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Not Half Bad Movies in Theaters this Weekend

Hope Madden Hope Madden Not Half Bad Movies in Theaters this WeekendStill from Love, Simon, via IMDb.
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A handful of not-too-bads plus an animation celebration are in theaters this week.

Tomb Raider

Halfway through the new Tomb Raider, I thought to myself: “Well, you can’t have this kind of movie without those archetypes.” You know the ones: reluctant hero, loyal sidekick, irredeemable bad guy, henchmen with machine guns.

And then I second guessed myself, “Can you?”

That’s Tomb Raider’s most damning feature—it’s so familiar that it’s forgettable.

It’s not that Tomb Raider ISN’T fun (it is) or exciting (bike races, waterfalls, and bringing a bow to a gunfight, oh my!). It’s just that the relentless action is tired. The few connections between characters are forced or thrown away.

Alicia Vikander (Ex-Machina, The Danish Girl) gets few genuine moments to act, and she crushes it, but director Roar Uthaug seems afraid of the intimacy between Vikander and the camera. Every time she connects with a real emotion, the camera cuts away to a wide shot.

The exposition and key plot points are repeatedly spoon-fed to the audience. Lara Croft (Vikander) has to repeat each clue out loud as she discovers the answer to a riddle. Ugh.

And I’ve never seen a flashback that couldn’t be replaced with better writing. Tomb Raider has a lot of flashbacks.

All the hand-to-hand combat feels realistic though many feats are delightfully improbable. Those improbable feats crisply reflect the basic mechanics of a video game: swinging from a hanging rope, traveling hand over hand along a railing, moving quietly through an encampment unnoticed.

There are other women and more diversity than expected, but not enough. A story that starts out vibrantly quickly narrows focus to a bunch of white people (plus sidekicks) fighting over a mystery of the Orient, while laborers (POC) who don’t speak English are gunned down for dramatic effect. #yikes

Tomb Raider doesn’t redeem nearly as many sins of its genre as it repeats. It’s a predictable action adventure. No more, no less.

Grade: C+

Love, Simon

Some of the most tired young adult clichés— narration, idealized characters, the dreaded climactic essay reading— show up in Love, Simon. 

So why is it such a winner?

Heart, smarts and humor for starters. But, it’s also the rare movie that earns points just for being here in the YA crowd, and for rightly assuming there’s no reason it shouldn’t be.

Simon (Nick Robinson) is an upper middle class high schooler in Georgia, with some awesome friends (Katherine Langford, Alexandra Shipp, Jorge Lendeborg, Jr.), awesome parents (Jennifer Garner, Josh Duhamel) and a big gay secret.

But then another kid at school comes out anonymously online, which leads Simon to adopt a fake name and reach out by email. So while much of the student body is guessing who the “secret gay kid” might be, two online pen pals bond over the uncertainties of being themselves.

Director Greg Berlanti (Life as We Know It) keeps the film moving, wrapping it with a clean, welcoming shine that would be just too peachy-keen if not for the smartly self-aware script from veteran TV writers Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker.

It can’t go unnoticed that the film treats homophobic taunting as more mischievous than dangerous, but even that misstep feels ironically right. Everything about Love, Simon, from the casting to the set design, is effortlessly likable and comfortable, feeding the notion that this is nothing more or less than another teen romance.

It becomes a sweet, entertaining one, and it just might make some audience members feel a little less alone.

That makes Simon pretty easy to love.

Grade: B+

7 Days in Entebbe

A film that sells the importance of negotiation while it details a harrowing plan of action, 7 Days in Entebbe gets caught in the awkward space between show and tell.

In July of 1976, Israeli Defense Forces invaded Uganda’s Entebbe airport for a daring rescue of hostages from a hijacked jetliner out of Tel Aviv. Bolstered by the support of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, the terrorists were seeking the release of 40 Palestinian militants—as well as 13 other prisoners around the world.

As Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (Lior Ashkenazi) weighed his options, Defense Minister Shimon Peres (Eddie Marsan) led the chorus calling for military intervention.

Director Jose Padilha (Elite Squad/the Robocop reboot) assembles the drama with precision, beginning with the motivations of German hijackers Wilfried Bose (Daniel Bruhl) and Brigitte Kuhlmann (Rosamund Pike). Padilha’s approach is detailed and informative, but often prone to favoring exposition over illustration.

Leading an outstanding ensemble cast, Bruhl and Pike both give terrific performances, letting us glimpse the early commitment of their characters and a growing disillusionment when the ordeal drags on. As the weight of the hijackers’ German heritage grows heavy amid their Jewish captives, the pair deal with their guilt in different ways, both finding an effective authenticity thanks to Pike and Bruhl.

Gregory Burke’s script has moments of bite (“You’re here because you hate your country. I’m here because I love mine.”) but retraces its steps too often, and the film feels like it’s running in place. Even more problematic is a curious approach to the actual rescue, when tension is undercut by the need to draw parallels with a well-rehearsed dance performance.

The payoff the film needs to resonate as more than a well-produced history lesson never materializes, and it leaves shrugging its shoulders at the elusive nature of peace.

Grade: B-

19th Annual Animation Show of Shows

Whimsy, melancholy, existential dread—the absurdity of human existence. What can tackle it all?

Cartoons can.

The 19th Annual Animation Show of Shows returns, jam-packed with tales both celebratory and cautionary. Human interconnectedness becomes a theme that runs throughout the program, one that feels simultaneously contemporary and retro.

From the brief, flippant Unsatisfying—a quick montage of irritating moments—to the lengthy morality tale Hangman, the film finds a wonderful balance in tone and mood, shifts mirrored in the ever-changing and always wonderful artistic styles of the shorts.

Traditional hand-animation, chalk and pencil, computer-generated art and even animation drawn directly on film stock, the choices made by the animators create unique atmospheres where each story can breathe and show off.

There’s not a weak moment, truth be told, as headier fare is punctuated with musical flourishes or a quick laugh. The variety within the program and the sequencing of the shorts strengthens not only the overall experience but the human-ness that underlies the program’s unifying themes.

Grade: A-

Also opening in Columbus:
I Can Only Imagine (PG)
Us and Them (NR)

Read more from Hope at MADDWOLF and listen to her weekly film podcast THE SCREENING ROOM.

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