“Tomb Raider” (2018) review PLUS exploring the “video game movie” problem

Strives to put cinematic storytelling first and video game representation second, but still comes across as tropey and borrows heavily from Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Last Crusade. However, in all fairness, it does provide this generation with a moderately good action-adventure film based on a best-selling video game series. Alicia Vikander’s Lara Croft differs from that of Angelina Jolie’s in that she comes across to audiences as someone who’s impulsive, reckless, and experiencing difficulty in managing her life. Furthermore, she does not excel at everything she is trying to do to survive life and make ends meat. Those qualities give this Lara Croft a level of humanity that allows her to connect more with audiences. Moreover, she is a believable character–she feels real. In fact, that is probably the best element that this reboot has going for it–the realness of the adventure. Not that the film is without exaggerations and fantasy elements; but, the story almost feels like an adventure that could take place under the right circumstances and with the right tools. The realness might have been increased by not feeling like, at times, you were sitting there playing the video game version. Although this initial return to the video game turned motion picture adaptation is frocked with predictable plot beats and turning points, it does show promise for a solid franchise if tweaked. Moving forward, the stories need to be stronger, original, and leave room for SUBTEXT.

Lara Croft is the fiercely independent daughter of an eccentric adventurer who vanished years earlier. Hoping to solve the mystery of her father’s disappearance, Croft embarks on a perilous journey to his last-known destination — a fabled tomb on a mythical island that might be somewhere off the coast of Japan. The stakes couldn’t be higher as Lara must rely on her sharp mind, blind faith and stubborn spirit to venture into the unknown. (IMDb)

Video games turned motion pictures aren’t anything new. From Super Mario Bros to Mortal Kombat to Resident Evil to this year’s Tomb Raider, there have been many attempts to adapt interactive media (video games) for scripted/narrative cinematic storytelling. Ultimately, it has proven to be nearly impossible to create a successful motion picture from a video game. In short, Hollywood simply cannot seem to crack the code for a movie adaptation of a video game. There has yet to be a video game to film adaptation that has even encroached upon the fresh threshold of Rotten Tomatoes. But why is that? Often, movie adaptations of video games fail because their is more emphasis placed upon video game brand representation than the art of cinematic storytelling. In its defense, 2018’s Tomb Raider shows an effort to overcome that obstacle. Today’s Tomb Raider made a solid effort to spend time worrying about it’s quality as a film, but still fell victim to being too grounded in its interactive media roots. If studios who either own or license a video game intellectual property (IP) can spend time analyzing the source material for purposes of tapping into what makes the story itself work, then perhaps a successful video game movie can be produced.

Not just limited to interactive media –>film adaptations, but anytime there is a well-established franchise, the writers and director struggle to find where the happy medium is in satisfying the core of the fan base and translating the story between two forms of media. As much as modern interactive media has in common with films (referring to the cut scenes), there is still the human component that cannot be translated for the screen because there is no “choose your own adventure;” it’s this disconnect that often contributes to the poorly written plot for the screen. Much in the same way that movies based on comic books struggled for a long time until Iron Man, with the brilliant exceptions of Tim Burton’s Batman (a Barman movie directed by Burton) and Batman Returns (a Tim Burton movie that happens to have Batman characters), interactive media based movies will eventually find the sweet spot. I feel that this sweet spot will be found when writers and directors take the characters from a video game IP and place them in an original cinematic story that skews more towards the focus being on the cinematic storytelling than adhering to brand recognition and the existing story that can be played, and has been played, on the console or computer. Take Burton’s approach to Batman Returns. Create a story that works for the screen that happens to have the characters from the video game.

Movies aren’t the only adaptations of interactive media; themed entertainment has also spent time adapting a game for an entire attraction. According to Theme Park Tourist (2014), popular seasonally operating Paramount’s Kings Island (purchased by Cedar Fair in 2007 and all Paramount property removed) spent $20MIL on a ride that lasted a mere five years. Based on the hit video game and blockbuster action movie Tomb Raider: The Ride was on par with Disney and Universal in respect to story, setting, and special audio/visual effects; however, after Paramount sold off its theme park investments to Cedar Fair, the ride got rebranded as The Crypt, a generic theme, and all direct associations with the movie and game Tomb Raider were removed following the 2007 operating year. Interestingly, the ride attendance continually dropped following the rebranding, and the ride was eventually moved to Kings Dominion in Virginia in 2012. Although there may be other reasons as to why the ride became less popular and eventually moved to another park, it is conceivable to conclude that there is a special relationship between the characters and story of the game and a themed entertainment attraction. Both the attraction and the game have the advantage of the human component–the ability to truly experience the elements of the game. 

Over all, I found the new Tomb Raider to be a fun watch! Certainly don’t feel that my time or money was wasted. I remember playing Tomb Raider on the original Playstation and Playstation II (it was soon after that, that I lost interest in gaming), and as a mild fan, I feel that this film did the characters and story justice. By the end of the movie, it is obvious that MGM’s intention is to attempt to produce a blockbuster franchise. And to the film’s credit, this first installment had a satisfying ending plus it quickly setup the next movie. If you like action-adventure movies or even a fan of the video game series, I feel that you will enjoy Alicia Vikander as Lara Croft: Tomb Raider!

Advertisements

“The Post” movie review

The Fourth Estate, triumphant! Steven Spielberg’s The Post is a historic biographical drama depicting the story behind the infamous Pentagon Papers that set a monumental precedent in the US Supreme Court following a ruling in the favor of the freedom of the press. Probably the most significant ruling affecting journalism, this film goes beyond the cold, hard facts of the case and into the offices and houses of those who were responsible for shedding light on the lies the US government was spinning to keep the War in Vietnam going. In a manner of speaking, this film could be read as Spielberg’s ode to US journalism, and by extension, to the free press at large. While traditional ink and paper newspapers may be slowly becoming a thing of the past, Spielberg’s film shows that the press has an important place in a democratic society. Without the free press, a nation’s government could easily lie and maliciously mislead its people to serve its own gain. No surprise, Meryl Streep’s and Tom Hanks’ acting is simply brilliant; while the rolls may not seem incredibly complex, it’s the beauty in simplicity that demonstrates the excellent commitment to character that we all have come to respect over the years for these Oscar-winning actors. The Post is a historical drama brought to life for the screen through precise editing, beautiful cinematography, and a gripping score.

Unrest grows at home while the US is deep in the middle of the Vietnam War. With conflicting reports coming out of the warzone, the people of the United States have only the word of their government to assure them the war is going well but they have to continue sending the boys overseas to “win.” After a rogue journalist leaks papers from the Pentagon describing how the US is losing and it keeps sending boys overseas to keep up appearances to the New York Times, the attorney general places a restraining order on the iconic newspaper to prohibit it from publishing the classified material. After word of this unprecedented extension of power, the editor-in-chief of The Washington Post Ben Bradlee (Hanks) comes to have a copy of the papers and desires to publish them in order to show the American people what the government has really been up to. Only one small problem, the owner of The Washington Post Katharine (Kay) Graham (Streep), the first woman to own a major newspaper, is unsure if the papers should be published because she seeks to take the paper public and this could damage that–not to mention that she and Bradlee could go to jail. Go beyond the pages of a history book to witness the thrilling drama unfold as you find out just why The Pentagon Papers was such a big deal.

While many critics and fans of the movie are touting it as the “best movie of the year” or commenting to managers at cineplexes that it’s “amazing,” I am not convinced that it truly is “the best” or as “amazing” as it’s being heralded. Before you go questioning my taste in movies, I completely agree that The Post is an excellently made film–there is nothing wrong with it. For all intents and purposes, it is a perfect film. But just because it’s figuratively perfectly produced and directed, does not mean that it is “amazing.” In many ways, this movie reminds me of Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies. It too is a perfectly made historic drama (coincidentally also starring Hanks) that falls within the same subgenre of drama as The Post. When I think of a Spielberg film, I have come to expect a wow factor. And it’s that lack of a wow factor that troubles me in awarding this film with an accolade such as “best picture.”

Usually, there is a particular scene that evokes strong emotion, perhaps it’s a powerful monologue or heated emotionally-driven exchange between two characters, there are other methods for evoking an eruption of feeling and emotion within the mind and body. Never once did I feel my emotions run high with this film. And I happen to be an entertainment journalist, I teach media writing at a popular university, and spent time in broadcast news. I have a love for the media, the press, and publishing. I also spent time in a media law class in graduate school analyzing the very papers in question, and I still did not feel emotionally woken up by the film. I find the film very well written, produced, shot, directed, acted, scored–everything is done with extreme precision. But, that’s what I have come to expect from Spielberg, Streep, and Hanks. Yes, to be able to consistently deliver excellence is nearly uncanny; but when I know what to expect, it’s much more difficult to surprise or wow me. That’s what is missing from this film in my opinion–the wow factor.

On the socio-political spectrum, I find the commentary on women in leadership is brilliant! Quite happy that the film chose such an incredible woman’s story to tell so cinematically well. The character of Kay Graham is not only an inspiration to aspiring female leaders, but she is an inspiration to all who find themselves in positions of influence or power for which society does not feel he or she is suited. Whereas this prejudice can affect men and women, history has shown that is has affected women more. And this film is a breath of inspiration for young women who will become future leaders around the world. Brave. Kay Graham was an incredibly brave woman who fought the good fight and proved that she could make the tough decisions that are required in order to grow a company. I also find that The Post serves as a beacon of hope that the press is here to serve the American people in a day and time that our government’s leaders claim that the press at large is “fake news.” Newspapers are here to serve the governed NOT the governers. Let the Pentagon Papers be a sign that our leaders are not past deception even if it means sending our military to certain death in order to keep up appearances.

The Post is definitely a movie that all journalists should watch. And not just “conventional” journalists. But anyone who takes part in publishing written, audio, or video media content. Especially those who cover governmental affairs should watch this historical drama highlighting a huge turning point in the freedom of the press.

Don’t Pass GO, Don’t Collect Your Oscar

Corporate monopoly is the enemy of creativity and variety. The biggest news in entertainment this week was the talks between Disney and Fox to sell most of 21st Century Fox to The Walt Disney Company. Whether the talks are still going on behind closed doors or not presents a fascinating topic to discuss! This deal, which would be the biggest film/media deal ever, has far reaching effects upon the industry. Some may even argue that it has danger written all over it. If there wasn’t already a rigid oligopoly amongst the studio/distribution companies, there will be if this goes through. Should this go through without the government swooping in to save the day with monopoly claims in the vein of the historic Paramount Decision, the lion’s share of the cinematic marketplace would be controlled by Disney, TimeWarner (Warner Bros.), and Comcast (Universal), with Sony (Columbia) and Viacom (Paramount) bringing up the rear. Five. That’s right. Five companies would essentially determine the future of the industry, and control the majority of the motion pictures released in theaters and the content on cable television (and the streaming services that access it). It’s a mirror image of the 1940s. Instead of The Big Five and The Little Three, we have The BIG Three and the Little Two.

From the big screen to the small screen, you will notice the effects in the programs you watch. When one company controls the majority of any marketplace, it usually spells disaster for the consumer; furthermore, it means that there will be a primary gatekeeper in future artists getting his or her work out there. Not to mention that the programming on FX and other Fox (non-broadcast) subsidiaries could begin to gradually feel and look more like ABC programming. Could this put shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy on an endangered species list of sorts? Not right now. The deal, in off-and-on talks, would sell off 21st Century Fox (movie studios) and not Fox or Fox Sports (an acquisition of that sort would not be permitted because it WOULD be illegal). So, even if this buyout were to happen, The Walt Disney Company would still continue to be the brunt of many jokes on The Simpsons and Family Guy. A buyout could mean, however, that program options will seem less varied and just more of the same ABC-schlock that already pervades the bandwidth. The two companies that have the most TV programming are Fox and Disney, with Sony (CBS), Viacom (non-broadcast Nickelodeon), Comcast (NBC), and TimeWarner (CW) trailing in original programming. That being said, TimeWarner has done very well with The CW, and I hope it continues to churn out programs such as Vampire Diaries, Supernatural, Riverdale, etc.

Beyond the negative impacts on content, which, in all honestly, can be quite subjective in nature, are there legal or ethical implications here? Is there perhaps a past precedent that could be used in the courts to stop such a buyout (or sellout rather–Fox)? Let’s look at the most famous suit brought against the major motion picture studios: The Paramount Decision [(U.S. V. PARAMOUNT PICTURES, INC., 334 U.S. 131 (1948)]. Prior to the Paramount Decision, the motion picture industry was controlled by a few companies that were heavily vertically integrated. The Studio owned the facilities, production companies, staff (under long-term contracts), the films themselves, distribution channels, and the movie theaters. When the studios were growing so large that they began infringing upon the free marketplace, the US Government forced the (then) eight major/minor studio players to end the practice of block booking (meaning, films would now be sold on an individual basis), divest themselves of their respective theatre chains (sell them off), and modify the practice of long-term employee contracts (though, this would continue until the 1960s). This marked the beginning of the end of the Studio System, AKA Hollywood’s decentralization. There are many similarities between the situation in the late 1940s and today. In fact, it’s a little worse today because the industry is mostly controlled by five (instead of eight) companies, and these companies have heavy investments in streaming and television programming.

The problem with the current state of capitalism in the Unites States isn’t worries of monopolies but oligopolies (monopolistic practices between a few firms that essentially control a market). Certainly the state of the film industry already lends itself to an oligopoly because of the few companies; but the buyout of 21st Century Fox by The Disney Company would greatly increase this issue of a blatant oligopoly. If a monopolist (in many other industries) did what Disney is doing, neither the public nor the government would stand for it; but because it’s Disney, and because it’s the film industry, most of the general public is unaware of the negative consequences of such a buyout. Technically speaking, oligopolies are not illegal nor is monopolistic competition; however, this can be a slippery slope towards stifling creativity or making is increasingly difficult to break into any given industry as a newly emerging competitor. Incidentally, monopolistic competition causes the variety or level of differentiation of similar products (i.e. moves and TV shows) to become less heterogeneous and nearly come across as homogenous. For many, it will feel like there are only two primary companies controlling the majority of programming on TV and a few companies controlling a large portion of the movies that get released in movie theaters.

When a strong oligopoly exists within a specialized industry (for our purposes, media & entertainment), one of the side effects is a concept known as parallel exclusion. This concept can be described as the collective efforts of the few industry leaders who essentially act as the main gatekeepers to prevent or make it difficult for would-be newcomers to enter the arena. Parallel exclusion is nothing new, and has been in the news as recently as the last 2-3 decades within the airline and credit card industries. Throughout the eighties and nineties, Visa and MasterCard essentially blacklisted any bank that set out to do business with AmEx. Thankfully, the U.S. Justice Department stepped in when the manner in which the exclusionary rules were written crossed legal, fair trade boundaries. There were similar issues within the airline industry as well. When a few companies control the content or services in the marketplace, antitrust issues are raised.

Although we are not facing a technical monopoly with the possible acquisition of Fox by Disney, we are looking at an abuse of power that leads to anticompetitive conduct. If nothing else, the consumer should be worried about having fewer options for programming. Not that the number of programs or movies will shrink, but there will be little difference between what is released under the Disney banner and the Fox name (if it’s still even called that). In a deal like this, it’s the consumer who gets the short end of the stick. The consumer would be wise not to give Disney a pass just because there are a small group of big film studios instead of just one. While Marvel fans may be excited that the X-Men can join the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe), there is the possibility of a lack of competition between brands thus mitigating innovation and ingenuity. Competition is the mother of innovation just as necessity is the mother of invention.

Because the Walt Disney Company is primarily focussed on producing the biggest movies possible (after all, they made five of the 10 most successful films last year), the mid-budget dramas and comedies that used to thrive in Hollywood–you know, the ones that cause you to cry and laugh–would dwindle in number–there would be little room for them to make their respective ways into theaters in a predominantly Disney controlled industry. What we are essentially talking about here is a corporate cinematic monolith, the likes of which, has never been seen before.

Written by R.L. Terry

Graphic by Tabitha Pearce

Best Picture: What Does it Take to Bring Home the Oscar?

oscar_criteriaI created this infographic using Piktochart for the Media Writing class I teach at the University of Tampa. This infograph outlines some of the correlating criteria in respect to the films that win the Best Picture Oscar at the Academy Awards.

“On Cinema and Theme Parks” (part 12 of 12)

My BookThe world of the business of media convergence is a fascinating and rapidly changing world! And, the convergence of cinema and theme parks is a dynamic example of how one form of media can be integrated into another in order to create a new experience for audiences around the world. Media conglomerates with theme park investments are often exploring what to do in order to remain competitive and increase the number of guests through the turnstiles. Sometimes this means using their own IPs to develop new rides or attractions, maybe an entire new park altogether, or perhaps striking a deal with another media company in order to use another’s IP as the source material for new attractions.

The opposite is also true. Media conglomerates with theme park interests may look to their own respective parks for the inspiration for the next movie. This was definitely the case with Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean and is the case in the film Tomorrowland, in which an entire section of a park is the basis for a movie. It is all storytelling. But the stories being told take different shapes and are told through various means. And, even video game companies are getting in on the action. On May 7, 2015 Universal Parks and Resorts and Nintendo announced a first-ever partnership. Universal Parks and Resorts acquired the theme park rights from Nintendo to include the legacy video game company’s characters and games in new attractions and character meet and greets (BusinessWire, 2015).

At their respective roots, both movies and theme park attractions (and even entire parks themselves) tell stories. The medium through which they tell their stories is very different, but nevertheless helps to support one another. Media conglomerates have demonstrated this concept by taking existing movie/TV IPs and translating them into attractions and taking existing theme park attractions and translating them into movies. At its heart, the purpose of this study is to develop recommendations for media conglomerates when making decisions that are potentially worth millions of dollars, and could be a major success or a big flop.

Despite the more artistic or niche films still being amongst the individual favorites of the participants, the shared favorite movies were high concept and aimed at broad audiences, and typically fell into the science-fiction or fantasy/adventure genres. Specifically, the movie Jurassic Park and the Jurassic Park ride were cited numerous times. If an attraction were too disconnected from the story or plot of the movie, serving as the basis for the ride, then it appears to be received negatively. On the contrary, when a movie-based theme park attraction combines the best of the plot or characters, in a given movie, with a conventionally thrilling ride design, then it is received very well and enjoyed immensely.  Furthermore, the attraction needs to tell a story within the length of the ride from queue to exit. Fluid, coherent stories are driving forces behind the likability of an attraction or movie. Prompting the generation of emotional connections or responses from audiences/guests, in respect to the story of a movie or attraction, is key to creating reflections that will evoke nostalgic memories down the road; and thus, compel the audience member or park guest to experience the movie or ride again—perhaps with friends, family, or their children.

Well-executed themed design to support the story of a theme park attraction based on a movie is just as important as the story or intellectual property themselves respectively.  Story is the plot or sequence of events that take place during the ride experience (again, this is from the queue to the exit). Theme encompasses the building design, audiovisual elements, physical movement, and special effects during the attraction. The goal of an attraction or park area’s theme should be to completely immerse the park guest into the world being used as the basis or inspiration for the ride or section of the park. Everything from the employees to the restaurants to the surrounding buildings needs to work together to create an experiential degree that essentially transports the guest from the real world into the world of the park or ride. When developing themed areas of a park, designers need to be careful not to allow the outside world into what should amount to an escape from reality. Not that iconic brands or companies cannot be integrated into the theming of a park at all; but it needs to be more indirect, thus allowing the theme to continue and the story not be broken by outside invaders, so to speak.

The reason many attractions at movie-based theme parks were originally developed was to take Tom Gunning’s (1986) idea of the cinema of attractions and translate it literally. However, with the increasingly digital climate of movie making, the practical, analog effects and techniques that once made for the basis of attractions, are no longer foundation enough for successful attractions in today’s marketplace of themed entertainment ideas. Simply stated, it just isn’t exciting to watch an editor sit behind a computer creating digital effects. Despite the making of a movie just not being as secret or magical nowadays, it is still important for a movie-based theme park to hold onto its roots and work to creatively develop new ways of exhibiting this art that still mystifies to this day—just in different ways than it used to. For movie-based theme parks that exist on studio lots or house sound stages, it is imperative that studio tours continue and build areas that can be rented out for current productions. Even though many people know how movies are made presently, the art, skill, and magic of how similar effects and shot sequences were accomplished before the aid of computers (at least to the extent they are instrumental today) in classic movies has a place in the modern movie-based theme park. Hitchcock: the Art of Making Movies was cited as an example of this type of offering guests want to see alive in the parks.

The goal of a movie or theme park attraction is to generate some type of pleasurable experience in the movie patron or park guest. For both movies and themed parks, the idea needs to be to craft a story that will stimulate physiological and psychological/emotional responses from the audience/guests. A movie should contain a story or sequence of events that generate fear, affection, anxiousness, or levity in the bodies of the patrons. These responses are very much physiological. In the environment of a theme park attraction based off a given movie, these same physiological responses need to be generated by the use of movement and special or visual effects. When generating these physical responses, the patron or guest will instinctively develop psychological or emotional responses to accompany the complementary physiological response. Even if the physiological strain placed on the bodies is by all accounts a negative one, the park guest will most likely be compelled to experience it again and again because studies have shown an attraction to or affinity for sensations of pleasurable un-pleasures.

The principal idea behind this study is to create a predictable model for producers and designers. And, there has been a prolific amount of information to supply the evidence that creative designers, producers, and project managers need in order to make well-informed decisions in the beginning stages of the themed entertainment or motion picture production process. Developing a model for creative decision-making is not as simple as ‘include these things and your idea will be successful,’ as the creative process can be very subjective. However, with enough supporting evidences, a media conglomerate or other company with theme park investments can make decisions with sufficient empirical evidence pertaining to the projected success of an attraction or theme park. This study has outlined a model that is grounded in scholarly research, anecdotal evidence, and first-person focus groups and interviews.

For the complete study, head over to AMAZON and purchase the book. These 12 sections merely touch on some of the main points from the study but by no means take the place of reading the whole book. Hopefully these sections prompt a desire to experience the book/study in its entirety. It’s written to be enjoyed by anyone who loves movies and theme parks. What good is a study if it’s written of that only academics can understand. I have uncovered fascinating knowledge and insight into the craft of the relationship between cinema and themed entertainment that I want to share with the world.

To return to the beginning of the series, click HERE