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Movie Review: “A Quiet Place”

I don’t usually review horror films on this site—mostly because there’s not much of an audience for such commentary—but I’ll make an exception here (and, to be fair, this one’s more of a thriller). “A Quiet Place” is creative, memorable, and evokes the best of Hitchcock, and it demands to be seen in a distraction-free theater.

The year is 2020, and the human race has been overrun by waves of terrifying, nearly indestructible alien predators who hunt only by sound. Deep within a lonely forest far from the wreckage of civilization, the Abbott family makes their stand. Father Lee (John Krasinski, perhaps best known as Jim Halpert from “The Office,” who’s also the director) and mother Evelyn (Emily Blunt, Krasinski’s real-world wife) struggle to protect their three small children from the monsters at their door. But it’s impossible to live in a constant state of panic, and the Abbotts have made the best of their unenviable situation: communication unfolds through sign language, paths through the forest are covered with sand to mask the noise of footfall and board games are played with cloth tokens.

Yes, it’s a simple premise, but it taps into an elemental childhood fear—that somewhere, waiting in the blackness just beyond your vision, is a creature waiting to gobble you up if you won’t be quiet.

In many ways, “A Quiet Place” feels like a fusion of M. Night Shyamalan’s “Signs” and the Audrey Hepburn classic “Wait Until Dark.” In that spirit, most of the film’s action unfolds across a single night—a bold but brilliant choice. Mediocre thrillers punctuate their jump scares with cutaways to “the next morning,” where everything’s brightly lit and there’s nothing scary in sight. Effective thrillers never let the viewer off the hook, but keep slowly ratcheting up the tension until it’s almost unbearable. And Krasinski also deserves credit for crafting monsters that are genuinely scary in both design and behavior: if you thought the Velociraptor kitchen scene in “Jurassic Park” was nerve-wracking, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

But that’s not the only reason “A Quiet Place” works so well. The film takes its sweet time before turning up the heat, weaving in glimpses of the Abbotts’ pastoral life—Evelyn homeschooling the children and cooking dinner, Lee teaching his son to fish, and so on. Certainly an aura of tension and danger is always there, but Krasinski leaves enough breathing room to fully humanize his characters. As a result, when the terror comes, it lands hard.

Side note: over the years, I’ve noticed that the most gripping thrillers tend to involve parents struggling to protect their entire family. Such movies refuse to adopt the ubiquitous and-then-there-were-none approach to the horror genre—that is, family members don’t try to buy a few more minutes of life by sacrificing one of their number to gory violence. Yes, this typically means that far fewer quarts of fake blood are spilled, but the actual felt intensity of the movie is much greater (and if anything goes south, it feels like a real punch to the gut). Speaking of which, a word on content issues: although this isn’t a bloodbath by any means, the whole movie hinges on the stalking, lurking presence of creatures that really are the stuff of nightmares. Despite the PG-13 rating, don’t take the kids.

If I said much else, I’d be giving away plot points—and honestly, the less known about “A Quiet Place” prior to viewing, the better. (I deliberately avoided detailed reviews and was glad I did.) I’ll say this much, though: at bottom, “A Quiet Place” ranks with “The Babadook” and “Insidious” as one of the best nail-biters of the last several years. Eat your heart out, James Wan. (But please, not literally.)

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Posted by on April 17, 2018 in Thrillers

 

Movie Review: “Tomb Raider”

First things first: this is definitely not Angelina Jolie’s “Tomb Raider.” Led by the ever-capable Alicia Vikander, 2018’s “Tomb Raider” is a grittier, more grounded take on Lara Croft, drawing heavily on the successful reboot of the video game series.

And what do you know? As video game movies go, this is probably one of the best.

We meet New Lara as she’s searching for her long-lost father, who disappeared off the coast of Japan while researching the “death queen” Himiko. Himiko’s tomb, legend says, is located on the forbidden island of Yamatai—and a horrible destiny awaits anyone thinking of disturbing the queen’s remains.

Naturally, that’s exactly where Lara goes.

The film’s first act is probably its best (early on, there’s a delightful bike chase that favorably evokes Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s “Premium Rush”). Director Roar Uthaug takes his sweet time before launching into the expected tomb raiding, which gives us plenty of time to get to know our heroine. Crucially, Vikander is appealing in a way Jolie never quite pulled off, capturing just the right blend of self-reliance and wide-eyed wonder. As a result, Lara actually feels like a character, not a pinup or caricature.

Unfortunately, things go downhill once Lara reaches Yamatai. In particular, the movie suffers from a distinct flaw afflicting the games—something that’s always irked me about the way New Lara is written. I’ve recently been rewatching the Indiana Jones series, and one thing that stands out is the degree to which the series hinges on its protagonist. Consider the famous booby-trapped temple sequence that kicks off “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Recovering the idol isn’t a team achievement: Indy’s companions are killed or betray him, and he escapes alone. In “Temple of Doom,” he almost singlehandedly leads a slave uprising, and in “Last Crusade,” he takes down a tank-led Nazi convoy. While Indy does have allies from time to time, he usually spends as much time rescuing them as he does defeating the bad guys. (This Indy-centeredness is even more pronounced in the video games.)

Not so with New Lara. Over and over, our heroine is thrown into battle alongside a supporting crew of equally proficient (and, almost without exception, male) allies. In 2013’s “Tomb Raider,” Lara spends half the game trying to reconnect with her missing (male) companions; in 2015’s “Rise of the Tomb Raider,” Lara plays second fiddle to a crew of (male) soldiers defending a village; in the 2018 film, Lara’s fight against Trinity relies on assembling and arming a band of (male) captives. (And, for the record, there’s no good reason Lara couldn’t do most of these things herself. We don’t bat an eye when Indy takes out thirty Nazis with some fortuitous explosions.)

It’s a sad irony that even in these stories—the archetypal “female empowerment” narratives—our heroine never really occupies the full spotlight. The best moments of the series involve an isolated Lara fighting to survive against overwhelming odds; unfortunately, these are few and far between.

That said, there’s still a lot of solid material here. Lara’s inevitable descent into Himiko’s dangerous tomb recalls the best of the National Treasure or Indiana Jones flicks. There’s a great set piece involving Lara’s escape from the wreckage of a decaying bomber as a waterfall rages beneath. The film’s hand-to-hand combat scenes are satisfyingly visceral. And when certain iconic video game moments show up—such as Lara jumping across a chasm and catching the other side with an pickaxe—they feel like affectionate homages rather than slavish imitations.

“Tomb Raider” is not destined for longstanding acclaim. It’s mostly fluff (albeit pretty entertaining fluff) and never tries to be anything more than the sum of its parts. But when stacked up against the execrable “Assassin’s Creed” and the muddled “Warcraft,” it looks quite solid indeed. (Also, I rarely say this, but this is quite a family-friendly experience—violence, language, and sensuality are virtually nonissue. If I had a tomboyish preteen daughter, I’d take her for sure.)

In short, if there’s a sequel, I’m down.

VERDICT: 7/10
It won’t win any awards, but as far as I’m concerned, “Tomb Raider” breaks the video-game-movie curse.

 
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Posted by on March 25, 2018 in Thrillers

 
 
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