Friday, 13 July 2018

Tomb Raider

Cast: Alicia Vikander, Dominic West, and Walton Goggins

Director: Roar Uthaug

118 minutes (12) 2018
Warner 4K Ultra HD
[Released 16th July]

Rating: 8/10
Review by Christopher Geary

This production is both a prequel and a remake combined. Tomb Raider is very much a comic-book styled origin story, a gritty adventure that’s something not unlike franchise re-launcher Batman Begins (2005), mashed together with TV adventure show The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (1992-3). It starts, of course, with a treasure hunt using clues that only the young Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander) can solve. An inherited key opens her missing dad Richard’s hidden den for secret research projects to prove the supernatural is real.

This discovery prompts reluctant heiress Lara to leave London and embark on a mission overseas, and very soon she’s chasing after muggers. Ship’s captain Lu Ren (Daniel Wu, Geostorm) saves her from a knife fight. These unlikely allies own a map and a journal for guidance but our heroes are on a trail that’s been stone-cold for seven years. The subject of this movie and the object of their search is Himiko, a legendary ‘Queen of Death,’ who was supposedly buried on an island that time forgot, but is actually still just waiting to be unearthed - and probably weaponised - by some corporate villains led by Vogel (Walton Goggins, TV show Justified).


In the stormy Devil’s Sea, the mismatched heroes’ old boat runs aground, but they do survive a shipwreck and reach the remote island’s mountainside. Lara manages to escape from a slave camp, and runs away from gun-men, but falls into further danger on a crashed WW2 plane that’s hanging over a waterfall, an unusual and precarious location for a parachute drop. Lara learns to balance reckless behaviour with courage, turning a grim determination into a moral purpose for her youthful passion. As a practiced archer, she takes up a bow and arrows against heavily armed mercenaries, and later encounters with a series of booby-traps in Himiko’s tomb results in a typical life-and-death struggle against ancient mechanisms, set-up to guard a mythical truth against modern intruders.


Lara is on a steep learning curve here and there’s significant growth for her character, in keeping with her father’s affectionate nickname ‘Sprout’, but the busy events of Tomb Raider form a sundry ordeals of endurance, a nightmarish testing of her mettle that’s forced upon Lara as a result of her somewhat rash decisions. There also seems to be an inevitability to her choices here because she is drawn to solving puzzles (her genius is presented simply as a gift, not earned by any close or intense study), and her father’s disappearance and his suspected death remains the biggest unresolved crisis in her life.


Swedish ballet dancer turned actress Alicia Vikander has enjoyed a quite meteoric rise to Hollywood prominence, with an eclectic CV of movies that includes a couple of genre hits. She played robot-girl Ava in Alex Garland’s controversial SF drama Ex Machina (2015), and the underestimated heroine of Guy Ritchie’s enjoyable spy-fi movie remake The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (also 2015). In Tomb Raider, the actress boasts a keen athleticism that helps to sell the movie’s set-piece stunt-work, and Vikander is clearly a worthy contender for any action-movie heroine of the year award.


Dominic West (Money Monster) is good value as Richard Croft, while the great Kristin Scott Thomas (Darkest Hour), and veteran Derek Jacobi, deliver extended cameos for their minor supporting roles. Norwegian director Roar Uthaug previously made horror slasher Cold Prey (2006), and disaster movie The Wave (2015), demonstrating his favourable ability to promote a strong female lead, and then cope with a larger-scaled production and its notable family-centric theme.

This Ultra HD format disc offers a fine showcase for skin tones and shadows, while rocky textures and dusty explosions all look stunning in HDR on this edition in a premier home-entertainment format. The crisp sound quality is utterly superb, whether capturing the noisy echoes of gunshots in the cavernous tunnels or a half-whispered aside in the Croft boardroom meetings.

As usual for a UHD release, there are some extras on the accompanying Blu-ray disc:
Tomb Raider: Uncovered (seven minutes) looks at how the movie's high production standards, filmed in South Africa, turned Cape Town into Hong Kong. Croft Training (six minutes) charts Vikander’s comprehensive fitness regimen. Breaking Down The Rapids (five minutes) examines the details of a major stunt sequence. Best of all, Lara Croft: Evolution Of An Icon (10 minutes) is a featurette on the franchise development of Tomb Raider, from its 1996 original video game that inspired two great movies - Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001), and Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle Of Life (2003), both starring Angelina Jolie - and was an obvious, but often critically neglected, influence upon J.J. Abrams’ spy-fi TV series Alias (2002-6), that launched Jennifer Garner to stardom.

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Genesis

Cast: Olivia Grant, Chike Okonkwo, and John Hannah

Directors: Freddie Hutton-Mills and Bart Ruspoli

109 minutes (15) 2018
Lion Gate DVD Region 2
[Released 16th July]

Rating: 6/10
Review by Steven Hampton

Whether biblical or not, movies and stories titled ‘Genesis, are usually about a beginning, of some sort. However, this one’s about the end of the world, or the fall of civilisation, at least. “Distress is, after all, the essence of evolution,” asserts newly minted android ABEL (Chike Okonkwo). Are humans doomed to mere survival of apocalypse, or is there really one more chance left (any hope left at the bottom of Pandora's box?), for social progress beyond the current dystopian gloom?


Scottish veteran John Hannah (The Mummy, TV's Spartacus, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.) prowls around in refugee-camp conditions to calm increasing dissent, against callous presidential authority, over an oppressive regime that heralds abject slavery, into peaceful protests about rationing. Olivia Grant leads the main cast as Dr Eve Gabriel (oh dear, is that two biblical references too many?). Political officers in the community bunker of ‘Eden’ test ‘Abel’ for moral choices emerging from its ‘mark 3’ AI. Has the machine got a mind in its technological brain? Can it develop a conscience? Perhaps that depends less upon its core programming, or exposure to learning from human flaws, and has rather more to do with what’s expected of it. “I cannot understand this human obsession with death,” complains the routinely stoic android. Later, an SOS signal is detected, which suggests there are more survivors underground elsewhere, and a mission for Abel is planned in response.


Genesis offers just low-rent post-apocalypse imagery, with car wrecks, and a ruined city painted on the horizon, as the main signs of a supposedly widespread catastrophe. Abel is pursued by soldiers in hazmat suits “One more drop into this pool of resentment and the whole dam could bust.” “Pithy comments and quaint metaphors,” aside, what starts as a serious drama quickly becomes just another action thriller of shoot-outs where very few characters actually know what’s going on, and even viewers who find the frequently pounding score emotionally stirring probably won’t care much. The enraged mob stuffing a victim in a furnace seems like overkill. It’s a sadly pointless moment of shock value to enliven the otherwise stodgy narrative. 


Truth is we have seen all of this before. The bunker mentality that prompts a breakdown in law and order, android saviours turning against unwary creators, or twisty revelations about who is also artificial, and why the intelligent machines were originally made... It’s simply a grab-bag of genre notions assembled to make good use of an easily available, and inevitably low, British production budget. Genesis is reportedly intended as the first of a trilogy, and hints about unmade movies are duly noted when Eve discovers info about an abandoned project named ‘Babel’ (and someone else peruses documents about ‘Jericho’), yet both references only add further confusions, not proper genre sophistication, or extra layers of thematic complexity, to an already muddled and unfortunately messily unfinished plot. So, perhaps this decidedly ‘average’ effort is just suitable for devotees, and home-grown sci-fi completists?



Monday, 2 July 2018

The Humanity Bureau

Cast: Nicolas Cage, Sarah Lind, and Jakob Davies

Director: Rob W. King

95 minutes (15) 2017
101 Films Blu-ray region B

Rating: 6/10
Review by Peter Schilling  

Dystopia... What is it good for? In the movies, it’s usually effective as a satirical narrative framework or a vehicle for contemporary political commentary. In our own late-capitalist milieu of Trump’s America and impending cultural collapse, due to government corruption and mismanagement of natural resources and environmental abuse, dystopian narratives are so commonplace as end-of-the-world conflicts that even casual cinema viewers might suspect all hope for our species, trapped in the fragile balance of economic belief systems and wholly practical concerns is lost. Extinction events loom extra-large, on every shining dream screen, from the superheroic battles of Avengers: Age Of Ultron (2015), to various ongoing sci-fi TV dramas like The 100 and The Handmaid’s Tale.    


While other scenarios challenge our civilisation with sudden catastrophe, the remnants of humanity that collapse into tribalism, or a theological patriarchy, The Humanity Bureau explores how austerity breeds fascistic exclusivity with executions hidden behind a wall of secrecy, and stars Nicolas Cage as government agent Noah Kross. His character arc leads him from being a dutiful employee, due for a promotion, to rogue action hero, attempting to contact and join exiled rebels against homicidal forces of the grimly totalitarian regime that rules all that’s left of a near-future America. Noah travels on a mission to rehab, and relocate, isolated individuals or families to a rumoured utopian community, but this post-apocalypse world’s ‘New Eden’ is anything but welcoming. When he meets single-mother, Rachel (Sarah Lind, WolfCop), and her son (Jakob Davies, The Tall Man), this improbable conspiracy unravels and Noah’s unexpected questioning of Humanity Bureau propaganda results in a series of life-changing decisions with ultimately tragic consequences.     


Chief bad guy Adam (Hugh Dillon) helps to make this stylishly photographed road movie, filmed on Canadian locations, a kind of Logan’s Run for the current zeitgeist for economic and environmental disaster movies. Although The Humanity Bureau does not have one of Nic Cage’s best performances because he fails to attain the manic intensity that’s become his trademark ever since Vampire’s Kiss (1988), and Wild At Heart (1990). Cage’s unique brand of crazy behaviour, as seen more recently in Drive Angry (2011), and his couple of Ghost Rider superhero movies, might well be his defining characteristic as a major star in Hollywood, but he is capable of subtler and nuanced roles, and this SF movie features the actor’s ability to portray the greater depths of an ordinary man seeking redemption - and yes, rediscovering his own humanity, with immense sincerity.