Category Archives: 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.

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


Movie Review: “Death Wish”

In general, there are two ways to make a film about vigilantism. One is the straight-up empowerment fantasy, a celebration of man-against-the-odds mayhem that leaves the viewer exhilarated and defiant (Pierre Morel’s “Taken” springs to mind). The second is the tragedy, one that portrays unrestrained violence as an inevitably spiraling cycle of ruin (think James Wan’s “Death Sentence”).

But Eli Roth’s retelling of “Death Wish” charts a third course, hovering unsettlingly between pitiless satire and conventional shoot-‘em-up action. And in a strange way, that’s what makes it memorable.

A loose remake of the 1974 Charles Bronson film, this incarnation centers on Chicago trauma surgeon Paul Kersey (Bruce Willis). When Kersey’s wife and daughter are brutalized by masked attackers during a home invasion, he finds himself wracked with grief over his perceived inability to “protect what’s his.” The antidote: guns and vigilante violence. Leveraging the underworld know-how gained from his day job, Kersey begins a bloody campaign against Chicago’s criminals as he pursues those responsible for the attack on his home.

Certainly, this is a movie that relies heavily on its bloody gun battles (which are, for the most part, well-choreographed). And in this most straightforward, superficial sense, it’s a passable B-movie that might be worth a Redbox rental. But just like Roth’s last film, “The Green Inferno,” there’s definitely more going on here than meets the eye.

There are parts of “Death Wish” that are virtually impossible to interpret as anything other than satirical. At one point, for instance, Kersey strolls into a gun shop. A busty blonde clerk invites him to buy any gun he wants that very day, assuring him that “no one ever fails” their concealed-carry test. A swipe at what Roth perceives to be too-lax gun regulations? Obviously. But Roth’s social critique doesn’t stop there, as he takes jabs at both police bias and the valorization of mass violence on social media.

The real punch of “Death Wish,” though, rests in its pitiless depiction of right-wing ideology unmoored from any moral underpinnings. Kersey doesn’t fight out of any real love or sense of place or tradition, but rather for his people; his wife and daughter are simply members of his tribe that he must defend. (In a particularly garish moment, Kersey even violently reclaims “his stuff” from a pawnshop, leaving corpses in his wake.)

And no transcendent values hold him back. During a funeral service, Kersey defiantly declares that no divine plan can account for his family’s suffering. Shortly thereafter, the camera lingers on a Baptist church poster advertising a gun buyback program—the exact opposite of what Kersey’s interested in. And when police detectives urge him to “have faith” that his family’s attackers will be brought to justice, Kersey stabs an accusing finger at the wall of cold cases behind them. “What did faith do for them?” he snarls. In this profoundly godless “conservatism,” there can be no room for forgiveness or reconciliation: only the lex talionis.

Naturally, the film’s climax, in which Kersey’s home is attacked a second time, plays out in power-fantasy style. This time, Kersey is armed to the teeth, blasting away villain after villain with no legal consequences (and yes, most of them are minorities). It’s an alt-right fever dream, a vision for which Roth clearly has little sympathy.

At bottom, like most of Roth’s films, “Death Wish” is a fairly misanthropic endeavor. Few viewers will inquire into this film’s politics or religious sensibilities: it features Bruce Willis dealing out damage, and that’s good enough for them. Yet I appreciate that Roth’s movies (well, at least some of them) have the nerve to actually say things about culture in an era where mass appeal is the name of the game. For better or worse, there’s more intellectual coherence in “Death Wish” than in last week’s “Annihilation.” And that, in my book, is a curious and sobering thing.

VERDICT: 6.5/10
Not exactly highbrow entertainment, but certainly more than meets the eye.

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Posted by on March 4, 2018 in Thrillers

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