Tomb Raider

Tomb Raider

By: Kevin Jordan

We might finally have a winner.

Growing up playing video games, my generation has been waiting year after year for a good movie adaptation of a video game.  Hell, we would settle for just average at this point.  The genre kicked off back in 1993 with the ridiculously inept Super Mario Bros. and has continued to be a wasteland of shit since.  That is not to say I didn’t enjoy watching several of them (I might even defend a couple as solid), but I recognize just how bad most of them are.  Of all of the movies in the genre, the peak critic rating (Rotten Tomatoes) is 44% for Final Fantasy.  When I heard Michael Fassbender was cast in Assassin’s Creed, I thought maybe Hollywood was finally going to put an honest effort into a video game movie.  Then, I watched Assassin’s Creed and cried myself to sleep that night.

So, did I learn my lesson upon hearing Alicia Vikander was cast as Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider reboot?  Of course not!  In fact, in preparation for the film, I devoted a healthy amount of time to playing the 2013 video game reboot that this film was based on and I found the game to be quite good and fun.  I even broke my rule of never watching previews and those previews did not scare me off either (despite featuring a terrible scene with Lara holding two pistols and cockily saying “I’ll take two”).  It also helps that I would watch Alicia Vikander read a phone book for two hours, but I digress.

(Side note: Don’t judge me.  I would also watch Michael Fassbender read a phone book for two hours.)

If pictures speak a thousand words, they should use her voice.

If you are looking for an explanation for why video game movies almost universally suck, it is because the stories and elements of those video games are almost universally absurd and poorly written (note: they have gotten much better in recent years).  To be fair, many comic books are also absurd or poorly written and Marvel figured out how to make great movies, so that isn’t a good excuse.  This new Tomb Raider flick appears to have taken note of that.

(Very mild SPOILERS, but nothing you can’t predict.)

Unlike the idiotic and convoluted plot of the Lara Croft: Tomb Raider film in 2001, Tomb Raider (2018) takes the video game plot and streamlines it.  Lara’s dad (Dominic West) has been presumed dead after going missing seven years earlier.  Lara discovers what her dad was working on and a clue to his whereabouts and sets off to find him.  She enlists a Chinese boat captain, Lu Ren (Daniel Wu) to take her to a mythical island called Yamatai where she believes her father to have vanished.  After crashing on the shoals surrounding the island, Lara and Lu Ren are captured by Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins), who has been on the island for seven years searching for the tomb of an ancient Japanese Queen named Himiko who was believed to possess powerful magic.  The company Mathias works for (Trinity) believes Himiko’s body still possesses power and wants that power.  In short, Lara wants to find her dad and Mathias wants to find Himiko’s tomb and, obviously, their paths cross and action ensues.  The end.

I knew we would discover a good plot.

What I found refreshing was that the movie doesn’t stray down roads filled with mythical or fantastical nonsense.  They talk about the legend surrounding Himiko, but the film doesn’t inundate the viewer with scenes or stunts designed to convince us of the magic.  Rather, it stays grounded in its reality and focused on its main plot while only vaguely hinting that an evil sorceress may be unleashed.  This allows the movie to retain suspense, shrouding Himiko in mystery and only exposing the truth when her tomb is finally discovered.  Despite Lara’s father’s insistence that releasing Himiko from her tomb will unleash evil on the world, resurrected dead aren’t constantly popping out of the shadows and people aren’t killed by magical curses or demons.  It’s a good old-fashioned tomb raid reminiscent of why the Indiana Jones movies were so fun.  If somebody’s face is going to melt, it won’t be until they actually open the box.

Nothing weird has happened yet. I say we open it. Who’s with me?

The small cast of main and supporting characters were also a breath of fresh air.  Yes, there were plenty of disposable characters, but the four I discussed earlier are the cream of the film.  Goggins is in his element as the menacing villain, willing to stop at nothing to accomplish his mission for a surprisingly relatable reason.  West and Wu are solid, though I would have liked to have seen Wu given more to do (if you have seen him in Into the Badlands, you know what I am talking about).  Most importantly, Vikander owns this movie and her role, making us forget the fever dreams caused by Angelina Jolie’s awful portrayal of Croft.  Vikander delivers a character that is strong, but not invincible; intelligent, but prone to making common sense mistakes.  In other words, she is human (though looks like she went on Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine training regimen, not that I am complaining).

The last thing of note is how well they incorporated elements of the game into the film without making them seem completely ridiculous.  In the game, Lara wields a climbing ax and a rope ascender, both of which only make cameos in the film.  There are also a couple of action sequences pulled straight from the game which worked really well in the film and do not go over the top.  They even dressed Vikander exactly like Lara from the game, all the way down to the bandages on her arm and leg and Lara being covered in dirt most of the time.  The only negative criticism I have is they tacked on that shitty “I’ll take two” scene just before the credits roll as an homage to the original game from two decades ago (or worse, the original film).  The game reboot got rid of that for a reason and so should have this film.

Trust me – it works.

The moral of this story is that we finally have a video game movie that doesn’t make us want to quit movies (and video games) or only watch them when nobody else is looking.  It reminds us of fun adventure movies that didn’t have to resort to pure fantasy to keep our attention.  It means that we don’t have to pretend any more that Resident Evil movies are watchable video game flicks because the bar was set so low back in 1993.

Rating: Don’t ask for any money back and make sure Vikander always has a phone book nearby.

The Light Between Oceans

By: Kevin Jordan

It’s okay to cry.

light_between_oceans poster

If there is one cliché about parenting that is absolutely true, it’s that there is nothing that can fully prepare you for it.  You can read books, take classes, babysit your sister’s kids, or even intern at an elementary school, but there is always something that will completely surprise you.  Every parent can tell you at least one thing they’ve said that they never imagined would be a single sentence.  Something like “son, please don’t throw Fig Newtons into the shower.”  One thing nobody warned me about was that random things now have the potential to make me tear up or cry.  I’m not talking about typical tragedies or severe injuries or extraordinary joys; I’m talking about crescendos in songs I’ve heard a hundred times.  And, I know exactly when those man-walls-of-toughness I built up over my early years were demolished into a fine powder – the day my son was born (a little over four years ago).  Now, I can’t watch The Lego Movie without yawning to cover up my glassy eyes and even mentioning Hans Zimmer terrifies me.

The Light Between Oceans is exactly the kind of movie I never would have teared up at before parenthood.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s definitely a tear-jerker; I just didn’t use to well-up at obvious tear jerkers.  This film features a married couple, Tom (Michael Fassbender) and Isabel (Alicia Vikander), living alone on an island where Tom tends a lighthouse.  A couple of days after her second miscarriage, they spot a boat drifting near the beach and discover a baby and the dead body of the baby’s father.  In her inexplicable grief, Isabel sees this as a gift from God while Tom sees it as an event that must be reported to the mainland immediately.  Isabel convinces Tom not to report it and they decide to raise the baby as their own.  After a couple of years, they return to the mainland to christen the child and Tom discovers who the child’s mother is (Rachel Weisz), and that she, Hannah, visits the grave of her daughter and husband every day.  The guilt he felt before was nothing compared to the level it ratchets up to upon seeing Hannah in the cemetery.  It’s the kind of guilt that not even Catholic or Jewish mothers can inspire (though not for lack of trying).

The full guilt hasn't kicked in yet.

The full guilt hasn’t kicked in yet.

I won’t tell you anymore about the plot and what I did tell you is on the back of the book this movie is based on (same title), so no whining about spoilers.  However, I will tell you that the story is really about love, more specifically what parents will do for their kids and what spouses will do for their partners.  In this scenario, the child is just the catalyst for the choices forced upon these three people.  Think of this as the worst multiple choice test you’ve ever taken and multiply by Romeo and Juliet.

At this point, you probably have two questions.  Question One – why would I review a movie like this when I typically review movies featuring robots, car chases, explosions, or exploding robot car chases?  Answer – Rachel Weisz, Michael Fassbender, and Alicia Vikander.  All three of those actors are near the top of my list of actors I will watch in anything, and they did not disappoint.  Pay special attention to the scene where Isabel is pleading with Tom not to call in their finding and watch their faces.  If you didn’t know what anguish looked like before this film, you will after that scene.

Question Two – did I really cry?  You’ve probably already guessed that I did, but you’re not sure how much.  Answer – I did, but not in the theater.  I held it together through a combination of determination and raw, manly toughness.  Think Tim Allen and his barking and multiply by Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Then, I got in my car and made it about five more minutes before my parent brain kicked in and wept like a bride on her wedding day.  Really, that’s all you need to know about this film.

Rating: Don’t ask for any money back, but do ask for some tissue for the drive home.

Jason Bourne

By: Kevin Jordan

What, no clever title this time?

image001 (2)

Seriously?  That’s the best title they could up with?  Considering The Bourne Redundancy is the most fitting, but worst for marketing purposes, I can kind of forgive them.  But do you know what the worst part of the title is?  It screws up the DVD shelf.  The first three movies in their viewing order are also in alphabetical order (take your time).  While Jason Bourne is in alphabetical order with respect to the franchise, it’s not with respect to the entire movie shelf.  Now there has to be a J movie in the B’s and that’s just wrong.  And don’t even get me started on the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies – what a cluster.  My point is that, like its title, Jason Bourne is a generic film rehashing the same plot we’ve seen in every Bourne movie.

Don’t get me wrong, the film delivers on what we’re there for in the first place – Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) kicking ass.  It’s just the stuff surrounding it is very tired.  In a nutshell, here’s the movie – CIA agent discovers that someone wants to publicly out a black ops program (Ironhand), CIA director Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) jumps to the conclusion that Jason Bourne is behind it, young female go-getter agent Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) promises to deliver Bourne and save the day, Bourne meets up with Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), action-action-action, a Bourne-like asset (Vincent Cassel) is activated to take out Bourne, more-action, Bourne remembers some stuff, Dewey and young go-getter butt heads, climax scene, the end.  With the exception of small details and tweaks, that describes the first two sequels to a tee.  I even joked about it in my review of The Bourne Legacy – that the movies are very redundant of each other.  And this doesn’t make any sense because the books these movies are based on aren’t like that.

This looks familiar.

This looks familiar.

(Without sounding too redundant, very mild SPOILERS coming up.)

The strange thing about the film is that the very first thing we hear is Bourne’s voice telling us that he remembers everything.  If that were true, then why is he off on another crusade to learn about his past?  Several times throughout the movie, Bourne experiences flashbacks revealing things he didn’t previously know or remember.  This time around, the memories are of his father’s death and the circumstances surrounding Jason’s recruitment into the program.  I understand that they’ve tweaked it to be that his memory of the event isn’t the actual truth, but it still boils down to learning about his past.  Maybe you still want that out of these films, but I’m well beyond over it.

This is what we're here for.

This is what we’re here for.

To make matters worse, he’s not even actively searching for answers in the beginning, he’s street fighting.  He only gets drawn in because Nicky shows up at a fight to tell him what she found out about his father and the Treadstone program after hacking the CIA.  Incidentally, this is where that conclusion leap happens by the CIA director – someone hacks into the black ops files and, even though there is nothing to suggest it’s Bourne’s doing, it must be Bourne.  Thank you captain contrivance.

The truly missed opportunity with this movie is that it could have kicked off a narrative from the books surrounding an assassin known as the Jackal.  Instead of revisiting the same tired what’s-my-past story, why not have the go-getter agent secretly recruit Bourne to help take out the Jackal?  Let’s say the Jackal is taking out their assets and they need someone equally skilled who is outside the program to help.  You could even keep the head-butting between Dewey and Lee.  When people complain about Hollywood not being original, this is what those people mean (even though those people don’t realize it, instead couching it in the form of whining about sequels and reboots).  Heck, you could even keep a smidge of the what’s-my-past story by having Lee dangle information in front of Bourne as his payment.  This isn’t exactly a new plot either (Mission: Impossible and The Jackal both use it, to name two), but it’s fresh to this series.

In all fairness, the plot of this movie didn’t really bother me; I’m just noting that we’ve been here several times before.  The one thing that did bother me is how bad they handled integrating current issues into the narrative.  Ironhand (the black ops program) is nothing more than the CIA working with a social network developer (Riz Ahmed) to have a backdoor into said network (Deep Dream – a name as uninspired as the movie’s title) to collect everybody’s information to – say it together with me – “keep us all safe.”  Hilariously, the movie tries to simultaneously emphasize the importance of privacy, but both just come off as trite and irrelevant and sound as bungled and tone-deaf as our real-life politicians.  This might have worked if the movie had focused on this as its main plot, rather than Bourne’s past, but, well now I’m starting to sound repetitive.

They're worth it.

They’re worth it.

Much has been written by critics and users about how the new Star Trek movie is nothing special, that it’s more like a mid-season episode of a television series with nothing new to say.  Jason Bourne is very much the same.  But, is that a bad thing?  Most of us watch those repetitive shows precisely for the familiarity and formula and count the days to next week’s episode.  Most importantly, if you’re a fan of Damon or Vikander, you will be very pleased with this film.  It’s just that with movies, a multi-year wait in between episodes leads us to want more out of the movie.  At the very least, they could have given us a more familiar title.

Rating: Ask for four dollars back.  Or two if you like Damon and Vikander as much as I do.

Ex Machina

By: Kevin Jordan Latin for ‘good movie.’ ex_machina Prior to screening Ex Machina, I had to look up the meaning of the phrase ‘deus ex machina.’  I know what the translation is (god from the machine), but I didn’t know what that meant in the context of stories.  It surprised me to learn that it originated as a literal term in ancient Greece – that actors playing gods were brought on stage by a machine.  This evolved into the modern usage, which is to describe a contrived, convenient, or unexplained plot device that resolves an unsolvable problem.  Given what little information about Ex Machina was revealed in the previews, I thought a better understanding of the title would give me a little more foresight into what the movie had in store for us.  My question was why that title?  Obviously, it sounds cooler than its English translation – The Machine – but is the title hinting at more than that?  Is the film going to wink at the audience by including a deus ex machina?  By the way, if a title and a single preview are able to provoke that kind of thought beforehand, it’s a good sign that the movie is going to be worth watching. Before I go on, you should know I went back and forth on the level of SPOILERS to include.  After the movie was over, I had no idea how I felt about it.  Was it good?  Was it nonsense?  Did I like it?  I need to have some discussion on this movie because I spent the entire 30-minute drive home pondering over it and realizing that it probably requires a second viewing to see a lot of subtle things that I’m sure I missed the first time through.  But, I don’t want to give too much away, because I think it’s worth watching at least once.  So, yeah – SPOILERS. The best title for this movie would have been The Imitation Game, as the entire movie is one big Turing Test, but that title was recently taken.  Incidentally, The Turing Test would have been a great title as well, but since that doesn’t sound like the name of a rock band or imply a movie with killer robots, they went with Ex Machina.  The movie begins with Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) winning an interoffice contest where the prize is spending a week with the company’s CEO at the CEO’s remote mountain complex.  Upon arrival, Caleb meets the CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), is shown around a little bit and is told to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) before Nathan can explain what the prize really means.  I bring up that last point because writer/director Alex Garland makes the NDA seem like it will be important – Caleb remarks that he needs a lawyer because the NDA has some very uncommon stipulations and Nathan says that if he doesn’t sign it, this movie is going to be really boring because they would spend the week drinking – but it never plays back into the story.  I feel like something was edited out later in the film that would have given sense to this scene and if that’s the case, they should have edited out the NDA scene as well. Anyway, Nathan introduces Caleb to Nathan’s creation – an android named Ava (Alicia Vikander).  Caleb’s job for the week will be to conduct a Turing test to determine if Ava is indeed a true artificial intelligence or just really good at imitating human behavior (thus, the imitation game).  Caleb quickly realizes that it isn’t a true Turing test because he knows that Ava is a machine.  In a true Turing test, the human cannot know he is conversing with a machine because it would bias the human (in fact, the communication is only supposed to happen via text; a voice would also bias the human).  This is when the movie gets interesting because now you’re not so sure what Nathan is up to. The rest of the movie takes us through pieces of the daily interviews between Caleb and Ava and a relationship forms between the two of them.  The intrigue is raised when Ava reveals to Caleb that she can cause power outages and does so in order for the two of them to talk without Nathan watching.  Ava warns Caleb not to trust Nathan and is afraid that Nathan is going to shut her off.  Caleb confirms her fears, telling her that he will be erasing her memory at the end of Caleb’s stay.  I’ve already said more than I normally would for a good movie, so let’s change gears a little bit. What I began to realize during my ponderings was that there was more than one Turing test going on.  I don’t mean a Turing test in the sense that everyone in the movie is an android, but in the sense that Nathan, Ava, and Caleb were conducting tests on each of the other two to determine their level of intelligence.  That’s why I think I was so indecisive about what I thought about the movie at first and why I think I need to watch it again.  I kept remembering things that Ava and Nathan said and having little light bulb moments all the way into my garage.  That’s also why I think I missed a lot of other clues during that movie.  But there’s one thing that I still can’t reconcile – Nathan’s motivation behind what we end up seeing in the videos that Caleb discovers.  I believe I know the answer, but it doesn’t sit very well and there’s no way I can tell you because it would completely ruin the movie for you. Putting aside the philosophy, the movie is a pretty good, hard core sci-fi flick.  It plays out like a good short story – it has only three major characters and one minor character, a single location, and a very succinct plot, making it easy to stay engaged and not become bored during some of the slower paced scenes.  Not to mention the visuals, which are fantastic, especially when it comes Ava.  And, if you aren’t the cerebral type during films, there is a healthy dose of nudity, including an incredibly tasteful and poignant scene in which we observe Ava’s entire body with Ava.  Trust me – I’m not just being a dude here and saying hooray for boobies. And about that title and my original question – is it implying a deus ex machina?  Well, you’ll just have to watch the movie and we’ll debate it then. Rating: Don’t ask for any of your money back – maybe.  If, when the film is over, your reaction is anything like mine, you won’t know either.