The new Swiss film The Divine Order tells the story of Nora (Marie Leuenberger), a meek and mild housewife who becomes a beacon of change in her small, traditional village during the early 1970s. While the world around them was changing with movements like black power, flower power, student marches and a sexual revolution, Switzerland was years behind, being one of the last Westernised countries to grant women the right to vote, let alone addressing the myriad of other social issues. Nora’s home village is sheltered from outside influence and life is simple. Men and women have their “traditional” roles to play, and life for the women was to serve their husbands and families without reservation.
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I doubt there will be a review in the world that doesn't compare the new film to the two lacklustre instalments starring Angelina Jolie in the early 2000s, and while I honestly don't care to pit them against each other, I will say just this... TOMB RAIDER '18 casts aside the comical facade and tackles the material in a darker, grittier and more violent manner, and for the most part it successfully sets itself apart from those former movies, establishing itself as a genuine stepping point for a new series.
The narrative serves as an origin story by establishing its protagonist's introduction to the world of tomb raiding. Her name is, of course, Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina) and she needs no introduction... but alas, that's what we get. Working as a bicycle courier in London she is the daughter of a missing (presumed dead) business tycoon (Dominic West) whose fortune she has refused to accept, until it is made apparent that his assets will be dissolved if she doesn't. She discovers that he led a secret life as an archeologist, and that his life's quest was to discover the existence of the supernatural. She finds a secret message from him and learns that his last known whereabouts was on a lost island in the middle of the Devil's Sea. And so before signing the documents to inherit his fortune (idiot) she sets out to discover the truth about his disappearance, which – obviously – leads her right into the arms of great peril. A ruthless fortune hunter (Walton Goggins) waits her arrival, and has already enslaved hundreds of Japanese men to help find the legendary lost tomb of the evil queen Himiko, whose discovery will put the entire world in line for annihilation.
It's all very silly, and in fact the synopsis I laid out doesn't include many of the subplots, twists and various other interwoven intricacies. You would be right to think that it sounds more like the sort of convoluted storyline from a video game... oh wait.
TOMB RAIDER is a classic case of style over substance, and while it slathers on the action the way an over-protective mother applies sunscreen, it forgets about the important things like character development and substance. Director Roar Uthaug (The Wave) and writers Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alistair Siddons have put all of their energies into crafting an action-packed adventure to the point that they lost sight of the things that keep such an adventure remotely interesting. Lara Croft's character lacks dynamic, and the audience isn't given a reason to cheer for her. She is simply a two-dimensional woman with mad fighting skills.
The film takes countless stylistic notes from Raiders of the Lost Ark but - yet again - it takes nothing from Indiana Jones' structure, character arcs and intellectual writing. Perhaps it's the current state of action-orientated cinema that is responsible for the dumbing down of stories, or maybe it's a misguided sentiment that video games need to be adapted into films... whatever the case, TOMB RAIDER is a ridiculous movie riddled with plot holes, contradictions and continuity flaws. From an unintentional ever-changing island environment (lush jungle one minute, dry arid bushland the next) to a never ending supply of arrows for shooting, to illogical absurdities such as intricately built mechanisms to allow access to a place which was never supposed to be found (lets not mention that huge fucking entrance that screams “welcome to the lost tomb). Actually, the continuity blunders are insulting... for example, Lara scales a ragged cliff face to a cave where she spends the night. The following morning she wakes up, walks outside the cave and onto a sandy beach... hang on, what?
Alicia Vikander gives an undistinguished performance, which is no fault of her own. Her petite physique does not lend itself to the brand of action being delivered, and despite having an incredible physicality, she simply isn't convincing. Her solemn demeanour offers no charisma and her apathy comes across as feigned. As mentioned, hers is a two-dimensional character created to appease the current movement of female empowerment, which – in my mind – would be a brilliant opportunity to make her likeable. Perhaps, also, by neglecting her character's former sexiness, they have deprived the film of much needed magnetism and excitement (even Indiana Jones was sexy, with his open shirt and sweaty chest).
Gamers will probably want to pull me up on my criticisms, and I concede that the film's failings are likely to be the game's strengths... but I didn't just play a game. I watched a very average movie.
Much like film adaptation of Garland’s first novel, The Beach, by Danny Boyle & John Hodge, ANNIHILATION takes the basic premise from Jeff Vandermeer’s novel of the same name and spins a deeper, sturdier and altogether more impressive story using the threads of Vandermeer’s source as a springboard.
Set in the not-too-distant future it has Natalie Portman as Lena, a biology professor who, one year previous, lost her soldier husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac) and has been intensely mourning his death since. Mourning, that is, until he returns home with no recollection of where he has been nor what he has done since his disappearance. No sooner has Kane shown his face, he falls into a coma with no signs of waking up.
With a little investigation Lena discovers he was working on a research project in an ever-growing region of the Florida swaps known as Area-X, and Kane was the only person to have made it out alive. To better understand how to save her husband she volunteers to be a member of the next party to enter Area-X. From here the film takes a dark(er) turn and lays the foundation of a tightly wound sojourn into horror and the macabre without ever becoming explicit in either.
Falling into the same intelligent-sci fi category as Arrival and Solaris, ANNIHILATION is a film chock-full of big ideas. It’s a lofty story about grief, loss and science but it’s mostly about destruction; destruction of the self and ideals.
Portman, as one member of the 5-person all-woman research team, does intense, frightened fascination well but she is only one fifth of the powerhouse performances. Tessa Thompson and Jennifer Jason Leigh are both exemplary as the focussed psychologist and self-harming physicist respectively.
Garland slowly ratchets up the tension and gore until the final act where his mystery rounds out to perfect satisfaction and leaves us with the firm understanding that while his debut, EX-MACHINA was fantastic, ANNIHILATION is close to genius and cements him as one of the best, most exciting directors working in main-stream Hollywood today.
Two young lovers travelling through Europe find themselves in trouble when they hit and kill a young woman one night on a long stretch of country road. Desperate for help, they wander into a large homestead where the dead woman beneath their car becomes the least of their concerns. They immediately realise that the house possesses secrets when ghostly apparitions of dead women and a terrifying Nazi SS Officer begin tormenting their every move. Unable to escape, they must overcome their fears and figure out the house’s secret to survive the night. What ensues is a relentless haunted-house chiller with one very distinct plot device that sets it apart from the rest… a plot device that is best left unsaid for the benefit of an unsuspecting audience.
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Elisabeth Moss and Octavia Spencer are exceptional as always, and I felt the latter deserved far more screen time, yet perhaps the film’s most pleasant surprise is the showcase it provides for Boyd Holbrook. An early scene sees Holbrook’s protagonist, ex con Mohamed “Mo” Lundy, presumed guilty and harassed by a stranger despite the former’s early release from prison literally being due to his newly proven innocence, signalling that viewers should resist making quick judgments of these characters. The criminal justice system becomes a central case study for how institutionalisation affects individuals, and I was pleased to find that THE FREE WORLD subverted my expectations by illuminating the depths of Mo’s character; it’s easy to imagine him being depicted much more superficially in a different film, for instance, Holbrook’s later role in Logan would highlight his adeptness at simply portraying a menacing villain. However, Lew’s screenplay carefully considers traits such as Mo’s conversion to Islam during his sentence and uses these to convey both how the experience shaped him, and how desperate he is to resist being defined by it.
Meanwhile, Moss’ Doris feels similarly trapped by her abusive marriage, and as alluded to above, the actress once again demonstrates why she’s so enthralling to watch. Even in early wordless scenes, a simple look from Doris suggests years of fear, pain and pent-up fury, which longtime fans of Mad Men and The Handmaid’s Tale will instantly recognise. As Mo and Doris’ friendship blossoms THE FREE WORLD assumes a slow, pensive pace that will likely leave some viewers restless, though I felt that the omnipresent buzz of Tim Hecker’s score and some beautiful cinematography by Bérénice Eveno compensated for a lack of narrative momentum. Nevertheless, I was curious to see whether the film would eventually adopt a greater sense of urgency, and while it undeniably did in its final forty minutes, this unfortunately took the form of generic action-thriller sequences which completely removed the subtlety I’d previously enjoyed. Similarly, after initially being impressed at how Lew had cast Mo and Doris’ relationship as a method of platonically reclaiming their own identities, I was frustrated when a romance between them was abruptly and awkwardly inserted. Aside from the romantic elements the plot’s conclusion is largely satisfying, but it ultimately fails to justify taking a visceral drama and distorting it into a different genre.
THE FREE WORLD features thoughtful performances at its centre and is refreshing when it allows the characters and audience to simply consider them. It’s plausible that the film’s problematic final third is intended to represent the lengths people are willing to go to escape marginalisation, but an earlier foreshadowing or mention of this idea would probably have avoided such a jarring tonal shift.
Watching this film reminded me of the nuanced interplay between institutions and individuals depicted in Ali Soozandeh’s Tehran Taboo, and I’d consider the latter essential viewing for anyone intrigued by the themes discussed above. By contrast, once it abandons its character-driven approach THE FREE WORLD loses its most interesting aspect and sadly becomes forgettable viewing.
THE FREE WORLD IS RELEASED ON DVD THROUGH EAGLE ENTERTAINMENT ON MARCH 21.