Tuesday, December 20, 2016

“Assassin’s Creed” needs a mercy killing...

Oh, how video gamers (myself included) have long awaited this movie. THIS was the one that was going to break the “curse” of the video game-movie.  How could this possibly go wrong?  Take Two Oscar winners and an Oscar-worthy lead headlining the cast, and throw in $130 million and such a wildly popular game property, and surely you’ve got a slam-dunk, right?  I mean, there’s no way a capable filmmaker like Justin Kurzel could screw up this thing, right?  RIGHT???

Yup, you guessed it - they screwed it up.

The story of Assassin's Creed revolves around Callum Lynch (Michael Fassbender), a convicted murderer who is saved from a death sentence by the mysterious Abstergo Indus-tries, who give him a second chance at life if he aids them in a scientific “endeavor” (why he was on Death Row is never adequately ex-plained to us, other than Callum’s mumbling about the person he supposedly murdered was “a pimp” - I guess that clears up all the moral ambiguity).  Lynch is made to enter a device called The Animus, which allows him to access genetic memories contained within his DNA of distant relative Aguilar de Nertha (also played by Fassbender), a mysterious member of a secret society in 15th-century Spain.  It seems Aguilar hid a relic of some sort that would enable the nefarious Templars to remove Free Will from mankind, allowing them to exert more control over human destiny (I’m not making this up, people…), and by having Lynch use the VR-like Animus to vicariously re-live Aguilar’s experiences, the Templars hope to learn this relic’s location.

If Assassin’s Creed had been made as a period piece, with Aguilar as the hero, it may well have worked as a kind of heightened period epic – something like 300 meets Kingdom of Heaven.  The movie’s best sequences are the Spanish Inquisition-set action scenes, inventively choreographed and beauti-fully executed.  The game-inspired brand of wushu-meets-parkour in these scenes delivers some genuinely awe-inducing feats - a mid-carriage-chase wall-flip and a dead-eye ricochet shot wowed me, and helped to partially compensate for the dramatic lulls.  The period production design and the thundering score by Kurzel’s brother Jed are better than the movie deserves, but even these sequences could have fared better, as Kurzel falls prey to the hyper-editing and spasmic-camera movements that so many action movies seem to suffer from anymore.

Sadly, we only spend three all-too-brief sequences in that period, with the rest of the film being stuck in this murky-blue antiseptic scien-tific facility where everyone has that slit-eyed counten-ance that ensures you know they’re up to no good. Fassbender is a dour, dull hero in both temporal spheres, and Cotillard and Irons both seem to just float through their roles, with an apparent lack of interest that I couldn’t tell was an acting choice or actual boredom on their part.  The cast aren’t aided by the humorlessness of the screenplay, which treats all this hooey with a degree of seriousness that makes it all the more ludicrous.  Even possibly interesting secondary characters get the short end of the screenplay - Charlotte Rampling, another distinguished actor, pops up briefly as the Templars’ head modern head honcho, but has a criminally minimal amount of screen time.

Throughout the movie, Kurzel treats the goofy material with a dogged earnestness he didn’t feel compelled to lavish on his Shakespeare (last year’s Macbeth), and whatever grandeur might have existed in Andy Nicholson’s production design or Sammy Sheldon Differ’s costumes is pretty much lost in the images, which are maddingly murky even in 2D format (one can only imagine they’ll be even darker and more impenetrable in 3D).

It’s so frustrating to get such a “blah” film as this, while seeing that there are good things about it.  I understand fifteen hours of playing a video game is not the same thing as making a 110-minute movie, but this movie has things in it that convince me it could’ve been done better than this.  Alas, we still await the “good” video game-movie, ‘cause this one ain’t it, folks. Assassin’s Creed gets the style of the video games so right, yet unlike those games, it fails so miserably in creating characters worth caring about, or telling us a story we could even halfway swallow.

Friday, December 16, 2016

“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” and Hallelujah, it’s 1977 all over again!

In the interest of Full Disclosure, I inform you, Dear Reader, that while I attempt to remain objective in all my reviews, I have acknowledged in the past, and do so again here now, that my objectivity may be called into question regarding some movies.  Of course, anything with “Star Wars” in the title fits that criteria, so with that in mind, here we go...

We’ve all seen the “crawl” that opens the original Star Wars a hundred times, telling us how, just before that massive Star Destroyer captures that poor little Rebel ship, there was a battle during which Rebel spies stole the schematics for the Death Star.  That one line of text, scrolling before our eyes forty years ago, is the seed from which Rogue One: A Star Wars Story sprouted.  This story revolves around Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a loner and thief who is recruited by Rebel Alliance intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) to investigate a bit of intelligence provided by Imperial defector Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed).  Rook is a cargo pilot who claims to have been given information by a source from within the Empire’s newest weapons project, scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), who happens to be Jyn’s father.  That’s merely where things kick off, and doesn’t even begin to describe the scope to which the story expands, not to mention the other characters who appear, such as a blind acolyte of the Force and his brutish but wily partner (Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen), sardonic security droid K2-SO, voiced by Alan Tudyk, and a chilling antagonist who, in Ben Mendelsohn’s peerless, humanizing performance, becomes more threatening as he becomes more pitiable.

Here’s where objectivity gets tossed out the window - I loved this film.  Sure, I was inclined to love it just because the phrase “Star Wars” is there, but my experience seeing it last night was all the more fantastic because it’s so rare that a movie turns out to be exactly as wonderful as I hoped it would be.  The decision to explore the space “between the lines” of the series and its story makes Rogue One such a novel idea, and a worthy addition to the Star Wars canon.  It explores and deconstructs the original mythology created by George Lucas while respecting it enough to honor the spirit and sentiment of it. Rogue One is what I have wanted in a Star Wars film for the last decade - something NEW, but in a familiar universe.  Director Gareth Edwards and screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy have given us something that actually feels like what Lucas put on celluloid forty years ago, without the stilted dialogue expounding on morality and politics he put on digital hard drives twenty years after that.  This is a crowd-pleasing film if ever there was one, with thrills, spectacle and a loveable cast of characters.  

Lucas’ original Star Wars took traditional genres, like samurai movies and Westerns, and riffed on them, layering in aliens, lasers and magic, and Rogue One harkens back to this alluring approach.  This time around, though, it’s World War II movies to which Edwards pays tribute, and with far more than lip service.  With their blatant anti-fascism and bad guys decked out in Nazi-inspired regalia, the Star Wars films have always borne reminders of the evils of the Third Reich.  Here, the galaxy across which the film takes place offer endless variants of terrain, so that Rogue One may find not just thematic, but visual backdrops akin to each of World War II’s main theaters of combat.  The desert hideout of hardline militant rebel Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) and his crew could easily be the North Africa of The Desert Fox or Sahara (the one with Humphrey Bogart, not Matthew McConaughey), while a thrilling, close-quarters skirmish in a small trading outpost recalls the French village combat scenes of Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers.  Even the massive and masterfully staged climactic battle takes place on a planet of tropical jungles and beaches, and as men and machines and palm fronds all get churned up together, it’s hard to not recall the Guadalcanal of The Thin Red Line.

Some more cynical, jaded and, quite frankly, sad individuals may point to the first act not devoting enough time to developing the characters, or that with the Star Wars saga being so ingrained in our collective minds that the drama here is muted by our knowing how it will end, or that a few winks and nods to past/future moments in Star Wars lore may be excessive.  Those sad sacks might screech that using computer-aided imagery to help include some characters we never thought we’d see again could be seen going overboard.  To all of that, I say "Hogwash."

If Rogue One existed all on it’s own, they might would have a point, but it does NOT exist in a vacuum. Rogue One is not meant to stand on its own - it IS part of a narrative thread.  Our knowing how it will end is part of the film’s beauty - knowing the ends these characters must inevitably meet, yet caring enough about them to continue hoping against hope that the end will surprise us (come to think of it, I don’t remember getting much time to learn about all of The Dirty Dozen, either, but they all sure seemed like fun guys. But I digress…).  Combine these memorable characters with awesome visuals and thrilling action, and you’ve got a movie that is well at home within the “original” series and one that is definitely worth repeat viewings.

Sure, The Force Awakens was not a perfect film, but I love it because it was good enough, and it served it’s purpose: to bring the Episodes IV through VI cast and storyline back to life and rejuvenate the movie-portion of the Star Wars universe for mass audiences.  Rogue One also serves it’s purpose: to demonstrate that there are stories in this universe to tell that don’t depend on the same cast of characters movie audiences have been following these past forty years.  That it does so in such spectacular fashion makes it worthy of its place immediately before that moment in 1977, when that little Rebel ship was trying to make its escape...