23 March 2018

This Friday Only! Apocalypse Cancelled!

Today we have what's become a typical weekend. There is a middling yet high profile blockbuster release, a bunch of relatively unknown low profile crap, and it will all lose to Black Panther (2018) anyway. I couldn't believe that Tomb Raider (2018) failed to up-end Wakanda last week. I would have given that flick a better chance than Pacific Rim: Uprising (2018), our big-ticket item this weekend. With another week of demand burned off Black Panther...maybe? Although at this point I almost think Tomb Raider and Pac Rim 2 are going after pretty similar mid-ground action demographics here. Before we really sink into that, I should acknowledge that we won't be getting into Midnight Sun (2018), Sherlock Gnomes (2018), or Unsane (2018).

Well, maybe just really quick, because there's weird things about all of these. Check out how weird the fucking Midnight Sun trailer is. Is this a comedy? A Nicholas Sparks-style drama? Like, is it trying to be The Fault in Our Stars (2014)? What is Rob Riggle doing here? This kind of slapdashery is what 2018 Hollywood is all about. And Sherlock Gnomes, holy fuck. This is somehow a sequel to Gnomeo & Juliet (2011), which came out seven whopping years ago. It features...those characters interacting with a Sherlock Holmes thing? With Johnny Depp as the voice of Sherlock Gnomes? Listen, you can't have both Sherlock Gnomes and Gnomes Watson. Like, we need to do better at puns. These kind of throwaway animated features that exist solely to purge adults of their money are some of the worst forms of lazy entertainment. It's so rough.

Unsane is a relatively low release by Steven Soderbergh. This is the one he shot completely on his iPhone, but with a cast of Claire Foy, Jay Pharaoh, and Juno Temple, and some kind of #MeToo gaslighting hook it actually does look interesting and timely. Soderbergh does nothing if not continuously make unconventional films by unconventional means. I'm not super into the iPhone angle, but apparently it's okay. You can never count his work out quality-wise, but this will make little to no splash in our lives.

John Boyega's lifetime best movie and role may end
up being Attack the Block (2011).
For that matter, neither will Pac Rim Uprising. I was and still am a huge fan of the original Pacific
 (2013), which remains one of the better modern original sci-fi blockbusters. That's a less specific group than you might think when you consider Oblivion (2013), Elysium (2013), and After Earth (2013), which are all pretty damn shitty. Pacific Rim does such efficient worldbuilding and wears its coolness on one sleeve with its campiness on the other in equal pride. It's wholly unashamed of how ludicrous it is, and that's a rare thing that has everything to do with Academy Award-Winner Guillermo del Toro's bizarre unflinching monster love.

It's a film that has problems, but gets you on board enough that you hardly stop to think of them. It also grew this underground demented fanbase. There was always a sense that this flick was too weird, too ostentatious, too bold regarding its niche subject matter to be a real hit. And it wasn't. $100 million domestic isn't much, but another $300 million worldwide was enough to justify a sequel, albeit a somewhat bastardized one without any of its leads or director. Something about Ron Perlman showing up legitimized this so much as a del Toro favourite. There's an emptiness in Uprising.

Now, it'd be insane to think "This movie doesn't have Ron Perlman, it sucks" (wait...is that really insane?), but that's just an example. The original seemed to be in an exclusive modern American Kaiju club that we hadn't ever really seen before. Uprising looks like fucking Power Rangers (2017). That didn't turn out well. But why? There's a fine line there. By strict genre terms, Power Rangers are Kaiju films, they have giant monsters and robots and stuff. Why does this look shitty?

If you look at it, I think it comes down to the CGI and effects. Pacific Rim wisely hid itself in rain and night and at the bottom of the sea. It looks really good and obscured while also adding to its mood of darkness highlighted by the neon glow of Hong Kong and an early sunrise from outer space. Uprising pits everything in stark daylight, which not only gives away the effect, but makes us stylistically think of inferior works like Power Rangers. I'm not the only one who thinks so.

Generally, I'm also struck by the weight of everything. The original had everything move really momentously, a little slower by our perception, with control and heaviness befitting giant robots and monsters. It was a little more grounded (maybe a stretch) in its weaponry, proportions, environment effects, and changed world. Uprising looks far too quick and floaty. It gets away from the "guys in suits" aesthetics and into effects, creatures, and robots who look throw together rather than carefully built.

The original is also surprisingly full of real damage and consequences. Even though Raleigh Beckett remarks that Jaeger Pilots were rock stars and never lost, by the time the audience gets into the main story, these blokes are getting their asses kicked. Jaegers hardly ever last longer than a few seconds into a battle, and even when they do, it's with busted limbs and smashed up weapons. There's a real sense of reality here, which again I know is weird to say in this outrageous movie, but it all adds up. People get hurt, they kind of suck, their plans get ruined, they sacrifice and improvise. It's a fun ride. Maybe we'll see that in Uprising, but it moreover looks like it's a cartoon.

Then there's this weird Nega-Gipsy. What the hell is going on there? It might be cool. Alternate reality? I always thought a cool idea for a sequel would be like, aliens coming down and taking over Jaegers so humans re-open the breach and start controlling Kaiju brains. That's not implausible! Jaeger on Jaeger action is something we haven't really seen yet - is this a rogue pilot? Taken over by Kaiju? Aliens?! All three?! I've been disappointed in big blockbuster traitor stories lately. This might not suck.

Pew Pew Pew!!
And I should apologize, I shouldn't just compare this to the original and bitch about it. I do, however, want to articulate why I was really excited in 2013 and totally disillusioned by this new film. As always I should say that I never cheer for a film to be bad. Whether or not a film succeeds, though, depends on if it achieves what it's trying to do. Pacific Rim was trying to be a big modern-day fun beat 'em up monster movie. Uprising may be trying to do the same, but that's actually a hard line to nail. I suspect it shall fail.

And this is probably all Steven DeKnight's fault. He's a first-time director that somehow landed on this project once Guillermo left and started making Oscar-winners. DeKnight was a showrunner on Daredevil, which I generally hated, but to be fair, that was probably more to do with the show being stretched four or five episodes longer than it should have been. It does seem, however, that this is more a dude coming in and trying to show he can take direction and make a buck on a big budget film rather than a monster-loving maniac putting his dream on the screen. That's a big difference.

In the end, this is probably the most accurate review we're going to get, and it's something that I get at all the time. So much effort, so much energy, and time and talent just to end up in a discount DVD bin at the gas station. I picture like, John Boyega spending hours alone in his trailer trying to hone his character. Or the key grip getting all the camera set-ups just right. Or the editor making sure every punch lands with just enough oomph. They went to school for this stuff. Months of work so that I can flip through it on FX while hungover on a Sunday afternoon in between NFL commercials two years from now. I'm sorry, I meant XFL.

What do you think? I used to call these March attempts at big movies "Halfbusters." You ever feel like Buena Vista is the only studio that's even trying anymore?

16 March 2018

March Badassness 2018 - SWEET 16!!

As real basketball starts up, we're in the Sweet 16 now, folks and this year's tournament is as enticing as ever!

I don't know why I said real basketball. As if this is fake...basketball.

We've had way too many ties. Vote, even if you don't want to.

Your winners will move on to the Elite Eight, to be published next week!

Skull Island Division - battling it out on the Forsaken Island of Monsters!
Overlook Hotel Division - fighting for dominance within the walls of an Endless Haunted Colorado Hotel!
North Pole Division - combat on the top of the world at the Realm of Candy and Magic!
Wakanda Division - put up your dukes in the Hidden Afrofuturist City of Vibranium!

Best Match-ups this round:

King Kong vs. Neil Degrasse Tyson
Mulan vs. Santa Claus
Castor Troy vs. Dutch
Commander Peter Quincy Taggart vs. Black Panther

See your one true God take home the 2018 Sam Jackson Trophy!

Tomb Raider Strides Again!

There's some other weird shit coming out this weekend (is there any greater parable for modern America than a gay teen romance and somehow a Christian song-based movie coming out on the same day?), but really it's all about Tomb Raider (2018). The latest installment stars Alicia Vikander as Lara Croft in the somewhat odd film based on the more recent, slightly more level headed 2013 version of the Tomb Raider video game rather than the 90s boob-a-thon games. Let's preview all this nonsense, starting with...that.

"I'm Katniss!"
One thing that always bothered me with Tomb Raider is how fans seemed to think Lara Croft was an example of strong female video game protagonists, when in reality she's really just boobs. She only exists to placate male gamers and create another fantasy for them under the guise of being a token video game girl. Granted video game heroines are few and far between, but this is more an example of how much more wrong nerds can be when they're trying to do the right thing. The other big classic video game girl is Samus - but she's rendered androgynous enough in the first few games that her femininity is irrelevant [arguable that makes her a strong case for gender equality, but that's another post], and in later games like Other M her femininity is a crippling weakness. I'll give the Prime series points for balance. This is a whole other post. Other than that we have...I dunno...Ms. Pac-Man? More recent games have been a little better, but there's not a lot to call on.

If you're just looking at boobs, then to be honest, 2001 Angelina Jolie was the absolute perfect casting for the original Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001). Jolie has done a lot more with herself now (and to be fair, before 2001), but that presence, those boobs, the cheekbones, it all screams pretty video game girl. It reminds me of the super-impractical Zombie fighting wardrobe of Jill Valentine in Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004). I mean, it's real hot and Sienna Guillory got me through puberty, but that doesn't make it right.

I don't think I've seen either of the two first Tomb Raider films all the way through. There were two! Can you believe that? I mostly remember the first one for one of Daniel Craig's first big roles and the second one for one of Gerard Butler's first big roles. Is it bad to remember a female action flick for introducing leading men? Can you call it a strong female action flick when it's really just all about boobs and male gaze, thus attracting interested male eyes anyway? It's hard to look at any film made pre...uh...let's go pre-2017 and think about real girl power.

I never played a Tomb Raider game, either. To be fair, I was pretty captivated by Donkey Kong and really didn't get into non-Nintendo games...ever. I'm still a purist (hence my rabid Metroid knowledge), so Lara never fell under sway of my joystick. See, even that sounds horribly dirty. You wouldn't talk that way about Donkey Kong. Video game (and largely, life) femininity just gets the shaft from male audiences. See, I'm doing it again.

At some point Crystal Dynamics realized that they had a good character on their hands that was plagued by all this shit. In 2013 they rebooted the character and actually made her grounded and more fleshed out, ironically by adding pants. For some reason, I suppose because Hollywood loves shooting itself in the foot, Warner Bros decided to go ahead with another film adaptation. It's weird that even though it's been fifteen years since Angelina Jolie's last outing, I definitely still think of this as Tomb Raider 3: The Search for Curly's Gold (2018).

With all that said, I should add that to be fair, this looks a hell of a lot better than Lara Croft: Tomb Raider - The Cradle of Life (2003), and yes, all of that was actually the title. Akin to the newer series of games, it feels a lot more gritty, personal, and real, which is totally in line with 2010s filmmaking vs. 2000s filmmaking. And the grittiness isn't really like, grimdark grittiness, but realistic cave-dwelling grit, as opposed to Angelina looking like a fucking goddess while spelunking.

The rest of the cast is fairly unknown, besides Walton Goggins, but I'm not sure how much of a household name Walton Goggins is. We should focus on Vikander, though, who although is amazing, I feel won her Academy Award too early. The Danish Girl (2015) wasn't even the best movie or role she had that year. Ex Machina (2015) should be readily accepted as a new classic, but she's totally underrated in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015). This is still one of my favourite movie scenes ever. Damn she's cool and collected and a hilarious asshole in front of giant man Armie Hammer. But really, picture this, a robot, and a transsexual lover - painter in the same year. That's fucking range, people.

To be honest, her 2016 and 2017 were kind of under the radar without a ton of showy or well-seen roles. You see Jason Bourne (2016) on there, but can anyone remember anything from that movie? Or what Vikander did in it? Same challenge for The Light Between Oceans (2016). Irregardless, Vikander is a supreme talent and deserving of a franchise centered around her. It'd be cool if Tomb Raider could be it. They got two fucking Angelina Jolie boobie movies out of it fifteen years ago, they should be okay now, right. Right?

Well, at this point we ought to talk about the elephant - this is a video game movie. Somehow for some reason no video game movie ever works. Sure, Resident Evil (2001) comes close, and that's definitely a rad movie that turned into a progressively more bonkers series that's damn fun to make fun of, but no where close to blockbuster art. That series also ground into the dust. The only other candidate to bring up is Mortal Kombat (1995). And that's it. That's like, the best of your genre.

Recently Hollywood has tried to adapt really good video games like Assassin's Creed (2016) and Warcraft (2016). Whoops. And to be sure, right now Tomb Raider is actually looking like the Queen of all video game adaptations, at a whopping 50% on Rotten Tomatoes. That's 14% higher than the next film, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010). You know, I actually haven't seen any of these damn movies. They all look so stupid. Maybe it's because I don't play any of these games, but that shouldn't matter, right? I've never sat through a game of Clue, but I love that movie. I never read Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park. Source material shouldn't matter, but for some reason with video games it does.

That's probably because either the medium is too visually similar to film already or simply because it's not even close to be considered serious art. Critics have clearly never played Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy's Kong Quest (1995) for the SNES. Maybe that's why they gave a film like Tomb Raider to a dude like Roar Uthaug, who despite having the greatest name fucking ever, hasn't really done much outside of his native Norway. He crafted The Wave (2015). I mean, COOL, but does he understand American video games? To be fair, he probably does, it's a huge global industry, people.

I don't buy a lot of other reasons, though. There are great movies adapted from television shows, short films, even other movies! There's an argument that playing is so much more immersive that you want to control who's on the screen. That doesn't make any fucking sense at all, why would I want to control Lara Croft anymore than Indiana Jones? Or Hidalgo? Or Brendan Frasier? I've never played the games, but the movies still suck. That's an empty criticism.

In the end, bad movies are bad movies, and that's the mishandled approach. Instead of making a good movie, even in a world where movies are becoming more like video games, directors are boxed in by the trappings of the genre in a bid to appease fans, even though their bank isn't even made on fans. Look, Sam Raimi changed a lot about Peter Parker in Spider-Man (2002) but it still did great because it was a good movie. Studios seem focused on the wrong things.

The irony here is that we've had a few great films that play with the genre without being remotely close to being based on video games. And others that play within genre pretty well. Even watching a movie like Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) I'm plagued with how much of it feels like level progression, down to mini-bosses and final stronghold battles. Video game-style thinking has already invaded our film culture, notably because a progressive succession of challenges, namely through fighting, the most basic conflict, is basic screenwriting. On an even more subtle note, I'm struck by this article on The Last Jedi (2017), which equates mindless tasks to a typical video game routine.

This is aaaallll to say that video game movies don't really have an excuse. I don't think "video game" should even be a genre. Tomb Raider is an action-adventure movie, to be more specific, an archaeology movie. Just like The Mummy (1999) before it. Man the millennium was full of weird campy tomb raiding movies, huh?

There IS this sweet plane jump.
This post has gone on far too long, but with all this said, how does Tomb Raider actually look and what are its cultural and commercial prospects? Well, it seems like a really classic March movie that should be like a Kong: Skull Island (2017) kind of deal - you know...like okay. I keep waiting for Black Panther (2018) to fade, and maybe it does next week with some real competition between this and A Wrinkle in Time's second week? A Wrinkle in Time isn't going crazy and should be beatable. I don't get the feeling this will totally light up the box office (unlike ANOTHER video game spinning jungle adventure movie - Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle [2017]).

If you wanted my honest opinion, I think this is a little too self-revering for its own good. I don't think anyone really cares about Tomb Raider video games anymore and it'd be better off using that as a jumping off point for its own good story. And I don't know, an adventurer trying to find her father, isn't that like...The Last Crusade (1989) in not so many words. Or trade tombs for time dimensions and it's actually just A Wrinkle in Time. The production value looks cool and well shot, but I don't have a yearning desire to catch this in theaters. Maybe on Netflix.

So, what do you think? That was an unexpected 1800+ words and 90 minutes out of my day. Are you amped for Tomb Raider? What do you think of the nature of femininity in video game movies? Are all video game movies doomed? Did Alicia Vikander peak in 2015? Is A Wrinkle in Time dumb for being earnest or is there merit there? Are we all just cynical dicks? Can it get past that awful poster that I didn't even mention once?!

Stay tuned to your pals at Norwegian Morning Wood and all of your questions will be answered!
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