Review Round-Up: March 16


Tomb Raider (dir. Roar Uthaug)

Hot off a very successful reboot of the franchise in 2013, Tomb Raider publisher Square Enix apparently decided it was prime time to reboot the film franchise, too. And the movie clearly hews closely to the game that revitalized the plan, speaking to a much more controlled corporate-synergy strategy than the one that birthed the first two films, in 2001 and 2003. Anyone who’s played the 2013 Tomb Raider will recognize in the film trailer not just Lara Croft’s revamped look from the game, but the setting and even individual cut scenes that have been appropriated for the film.

Here’s the thing, though: although successful, the 2013 Tomb Raider wasn’t that good. Taking too many cues from adventure and survival games of its moment (of course she has a bow and arrow), it played less like a re-imagined Tomb Raider and more like a simplified Uncharted (2007-2016). Narratively, it may have impressed some, but to me it seemed nothing particularly special, except for the amount of physical abuse it subjected Lara to in order to make her character “gritty.” Knowing how closely this film was going to try to stick to the game’s tired, orientalist plot, I had serious doubts.

At least at first glance, these doubts have been confirmed by the reviews. Let’s start with the actual video game people at Polygon, who should know. Susana Polo critiques the film’s blunt approach to narrative, accusing it of alternating action scenes with bland “exposition dumps.” Characters end up being short-changed on the way to action or exposition:

… many moments in 'Tomb Raider' feel like events are slightly fast-forwarded. We are often told when we should be shown, or shown a scene that feels like it’s skipped a vital moment in a character’s emotional transition, in favor of getting to the next action sequence or necessary piece of exposition. 

(Btw, I’m a big fan of Issue at Hand, Polo’s video series explaining superhero comics, which you can find here.)

Rodrigo Perez at The Playlist also feels the movie fails to sell its characters, asking us to buy into Lara Croft’s transition into, well, Lara Croft, way too quickly and easily. Some of the most damning (and well phrased) criticism, though, comes from A.A. Dowd at The AV Club, who was just bored by the film:

'Tomb Raider' is the kind of draggy, weirdly uneventful blockbuster that makes you fleetingly grateful for the lowest-aiming genre junk; at times, it seems perversely uninterested in delivering what a Lara Croft movie theoretically should. Even once we reach the island, where Walton Goggins shows up as a marooned scoundrel mad with ambition, 'Tomb Raider' never quite transitions into a set-piece machine; its second half rushes through a dump of mythological exposition while treating the “good stuff”—treacherous puzzles, swinging booby traps, run-and-gun showdowns—like perfunctory stops on a checklist.

There are surprising dissenters, however, some of whom describe the movie in a way that diverges so far from Dowd and his ilk that you almost wonder whether they weren’t shown a different cut of the film. David Edelstein praises both its B-movie sensibility and its emotional realism (?), but the film’s real champion is Matt Zoller Seitz at Seitz opens his review by asserting that “‘Tomb Raider’ is much better and more original than anyone could have expected,” and he buys the daddy-daughter narrative in a way that no one else cited here does:

This is the story of a daughter learning from, surpassing, and ultimately forgiving her dad—a journey that hits fresher beats than you tend to get in genre films starring male heroes whose fathers died, vanished, or disappointed them…

The jury’s out on this one … I’m probably not going to see it, though. Take from that what you will.


Love, Simon (dir. Greg Berlanti)

The consensus is that this teen romance would be very “eh” if it weren’t for its main feature: that the romance at its center is a gay romance. Critics are more or less univocal in their admission that, though bland, the movie is important: gay kids deserve their bland, mildly charming teen romances, too, the line goes.

Glen Wheldon at NPR only reluctantly reiterates the line from Fox’s marketing materials that the film is “groundbreaking.” Wheldon is one of the only critics to point out that, in fact, there have been other gay teen romances. Eventually he lands on the conclusion, though, that Love, Simon is groundbreaking in the sense that it is mainstream, intended, seemingly for everyone to see.

Yes, 'Love, Simon' does everything it can do to parboil the flavor, color, consistency and fabulousness out of its queer romance, until all that's left is the familiar beige, featureless pap of overcooked heterosexual teen rom-coms. But that's ... kind of the point. Why shouldn't queer kids get the chance to see generic, mass-produced versions of themselves onscreen, overcoming minor obstacles on their path to True Love(tm)?

Everyone seems to say a version of this, more or less. Here’s David Sims at The Atlantic:

In attempting to appeal to the biggest possible crowd, the director Greg Berlanti’s movie sometimes feels frustratingly safe, given that it’s centered on a bland, upper-middle-class hero whose edges are sanded off. With that said, there’s still something undeniably powerful about 'Love, Simon’s ordinariness. After all, there have been dozens of mediocre studio films about straight teen romances over the decades; it says something about the direction of the film industry to finally see one centered on a young gay man.

Mark Jenkins’s review at the Washington Post has a more negative valence, but it’s more unimpressed than outraged. Simon, the main character, is a bland archetype, a clear construction, but so is the movie itself:

Simon’s love for rock of the British Invasion is unpersuasive, but then so are all his passions. Like the movie about him, Simon is pleasant, well-meaning and curiously devoid of adolescent hormonal tumult.

Love, Simon seems like it deserves cred for depicting gay romance without overly sensationalizing it, and for doing so with the blessing of a major studio. But it also sounds like a kind of a dull film: in making Simon an unremarkable teen in all aspects except that he is gay, the filmmakers seem to have written themselves into a corner, having made a film with a main character who’s missing distinctive characteristics. The film’s release may seem to point toward some kind of Change, but it is worth wondering whether that change can stick if its harbinger is so anodyne, if it is focused so intently on normalcy that it doesn’t get anyone’s attention.