Lara Croft was best known for her exaggerated physical assets (rendered as Madonna-worthy pointed polygons) and short shorts than as any sort of character. She was realized on the big screen in 2001’s Tomb Raider as an elite physical specimen portrayed by Angelina Jolie, where the filmmakers went the added step of padding Jolie’s bosom to better reflect the source material’s image. The filmmakers literally thought this aspect would be make-or-break with fans, as if Jolie herself was not naturally vivacious enough. As you can imagine, Lara Croft was primarily seen as a sexy avatar, whether on the small screen or the big screen. This new Tomb Raider aims to better ground its story, tone, and central heroine, and it mostly succeeds. This is a solid, pleasantly enjoyable mid-tier action movie that might also qualify as the best video-game-to-film adaptation so far (sorry Uwe Boll).
Lara (Alicia Vikander) is struggling in the wake of her father’s (Dominic West) disappearance. It’s been years but she holds onto hope that dear old dad is still out there. One day, she discovers her father’s secret study and a video message he recorded confessing why he left. He’s seeking a fabled tomb on a hidden island off the coast of Japan, a tomb devoted to a powerful goddess of myth who sacrificed her admirers. Also looking for the tomb is Vogel (Walton Goggins) and a team of armed mercenaries. Lara must stay ahead of the mercenaries, find her father and the long-lost hidden tomb.
This is a Lara Croft stripped down and absent the male gaze, which has defined her travails just as much as the treasure hunting adventures. There’s not a single shot in the movie that seeks to ogle Vikander’s lean body. Even her outfit, as mentioned a staple of Croft’s early appeal, is a modest take top and khakis. The emphasis this time is on what she endures and overcomes rather than the curvature of her body. This is an attempt at an origin tale, rebooting Lara for a new generation of fans. She’s less the cool buxom sexpot with the twin pistols than a struggling young woman facing her fears. This is the first time Lara Croft has been envisioned as a character. There’s a level of broader realism that the movie holds onto, positioning this Croft as less the gun blazing super cool badass and more as a stealthy, plucky, and scrappy figure of moderate action. There are moments where she hides and moments where she runs, as they are the best recourse. She’s not imposing in her build and poise like a Gina Carano (Haywire) but Vikander’s got some serious moves. With all that in mind, let’s not get too carried away here. Lara Croft may have some extra dimensions but she’s not exactly a fully formed, three-dimensional character or boasting the kind of magnetic personality that drew us to Indiana Jones or even a Nathan Drake. She’s capable but also limited in interest and charisma.
The action is invigorating enough and given a clear scope of play. Norwegian director Roar Uthaug (The Wave) orchestrates the action in clean long shots and precise edits, allowing the audience a clear sense of what is happening. A frantic bicycle chase and foot chase in the first act are given extra vitality by a roaming camera that takes in the full view. There’s enough variety in the action and natural consequences to keep things interesting. This is a movie that doesn’t feel overpowered with CGI, even though I know it’s present. Uthaug makes a point of emphasizing practical effects and sets, which adds a further level of realism to the excitement. I’d call it a more pared down, realistic version of an action adventure but it still has outlandish set pieces like Lara finding refuge atop a crumbling WWII era bomber that just so happens to be wedged atop a rock face overlooking a steep waterfall. Even during these moments, and the last act takes place almost entirely within the ancient tomb and its traps, the movie keeps things relatively credible. It’s fun without being too flippant and serious enough without losing its sense of amusement. Tomb Raider reminded me a lot of a big-screen version of an Uncharted game, a rollicking adventure that also feels rooted in our own world, but with a hint of the supernatural creeping along the edges. The conclusion has a few nice surprises following this pattern even with the possibility of actual zombies emerging.
Vianker (The Danish Girl) acquits herself nicely in the realm of action-adventure. She gained twelve pounds of muscle and has a pretty impressive six-pack. Vikander is a smaller actress by nature but the filmmakers do a fine job of placing her in believable action scenarios that rely upon her athleticism. Her Lara is a stubbornly independent protagonist who refuses to give up, which makes her a winning force even when her personality fails to sufficiently light up the screen. Vikander hurls herself into the role, performing an impressive array of stunts, and yelping along to the genre demands.
There are some plot holes that are hard to ignore, mostly pertaining to motivations. In the first act, we learn tat Lara is heir to a vast fortune of money and a big company that owns many other subsidiaries. However, she refuses to essentially inherit the company because it means having to sign papers declaring her missing father as deceased. I understand the character’s rejection of wanting to accept her father’s death, but when taken to this extent it becomes almost comical. Lara is seen scraping by for enough money to survive on her own. She’s forced to pawn her heirlooms and work as a bicycle messenger. She’s struggling to get by and yet her pride is standing between her and a massive fortune. This is just stupid. What’s to stop Lara from signing the paperwork, inheriting the fortune, and using said fortune to continue the search for her father? There’s also the motivation of her absentee father, who left to thwart the bad guys from finding the special tomb. However, he inadvertently leads them there because he was tracked. Had he not even left, the bad guys would not have found the island’s location and he could have been in Lara’s life. This is transparent potting to simply move the pieces across a board. Another example is Lu Ren (Daniel Wu) a ship captain ally she picks up that serves no real purpose other than ferrying her to the island. One character that benefits from motivation is the villain, Vogel. He’s not some mustache-twirling rogue but rather a guy hired for a job that wants to go home and see his kids again. It’s a nice, empathetic touch that makes Vogel grounded and a better fit.
Tomb Raider is a smaller, leaner, and enjoyable little action movie of modest ambitions. That sounds very conditional, I’ll admit, but it’s a scaled-down version of an exaggerated character doing splashy, sexy, exaggerated action heroics. It’s a stripped down reboot that grounds the action while still finding enough ways to have fun. It does get a little caught up in the edicts of an origin tale, overpowering moments with “First” significance (First Adventure, First Kill, First Fight, etc.). There are also some head-scratching plot holes that get glossed over to keep things moving along. Vikander is one tough cookie, and the film celebrates her brains as well as her brawn and absent any ogling camerawork. Tomb Raider is a suitably exciting action film that gives some hope for future Croft adventures.
Nate’s Grade: B
The story of the 300 is the story of the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C, 150 years before Alexander the Great. Xerxes (Rodrigo Santiago) has deemed himself a “God king” and his Persian army has been conquering Asian nations and acquiring the most massive military force of its time. He sets his sights on conquering Greece, and to do so must go through the narrow passage of Thermopylae.
King Leonidis (Gerard Butler) assembles 300 of his finest Spartan warriors to thwart the Persian invasion. The Spartans were the super soldiers of their time, a society that valued brute strength and the honor of combat. Children born with imperfections were cast onto the rocks to perish; the society couldn’t afford a weak link in its protection. One day a Persian emissary rides into Sparta carrying the skulls of other kings and princes and a message from Xerxes: submit or you’re next. Well, after the emissary insults Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), he refutes the message and kicks the emissary down a giant black pit in the middle of town (is this where they dump their garbage?). Thus, as they say, it is on. The Greek city-states have no sense of nationalism, so Leonidis commands little support to thwart the advancing Persian hordes. The Spartans have discipline and superior equipment, and because of these advantages they are able to hold back overwhelming numbers from the Persian army.
Back at the home front, Queen Gorgo is wheeling and dealing behind the scenes to state her case to the Spartan assembly. She needs to shore support for more troops to help her husband. Theron (Dominic West) is a member of the priesthood that looks to sexually charged Oracles for guidance. However, he’s willing to drop his pacifist stance if the queen drops her robe and grins and bares it.
Xerxes is not a happy “God king.” He tries appealing to Leonidis, insisting that if he will simply bow down and relent than he will be spared. “Imagine what horrible fate awaits my enemies when I would gladly kill any of my own men for victory,” he threatens. Leonidas replies, “And I would die for any of mine.” The two men (well one man and one God king) go back to their corners ready for another round of this epic slugfest.
The action sequences are intense and director Zack Snyder (2004’s Dawn of the Dead) heightens their realities with surreal touches. He fondly gives life to the bloodshed and exaggerated combat popularized from Frank Miller?s graphic novel. The Sin City author has created another testosterone-soaked hyper-real adventure. The movie doesn’t even flirt with the notion of rigid historical accuracy (I doubt the Spartans fought rhinos, giant mutants, and were done in by a disgruntled hunchback); the film uses Miller’s artwork as a jumping point, which means that the Spartans fight in leather codpieces and red capes and that combat is more one-on-one even after we learn about the important of the phalanx. But quibbling over inaccuracies is a waste of time, because 300 is a pumped-up, super cool action movie that plays out in a vivid dreamscape. The movie was filmed with extensive green screen, much like Sin City was, and it feels like a direct transition of Miller’s pulpy comic book. Even the farewell sex between the King and Queen is stylized and seems to be snippets or panels from a comic book.
Let’s all be honest, there’s something undeniably homoerotic about 300. The movie worships the male form, with rippling abs and bulging biceps lovingly showcased in glowing, sweaty, fawning detail. The movie also focuses on manly men primarily spearing one another with phallic weaponry while the spurting blood dances across the camera in balletic CGI spasms. There?s a definite gay appeal to this film, not that there’s anything wrong with that. However, 300 also manages to curiously be homophobic at the same time (I swear this came to me independently, Phil). Xerxes is designed very as being very fey even at a massive height of eight feet. He lays his hands against Leonidis’ shoulders and asks for him to submit, and you can’t help but wonder what the teen boys in the audience are thinking. Xerxes also has a party tent filled with whores, the disfigured, transvestites, and the overall effeminate opposite of all those Greek macho muscle men the film postures as elite specimens.
The acting is set to one tempo and that’s a mesmerizing use of yell-speak; it’s part guttural and part long-standing bellow that makes any piece of dialogue sound macho. King Leonidis growls, “SPAAAAAAAARTANS! TONIGHT WE DINE IN HELLLLLLLL!” After two hours of this primal style of speech, it becomes somewhat infectious and you want to try it in everyday situations in your life. Next time you’re out with friends at a fine dining establishment, I suggest asking for the salt thusly: “DINING PAAAARTNAAAAAH, COULD. YOOOOOOOOOU. PAAAAAAAAASS. THE SAAAAAAAAAAAALT?!” You’ll be guaranteed to get a reaction. It strains my throat even writing about the 300 yell-speak.
300 is a rousing movie going experience that plays out in a beautiful, pristine dreamscape that closely resembles our planet. The action is highly stylized and frenetic. It’s just that when the film stops to take a breath you start to look elsewhere, and when you do you realize there isn’t much below the blood-caked eye candy shell. 300 is grand spectacle that elicits thrills and chills, but the movie fails to touch on emotions beyond loyalty and courage. Both are essential for a soldier, and one as dedicated as a Spartan warrior, but the lack of substance keeps 300 from being anything other than a visually arresting, if ultimately disposable, two hours at the movies. There’s nothing wrong with a movie whose sole purpose is to quicken the pulse for a short supply of time, and 300 succeeds smashingly with this singular ambition. It is an ass-kicking history lesson that makes me wish I could learn more about Persian executioners with blades for hands at my local library.
Every culture has their own account of a last stand, a small group that heroically held off seemingly superior forces (remember the Alamo?). Snyder and Miller present an entertaining hack-and-slash primer through history that’s rarely dull and often enchanting to the senses. Deep down, there may not be much more to 300 than a lot of pretty pictures and a bunch of chiseled hunks, but that?s enough for most carnage fans with a free afternoon.
Nate?s Grade: B
People love a good villain, and is there any greater villain in modern movies than Hannibal Lector? The flesh-eating, etiquette-minded fiend was most memorably portrayed by Anthony Hopkins in the Oscar-winning Silence of the Lambs. Even though he was only in the film for a whopping 16 minutes (the shortest screen time ever for a Best Actor), Hopkins stole every second. The character has resurfaced in additional movies like 2001’s Hannibal and 2002’s Red Dragon.
The history behind Hannibal Rising is that long-time film producer Dino Di Laurentiis owns the rights to the Hannibal character and essentially told author Thomas Harris, the man behind every Hannibal book, that he was making another movie starring America’s favorite cannibal, and it was going to be a prequel set amidst his boyhood days, and he was going to do it with or without Harris. With a proverbial gun pointed at his head, Harris decided if anyone is going to ruin his character it might as well be himself. He simultaneously wrote a new Hannibal book and a screenplay for it, both tied to be released within a few short months of each other. The results are about what you would expect for an artistic venture born from people wanting more money.
Hannibal Lector is a young kid living in Latvia. His family even has an ancestral castle but this doesn’t matter because it’s 1944 and the Germans and Russians are going at it. His father and mother are mowed down by gunfire as his family flees to a cottage in the woods for protection. Sadly, this will not be the worst thing that happens to Hannibal. A group of deserted soldiers, led by Grutas (Rhys Ifans), finds the cottage and takes refuge in it, hiding from their superiors, the ongoing battles, and the viciously cold winter. Long story short: there’s nothing to eat and the soldiers kill and eat Hannibal’s sister to survive. Flash forward to 1956, and Hannibal (Gaspard Ulliel) is a rebellious Stalinist youth. He escapes his boarding school and heads out to France to find his aunt, Lady Murasaki (Gong Li). She teaches him about the ways of the samurai and sharpens his fighting skills, because that’s what Asian people do in Hollywood movies. Hannibal is haunted by nightmares of his sister?s murder and his inability to protect her. He vows to find the current whereabouts of the men who took her from him and exact bloody revenge.
I guess when you get down to it I never needed to know the back-story to Hannibal Lector. He was such a dominating, frightening, and fascinating presence in Silence of the Lambs, someone who could worm his way inside your head and download everything he needed to know to exploit you. And yet, the man still adhered to his own set of standards, as Clarice remarked that he only ate the “rude.” He’s like a kinky literary professor. In 2005, Hannibal Lector was declared by the American Film Institute as the greatest film villain . . . ever. What I’m trying to get at is that no explanation for what made Hannibal into the demented figure he is would ever be satisfying. I don’t need to know why Hannibal is how he is, just as I didn’t need to know why Willy Wonka is; they just are. There’s also a logistical quirk: because we know this is a prequel, it means Hannibal Lector is never in any danger. He has to survive to populate more books and movies. Hannibal Rising was doomed to fail the second anxious studio execs got dollar signs in their eyes.
The film really drops the ball by turning the most unique villain in modern literature into a mere creepy kid out for vengeance. Hannibal Rising is a gloomy revenge flick, dressed up to feel more astute and highbrow, but it?s nothing but a run at Charles Bronson Death Wish territory. Hannibal tracks down his sister’s killers one by one and plots his bloody revenge, and with each death the film seems to deflate. The character is given a stable of psychological devices you?d find in trashy serial killer page-turners. The fact that he remains moderately sympathetic is a testament our warm feelings for a guy freaking that eats people. Hannibal Rising also ducks risky territory by making the marked men bastards, even 10-something years later. They’re either corrupt authority figures or petty criminals; Grutas even runs a houseboat that he cycles sex slaves in and out of. Splendid. Now, it would be truly daring if the film had the courage to show these men as people trying to do right in the world, continually haunted by the choices they made to survive. That would call into question the nature of violence and forgiveness. The film even hints that Hannibal might have unknowingly eaten his sister as well. The psychological ramifications of that could be really interesting. But no, that’s too much, so what we get are a bunch of sneering stock baddies for Hannibal to systematically pick off.
Hannibal Rising shows its agenda with one very telling scene. When young Hannibal is living with his aunt he scours through her collection of samurai art. Then one mask catches his attention and he places it against his face, and wouldn’t you know it, the mask looks very similar to the one he will eventually wear like 40 years later. Why even include this scene? In 1991’s Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal wore this famous mask for all of one scene. The filmmakers are tipping their hat at what we know with Hannibal; the film is more concerned with reminding us about our memories of a character off screen than the one that’s in the story.
Despite all these failings, Hannibal Rising still manages to be passably entertaining. I credit director Peter Webber (Girl with Pearl Earring) and actor Gaspard Ulliel. Webber keeps the pacing light for a two-hour movie and adds a fine Gothic feel with a crisp, autumn look. He tries hard to bring some art to an overly glorified revenge flick. Ulliel (A Very Long Engagement) is something of a revelation. He digs deep into his character and finds a perverse pleasure in his portrayal of the cinema icon. He’s scary and weird but manages to still be grossly entertaining, even when he’s doing gross things. It’s the sheer power of his performance that makes the film worth watching. I didn’t see this coming from the cute, boyish lovesick kid from Engagement, but Ulliel creates a clockwork-like performance of sinister eeriness. When he glares, his eyes burning with sharp intensity, he has this little dimple on one side of his face, like a permanent mark from evil grinning. He has a terrific look to him and I?d dare say there would be plenty of surprised moviegoers that find themselves thinking Hannibal Lector is a tad bit sexy. Hopefully Ulliel is destined for better things after mastering English so well, something his Engagement co-star seems to still be struggling with in American movies.
There really is no reason for this movie to exist. It’s not bad by any means, it’s just entirely unnecessary. It’s passably entertaining and has some grisly gore to it, but much of it is pure genre. I’m more interested with the older, wiser Hannibal than this young pup. In the pursuit of the almighty dollar, Hannibal Rising sure wants to be a tasty dish. The problem is that this dish has already gone cold.
Nate’s Grade: C