Tomb Raider


Lara Croft takes aim.

(2018) Adventure (MGM/Warner Brothers) Alicia Vikander, Dominic West, Walton Goggins, Kristin Scott Thomas, Derek Jacobi, Daniel Wu, Alexandre Willaume, Tamer Burjaq, Adrian Collins, Keenan Arrison, Andrian Mazive, Milton Schorr, Hannah John-Kamen, Peter Waison, Samuel Mak, Sky Yang, Civic Chung, Josef Altin, Billy Postlethwaite, Roger John Nsengiyumva, Jaime Winstone. Directed by Roar Uthaug

 

The Tomb Raider videogame franchise remains a benchmark in the industry. One of the first to feature a female main character, it was (and is) a rollicking adventure in the vein of Indiana Jones that requires a quick wit as well as fast fingers. Of course, lead character Lara Croft’s notoriously buxom figure didn’t hurt sales either.

After a pair of successful but mediocre movies in the late 90s and early 2000s, the franchise is being rebooted with Swedish actress Alicia Vikander in the lead role. She lives in a beautiful and opulent estate but is a bike courier to pay the bills; that’s because her father (West), a billionaire, disappeared seven years previously and Lara doesn’t want to sign the papers that will give her the inheritance because doing so would be as much as admitting he’s dead, something she steadfastly refuses to believe.

Then she gets wind of a possible location where her father might be and off she goes to find him. It will involve finding the tomb of a cruel Japanese queen, avoiding a terrible curse as well as barbaric corporate sorts who seek to open the tomb and unleash hell on the world. Aided only by a drunken sailor, Lara goes off to save the day but she is not yet the confident adventuress that inhabits the video games. Yes, this is an origin story.

On the surface of it, casting Vikander as Croft is a slam dunk move. She’s truly a wonderful actress, has ballet training and moreover is a fan of the videogame. She bulked up on muscle and performed some of her own stunts for the film but oddly enough, her portrayal of Croft didn’t really connect with me. In fact, I found the whole tone of the film to be flat in an off-putting way. It probably didn’t help that the screening I attended was virtually deserted. There just didn’t seem to be as much chemistry or energy going on in the movie.

Some of the stunts and action set pieces are more than up to snuff. When the movie channels the old serials (which it does do from time to time), it seems to do better. The expository scenes are where the film shows the most problems. Also, some of the CGI is murky and hard to see; I didn’t view this in 3D so I can only imagine how bad it looked in that format.

There are enough thrills and fun for me to give it a mild recommendation but with the caveat that many of the reasons that videogames don’t translate well to movies are present here. Fans of the videogame series probably won’t like this much and fans of adventure films in general probably will agree with them. If you keep your expectations low, this can be a good time however.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the action sequences are quite exciting.
REASONS TO STAY: Vikander doesn’t seem a good fit for the role.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of action and violence as well as some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The only two actresses to date to play Lara Croft in the film versions – Angelina Jolie and Vikander – are also both Oscar winners.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/24/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 48% positive reviews: Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: King Solomon’s Mine
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Game Night

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The 15:17 to Paris


Anthony Sadler muses aboard the 15:17 to Paris.

(2018) True Life Drama (Warner Brothers) Alek Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler, Spencer Stone, Judy Greer, Jenna Fischer, P.J. Byrne, William Jennings, Bryce Gheisar, Paul-Mikel Williams, Thomas Lennon, Jaleel White, Robert Praigo, Tony Hale, Lillian Solange, Ray Corasani, Irene White, Mark Moogalian, Steve Coulter, Seth Meriwether, Heidi Sulzman. Directed by Clint Eastwood

 

True heroism is a pretty rare thing. You never know where it might occur; in a school, or a nightclub – or on a train from Amsterdam to Paris.

But on a hot August day in 2015, the latter is precisely where it occurred. When a terrorist pulled out an automatic rifle and threatened to massacre the travelers aboard the high-speed rail. Director Clint Eastwood, one of the best in Hollywood history, is tackling the events of that day and the three Americans who were involved – boyhood friends from Sacramento, two of whom were in the military. You would think that this would be in Eastwood’s wheelhouse but strangely this is one of his most disappointing movies in decades.

There are a lot of reasons that this movie doesn’t work as well as it might but the biggest is the script of Dorothy Blyskal, based on the book by the three Americans involved. She chooses an odd narrative structure, starting with the beginning of the attack on the train but then going into a series of flashbacks into their boyhood and development into the young men they would become. It makes a bit of a mess of the story and there is a lot of necessary business – too much time sightseeing – that slows down a film that at just over 90 minutes should be zipping by.

Another part of the problem is Eastwood’s decision to cast the heroes as themselves. These young men have a lot of skills but acting is not among them. I’m not blaming them – you get the distinct feeling that these men are experiencing far more nerves in front of the camera than they did facing an armed terrorist – but I don’t think they should have been put into the position that they were. The child actors who play them as youths may be even worse.

The actual terrorist attack is done extremely well and is the highlight of the film. Unfortunately, it takes too long to get there and by the time you do you may have been checking your watch. Now, there are some conservatives who will think that I don’t like the movie because the heroes are Christians who are into guns and the military. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, I appreciate that they are a different brand of hero than we normally get on the silver screen and yes, they are normal Americans – that’s what makes their heroism more exemplary, even though they do have military training. The reason I don’t like the movie is because most of the time it’s boring and that has nothing to do with my political views but on my cinematic experience. The fact that mass audiences haven’t embraced the film is a testament to that.

REASONS TO GO: The story is truly inspiring.
REASONS TO STAY: The acting is stiff and there are too many flashbacks – this might have worked better as a documentary rather than as a narrative feature.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity, some bloody images, sexually suggestive material and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first person to tackle the terrorist was actually a Frenchman but he turned down the Legion of Honor and asked to remain anonymous because he feared reprisals from extremists.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/4/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 25% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Trouble is My Business

Paddington 2


This may be the ultimate “oh dear” expression.

(2017) Family (Warner Brothers) Sally Hawkins, Hugh Grant, Ben Whishaw (voice), Julie Walters, Imelda Staunton (voice), Hugh Bonneville, Madeleine Harris, Michael Gambon (voice), Samuel Joslin, Brendan Gleeson, Jim Broadbent, Richard Ayoade, Peter Capaldi, Joanna Lumley, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Jessica Hynes, Robbie Gee, Tom Conti, Meera Syal, Claire Keelan. Directed by Paul King

 

Sequels so very rarely get to be better than their originals but here’s one that is true for that will appeal mainly to the parents with small kids set. The series of British children’s books by the late Michael Bond has made a smooth transition to the big screen and while it didn’t get the box office numbers of a big hit mainly due to circumstances beyond the control of the filmmakers (more on that in a minute), it has all the earmarks of being a great franchise.

The plot is simple; Paddington’s (Whishaw) Aunt Lucy (Staunton) is about to celebrate her 100th birthday and for the special occasion the animated bear wants to get her a special gift. He even finds one – a pop-up book that tours London. However, the price is a bit beyond the bear’s meager savings so he goes out to earn enough to buy the book but on the eve of his being able to afford it, someone steals it and Paddington is blamed and sent to prison for it.

Hawkins who returns from the first film as Mrs. Brown, the mom of the family that adopts Paddington, continues to excel in every role she takes on. The last few years in particular have seen some wonderful performances by the actress including an Oscar nomination but this is while not up to that level is nonetheless really, really good.

Grant gets a chance to let his inner ham out as he plays a has-been actor which could have led to lots of really inappropriate jokes, but Grant not only sets to the role with a fine sense of self-deprecating humor but with a lot of gusto as well. He very nearly steals the movie but the fact of the matter is that the film is so well-written, so warm and fuzzy that it’s like pulling a favorite blanket over you on a rainy day and curling up with a nice hot cup of tea and a beloved book you’re re-reading. It doesn’t hurt that the ending is such a feel-good moment that only the most hard-hearted of people will not get misty-eyed. There is no bigger group of unrepentant hard-hearts than film critics but the acclaim for this film has been nearly universal. If you didn’t see this one in theaters – and chances are you didn’t – you owe it to yourself and particularly your kids (if any) to catch this one on home video when it becomes available on it next month.

REASONS TO GO: The climactic train chase is a great deal of fun. Hawkins is becoming one of my favorite actresses. The ending (not including a scene while the credits are running) is one of the most touching and beautiful I’ve ever seen.
REASONS TO STAY: The film drags a bit in the middle. Some of the acting is a little silly and lots of the humor is very, VERY British.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of action on a kids show level as well as some mild rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: As of this writing, Paddington 2 holds the distinction of having the most positive reviews (192) on Rotten Tomatoes without a single negative one.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/15/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 88/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Garfield
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Cocote

12 Strong


Chris Hemsworth to the rescue!

(2018) True Life War (Warner Brothers) Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, Michael Peña, Navid Negahban, Trevante Rhodes, Geoff Stults, Thad Luckinbill, Austin Hébert, Austin Stowell, Ben O’Toole, Kenneth Miller, Kenny Sheard, Jack Kesy, Rob Riggle, William Fichtner, Arshia Mandavi, Elsa Pataky, Marie Wagenman, Allison King, Samuel Kamphuis, Lauren Myers. Directed by Nicolai Fuglsig

 

After the attacks of 9-11, the military was caught a bit disorganized and flat-footed. Who do we attack? There was no geo-political entity that one could say “There! If we fight them, we can keep from having more terrorist attacks on the United States.” It wasn’t like Pearl Harbor; we knew who did it and we knew who had to pay.

It is true that a group of Marines – 12 of ‘em – went into Afghanistan early in 2012 to link up with the Afghan Northern Alliance and take down some Taliban baddies. While the ads for the film hysterically said that if we didn’t win this battle that there would be MORE terrorist attacks (there’s no evidence to suggest that was true) there’s no doubt that the men who went into Afghanistan only to find out that the terrain required horses rather than trucks and jeeps – and only one of them knew how to ride – were heroic, credits to the military and to their country.

Hemsworth has become a dependable star from the Thor films to other appearances. Here he shows off that he can be a badass without a magic hammer and his charisma and charm still stand him in good stead even when the film is dead serious. It helps that he has a fine support cast behind him, including Shannon who gets a rare non-villainous role.

While the movie felt more like a recruitment poster than entertainment at times, it still accomplishes the latter goal for the most part at least. While I thought it was a little long and may have been guilty of doing an inappropriate victory dance when we’re still fighting the same bloody war sixteen years (as of this writing) and counting afterwards, it at least will get American hearts beating and American chests pounded by American fists. Military lovers, have at this one.

REASONS TO GO: Hemsworth continues to develop into a solid leading man.
REASONS TO STAY: Many times the film didn’t feel as authentic as others covering the war did.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s lots of war violence and plenty of profanity throughout.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Riggle plays Colonel Max Bowers in the film; a Marine before he became a noted actor, Riggle actually served under the real Max Bowers at approximately the same time period the film is set in.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/13/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Winter Brothers

Justice League


Could this be Ben Affleck’s last appearance as Batman?

(2017) Superhero (Warner Brothers) Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Connie Nielsen, J.K. Simmons, Ciarán Hinds, Amber Heard, Joe Morton, Billy Crudup, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Ingvar Sigurdsson, David Thewlis, Marc McClure, Sergi Constance, Julian Lewis Jones, Salóme Gunnarsdóttir. Directed by Zach Snyder

 

With the critical and commercial success of Wonder Woman earlier this year, expectations were high that the DC Extended Universe – the comic book publisher’s cinematic arm and their version of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – was at last ready to turn around after movies that were disappointing to both fans of the comics and accountants at Warner Brothers alike. That optimism proved to be unfounded as the film, though a hit at the box office was not as successful as the studio execs hoped and after another drubbing from fans and critics alike, the DCEU would eventually undergo massive restructuring. The question is was the movie really that bad?

Well, yes and no. The plot is fairly simple – a cosmic baddy known as Steppenwolf (Hinds in full motion capture splendor) is after three McGuffins called Mother Boxes secreted in various places on Earth. Batman (Affleck), ever the vigilant detective, divines that the Earth is about to come under attack but Wonder Woman (Gadot) is aware that the attack is already under way. With Superman (Cavill) out of the picture, Batman realizes they’ll need a team of superheroes to battle the nearly omnipotent Steppenwolf. He gathers the three others he’s aware of; Aquaman (Momoa) who has dominion over the ocean and those who dwell within it, Cyborg (Fisher) who is learning to adjust to his mostly machine body, and the Flash (Miller), a teen speedster very much unlike the CW version. While the latter is eager to join, the first two are reluctant until they are convinced that they are sorely needed. Massive battle sequences full of mind-numbing CGI follow.

I have to say I found the film entertaining for the most part. Momoa and Fisher make excellent heroes and in their first appearances in anything other than a brief cameo show that they are fully capable of heading up their own films – Momoa’s Aquaman is actually next on the DCEU schedule in December. Gadot and Affleck have proven themselves to be strong screen presences and both know what to do with their material and do it well. The one exception was Miller as The Flash; Snyder and his writers inexplicably went the annoying wisecracking teen route with the character which has already been tried with Quicksilver in the X-Men movies; it worked far better there. Miller is actually a really good young actor but he was sabotaged by the character who is just a jarring note that doesn’t fit in well with the rest of the team.

Snyder has a habit of using a lot of kinetic camera movement and that’s okay but given the massive amount of CGI being used in the movie the effect becomes mind-numbing and overwhelming. It’s visual overload and not in a good way. I would have preferred a little less CGI and a lot more character development but Snyder hasn’t shown the latter to be one of his strengths in any movie that he’s undertaken to date.

For me, the biggest problem with Justice League is Steppenwolf. Not so much in Hinds’ performance capture or his voice work but simply the character as written has absolutely no personality whatsoever and he just felt like a cookie cutter villain who is all like “Oh yes, I want to destroy the world because..” *yawn*

Even with all that going against that I still think that this movie gives some hope that the DCEU can turn things around. As I said there’s been a massive shake-up at the top with a new executive overseeing the franchise – Walter Hamada from New Line who helped build The Conjuring into a multi-film universe that has been as successful in every sense of the word as the DCEU has not been. Although the jury is out on whether Affleck will remain as the Batman for any further films (smart money is that he won’t), Gadot is a proven commodity and it appears both Momoa and Fisher have the ability to take a franchise film and run with it. With the Shazam movie on the horizon as well as a sequel to Wonder Woman there is still something to look forward to in the DCEU. I’m not sure they’re ready to equal Marvel’s cinematic success but there’s no reason to assume that they can’t get there.

REASONS TO GO: The film was reasonably entertaining. Momoa and Fisher acquitted themselves well. Affleck and Gadot continue to impress in their roles. There is still hope that the DCEU can turn itself around.
REASONS TO STAY: Miller’s Flash is way too annoying. The camera is too kinetic and the screen too filled with CGI, making everything look overwhelming and busy. Steppenwolf had zero personality which is a massive problem for your lead villain.
FAMILY VALUES: The film is loaded with action and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Snyder’s daughter passed away during shooting; at first he and his wife (a producer on the film) tried to stay on as a way to work through their grief but after two months both decided to step down to spend time with their family. Joss Whedon stepped in and completed post-production as well as overseeing some reshoots
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/19/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Avengers: Age of Ultron
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Kangaroo: A Love/Hate Story

Geostorm


Gerard Butler saves the day but not his career.

(2017) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Gerard Butler, Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Abbie Cornish, Alexandra Maria Lara, Daniel Wu, Eugenio Derbez, Amr Waked, Adepero Oduye, Andy Garcia, Robert Sheehan, Richard Schiff, Mare Winningham, Zazie Beetz, Talitha Bateman, Daniella Garcia, Ritchie Montgomery, David S. Lee, Billy Slaughter, Catherine Ashton. Directed by Dean Devlin

 

It was inevitable that the climate change crisis that we are currently facing would eventually lead to some big budget disaster movies. After all, climate scientists have been predicting super storms, increased wildfire activity and rising oceans for years. Hollywood was bound to make a special effects extravaganza about such events.

Geostorm is part cautionary tale in which the technology that has been used to control global warming has been turned around and utilized as a weapon against us. The only ones who can save us all are a hard-drinking, big mouthed astronaut-engineer (Butler) with perpetual six o’clock shadow, his younger brother (Sturgess) who’s a Washington bureaucrat, his brother’s Secret Service girlfriend (Cornish), a brilliant Asian computer expert (Wu), a by-the-book Eastern European International Space Station commander (Lara), a precocious daughter (Bateman), a tough-minded President (A. Garcia) and an even tougher Chief of Staff (Harris). It’s pretty much a parade of cliché characters from start to finish.

I’d go into further detail about the plot but it’s so preposterous that the less you know in advance the better off you’ll be. For one thing, reading the story details on paper might just scare you off – not in the fearful sense but in the “Why would I want to waste my time with that crap” sense. It’s generally not a good sign when a movie opening is delayed several times until it comes out almost 18 months after the original release date – and has changed distributors in the interim as well.

Granted, there are a few things that the film has to recommend it. The special effects for the most part are decent with some even a cut above, but the effects are basically done by a mish-mash of effects houses with varying degrees of success. 80s icon Mare Winningham also makes a brief appearance but is limited to a single scene. She was smart enough to keep her participation to just that.

Butler is generally reliably likable but here it feels like he could care less about the movie, even though he’s one of the producers. Sturgess fares only a little bit better but most of the other actors take their paychecks and move on. So should you.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the special effects are pretty nifty.
REASONS TO STAY: The story is riddled with clichés and ends up being entirely predictable. The usually reliable Butler phones this one in.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of violence, massive destruction and sci-fi action.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Devlin has been a producer for more than 30 years primarily with Roland Emmerich, this is his directing debut.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Movies Anywhere, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/8/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 13% Positive Reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 2012
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
Warning: This Drug May Kill You

Blade Runner 2049


Welcome to your future – breathing is optional.

(2017) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Jared Leto, Ana de Armas, Edward James Olmos, Sean Young, Dave Bautista, Robin Wright, Wood Harris, Sylvia Hoeks, Hiam Abbass, David Dastmalchian, Mark Arnold, Lennie James, Mackenzie Davis, Carla Juri, Barkhad Abdi, Ben Thompson, Suzie Kennedy, David Benson, Stephen Triffitt, Elarica Johnson. Directed by Denis Villeneuve

 

Some classic films are so perfect, so self-contained that even the idea of a sequel is ridiculous. Why mess with perfection, after all? However, sometimes even beloved classics can have sequels that are as good and maybe some might say even better than the original. It doesn’t happen very often though.

It happened here with this sequel to Ridley Scott’s dystopian sci-fi classic Blade Runner (1982). You’ll recall that the movie was concerned with Rick Deckard (Ford), a Los Angeles cop tasked with hunting down androids – called “replicants” – and killing them – called “retiring.” These sorts of cops are called blade runners for reasons never fully explained. The movie has a wonderful noir edge, terrific performances by Rutger Hauer, Darryl Hannah, Sean Young and Ford, as well as being one of those rare sci-fi films that is entertaining and thought-provoking.

The sequel is set 30 years later and the dystopian rain-soaked future has dried out and become even grimmer which 1982 audiences wouldn’t have thought possible. There are still replicants and blade runners but replicants are no longer used as slave labor since most of the tasks they performed have been fully automated. K (Gosling) is a blade runner who stumbles onto a secret that might change everything – there’s evidence that a replicant father and a human mother conceived a child. This was thought to be impossible but K has to follow the lead, find the child and kill it before its very existence throws civilization into further chaos. Yes, things can always get worse.

The chase leads K to find Deckard who disappeared decades ago. The ex-cop has been hiding out in a decrepit Las Vegas casino, abandoned to the desert sands and nostalgic memories of a bygone age that properly never really existed; however there are forces hard on K’s trail – some looking for their own answers, others looking to make sure that K never completes his mission. And K himself is beginning to have real doubts about the reality of what he’s doing.

Villeneuve who helmed last year’s brilliant and smart alien encounter film Arrival is proving himself to be one of the most truly visionary directors working today. He has delivered another brilliant and smart science fiction film, one loaded with thought-provoking subjects that have to do not only with what it means to be human – a theme thoroughly explored in the first film – but whether it is even preferable being human. There are plenty of topics the film brings up that fans and intellectuals will be arguing about for years to come.

The performances here are strong. Gosling could well get an Oscar nomination again for his performance as the haunted hunter K. He is supported by another outstanding job by Ford resurrecting a classic character he created, as well as Wright as K’s badass boss, Leto as the creepy industrialist who is the main antagonist, de Armas as K’s assistant who is just a little bit different and Hoeks as the malevolent flunky who is out to stop K by any means necessary.

What may impress you most about Blade Runner 2049 are the visuals. I can’t think of a single movie released this year that has created an environment that is so fantastic and yet seems so real and lived in. From the first frame to the last, everything you see onscreen is dazzling. This may well be a slam dunk for an effects Oscar. The only drawback to the film is that it is way too long and could have used a bit more editing.

This is likely to end up on a lot of year end top ten lists and has an outside chance at a Best Picture nomination. The fact that it came out between the summer blockbuster season and the fall and holiday Oscar season may end up hurting it on Academy nomination ballots but as it is close to being released on Streaming and DVD/Blu-Ray (January 16), those who missed it on the big screen (and shame on you – this deserves to be seen that way) have an opportunity to appreciate one of the very best movies of 2017 in their own homes. And for those who already saw it, it will mean a chance to revisit and find new wonders to talk about with movie buff friends.

REASONS TO GO: The story is intelligent and sophisticated. The visuals are absolutely amazing. This is the rare case of a sequel nearly outdoing the classic original.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is way too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, some sexuality, brief nudity and profanity throughout.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The role of K was written with Gosling in mind; no other actor was considered for the part.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Frontier, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/3/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% Positive Reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Dog and His Boy
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
American Made