Reel Opinions

Friday, March 30, 2018

Ready Player One

Ready Player One is easily the most exuberant and joyful movie that Steven Spielberg has made in a very long time.  It's the kind of movie you imagine he made with a big grin on his face.  It's also the kind of movie that deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible, as seemingly every inch is filled with some kind of action or image.  And yet, the movie never reached the point of overkill with me.  The film may be stuffed to the gills, but it never seems to lose its certain innocence and charm, and it never becomes soulless.

What Spielberg has done is basically make the ultimate video game movie.  But rather than base it on an existing game or franchise, he has created a CG virtual world made up of just about every gaming, cinematic and comic book pop culture trope of the last 40 years.  This virtual world is known as the OASIS, and it serves as an escape from the dystopian future of 2045, which seems to largely be made out of ramshackle communities made up out of scrap iron and trailers.  An 18-year-old orphan named Wade Watts (Ty Sheridan) escapes from his drab reality every chance he gets by plugging into the OASIS, as does pretty much everyone in this futuristic society.  It's a virtual reality where players can live out their greatest fantasies, and be whoever they want to be.  You can climb Mount Everest with Batman, you can race down city streets in the Back to the Future DeLorean, having to dodge not just the other racers, but also King Kong and a T-Rex who are roaming the city, and you can even fly and dance on air if you choose.

The OASIS was originally envisioned in the 2011 novel by Ernest Cline (he co-wrote the screenplay), but Spielberg and his team of animators and special effects artists have created their own vision, and it's one of the most captivating sights you're ever to see in the movies.  There is always something to look at in this movie, such it's the numerous characters pulled out of pop culture that ranges from everything from Looney Tunes to infamous horror slashers like Freddy Krueger and the Chucky doll.  I was reminded many times of watching 1988's Who Framed Roger Rabbit for the first time when I was 11, and the thrill of getting to see Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse share the screen for the first time.  This is perhaps a more impressive feat, as the movie doesn't just cross multiple examples of a single genre like classic cartoons, but rather various forms of media like video games and anime.  There are so many visual surprises, it would be a crime to list them all.  All I will say is that this movie will probably require multiple viewings just to pick up on it all.

Whenever Wade enters the OASIS, he becomes his avatar Parzival, an original CG creation who looks like he walked out of one of the Final Fantasy games.  Wade and his friends in this virtual world have devoted their time to trying to solve a puzzle left behind by the OASIS' original creator, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), an awkward scientific genius who died years ago, but not before leaving behind one final message for the players.  Before he died, he hid a secret "Easter Egg" within the game, which can only be unlocked by completing three separate challenges.  Whoever completes the challenges earns three multi-colored keys that can open the door that leads to the grand prize - Complete control of the OASIS, and ownership of his trillion-dollar digital empire.  Many of the players within the virtual world have given up on cracking Halliday's cryptic clues, and just live out their fantasies.  But Wade and a fellow adventurous girl that he meets within the OASIS who calls herself Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) are determined to solve the mystery, and know that the answer must lie somewhere within the creator's past.

As Wade and his friends obsessively comb through every piece of information they can find on Halliday, there is a threat afoot which may impact not just the virtual world of the OASIS, but also the real world.  A shadowy tech organization led by the slimy Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) want to control the OASIS for their own means, and have started enslaving people to play the game nonstop for him in order to track down the clues Halliday left behind in order to find the three colored keys.  The way that the evil corporation is slowly taking over both the real and virtual world at the same time not only gives the movie some extra weight, but allows Spielberg the opportunity to create two unique worlds.  While the movie spends most of its time in the OASIS, it never lets us forget that there are real people behind these CG characters who make up a majority of the cast.  I particularly liked the way that the movie allows certain things that happen within the game to impact the player, such as when a character is shot within the OASIS, the player feels a brief surge of pain.

Ready Player One is a go for broke movie.  It doesn't seem to care if its plot is slight, or if the action is so chaotic and fast-paced that it often feels like even the movie is trying to keep up with itself at times.  And yet, what makes it work is the tone that Spielberg brings to everything.  He loves this stuff, and combining all of these elements into one story has opened his imagination.  I found myself getting caught up in the fun as much as he clearly was while he was making it.  There is a joy and innocence here that we do not often see in a lot of current big budget blockbusters.  This movie is as much about finding the fun in the idea of an army of pop culture icons trying to take down a giant MechaGodzilla as it is showing us the battle.  Most filmmakers would simply show us this image, and say 'Isn't this cool?".  Spielberg goes one step further, and goes right for the childhood joy that such an image would create.

I am sure that there will be many who complain that the movie is an empty spectacle.  Strip away all the flash and substance, and there's just nothing there.  They may be right to a point, but isn't the whole point of spectacle to amaze and show you things you haven't seen before?  Yes, it's great when a big movie like this can make you feel for the characters as much as you admire the effects that cost millions of dollars to create.  But, sometimes, a spectacle just has to be a spectacle.  This is a movie that does not get bogged down in complexities or drama.  It's a rush of a movie, and on that basic kinetic level, I enjoyed it immensely.  Sometimes I need a rush when i go to the movies, just like sometimes I need to think.  As the film played out, it never really bothered me that the movie had very little to actually say.  Sure, I noticed it, but I was still enjoying myself.

Ready Player One was clearly an outlet for Spielberg to just let go and have a lot of fun, and I think the movie succeeds at carrying that simple desire onto its audience.  It's fast-paced, never misses a beat, and has been made with a great amount of respect for the pop culture it represents.  If all high-tech movies were this much fun, the Hollywood landscape would be a much brighter place.


Sunday, March 25, 2018


In Steven Soderbergh's new thriller Unsane, we are introduced to the film through the eyes of a stalker named David Strine (Joshua Leonard), who is obsessed with a woman named Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy).  We are looking at the world through his eyes and hear his voice, but do not see him yet.   David met Sawyer when she was caring for his father during his final days, and became attached to her because of the comfort she gave his father, and in return to him.  She became the one thing in this world that made him feel good, so he refused to let her go.  Soderbergh takes this simple premise, and then adds layers to create a truly satisfying and chilling film.

Sawyer was forced to leave her home in order to get away from David, but she still is haunted by him in both her personal and professional life.  She thinks she sees him when she's at work, and when she tries to have an intimate night with a nice man she met, she becomes nauseous.  This leads her to seeking help at a nearby facility that she finds on line.  She talks to a therapist, who listens, and then tells her to fill out a few forms.  When she is ready to leave, the receptionist tells her to wait a while.  Moments later, an orderly leads Sawyer into a back room where she is forced to take her belongings out of her purse, and to strip down.  Naturally confused, the orderlies tell Sawyer that the form she filled out asks that she be observed for 24 hours, to make sure that she is not a danger to herself or to others.  She tries to contact the police and even her mother (Amy Irving), but when she contacts the police, the orderly ominously asks her if she knows how many phone calls the police get from mental patients who say they are being held against their will.  No one is coming.

Naturally frustrated, Sawyer physically strikes out at one of the orderlies, and has her observation time increased from 24 hours to a full week by a doctor who seems more interested in his cell phone than in listening to her situation.  During her time at the facility, she meets a supportive fellow patient named Nate (Jay Pharoah), who gives her access to a cell phone that he smuggled in for his stay, and also tells her to just keep her head down and wait out the week that she will be here, as he tells her that this is basically an insurance scam where hospitals keep patients like Sawyer in order to get money from providers.  But then, she thinks she sees David working at the hospital as the person who hands out drugs for the patients.  Of course the man denies knowing Sawyer, and given her past experiences of being uncooperative with the staff, no one believes her.

It is at that point that Unsane begins to play head games with its audience, as we initially wonder of Sawyer really is so haunted by her past that this current nightmarish situation is causing her to lose her mental stability.  But little by little, there is no doubt about what is truly going on, and that Sawyer is trapped in a situation where her tormentors have complete control over her.  This can be a situation just about anyone who has lost control of their life, or found themselves in the care of medical professionals who simply will not listen can definitely relate to.  And the way that the screenplay by Jonathan Bernstein and Jason Greer plays upon these basic fears is quite brilliant.  Yes, the script does drop the ball a little in its final moments, but before that, the movie does a fantastic job with putting us in Sawyer's shoes, and making us feel her panic and fear, even though we are in the safety of the theater setting.

The movie further creates a sense of isolation and claustrophobia by the way Soderbergh has shot the film.  He has filmed it entirely with an iPhone camera, which gives the film's look a certain uncomfortable vibe that works with the feeling of paranoia that the movie wants to create.  There is constantly something off about the look of the film - The visuals are a bit grainy, but not muddy.  And the aspect of the screen is always just a little off.  I'm not sure how certain viewers will react to this experimental approach, but for me at least, it further heightened the tension and strengthened the atmospheric experience.  And at the center of it all is the lead performance by Claire Foy, who has to constantly be in a state of fear, confusion or anger.  Her performance anchors the film, and gives it plenty of nuance, even when the movie sinks into traditional thriller tropes during the last half.

Unsane shows a deft ability to make its audience feel uncomfortable, and also has something to say about medical care, as well as women who feel abused or threatened, and how the rest of the world sees them.  This makes the film all the more timely.  Soderbergh obviously saw this as an experiment with how he shot the film, but fortunately, he has not neglected to give us a meaty story and a character we can care about so that the movie never comes across as a filmed gimmick.  This is a thriller that is lean, to the point, and highly effective.


Saturday, March 24, 2018

Sherlock Gnomes

By all accounts, 2011's Gnomeo and Juliet should not have worked at all, but it managed to win me over.  It took a ludicrous premise (taking Shakespeare's famous story, and setting it in a world of sentient lawn gnomes living in an English garden), and managed to make some fun out of it thanks to a talented and game cast, and some funny ideas that played off of Shakespeare's other plays, and likely flew over the heads of kids in the audience.

The far-too late and not exactly asked for sequel, Sherlock Gnomes, replaces the Shakespeare with the world of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous detective, and the movie is not better for it in the slightest.  And while most of the cast from the last movie have come back, they're cast adrift here in a plot that surprisingly takes itself far too seriously, and features none of the clever parody elements that the last movie featured.  Granted, this is a movie with bigger ambitions.  Instead of being set mostly in a flower garden, this movie takes us to the streets of London, and has set pieces in various landmarks.  But, it would seem that the emphasis on action and larger scale moments have stripped the characters of their personality and charm.  Sherlock Gnomes will probably interest the little ones in the audience, but anyone over the age of 7 will find this a disappointing and massive bore.

When we last left our lawn ornament lovers, Gnomeo (voice by James McAvoy) and Juliet (Emily Blunt), they were getting ready for a lifetime of happiness together.  But now their human owners have plucked them and all the other lawn decorations from the familiar garden home, and moved them to a new garden in London.  Their new home needs a lot of work, and Juliet becomes so obsessed with making the garden beautiful that she begins to neglect Gnomeo, who feels left out.  The lovers are so fixated on arguing with each other that they fail to notice that there is a massive crime wave spreading throughout the city.  Some evil mastermind is stealing all the lawn decorations in London, and now the thief has struck the garden of Gnomeo and Juliet.  The only ones who can solve this mystery is the great Sherlock Gnomes (Johnny Depp) and his underappreciated and put-upon partner, Dr. Watson (Chiwetel Ejiofor). 

What made the original movie work is completely absent here, and that was a clear understanding and a sense to poke fun at its literary subject matter.  Sherlock Gnomes never once tries to have fun with its characters, or actually satirize its source material.  Instead, director John Stevenson (Kung Fu Panda) and his team of writers give us a by the numbers kiddie mystery story that never once seems to try to have fun with itself, and never develops a sense of humor.  One can only ask what they were thinking with this decision.  The first movie placed references to Shakespeare in a lot of modern day settings, and even parodied the plays to pretty fair success.  Here, we get just another generic detective movie that never once exploits the possibilities that its source material brings.  Not only that, it wastes a largely talented voice cast that also includes the likes of Michael Caine, Maggie Smith, and Stephen Merchant, as none of these actors register much more than a cameo.

And then there is the out of place Elton John soundtrack that plays throughout the film.  Yes, I understand that he is the Executive Producer of the film, much as he was on the last one.  And yes, I remember that Gnomeo and Juliet featured a lot of his music also.  But here, a lot of the song choices just make little to no sense.  His music usually accompanies chase scenes and action sequences, such as when Sherlock and his friends are in a sewer on the run from vicious rats, and the movie decides to play "I'm Still Standing" in the background for no reason while they make their escape.  And another daring escape in Chinatown is scored to "Saturday Night's All Right for Fighting".  There are even references to his music in the dialogue, such as when Gnomeo is on a mission, and his code name is "Tiny Dancer".  It gets to be a bit much.

Did I have high hopes walking into Sherlock Gnomes?  Not really, but hey, I didn't exactly have high hopes with the last movie, and it wound up surprising me.  I did my best to keep an open mind watching it, but I'm afraid I was fighting a losing battle this time.  Maybe they should have gone with a different approach.  Or maybe the idea of "lawn gnomes recreating great works of literature" just shouldn't be a franchise.


Midnight Sun

Midnight Sun is a pretty decent example of a genre I don't really gravitate toward - The teen romance tearjerker.  Sure, it's just as implausible as a lot of films just like it, but it has a sense of humor about itself, and it features a bright cast.  I particularly liked the female lead, Bella Thorne, a Disney Channel actress who shows a great amount of personality here.  Based on her performance, I can see her being successful in romantic comedies down the road.

Thorne plays Katie, a 17-year-old girl who suffers from a rare skin disease known as Xeroderma Pigmentosum, or XP.  The illness causes an extreme sensitivity to ultraviolet rays, meaning that in the most serious cases sufferers must completely avoid any exposure to the sun.  It's something that she's had to live with all her life.  Her ever-protective father (Rob Riggle, very good in a rare dramatic role) keeps Katie inside at all times under protective glass on the windows to block out the sun.  He does allow her to go out at night, though, where she usually plays her guitar down at the local train station, or hangs out with her only friend Morgan (Quinn Shephard).  These early moments create an easy chemistry with the audience.  While the father is protective, he's not overbearing, nor does he forbid Katie from doing anything a normal teen would do, just as long as it's at night.  I liked that the film allowed Katie, her father and Morgan to joke around, and act like individuals instead of characters stuck in a teen drama.

One night, while Katie is playing her music down at the train station, she has a run-in with Charlie (Patrick Schwarzenegger, son of Arnold), a boy whom she has always admired whenever she saw him skateboard by her house every day, but obviously has never had a chance to actually meet.  He's intrigued by her music, but she doesn't know how to act when she actually gets the chance to talk to him, and runs away, making up a lame excuse that her cat died and she has to attend its funeral.  Morgan sets it up so that the two meet up again, and they begin a friendship, which leads to a romance.  Katie doesn't tell Charlie about her disease, and makes up convoluted excuses as to why they can only meet at night.  She says it's because she wants Charlie to see her as a person, and not as a disease.  I say it's because the writer has to manipulate things so we can have the inevitable scene where Charlie will learn the truth, and feel hurt that she has kept it hidden from him. 

Regardless, their relationship soldiers on.  In a nice touch, Katie's father does not disapprove of them seeing each other, only that she is hiding her disease from Charlie.  They spend more and more time together, and he ultimately takes her on a train ride to Seattle so she can experience her first live music show, and so they can make PG-13 love afterward.  But alas, Katie's disease is getting worse, as evidenced by the fact that her hands are starting to suffer from uncontrolled tremors, and it becomes harder for her to play her guitar.  Katie puts on a brave face, and the audience prepares their Kleenexes.  And while the plot follows an all-too familiar road, the characters and performances still remain likable, and are even able to withstand the film's incredibly cheesy final moments.

Midnight Sun is based on a Japanese novel from over 10 years ago titled Taiyou no Uta (A Song to the Sun), which was already adapted into a successful movie over there, as well as a TV series and even a manga.  And while nothing that happens within the movie is remotely convincing, it is the performances and the occasional moments of humor in the script that makes it effective.  For a teen romance escape movie, this does just fine.  It's not going to blow up at the box office, but the young teen girls who do discover it will get to swoon and shed a tear or two.  Anyone who does not fall into this demographic will find it likable enough.  Thorne never once plays up the pathos in her character to unbearable levels, and while Schwarzenegger can be a bit stiff at times, he eventually became charming enough to win me over.  But it is Riggle as Katie's father who gets the best scene, when he breaks down as he wonders why he did so much to protect his daughter if he can't save her during the later stages of her disease.

Is this movie manipulative?  Oh my, yes.  But I would be lying if I didn't say it eventually worked on me.  And even if it is manipulative, at least the movie doesn't feel the need to throw a villain or a forced crisis into the mix.  It's a simple story of two kids in love who face tragedy together, and in this case, that's enough. 


Friday, March 23, 2018

Pacific Rim: Uprising

In Pacific Rim: Uprising, we get giant robots fighting equally towering monsters, and the humans who pilot the robots.  The massive creatures have been brought to life with the finest special effects Hollywood has to offer.  The human characters have been given less care, as they talk solely in the cliches of action movies from the last 40 years.  It's impossible to care about anything or anyone here, and after a while, even the spectacle of watching the robots grapple with the monsters wears thin.

I'm going to say something that my inner 10-year-old is going to hate me for, but I think I have had my fill with movies about giant robots saving the world.  I'm at my limit, and I can't see how Hollywood can breathe new life into the idea.  This movie offers us the sight of big things crashing into buildings, bridges and pretty much anything that isn't nailed down, and then repeats those sights over and over again with little difference.  We also get to see a lot of people fleeing in terror, if you're into that sort of thing.  What we don't get to see is the sight that I really wanted to observe - The clean up job after these battles are over.  The film's extended climax takes place on the streets of Tokyo, where giant robots pretty much level everything in their path in order to stop a monster.  At one point, we see one of the robots shooting at the monster, and as it fires, it drops bullet shells that look to be about the size of a Buick onto the streets below.  I could only ask myself who had the unfortunate job of clearing away all those shells after the battle was over? 

So if all you want to see is a lot of action depicting giant robots (called Jaegers here) fighting monsters (Kaiju), and don't care about the people piloting the massive war mechs, or the people fleeing in terror, then Pacific Rim: Uprising will be right up your alley.  I imagine the Transformers crowd will eat this stuff up, since it's more of the same.  We also get to see Jaegers fighting other Jaegers, and while it's at least a different kind of visual, it gets just as old as all the other images in the film.  The script (credited to four different writers) can't make any of this have an impact, because none of it is important.  Nothing that happens, and nothing that is spoken by the human actors has any bearing on the paper-thin plot.  Oh, the actors are definitely trying.  I won't accuse anyone of phoning it in here.  But the script can't make a single line of dialogue or character interaction seem believable, so it feels like a lot of wasted effort.

The plot: It's been 10 years since the events of 2013's Pacific Rim, and Earth has been Kaiju-free, though the lead scientists are still coming up with ways to fight back just in case they return.  The original film (which was directed by Guillermo Del Toro, who does not return here) was largely about young misfit soldiers learning to work together and become one mind in order to pilot the Jaegers that could fight the monsters that were coming up from a dimensional rift and attacking Earth.  This time, there's less emphasis on the young pilots, who are largely pushed aside, and speak only in Army Recruit movie cliches.  Our hero here is Jake Pentecost (John Boyega), who is the son of Stacker Pengcost, a hero who sacrificed himself to save the world last time.  Jake has no intention of living up to his father's name or legacy, but is more or less forced back into service.  Cue numerous scenes where he argues with a fellow Jaeger pilot (Scott Eastwood) about whether or not he is worthy to his famous last name, and melodramatic dialogue about how Jake doesn't want his father's legacy to define him.

There are some returning characters, such as Mako (Rinko Kikuchi), a former Jaeger pilot who is now a world leader, and the oddball scientists Hermann (Burn Gorman) and Newt (Charlie Day).  Both of these characters exist as comic relief in the film, especially Day, who quips and mugs his way through most of his scenes, while never developing into an interesting personality, despite the movie finding ways to cram him into the plot at every opportunity.  Of the new characters, the only one who matters besides Jake is a young orphan girl named Amara (Cailee Spaney), who has a lot of spunk, but no real personality or character motivation.  We learn early that she is driven by a family tragedy caused by the Kaiju, but this angle doesn't have the gravitas that you would expect.  But hey, at least it's something.  Her fellow young Jaeger pilot recruits are so thinly written, they almost seem to disappear into nothingness right there on the screen.  They're a multicultural bunch with simple personalities, such as the Russian girl with a temper but a good heart underneath, a nice Asian guy, and an Indian boy who is nervous and skittish. 

Yes, Pacific Rim: Uprising looks like it cost a fortune to make, but it's all at the expense of a script that doesn't deserve the time, money and attention that's been lavished upon it.  It's the kind of movie where it seems like the filmmakers knew that the project itself is creatively bankrupt, so they just kept on throwing money at it, hoping that it would cover the overall sense that the movie didn't need to be made in the first place.  They simply throw in more giant robots, more monsters, more massive weapons, and build a soundtrack of wall-to-wall destructive noise, but to no avail.  Even a spectacle such as this needs an emotional foothold, and this has none.  I'm not asking for my robots vs. monsters movie to be deep or intellectual.  I just want to feel like there was an effort at the script level to make this more than the shoveled-out sequel that it is.

The movie will likely "win" at the box office this weekend, then quickly be forgotten by just about anyone who watches it.  The final scene hints at a third film, and judging by what's on display here, I can only view it as hopeless optimism.  Don't stop believing, Pacific Rim: Uprising.


Saturday, March 17, 2018

Love, Simon

Hollywood has been adapting a wide variety of Young Adult teen romance stories lately, but in my opinion, Love, Simon is the first one to score a genuine home run.  This is just such a likable movie, filled with winning performances, a big heart, and a great sense of humor that aids the drama of the main character's situation, instead of conflicting with it.  It's the kind of movie that you want to tell your friends to see as soon as it's over, and possibly see again yourself.

If I may nitpick (I am a critic, after all.  It comes with the territory.), the movie is a bit conventional at times, and certain plot elements and the way the film wraps itself up is a bit too neat and tidy.  But these faults are minor in comparison to just how much this movie works.  And the reason why it works is because the screenplay (credited to Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger from TV's This is Us, adapting from the novel by Becky Albertalli) knows the teen comedy-drama genre inside out.  There are the smart, well-spoken teen heroes, the sweet but somewhat out of touch parents, the kind of clueless Vice Principal, the big party scene, the hidden feelings and secret longings...Yes, we've seen it all before, but seldom this well.  This movie loves these characters, and knows how to make it so that their personality comes through rather than the cliches.  These are all fascinating characters, right down to the minor supporting ones who manage to stand out bigger than you expect.  This is simply one of the most sweetly funny and sharp teen movies I've seen in a while.

At the center is Simon Spier, who is played with endless charm by Nick Robinson from Jurassic World.  Simon is a High School Senior living a pretty average life in an Atlanta suburb.  His mom and dad (Josh Duhamel and Jennifer Garner) are happily married after 20 years, and are just as much in love as they were when they met back in college.  His little sister (Talitha Bateman) is an aspiring chef, and frequently uses her family as guinea pigs for her culinary experiments.  Simon enjoys hanging out with his best friends, drinks too much ice coffee (his own admission in the film's opening narration), loves watching bad movies from the 90s and collecting vinyl music.  Simon comes across as a perfectly well-adjusted kid, but he's hiding a secret from everyone, in that he is gay, and just doesn't know how to properly come out and express how he feels.  He's certain his parents would understand, he just doesn't know the right way to break the news to them.  Plus, he just doesn't want to shake up his ideal life.

We see how Simon learned he was gay in a sweetly funny flashback when he was 13, and became obsessed with Daniel Radcliffe in the Harry Potter films.  It's been four years since then, and he's been unable to tell anyone.  His three best friends are the sweet Leah (Katherine Langford), soccer jock Nick (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) and the new girl Abby (Alexandra Shipp), who moved to town just last year, but has already become so close to Simon that he feels like he's known her his whole life.  Again, Simon is not afraid that his secret would affect their friendship.  He just is unsure of how and the proper time to tell them.  But then, he sees a posting on a message board by an anonymous classmate identified as "Blue", who opens up on line about his sexuality.  This sparks something within Simon.  He has to get in touch with this kid, and share his own personal feelings about coming out.

Simon and "Blue" begin communicating through e-mails, and both begin expressing things that they have never told anyone.  This leads to the film's key mystery, as Simon tries to figure out the identity of his online friend.  He has some hunches as to who "Blue" might be, and when he reads the e-mails in his head, he can sometimes visualize who he thinks the person is behind the e-mails sitting at their desk and writing to him.  At different times, Simon visualizes "Blue" as a kid in his class, a cute waiter at the local Waffle House, or perhaps the guy who plays the piano for the school musical production of Cabaret.  However, both are afraid to reveal their identities to one another, or to meet in person.  Simon seems a bit more sure in meeting face-to-face, but even he has some doubts.  Where the movie goes from here, I will not reveal, but it does involve the one character in the film that does not work - a social outcast (Logan Miller) who becomes kind of a bully to Simon, and whose character arc is a bit too all over the place to work, as the movie never seems sure if we are supposed to hate him or sympathize with him.

But again, it's hard to complain here, because there's just so much about Love, Simon that works so effortlessly.  All of the other performances hit the perfect note, and there's hardly a wrong step among them.  And while the romantic mystery is the main drive, it's the light comedy that keeps us entertained.  Of particular note is Tony Hale as a Vice Principal who comes across as a bit of a buffoon at first, but he gradually develops into a truly funny and charming character as the film goes on.  Also very funny is the priceless Natasha Rothwell, who plays the school's frustrated drama teacher.  It's characters like these that keep things interesting outside of the central plot, and prevent the film from being too heavy-handed or cliched at times.

But above all else, this is a joyful film filled with life.  As Simon grows in self-awareness about his situation, all of the freedom and confusion that he feels is wonderfully portrayed by both Robinson in his performance and the sharp dialogue that the script provides him with.  Even when the movie relies on sitcom devices, such as fantasy sequences where Simon visualizes what college life will be like with him having come out, it still remains entertaining because the cast and director Greg Berlanti treat the material with respect.  You can tell that a lot of thought and care has gone into bringing these people to life, as well as in the creative process, and it shows in nearly every scene.  Even if it stumbles from time to time, we're still smiling, because we love these people.  When you see as many movies as I do, you start to cherish the ones that are filled with people you actually would like to know in real life.

Love, Simon is getting a lot of attention for being the first mainstream Hollywood movie about a gay teenage relationship, and while that alone is impressive, it fortunately doesn't have to fall back on that to grab our attention.  It's filled with wit, heart and emotion, and is genuinely enthralling in so many ways.  Maybe the movie plays it a bit too safe in some ways, but when you smile this much while watching a movie, nothing else really matters.


Friday, March 16, 2018

Tomb Raider

There is a great moment about halfway through Tomb Raider.  The young heroine Lara Croft (played here wonderfully by Alicia Vikander) finds herself in a life or death situation when a villain jumps her, and is going to lead her to her potential end.  She must fight back, and she does, but she also ends up taking the villain's life.  What's great about this scene is what comes afterward.  We see Lara's horrified reaction to what she has done as she stares at the lifeless body before her.  It is not overplayed.  There is no screaming, and no dramatic music.  We are simply watching the dawn of realization spread over her face over what she has done.

This is fascinating for so many reasons, as it's something we so seldom see in action movies, and especially action movies based on video games, where killing your opponent is usually the key to survival.  Movies seldom slow down long enough to show the hero's reaction to taking another life.  This has special emphasis, as it's the first time Lara has ever killed a person.  Yes, this is somewhat of an origin story for the tomb raiding heroine, who has been one of the biggest stars in the video game world since hitting the scene back on the original Playstation in 1996.  Fans will no doubt remember the two earlier movies from the early 2000s that featured Angelina Jolie in the title role.  Those were relatively harmless and brainless blockbusters that played up the sex angle of Miss Croft, and featured a lot of over the top action.

This new Tomb Raider movie is a much darker and more somber affair.  It's more about survival, and it features Lara in her early 20s.  She's beautiful, but not confident.  She has no idea where she's going in her life, and is not the experienced adventurer that Jolie portrayed in the earlier two movies.  She is haunted by the disappearance and presumed death of her father, Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West), who left her seven years ago for reasons unknown.  But now, Lara has uncovered information on where he might have gone.  In a hidden recording that Richard left behind for his daughter, he tells Lara that he had been leading a double life the whole time.  He was not just the wealthy businessman that Lara grew up knowing.  He also had a passion for uncovering ancient artifacts and uncovering lost civilizations.  His main goal was to uncover information about an ancient Queen of Japan who supposedly possessed supernatural powers that could kill with a single touch.  He thought he had finally discovered the location of the Queen's tomb where she was trapped and buried, and that is where he was headed when he disappeared.

Lara sets off for the island her father headed for so long ago with the aid of a fellow adventurer who has a connection to her father (Daniel Wu).  A massive storm at sea leaves them shipwrecked on the island, where they find an evil organization known as The Trinity is scouring the island for the exact same tomb that her father went missing looking for.  Lara is quickly captured by the group's leader, the charismatic Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins), and when she eventually escapes, she must use survival skills for the first time.  This is when we get that great moment where Lara must take a life for the first time, and we see the impact it has on her.  We also see her in pain from her struggles to escape, and her barely clinging to life in one moment.  It made me stop and realize how seldom we get to see that in movies.  With recent films like Wonder Woman or the female soldiers of Wakanda in Black Panther, the heroines are seen as being strong, capable, and almost unbeatable.  Here, Lara is not just strong, but also vulnerable and quite close to breaking down.  Her determination that drives her to live and keep on fighting is not only admirable, but an interesting angle for an action film.

Had the movie continued in this direction, I would have been completely behind it.  Unfortunately, after we get a few moments of this, Tomb Raider all but drops this angle.  It stops developing Lara as a sympathetic character, and instead turns her into one of those heroes who is so skilled with a bow and arrow that she can take on an entire group of thugs armed to the teeth with automatic weapons without breaking a sweat.  She can also solve ancient riddles and traps that have baffled her fellow tomb raiders for centuries in a matter of seconds, just by glancing at the puzzle.  The traps that Lara must survive do seem to be like something out of one of the games (in one memorable sequence, she and some others are trapped in a room where the floor is slowly falling apart, and she has to solve a puzzle surrounding color-based stones to stop it), and given how quickly she solves them, it's like she's using cheat codes or an FAQ.

Here is a movie that simply starts out with a lot of potential, and then sells itself short just when it seems like it's about to go to some interesting places.  The early scenes with Lara uncovering the mystery behind her father's disappearance and her fight for survival led me to think that this would be the first movie based on a video game to get it right, and give us a sympathetic hero who was strong as well as emotionally invested.  But then the movie just kind of seems to lose interest in this idea, and starts to give us nothing but stunts.  And these are impressive stunts, made all the more so by the fact that Alicia Vikander pushed herself to the physical limit and performed them all herself.  Best of all, the movie never sexualizes or minimizes her abilities.  Not only is she impressive in how she bulked up for her role, but she also brings her strong talent to the film's more dramatic moments.

Unfortunately, Tomb Raider suffers from a common problem with video game adaptations, which is trying to squeeze the plot of a game that lasts around 10 hours or so into a two hour film structure.  The plot is a bit too straightforward, and aside from a rather weak twist, there are really no surprises.  It is Vikander who carries the film, and when the movie is allowing her to explore Croft's different sides, the movie works.  It stops working when she straps on her bow and arrow, and just starts using the villains as target practice.  The supporting characters also are not as interesting as they could have been, and seem to be victims of the plot's rushed structure.  We never know much about them, outside of basic motivations.  A good example would be Lara's main friend and sidekick on the adventure, whom we learn is an alcoholic and has a gambling problem, and then nothing else, as he's basically pushed into the background.  He always seems poised to be getting his own subplot at any moment, but the movie keeps on cutting away from him just when it seems like he will take focus for a while.

I have a feeling that fans of the video games will get behind this film, as it does absolutely no disservice to the franchise or its lead heroine.  Speaking as someone with little history of the games, I started out liking it quite a lot, but little by little, the movie lost me.  I was never bored or dismissive of what I was watching, but I could also sense the moment when the movie stopped working for me.  That being said, I would welcome seeing Vikander in the role again, provided the script gives her a full character to play, instead of half of one.


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