Didn’t get to see all the movies I wanted to in March, but April and May aren’t exactly going to be slouches either.
Judas Priest, Firepower (Epic)
I’d be lying if I said I loved Judas Priest’s 2014 album Redeemer of Souls. It’s not a bad album, but I think I was expecting it to be incredible. I’m seemingly one of few that liked their 2008 concept album Nostradamus, which was pretty different for them. Redeemer of Souls on the other hand is closer to the stuff that Priest is known for: twin guitars, badass punchy riffs, and shrieking vocals from Rob Halford. Yet, while the songs themselves are solid a few are even great, the album as a whole felt like a by the numbers kind deal. Now Priest is back with Firepower, and while it’s stylistically similar to Redeemer of Souls, I found I enjoyed it more. Perhaps that’s because my expectations have been tempered, but I still give it the thumbs up.
Right out the gate, the title track and “Lightning Strike” bring classic Priest to the table. Everyone sounds good, particularly Halford. It’s amazing that after over four decades this man is able to sing better than performers who have only been around half that time. My personal favorite part of the album is “Guardians” leading into “Rising From Ruins.” The former is a great little build up track like “The Hellion” and latter reminded me of the classic Priest track “A Touch of Evil”. I also enjoyed “Lone Wolf”, a strange track that stands out tonally, but holy crap is it heavy. If it doesn’t sound like Firepower blew me away, that’s because it didn’t. But it doesn’t have to: it’s Judas Priest showing they can still write tight material 18 albums later. I certainly enjoyed it and I’m happy to see Priest still putting out quality material after such a long, historic career.
Between The Buried And Me, Automata I (Sumerian)
2015’s Coma Ecliptic might be my favorite Between The Buried And Me album. I wasn’t sure how Automata I was going to stack up against it, but the band’s latest, and part one of a double album, is another worthy addition to their discography. Whereas Coma Ecliptic was a cohesive, less death metal inclined release, Automata I sounds a bit more like the band’s prior releases. “Condemned To The Gallows” in particular doesn’t waste any time and barges right in with the heavy. “Blot”, the final track, is a real winner, a 10 minute track that stands apart from all the preceding songs like its own entity. I’ve heard some talk about how short the album is: at 35 minutes, it’s the band’s shortest studio album to date. That’s pretty noticeable compared to the rest of their releases ranging from 60 to 70 minutes. I don’t mind it though since it’s part of a double album which means, in my mind, that when Automata II comes out later this year, I’m going to want to listen to both back to back. In that respect, I’m glad Automata I leaves me wanting more. Double albums, especially from prog bands, have a way of feeling overstuffed and overlong, but I don’t think that’s going to be an issue this time around.
So, video game movies. They largely suck, and the only ones that don’t suck like Tron and Wreck-It Ralph are either animated or not based on a real game, so they don’t exactly count. Lara Croft of Tomb Raider has already made her way to the big screen twice before with Angelina Jolie in the early 2000’s. Yet, despite casting one of Hollywood’s biggest sex symbols as one of gamings biggest sex symbols, the films didn’t earn much praise outside of Jolie’s performance. The Tomb Raider series of games has since been rebooted, resulting in much praise, so Hollywood decided to give it another go with a film based on the 2013 game starring Alicia Vikander, one of the best actresses in film today. The result is the best video game movie to date. No, I’m not kidding. That’s not to say that the film itself is stellar, but it’s far, far better than the drivel that precedes it.
Like the 2013 game, Tomb Raider tells the story of Lara Croft’s first real adventure wherein she ends up shipwrecked on an island that serves as the resting place for a mythical Japanese queen. The plot similarities mostly end there as the film focuses mostly on Lara trying to find her missing father Richard. From there it’s a lot of plots and story beats that will be very familiar if you’ve watched any adventure movie ever. But, hey, if it ain’t broke, right? Sure, there’s some things from the video game plot that would have been cool to see and the bad guy is way less creepy, but it gets the job done.
The main source of all that is good in the movie is Alicia Vikander as Lara, and let me tell you Vikander shows up to work. Whereas Jolie brought the sex appeal that her version of Lara was known for, Vikander absolutely nails the physicality of an untested Lara Croft, practically mirroring her video game counterpart in every way. She always seems like she’s just getting out by the skin of her teeth, and even in the scenes where she excels (climbing, shooting people with arrows, etc.) she looks like she barely knows what she’s doing but presses forward out of sheer will. On top of that, the film is devoid of gratuitous butt shots or close examinations of Lara’s figure. The other characters mainly just serve their purpose, though Daniel Wu’s character is entertaining (despite disappearing for most of the third act), and Nick Frost’s appearance gave me a chuckle.
Apart from Vikander, the film manages to take little moments from the game, such as some of Lara’s stunts and certain weapons, and make them feel more like a product of film itself and less like “Hey! Look! It’s that thing from the game you all like! Look you stupid nerd!” I know we all want a live action video game movie that is unequivocally great, that gamers can hold up as a beacon and exclaim “At last!” And I’m aware that the bar was already set pretty low and that saying “Well, at least it’s not garbage” isn’t the best of praise. But like it or not, Tomb Raider really is the best we’ve got right now. Considering all the fun I had, I don’t really mind.
No, this film’s got nothing to do with Black Widow.
I try to avoid reviews as much as possible before movies (though it’s impossible to get away from that goddamn Rotten Tomatoes score), but because the Internet exists some stray critiques end up slipping through the cracks. In the case of Jennifer Lawrence’s spy thriller Red Sparrow, I heard the violence (especially the sexual violence) was too much, so I expected to go in for a drag of a movie. But it wasn’t: Red Sparrow is a competent almost Fincher-like thriller that leans heavily on Lawrence’s performance, but she makes it worthwhile.
After her ballerina career is brought to a painful end, Dominika becomes a Sparrow, which is basically a Russian secret agent that specializes in the Honey Pot i.e. seducing people. It’s an interesting if not simplistic concept. Watching Dominika figure out how to manipulate everyone from scumbags to her superiors is engaging, especially when you come to the realization that you, the viewer, don’t have as clear of an understanding of her intentions as you once believed. The only nagging detail is that Dominika never receives any extensive combat training. Sure, her main weapon is deception and we see her beat the ever loving shit out of a few people, but you’d think that she’d at least take some kind of martial arts class in her line of work.
Speaking of beating the shit out of people, let’s talk violence. When it comes to female protagonists, the use of sexual violence as a means of motivation or character development is overdone and often mishandled. With that in mind, I don’t believe Red Sparrow is a big offender here. Now, of course, there are people that may be triggered by scenes depicting rape or attempted rape no matter how it’s depicted, so just because I didn’t find them particularly harrowing doesn’t mean someone else won’t; that’s just my experience. That said, the film doesn’t linger much on the few scenes and they serve a purpose beyond the tired “oh she got raped and that’s her main motivator” story arc. As for the more graphic violence, I’ve seen way worse elsewhere. None of this is to say that these scenes shouldn’t bother your or won’t make you feel uneasy, but you’ve watched something like Game of Thrones, you can handle this.
A good spy thriller will keep you guessing, and Red Sparrow certainly does that, and what’s more the clues are all there for you to see, so when the reveal finally does happen you won’t be so bewildered after looking back at how everything stacks up. Is it an amazing film? No, but I liked it way more than I thought I would and Lawrence is damn good.
Authority by Jeff VanderMeer
Not long after I jotted down my initial thoughts on Authority, the third act began and the plot took a sharp turn into the climax and falling action. That’s when things got a lot more interesting, and by that I mean I finally thought “Okay, this is what I came for.” Even the ending, which is a literal cliffhanger, felt like a satisfying conclusion that may or may not be resolved in the final volume of the Southern Reach Trilogy. Still, I can’t say I was as taken with Authority as Annihilation, and I’m sure a lot of that simply comes down to the fact that they’re two very different books, despite being part of a trilogy.
A quick summation of the trilogy: there’s a place called Area X that’s really weird and a shadow organization called the Southern Reach keeps sending people in to investigate it, but they either end up dead or missing. Also, the Southern Reach is pretty shady. This book is from the perspective of the new boss of the Southern Reach, which is kind of neat since stories like these normally keep the reader in the dark concerning the inner workings of the “distrustful organization”. What makes it unsettling is that this guy doesn’t even realize half the shit that’s going on at his own job. The thing is, like I said last month, VanderMeer’s style and his depiction of the main protagonist are so weird that all the creepy reveals don’t feel as weird by comparison. This is kind of resolved by the end of the book, as I stated above, but by then it almost feels like too little too late.
It could be that VanderMeer’s style is just too out there for me, in which case that’s my problem. I certainly give him credit for producing one of the more original sci-fi/horror stories I’ve read and his description and attention to detail is rich, but when I think back to the book a lot of it is so foggy. I’m all for a slow burn, but this was way too slow with too few interesting things going on compared to Annihilation. I’m still planning on reading Acceptance, the final book in the trilogy (can’t leave it hanging, can I?) but I wish my thoughts towards this prospect were of excitement rather than “I hope I like this better than Authority.”
Edge of Eternity by Ken Follett
It’s high time I finished the Century Trilogy. Good ol’ Ken Follett has never let me down, and even though I’ve started to notice some of his shortcomings (on the nose dialogue, lots of jumping around), I’ve already blown through over half the book. Considering this thing is over 1000 pages, it might be the fastest I end up finishing a Follett book.
Sons of Anarchy (Season 6)
At the time of writing, I’ve only got one episode left. I’ve already been spoils as to what happens, so I’m more excited just to be done with this season.
I’ve kind of just been jumping around to whatever episode looks interesting but damn, can’t believe I slept on this show for so long.
Rise of the Tomb Raider (Xbox One)
Thoroughly enjoyed the first game, happy to be coming back. A new film out and a new game on the way, so I figured this was the perfect time.