Alicia Vikander

Tomb Raider

 

23/03/18

Has there ever been a decent video-game movie adaptation? From Super Mario to Assassin’s Creed, the concept seems somehow doomed  to failure. Tomb Raider has, of course, already been tried before – with middling results and Angelina Jolie in the title role. Now here’s Alicia Vikander staking her claim to that fabled bow and arrow, and to be fair to her, she certainly looks the part. She’s clearly put in hours down the gym honing the old biceps and triceps. She’s also ditched the ridiculous hot pants of her video avatar in favour of clothing more suitable for jungle exploration, which is, I think, a good thing. I’m not sure about the posh boarding school accent, though.

We first meet her in London, where she’s earning pennies as a bicycle courier, rather than signing the paperwork that will entitle her to the Croft mansion and its accompanying billions. (Yeah, right, like that would happen.) You see, her father, Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West), has been missing for seven years, but Lara, always a bit of a daddy’s girl, isn’t quite ready to give up on his possible return, despite her legal guardian, Ana (Kristen Scott Thomas), continually urging her to sign on the dotted line. It seems that Lord Richard has disappeared while looking for a legendary island off the coast of Japan, the last resting place of an evil Empress, reputed to have the power to destroy the world. When Lara discovers her father’s secret lair in the cellar of his stately home, she also finds a map of the island and a video of her father urging her to destroy it. Does she follow his advice? Well, it would be a pretty short and dull story if she did…

Instead, she heads to Japan and enlists the help of ship’s captain Lu Ren (Daniel Wu) – somebody else with father-issues – to take her to the island. Once there, she discovers that an evil organisation is also looking for the tomb of the Empress and has sent the ruthless (and very sweaty) Mathias Vogel (Walter Goggins) to oversee the operation. But who will reach the tomb first? And what kind of welcome are they likely to receive?

For all the running, leaping, swimming and fighting that Lara is regularly called upon to perform, the film feels curiously turgid and only fizzes into life intermittently. The blend of Indiana Jones-ish high adventure mixed with a touch of the paranormal is probably a fair encapsulation of the original game but, no matter how high the production values employed by director Roar Uthaug, there’s a terrible sense of ‘seen it all before’ hovering over nearly every scene. And… does it really matter that the storyline doesn’t make an awful lot of sense? It does to me, anyway. But I’m finicky like that.

This is a thick-eared slab of undemanding light entertainment that never really cooks up the necessary head of steam needed to power its own concept. A post-credits sequence optimistically sets up a possible sequel but, based on this, I certainly won’t be the first in the queue to watch it.

And I ask again. Has there ever been a decent video-game movie adaptation? If so, I haven’t seen it.

3 stars

Philip Caveney

Ex Machina

06/03/17

There’s always the one that got away, isn’t there? I somehow managed to miss Ex Machina’s all-too-brief appearance on the big screen and I’ve been trying to catch up with it ever since, largely because I’d heard such good things about it. Discovering that it’s now available on Netflix was therefore great news.

Alex Garland’s 2014 movie, is a deceptively simple affair, pretty much a four-hander, laid out with cool clear linearity. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) discovers he has won the opportunity of a lifetime – to travel to the remote hi-tech hideaway of Nathan (Oscar Isaac) the CEO of the world’s biggest internet company and to spend a week with him, getting a sneak preview of his latest creation. This turns out to be Ava (Alicia Vikander) an AI, and one so convincing that Nathan challenges Caleb to apply the Turing Test to her – designed to examine a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behaviour equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human. Is she good enough to pass?

Caleb goes to work and soon establishes a powerful rapport with Ava – but, as he constantly asks himself, is she genuinely interested in him, or simply using him as a way of staying alive? Because, as Nathan makes all too clear, if she fails the test then she is destined to be replaced by a newer, better model. Nathan, meanwhile, is prone to drinking himself half to death and dancing around the apartment with his live-in housekeeper, Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno). As the story develops it becomes apparent that nothing in this  state-of-the-art home is quite what it appears to be… and soon even Caleb is questioning his own existence.

The beauty of Ex Machina is the way in which it expertly unfolds its intriguing story, constantly pulling the rug out from under the viewer, until you don’t really know what to expect next. Vikander offers a fascinating performance in the central role, and Gleeson, Isaac and Mizono are all totally believable. If like me, you missed this film first time around, here’s your chance to catch up. It’s really rather good.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Jason Bourne

Unknown

30/07/16

The Bourne franchise has been through some interesting twists and turns since its inception in 2002. Created by director, Doug Limon, the first instalment was successful enough to engender two assured sequels, both directed by Paul Greengrass, at which point its influence could be seen in several other films, most notably in Casino Royale, where the Bond series could almost have been accused of plagiarising Greengrass’s frantic, shakey-cam style. When Matt Damon and Greengrass both announced they’d had enough, The Bourne Legacy attempted to fill the gap with Jeremy Renner stepping into the lead role, but it failed to do the kind of numbers that the previous films had achieved and many people thought that it had run its course.

Now, despite all their protestations, Damon and Greengrass are back at the helm and the big question on everyone’s lips is ‘can they pull it off a third time?’

The answer is a resounding ‘yes.’ There may not be much depth to these films but they do grip like a steel vice as they race relentlessly from one chase to another, while all the supporting characters gleefully double cross each other at every opportunity. This is kinetic cinema at its most compelling. It puts you right in the driver’s seat and it’s an enthralling, exciting ride.

When we first meet Jason in this adventure, he’s been reduced to illegal boxing to make ends meet, something he does with his customary mixture of skill and melancholy – but when Nicky Parsons (Julia Styles) comes back into his life, it soon becomes evident that Bourne is not yet finished with Treadstone and it is not finished with him. Reptillian CIA director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) is still pulling the strings and now he has ambitious new recruit Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) to help him engineer the capture of his most elusive enemy. He also has The Asset (Vincent Cassel) hiding behind every corner with a high-powered rifle, ready to blow Bourne’s brains across the screen should he try to evade the elaborate traps that have been set for him by the powers-that-be. And just to add a touch of contemporary relevance, there’s a Mark Zuckerberg-like entrepreneur (Riz Ahmed) who’s multi-billion dollar social network empire has, it appears, been built on rather dodgy foundations.

Stir it all together with a selection of pulverising car chases, brutal punch ups and vicious shoot-outs and we have another pulse pounding instalment of one of the most successful franchises in film history. If you liked the other films, you’ll enjoy this one. You might argue that Jason Bourne offers nothing new to the established formula but when it’s put together as brilliantly as this, you’ll get no complaints from me.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Testament of Youth

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27/01/16

What a useful thing Netflix is; a handy way of catching up with all those movies you somehow managed to miss on the big screen. Testament of Youth is one such film. Overshadowed by bigger, brasher options on its initial release, it slipped quietly through the multiplexes of our green and pleasant land, making barely a ripple. Luckily, it works well enough on the small screen. Based on Vera Brittain’s landmark book, we first meet Vera (Alicia Vikander) on Armistice day, looking decidedly distraught, while all around her are celebrating. Then we slip back in time to discover the string of incidents that have brought her to such a state.

Here is an England of eternal summers, where the upper classes bathe in lakes and wander in meadows with barely a care in the world. Vikander certainly looks the part of the English Rose, even if her accent occasionally gives her origins away. Vera is a ‘bluestocking’ who wants nothing more than the chance to study at Oxford, like her brother, Edward (Taron Egerton), even if their father (Dominic West) would rather see Vera bashing the keys of a piano and hunting for a suitable husband. But she sticks to her guns and passes the University’s entrance examination. Fairly soon, she meets Roland (her Game of Thrones co-star, Kit Harrington) and love starts to blossom between them. But of course, the advent of World War One is lurking in the wings and with barely a pause for breath, Roland and Edward enlist in the British army and march away to do battle; whereupon, Vera throws in her course at Oxford, enrols as a nurse and eventually ends up at the Front, nursing soldiers, many of them German.

It’s a handsomely mounted film, that manages to resist being too chocolate-boxy – scenes of soldiers with their arms and legs blown off soon see to that – and if it’s not the most hard-hitting dramatisation you’ve ever seen, nevertheless its compelling enough to hold your attention for a couple of hours and to confirm the notion that, yes, war is a terrible thing and wouldn’t we all be a lot better off it the powers-that-be could just agree to get along with each other? If also offers the opportunity to spot a whole string of notable actors in cameo roles, always a bonus.

If like me, you missed this on the big screen, here’s your chance to catch up with it. It’s well worth your attention.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Danish Girl

01/01/15

The Danish Girl tells the true story of 1920s landscape artist Einar Wegener, and his transformation into Lili Elbe, the woman he always knew he was supposed to be. Eddie Redmayne stars as the transgender pioneer, but it is Alicia Vikander, as Gerda (Einar’s wife), who really steals the show.

This is a good movie, with a lot of heart. The central relationship and its emotional complexities are explored unflinchingly, and the characters are nuanced and sometimes difficult. Gerda’s bond with Lili is especially dichotomous, as Lili’s emergence serves both to undermine her marriage and elevate her art (Gerda’s portraits of Lili ensure her success as an artist).

It’s beautifully shot: all gorgeous landscape or cityscape, costumes and décor. There isn’t a drab corner in this film, and maybe that’s the reason why it doesn’t quite reach the heights it could; it’s all a little too pretty, even the ugly stuff.

And there is, or should be, a lot of ugly stuff. Lili was one of the first people to undergo sex reassignment surgery – and the consequences were brutal. There need to be some darker elements to make this really clear.

There’s no denying Eddie Redmayne’s skill in depicting both Einar and Lili, but the performance is a little too mannered for my taste. His portrayal of femininity is somewhat overdone: too arch, too simpering, too coy. Maybe this was true of Lili Elbe herself, but it feels a little old-fashioned for a contemporary audience, as if the telling itself has snagged somehow on the very question of gender constructs it purports to explore.

But these are quibbles. It’s an important story, and a very watchable film.

4 stars

Susan Singfield