronizing, he instead compliments her bravery. These are welcome elements, but they are mostly surface level. That shallowness prevents true terribleness, but it also leaves some uncomfortable implications less-than-fully addressed. Like, what is Mathias’ deal with wrangling up slave labor? There could have been an opportunity here for indelible villainy, but instead Tomb Raider plays it thoroughly safe.

Tomb Raider is Recommended If You Like: Every Indiana Jones knockoff, Watching someone else play a platform-jumping video game

Grade: 2.25 out of 5 Tank Tops

This Is a Movie Review: Affairs Are Revealed and Philosophical Rejoinders Are Dispatched at ‘The Party’

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CREDIT: Roadside Attractions

This review was originally posted on News Cult in February 2018.

Starring: Patricia Clarkson, Bruno Ganz, Cherry Jones, Emily Mortimer, Cillian Murphy, Timothy Spall, Kristin Scott Thomas

Director: Sally Potter

Running Time: 71 Minutes

Rating: R for Pretentious Strong Language and Furtive Cocaine Bumps

Release Date: February 16, 2018

If you want to make the case that The Party is a worthwhile viewing experience, you must remember that Patricia Clarkson is playing a cynical realist and that Bruno Ganz, as her estranged significant other, is playing a spiritualist. (There is another couple made up of an idealist and a materialist, but their philosophies don’t make as much of an impression.) Now you may be thinking, what is a fight between academic theories doing in a movie that is ostensibly about people? And initially, as I realized that wow, this is really going directly after that lecture hall crowd, I was just as disturbed as you may be. But it soon becomes clear enough that I do not especially care what is going on with these people and therefore pompous piffle like commenting about behaving in a “20th-century postmodern post-post-feminist sort of way” actually serves to lend this whole affair some personality.

The occasion for the titular get-together is Janet’s (Kristin Scott Thomas) appointment to shadow minister of health as a member of the British opposition party. As she is getting ready in the kitchen and chatting with April (Clarkson), her husband Bill (Timothy Spall) is in the living room, staring vacantly into the distance of the backyard, while Gottfried (Ganz) observes him with curiosity. Some more guests arrive: Martha (Cherry Jones) and Jinny (Emily Mortimer), who announce that their in vitro fertilization efforts have finally taken; and topping it all off is Tom (Cillian Murphy), with promises that arriving later for dessert will be his s.o. Marianne, who remains a topic of tension-spiked discussion throughout.

Then, as cinematic soirees tend to go, secrets are revealed and grievances are aired, much of it having to do with affairs. Ultimately, it appears that everyone has slept with the same person or slept with someone who has slept with that someone. Confined to the location of Janet and Bill’s home, The Party often feels like a play, and a one-act one at that, clocking in at just over 70 minutes. There are not many stylistic touches that require this drama to be on film instead of on a stage, save for the black-and-white photography (which does not serve much thematic purpose anyway). At least the short runtime is appreciated. The tone is too caustic for my tastes to be bearable for too long, and since there are no genuine characters, just a bunch of types, it helps that it makes its point quickly and then makes a hard exit.

The Party seems to be commenting on its own shallowness in the banter between April and Gottfried, as she constantly upbraids him for his frequent use of aphorisms, while she continues to make smug, pretentious remarks that are not helpful in any practical way. But Gottfried wins me over right away, because he is just happy-go-lucky while spouting clichés even as his partner constantly insults him. April, however, is too cold to embrace at first. But once it is clear that the film does not exactly agree with what she is saying, you can enjoy her for her ridiculousness and for the relish with which Clarkson spits such venom.

The Party is Recommended If You Like: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Attending university philosophy lectures

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Burnt Pastries

This Is a Movie Review: Gary Oldman Disappears Into Winston Churchill’s ‘Darkest Hour,’ and the Result is Fascinating But a Little Too Stiff

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CREDIT: Jack English/Focus Features

This review was originally posted on News Cult in November 2017.

Starring: Gary Oldman, Lily James, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Mendelsohn, Ronald Pickup, Stephen Dillane

Director: Joe Wright

Running Time: 125 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for War Talk and a Dash of Naughty British Humor

Release Date: November 22, 2017 (Limited)

How do you solve a problem like a mumbling lead character? You could make him not mumble, but of course that’s not really an option when he is a real person whose mushmouth is historically accepted fact. So then you could make the difficulty to understand him part of the point, but could that really work when he is known for inspiring his country to plow ahead in a time of crisis? Darkest Hour certainly does not take it easy on Winston Churchill (an exceptionally unrecognizable Gary Oldman). Nobody in Parliament thinks he is up to the task, but somehow he manages to fire up the British citizenry for the war effort without having to tamp down his prodigious appetites. Maybe the men and women on the street appreciate all the bluster thickly surrounding all of his words.

Darkest Hour is the third in 2017’s (accidental) trilogy about Britain’s early days in World War II. First came Their Finest, depicting the production of a propaganda film about the evacuation of Dunkirk. Then of course there was Dunkirk, about the evacuation itself. And now Darkest Hour presents the political maneuverings surrounding these same events.

With Germany holding the upper hand in 1940, the crux of Darkest Hour’s conflict is Churchill wrestling with the decision of whether to negotiate with Hitler or to rally the nation to keep fighting. This is a more complicated narrative than the simplistic version many of us have been told, in which the concessionist Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) gave way to the bulldog Churchill. In fact, Chamberlain’s decision to step down may have had more to deep with his creeping cancer. And I am no expert on British government, but Darkest Hour makes it clear that the executive forces on Chamberlain’s side were very much still present when Churchill ascended.

As a character study, this film is best regarded as a portrait of Churchill awkwardly slipping into the suit of the prime ministership. With his bulbous shape, and that physicality serving as a shield over his lack of self-confidence, so much of Churchill’s life is ill-fitting. Darkest Hour is similarly aesthetically unpleasant, in ways that I imagine were both intentional and unintentional. It cannot be helped that England is often a dreary country, and it is fair that that should be emphasized. Also reasonable but frustrating is the decision is to set many of the scenes in the deepest and most cramped bureaucratic interiors.

So it is quite a relief when Churchill and Darkest Hour trek out into the world, turning to the opinions of everyday Londoners riding the tube. The message here, at least as far I take it, is not so much that the commoners won the war, as much as it is that breaking out of your constrictions is always a good idea, whether you are a prime minister, an Oscar-angling motion picture, or anyone or anything else. So there is plenty of inspiration to draw from this film, though its shape may feel a little stitched-together.

Darkest Hour is Recommended If You Like: Winston Churchill mania (it’s hot right now), The King’s Speech, Chugging a Scotch and Puffing on a Cigar While You Watch Movies

Grade: 2.75 out 5 Litanies of Catastrophe