Vikander Hits the Mark as a Grittier, Unseasoned 'Tomb Raider'

Directed by: Roar Uthaug; Runtime: 118 minutes
Grade: B

Roar Uthaug's Tomb Raider marks the first time that a videogame property has been given a second, non-sequel chance at leaving its mark on the Hollwood scene, though gamers who have stuck with Lara Croft over the years may be quick to point out that this is a dramatically different version of the character. The iconic heroine received a successful reboot-slash-prequel in the gaming realm roughly half a decade ago, and while that version of Croft exhibits similar gusto, smarts, and fondness for archaeology, she's also leaner and greener as she develops the survival skills that'll shape her into a formidable explorer. So, it isn't unreasonable to argue that she's close to an entirely different Lara Croft … and since this adaptation works from the narrative of the rebooted game, it's an entirely different adaptation than the Angelina Jolie vehicle several years back. Both share one key puzzle piece in common, though: the lead actress' embodiment of the heroine ends up being the strongest element of Tomb Raider, though the movie exploding and crumbling around Alicia Vikander's sturdy portrayal is marginally more substantial.

From the start, it's clear that screenwriter Geneva Robertson-Dworet and her team have watched the first Tomb Raider film and used it for reference, but more as a map of how to create almost the opposite kind of Lara Croft than that of the original. Instead of portraying her as an unabashedly wealthy heiress who's almost invincibly trained and prepared for what's thrown at her, we see this Lara Croft (Vikander) getting taken down in sparring martial-arts matches, crashing her bicycle while zipping around downtown London, and doing whatever she can to make enough money to survive. It's a far cry from the woman who trains with her own personal killer robot, in a inhouse Egyptian tomb, and bounces around on suspension cables in the middle of her mansion for recreation. This Lara Croft isn't the hero made of fantasy, but someone who's trying to built herself into a genuine sort of heroine in the willful absence of her family and their wealth, driven by the disappearance of her father seven years prior.

With a strong English accent complimenting her dialogue, Alicia Vikander adds high-caliber authenticity to Lara Croft, giving her a slim yet durable presence while she grapples with the burdens of essentially being an orphaned member of an illustrious family. Much like other videogame adaptations, there isn't a rush to get to the main action at the beginning and there's plenty of room to bulk up the story's depth and characterization, and this Tomb Raider uses the time to explore a more genuine take on Lara Croft's perceptions of her lineage and her adventure-seeking capabilities. Granted, sure, there's a bit of "Tomb Raider Begins" tonality going on during training sessions, boardroom conversations with her guardian, Anna Miller (Kristen Scott Thomas), and hazy flashbacks to conversations with her father as their family's mansion stands in the background. Vikander's spunkiness while bringing to life Lara Croft's drive to improve herself elevates this expansion of the mythos unseen in the game, tapping into strength and determination that yields an admirable heroine without exaggerating the "girl power!" aspect of it.

The bond with her father serves as a meaningful emotive backbone to how Lara Croft gets whisked into the adventure of Tomb Raider, which forces her to an uninhabited island near Japan, a location tied to mythology and to her father's mysterious professional endeavors. A natural progression of events get her onto a ship and into the company of its captain, Lu Ren (Daniel Wu), testing her wherewithal and acquired skills every step of the way without simply dropping anything in her lap, with Roar Uthaug's conscientious direction lending weight to the beginning of her journey. Once they're in proximity of the island, blockbuster storytelling does put the film on autopilit as Lara finds herself at odds with Mathias Vogel, the wiry leader of an excavation with similar interests to her father's business. Despite Walter Goggins' phenomenal ability to combine intense villainy with little flickers of sympathy for his sacrifices, the moving pieces of his plan and his treatment of Lara fit snugly into the template of a cat-and-mouse chase on an island ... which, admittedly, do echo the broad strokes of the game's overarching plot.

There were some early concerns about the authenticity of the action in Tomb Raider based on the key theatrical trailer, which features Lara lunging over a waterfall from the rusted wing of an airplane to its body, a scene that's more than a stretch due to weight and gravity. Perhaps it's because of an exaggerated memory of the scene in my head, but that bit -- while still there -- seemed to have been edited down to make it more credible, an impression that many of the action sequences gave off. Some ludicrousness still hangs in the air during the film, especially involving all the drama manufactured with missed assault-rifle shots and a particular scene involving a parachute, but Roar Uthaug seems have reined in a lot of potential outlandishness in boat crashes, bow-‘n-arrow kills, and hand-to-hand combat pitting Lara against larger, formidable opponents. He also ensured that Lara never completely becomes that kind of full-throttle action hero, either, coupling Alicia Vikander's aware, roughed-up performance with pushing the character's tolerance level for violence and high-stakes events further and further.

Along with polishing this iteration of Lara Croft into the future jewel for a franchise, the plotting in Tomb Raider, while far from spectacular, gets the job done in a very critical area involving the character: she actually gets to raid a tomb, scaling complicated walls and solving puzzles largely on her own accord. Deep into his take, director Uthaug finds a way of encapsulating the experience of playing the title game and projects it on the big screen, a claim that most videogame adaptations cannot make. Throughout the climax, realism and the supernatural weave together with the expectations and mystery involved with Lara Croft conquering sections of one of her tombs, and while brief, there's a stretch where she's completely alone and working her way through surviving harrowing challenges. While Tomb Raider absolutely could've been both more daring and rational with its storytelling, it's there that this second shot at Lara Croft hits the bullseye in getting the spirit of the character right and utilizing her experiences and obstacles to chisel out a worthwhile heroine, one who'll hopefully rise up for another adventure.

Film review also appeared over at [Click Here]

'Forgotten Children' Give Meaning to Hypnotic, Dark 'Birdboy'

Directed by: Pedro Rivero and Alberto Vazquez; Runtime: 76 minutes
Grade: B-

As the realm of animation continues to evolve with time, so too does the breadth of its target audiences, reaching a point where violent and disturbing animated films engineered for adults -- outside the safe space of Japanese anime -- have found the means to flourish. The works of Ralph Bakshi and the Richard Adams/Martin Rosen team paved the way for these works to discover the right audiences, but it's taken incremental bravery and pushing of boundaries to reach a climate where the likes of Birdboy can take flight. Originating as a short film, this creation from Pedro Rivero and Alex Vasquez blends drugs, depression, and murder in an almost post-apocalyptic environment populated by animals, one that doesn't try to transcend the line separating children's entertainment and that designed for adults. Birdboy telegraphs hauntingly beautiful images and characterizations around its narrative of ruined innocence that won't soon be forgotten, though the widespread, overly ambitious nature of its social commentary prevents it from completely sticking its landing.

On a remote island that was once a fishing community, peace and prosperity flourished among animals of all species, largely hinged on a recently-built industrial factory that kept its population employed. A mysterious explosion has decimated the island, though, leaving the mice to largely fend for themselves and salvage for valuables amid the trash rubble of the aftermath. The tone has obviously shifted in the town, observed directly in young student Dinky's household, in which her devout Christian parents disparage her studies and attitude. As she plots to flee the island along with the other students, a murdered drug dealer's elusive son -- Birdboy -- struggles with an addiction to several different substances that seem to keep his darker tendencies under control. Elsewhere, the film offers a glimpse at other families coping with the post-incident environment, such as a fisherman trying to make a living in fishless waters and a father-child mice duo scouring the violent wasteland for scrap metal.

Alberto Vasquez and his art department render haunting water-locked landscapes and nightmarish imagery in Birdboy, where deceptively soft and calming shades that bring life to the island are interrupted by brash reds and acidic greens jumping out from oppressive shadows. Lighthouses, garbage-dump mountains, and almost Miyazaki-like cavern sanctuaries for forest life form into a mesmerizing portrait of a once beautiful place rendered unnerving and ominous, something that also carries over into the delicately detailed mammals and avian creatures alike. In fact, the nuances of the animation makes sure that those watching will pick up on the sadness and futility within both the characters and their surroundings, and while the world's rendering is indeed beautiful, that lack of joy radiates from every character through their strung-out eyes and despondent expressions. Perhaps the closest thing to joy can be spotted when Birdboy gets a much-needed fix and collapses on a pier, whereas there's a gradient of anger, fear, and viciousness observed throughout the children's trials.

The visual adventure of Birdboy does mesmerize from start to finish, but it isn't always reliable or symbolically comprehensible, and that applies to many of the film's most provocative visions. Directors Vasquez and Rivero establish early on that heavily-shadowed imagery featuring manipulated versions of the setting's creatures is tied to drug use or otherwise hallucinatory elements, and that grows complicated as these elements -- such as a large spider escaping from a person's nose and expanding in size -- begin to enter the physical world. For the most part, drawing distinctions between fantasy and reality isn't difficult with Birdboy, but the film's insistently metaphorical ambitions and varied world connections muddy things enough to make one second-guess the authenticity of what they're seeing. The consequences of those sequences typically latch onto enough perspective to figure out what's really happened, and personal interpretation fills in the rest of those gaps. This is certainly a stimulating viewing experience, one that doesn't hold the audience's hand while guiding them through its environment.

Birdboy, which also carried the subtitle The Forgotten Children, is also rather dark, to a degree where it's difficult to express whether I genuinely enjoyed where the narrative took me and made me feel, largely because of this absence of tonal variety. Those who appreciate bravery through the medium of animation should find something to be impressed with in its patchwork of dark tales, in which the storytelling addresses the reliance on antidepressant pills, paying for the sins of one's parents, and the violence that seems from desperation and competition over the means to feed one's family. Quite a bit of death occurs in the story, and the directors don't turn away from it, allowing blood to spill, claws to scrape, and bullets to pass through bodies … or heads. A few moments get to Watership Down levels of hack-‘n-slash brutality, but these animals have been anthropomorphized in ways that elevate hardships, especially those within the lawless realm of mice salvagers among the factory wasteland. Except for Birdboy and his ability to fly, these are human characters in animal skin, and their suffering is felt through that lens.

None of the bleakness of Birdboy lacks purpose, though, as nearly every facet of the film comments on grievances one might have with the spectrum of society, stemming from industrialization and pouring into the desperation of class inequality and abusing substances to block out reality. To the filmmakers' credit, each of the topics explored requires some additional mental legwork to reach their meaning, such as how drugs factor into Birdboy's inner demons and how cutthroat mice reveal what they do about the ugliness of desperation, which keeps its takedowns from appearing heavy-handed. Birdboy critiques so many ugly elements of society that it can also appear imprecise and broad-stroked, which doesn't pair well with the unyielding austerity of their surface narrative, overburdening it with pessimistic aspirations that are given only the faintest sparkles of hope in a nihilistic conclusion. Salvaging optimism from the rubble of what transpires is a challenge, and the splendor of visuals and thematic intent can only go so far toward making such a harrowing journey worth taking.

For the full Blu-ray review, head over to [Click Here]

Disastrous 'Woody Woodpecker' Dumps On Family Friendliness

Directed by: Alex Zamm; Runtime: 91 minutes
Grade: D-

While I wouldn't classify myself as a Woody Woodpecker fan, exactly, the character was ingrained into my childhood in several different ways that made the prospect of checking out a live-action movie somewhat appealing. On top of seeing many of the cartoons and learning how to belt out the bird's signature psychotic laugh, Woody's wild locks and facial expressions made up one of the first cartoon characters -- more so than Mickey or Bugs -- that I learned to draw while developing the hobby of my youth. So when the high-pitched giggling and spiky red-feathered appearance zoomed onto the screen for the trailer, a bit of nostalgic excitement shot through me … which quickly disappeared when viewing the live-action movie that was trying to exist around him. The hopes that maybe the length of a feature film spreading the inanity out might benefit Woody Woodpecker proved to be for naught, as this live-action, computer-generated hybrid is an erratic and wholly unfunny mess from start to finish.

Out in the middle of the forests in Washington, Woody Woodpecker (voiced by Eric Bauza) lives a relatively carefree life, dodging the pursuits of hunters and raiding campsites for food whenever people come to his neck of the woods. He's reportedly the last of his species, making him a valuable commodity to poachers. Elsewhere in Seattle, a high-profile lawyer, Lance Walters (Timothy Omundson), gets removed from his position at his firm, and his upcoming free time has sparked an idea in his head: to take a stretch of lakeside real estate that his family owns and build a ultra-modern home, which he and his ritzy decorator fiancée Vanessa (Thaila Ayala) hope to sell for a profit. With his semi-estranged son (Graham Verchere) in tow due to a family crisis, Lance heads out to survey the land, only to discover that there's a chaotic woodpecker complicating matters. A war begins between the lawyer and the bird, eventually getting local poachers and park rangers involved, as Lance tries to figure the right things to do involving his property and his son.

It's no secret that cartoons from the ‘40s and ‘50s were peculiarly violent, but the exaggerated animation styles -- and the fact that they mostly involved animals being violent with other animals -- made it so that there was enough divorcement from reality to not be all that disturbing. The opening scene of Woody Woodpecker shows that it's going to try and bring that embellished slapstick violence to the live-action realm, in which Woody tricks two human poachers into aiming and firing rifles at one another; that they're using knockout darts instead of live rounds doesn't really take away from the imagery. The woodpecker isn't done there, either, deliberately causing construction workers to electrocute themselves and igniting a gas-powered stove with someone inside an RV. Since the humor solely relies on the slapstick nature of the violence, these scenes result in the widening of eyes instead of sparking laughs, and that's because these calculated hazards created by the woodpecker are in an overtly family-centered film.

Had Woody Woodpecker gone full-throttle into being a sadistic, adult-intended sendup of the brazenness of classic cartoons, pushing the limits of the bird's lunacy, it possibly could've worked on a completely different and unusual level. However, Alex Zamm attempts to balance the chaos with obligatory family drama involving the problematic father-son relationship, the dejected teenager finding his place in a new town, and the wealthy urbanite building some understanding of the outdoors. Much like a cartoon or many other TV or DTV family movies, the surrounding storytelling is frustratingly simplistic, where high-profile lawyer Lance can just through throw heaps of money at any problem with his house construction. Zero surprises are to be found in what happens along the way, falling into cliché after cliché that are only marginally boosted by Galavant's Timothy Omundson sarcastic energy, who awkwardly fits between the live-action dramatics and cartoon shenanigans.

The most jarring aspect of Woody Woodpecker comes in how the animated bird himself swirls together with the tangible world of humans, underscored by incongruous CG effects for the bird and lackluster acting from all involved. Unlike how Who Framed Roger Rabbit directly handles the line separating toons and humans, Woody ends up being the only animated aspect in a real-world environment, persistently breaking the fourth wall by chatting with the audience and going about his business as a near-invincible tornado that doesn't obey the laws of nature. With an insufferable voice and fondness for destruction, the fact of the matter is that Woody straight-up isn't a likable character -- though, home owners may be quick to point out that he's pretty much in-character for a woodpecker -- and that isn't helped by his constant bird-dropping antics and fart jokes. Woody Woodpecker gets a whole lot worse as it approaches family-movie redemption and peril, so first instincts about what's already going on should be considered, whether it's for a new generation of kids watching the bird or for the mildly nostalgic.

For the full Blu-ray review, head over to [Click Here]