“Tomb Raider” Review

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No matter how many attempts are made, it seems increasingly unlikely that there will ever be a truly great movie based on a video game. The best of them are, at most, good. Tomb Raider is…fine.

It’s not surprising that studios continue to push Lara Croft onto the big screen, as she’s arguably the most logical choice for a movie franchise. The character is iconic enough to be recognisable, has a clearly defined personality, and her adventures are vague enough to give screenwriters ample room to create their own story while still fitting into the formula of the games. Oscar-winner Alicia Vikander takes the role of Lara Croft from Angelina Jolie, who last played it in 2003, and her casting is easily the strongest element of Roar Uthaug’s film. The early scenes of Lara in London enable Vikander to display a tremendous amount of charm and humour, even if these qualities don’t get as much focus once her actual adventure begins. In fact, I’ll confess that I actually preferred these establishing scenes more than the main plot, as Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons’s script sets up a fast-paced world with interesting characters for Lara to interact with before quickly abandoning them. Once Lara finds documents revealing where her missing father (Dominic West) went seven years ago she quickly joins up with captain Lu Ren (Daniel Wu) to sail across to the dangerous island where the legendary Queen Himiko is rumoured to be buried. Unsurprisingly the ship crashes, stranding her with the sinister Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins) – part of an equally sinister team who seek to unearth Himiko due to her rumoured destructive powers.

Tomb Raider undoubtedly favours its action-packed set pieces over plot, and there are admittedly quite a few impressive ones. Lara struggling to escape a crashed plane dangling precariously over a waterfall and a high-speed bike race through the streets of London are two standout sequences, particularly for how Uthaug seems to prefer practical stunt-work to give each jump, thud, and scrape a physical impact. I did start to lose interest once they get into the tomb at the end, as the trials they face feel a bit too much like video game puzzles, but the script does manage a nice balance between the supernatural mysticism of the games and the more realistic focus of the film. I was frustrated by the decision to lose Lara’s background as an extraordinarily intelligent and educated archaeologist from the games, as while I recognise that this is an origin story more than anything it does leave Lara primarily reacting to other people’s actions or work. Given the blatant sequel hook the film ends on, though, it’s possible they’re working up to that element.

Ultimately, though, nothing in Tomb Raider really felt fully developed. Walton Goggins, who was so effectively sleazy in 2015’s The Hateful Eight, has almost no personality as Vogel. Despite Vikander’s charisma Lara borders on being bratty and entitled at certain points, and the script relies far too heavily on characters happening to run into each other when the plot needs them to. Add in a number of plot holes and unnecessary flashbacks that spell out the obvious twists and one gets the sense that the studios didn’t expect anyone watching this to be using an ounce of mental energy. Which is appropriate, as Tomb Raider is a film best enjoyed with the brain fully switched off.

2 and a half stars.

“Insidious: The Last Key” Review

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Why do ghosts always have to make things so difficult for the living? One would assume that if you were a spirit stuck in some sort of purgatory you’d be happy to find someone like parapsychologist Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye) to talk to, but even the helpful ghosts in Insidious: The Last Key can’t seem to communicate without popping up from the dark and screaming at her. If they just calmly explained themselves they’d be able to deal with their problems much easier. Much like the other films in the franchise, the fourth Insidious is very much a haunted house picture that reliably delivers everything that premise entails. Expect lots of wandering around in the dark, surprise appearances from spooky longhaired ghosts, and revelations of dark secrets, but most of all you can expect to comfortably forget most of the film after an enjoyable enough hour and a half.

Insidious 4 sits in an odd place in the series, serving as a sequel to Chapter 3 and a prequel to the first film. I guess this is what happens when you kill off the best character at the end of Insidious 1. Thankfully Shaye is willing to keep coming back, as her warm and comforting presence does lend an air of credibility to some (but not all) of the most ridiculous scenes. She is once again joined by her tech team, Tucker (Angus Sampson) and Specs (Leigh Whannell). The return of these comic-relief characters, who weren’t particularly funny in the original and aren’t particularly funny four films later, is less appreciated but somewhat inevitable when one of their actors, Whannell, is writing the screenplays and giving his own character self-serving heroic and romantic moments. This time round the team visit Rainier’s childhood home in order to deal with a demon that Elise inadvertently released into the world when she was a girl.

The demon, creatively named ‘Key Face’, is an admittedly interesting monster design and another creepy performance from horror regular Javier Botet (It, Mama, Alien: Covenant, The Conjuring 2) but is never really given any explanation by Whannell’s screenplay. While too much backstory can rob a monster of its scaring power, so little is ever revealed about The Last Key’s main antagonist that it has no real impact beyond jumping out and shouting ‘boo’. Instead the story focuses on numerous flashbacks to Elise’s past, which regularly repeat the same moments over and over to ensure no one has missed the important parts or blatant foreshadowing and guarantee the movie reaches its ninety minute runtime. Many of the scares are rehashes of scenes from the first film, and director Adam Robitel seems to be just leaning on the same tried-and-test filmic techniques James Wan established in the first two films and perfected with The Conjuring. Cameras pan slowly around corners, monsters are kept out-of-focus in the background, and faces appear unexpectedly over shoulders. It’s a good thing The Last Key finishes right where Elise’s story intersects with the first Insidious, as there doesn’t seem to be anywhere for this franchise left to go.

2 and a half stars.

 

 

“The Secret Scripture” Review

The Secret Scripture

“My name is Rose McNulty. I didn’t kill my child.

These powerful opening lines, delivered over intercut shots of a dishevelled Rooney Mara and a disoriented Vanessa Redgrave backed by Brian Byrne’s haunting celtic soundtrack, suggest that Jim Sheridan’s The Secret Scripture will be an emotionally rich, moving story. Unfortunately, despite a top-notch cast, talented director, and gorgeous landscapes, the film never delivers on its initial potential.

It’s a story of an innocent woman whose life is crushed by pointless cruelty and jealousy, jumping between 1930s Ireland and a mental hospital in the 1980s, and in this regard Vanessa Redgrave makes the film work. As the older Rose McNulty the acting veteran’s face displays a lifetime of pain and confusion, making the most minor details moving and affecting. Rooney Mara continues her streak of excellent performances as the younger Rose in flashbacks, keeping her emotions closely guarded for much of the first half of the film before unleashing both her character’s frustration and passion as the story picks up towards the end. Eric Bana acts as the comfortably sympathetic audience substitute as Dr William Greene, the psychiatrist reassessing Rose’s case before the hospital closes down, and Theo James makes for an impressively intimidating figure as the local priest who becomes an increasingly imposing presence on young Rose’s life.

This is one of those films that should’ve worked, with accomplished director Jim Sheridan using the Irish coast to emphasise the quiet romance and loneliness of the story, but as is often the case even good directing can’t save a bad script. Rose is a particularly passive character for much of the first half of the story, so I had little reason to be connected to her beyond Mara’s own natural screen presence, and the main romance between her character and her supposed ‘one-true-love’ Michael McNulty (Jack Reynor) felt rushed and unexplored. We see more of Rose missing Michael or thinking about her love for him than we do of them actually in love. I could have overlooked these flaws as the film moves in a more tragic direction in the third act, with harrowing scenes of Mara being broken down and effectively ambiguous flashbacks that raise questions as to whether or not the older Rose is remembering the past correctly, if not for an absolutely atrocious ending that goes completely against the entire tone of the rest of the story. Admittedly I haven’t read Sebastian Barry’s novel that served as the influence for the film, so I can’t say whether this ending was a part of it from the beginning or an invention of Sheridan and Johnny Ferguson when they were writing the screenplay, but when it became clear what direction the climax was moving in I had to resist the urge to audibly groan. It’s an insulting, unnecessary twist to a story that didn’t need one, and what’s worse is how Sheridan tries to play it as an uplifting redemptive moment when even the slightest thought to it makes it seems tragic and cruel for more than one character.

Every time The Secret Scripture seems as though it has an affective, emotional story to tell it stumbles and trips over itself, and the final embarrassing face-plant serves only to rob the moments that worked of any lasting impact.

2 and a half stars.