Assassin’s Creed

Everything is permitted

labedThe Assassin’s Creed video games are hit and miss.  Their format – placing the player in the mind of a character who relives the memories of an ancestor – creates too many layers for the experience to be truly immersive, because you’re essentially playing a video game about a person playing a video game about the cool thing you wish you were doing.  On top of that, whenever your assassin protagonist takes the life of a major target in the “past” segments, the background reverts to the Animus and reminds you that you’re not really doing the cool thing.  In that sense, despite the twenty-five or so games in the series, AC’s structure actually works better in a film.

Justin Kurzel once again brings Marion Cotillard and Michael Fassbender together, this time as Sophia Rikkin, the leading scientist of Abstergo’s Animus project, and Cal Lynch, a lowlife who goes from being a poor man’s Clarence Worley to a vital test subject.  Abstergo, the company that has puzzled out how to allow people to relive the memories of their ancient ancestors, is (as it is in the game) a front for the Templars, who throughout history have battled the Assassin Order for control of a McGuffin called the Apple of Eden.  The Templars claim to want to use the Apple to “cure violence,” but their seemingly bleeding-heart mission is a red herring: the Apple will allow them to control free will, so while they might be able to stop the perpetual war between themselves and the Assassins, possession of the Apple essentially constitutes control of the world.

Cal is chosen as a guinea pig because he is a direct descendant of Aguilar de Nerha, an Assassin who lived in 15th century Spain during a pivotal tug-o’-war over the Apple.  In proper AC fashion, a historical figure was the Grandmaster of the Templars at the time (in this case, Grand Inquisitor Tomás de Torquemada, played by Javier Gutiérrez).  The brutal Inquisition contends with Aguilar and fellow Assassin Maria (Ariane Labed!), who aren’t greatly developed as characters (since the film runs under two hours and takes place mostly in the present) but who are every bit the stealthy, nimble, unhesitating badasses you’d expect the Assassins to be – they even pop off some signature moves from the video games, which are cheer-worthy for fans of the series, but not overt enough to be jarring to the average viewer.

The film does some interesting things with gray area: it’s not clear who the “good guys” are in the beginning, as we only have Abstergo’s word that the Assassins are the ones causing all the violence, but it’s fairly evident to the observant that the Templars/Abstergo have always been the evil megalomaniacs (Rikkin, Jeremy Irons’s character, is introduced in a scene where he plays the piano in a dark room while watching himself give a speech on television – has a good guy ever done that?).  The real wildcards are the other Abstergo inmates, most notably Moussa (Michael K. Williams), descendant of a Haitian Assassin adept in the art of voodoo poisons, and Lin (Michelle Lin), who has no lines but whose martial arts speak for themselves.  They stage a prison break and are heading to the Animus to murder Cal just as he figures out what’s what and takes the oath of the Assassins (enough to get the audience juiced up both times it happens), which is inspired by/taken from an old Slovenian novel, Alamut, by Vladimir Bartol.

The big question leading to release was whether this movie would be any good, as video game adaptations are not known for being, or even whether this would be the best video game movie ever made (as the AC games are nowhere near the best games ever made, I’m not sure why anyone would expect that, but I digress).  But look.  The King of Fighters and Mortal Kombat aren’t high quality cinema, but they’re good video game movies.  They’re fun, they’re preposterous, and they’re full of entertaining (if thin) characters who do more than just spout one-liners from the source material (Shang Tsung notwithstanding).  Assassin’s Creed fits into that pocket, but with a more accomplished filmmaker, which means that while the story takes itself a bit seriously, it’s both aware of itself and able to stand on its own.  As a film, it’s mostly a popcorn action flick, but it’s one in which women and non-white people are major players, and wherein the Catholic Church is accurately evil.  Try getting that from the ’90s.

I kept waiting for this movie to get bad.  Mind you, it doesn’t get a lot better than “good for a video game adaptation,” but it doesn’t get bad.  Labed’s Maria, though underused and prematurely removed from the story, is enigmatic, beautiful, and maybe the film’s most interesting undeveloped hero (nothing against Fassbender, but she would have been a fascinating protagonist).  Williams, again playing a criminal, not only achieves more than “scarred inmate” status, but gets to be fairly playful and somewhat deep in the process.  Cotillard’s character is the one in the center, constantly deciding on her alignment, and although Sophia is a somewhat silly role next to last year’s Lady Macbeth (or most that Cotillard has played, really), her trust in Kurzel’s direction shows.  In fact, maybe that’s the best thing I can say about this film: no one ever seems like they don’t want to be in it.

Can the sequel be based on Liberation, please?

220px-assassin27s_creed_film_posterAssassin’s Creed (2016); written by Michael Lesslie; directed by Justin Kurzel; starring Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Ariane Labed, Michael K. Williams, and Jeremy Irons.

 

 

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Macbeth

No country for off-screen deaths

macbethI sometimes wonder what William Shakespeare would think of modern adaptations of his tragedies.  Patrick Stewart in a random Soviet dystopia, Ed Harris running a leather-clad biker gang for some reason, etc.  But then I remember that Shakespeare would probably be far more interested in seeing Bad Santa 2 or Office Christmas Party than a grimdark battle epic or a Michael Fassbender vehicle.  Seriously.  I dare you to find one work of Shakespeare that doesn’t contain a crude sexual innuendo.

Justin Kurzel’s version of the Scottish Play actually takes place in Scotland, which means OP out the window and inconsistent accents all over the place, but it strips away the self-awareness that so much of “filmed Shakespeare” has, and never do the characters wink at you, or otherwise seem like they know they’re in an adaptation.  On the other hand, the filmmakers know that you know, so if you’re not thoroughly familiar with the story, expect to feel like an alienated party guest.

Macbeth (Fassbender), supporting King Duncan (David Thewlis) in the civil war, receives a prophecy before returning home: he is the Thane of Cawdor and the true king, while the sons of Banquo (Paddy Considine) are future kings.  For context here: in the original text, the prophecy is spoken by three witches.  In Shakespeare’s time and place, witches would have been considered the most evil, antagonistic characters imaginable, maybe next to the Devil himself, thanks to general ignorance and superstition.  However, centuries later, when we can look at history more objectively (including the knowledge that “witches” were in fact healers, medicine women, and benevolent mediums), adaptation can serve old stories in intriguing ways.  Here, the women Macbeth sees are never called witches, and the “Double, double, toil and trouble” scene, in which they reveal that they’re interfering only to cause mischief, is cut.  So is Macbeth hallucinating, then?  Has this toxic ambition been inside him all along?  Later, Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) sees the women as she wanders to an inevitable conclusion, muttering “to bed, to bed, to bed.”  Do the women represent the spirits L.M. prays to once she is aware of the prophecy?  Do they represent exactly the kind of power, albeit impartial, ambitious people call upon to achieve violent ends?  Something to consider.  It’s not every day a new Shakespeare film brings new questions with it.

Fassbender’s Macbeth is one of the most authentic on film.  He’s used to playing complex characters full of internal conflict and despair, and isn’t afraid to embrace the side of Macbeth that isn’t the badass warrior we’re introduced to at the beginning.  The character first becomes a cartoon of himself, his kingly clothing too large for his body, creating deceptions that only he thinks are clever, and in the end, he transforms further into a wretched, confused shell of a person, left with nothing but his instinct for fighting, and even that melts away in his final moments.  You can see why it doesn’t take MacDuff (Sean Harris) and Malcolm (Jack Reynor) long to puzzle out what exactly happened to Duncan.  And when the dust clears, no one’s sad that this mad dog didn’t get a chance to explain himself.

Marion Cotillard, while slightly underused, is the film’s foundation.  Rather than portraying Lady Macbeth as “crazy,” which is easy, Cotillard’s scheming queen is instead increasingly plagued by depression (after losing a baby, which is hinted at in the original text), which later transmogrifies into guilt.  It’s an incredibly layered performance that not only sets an interesting bar for this kind of character, but allows us to believe Lady Macbeth and her husband as a couple.  The film gives us a look into their private relationship, and it becomes easy to believe that Macbeth would take her plan seriously.  Subsequently seeing her with a “What have I done?” look on her face creates a portrait of a real person experiencing a staggering shift in control, rather than the borderline sexist caricature we often get.

The rest of the cast is appropriately unremarkable – not in their performances, of course, but part of the idea is that the rest of these people are just trying to live their lives and do their jobs, for the most part.  Sean Harris’s MacDuff is notable for being the one who looks the most like a person from 5th-century Scotland might actually look, but my dark horse favorite is Elizabeth Debicki as Lady MacDuff.  She doesn’t get much screen time, but the tear-and-mucus-filled mini-monologue she gives in the face of the rawest form of Macbeth’s madness is enough to make anyone step back and realize how unspeakably wrong this all is.

Due to the length of individual moments and monologues, combined with the film’s relatively short runtime (under two hours), the story feels a bit truncated.  But it’s the power of those individual moments that keeps it afloat.  The play’s most famous speeches – “Out, damned spot,” “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,” and others – are captivating and meaningful even when you know they’re coming, because Kurzel’s characters weave them into moments that already exist, rather than creating moments around them.  Cotillard and Fassbender practically whisper words that in other versions are expressed as booming, profound pontifications.  No room for that here.  Despite the film’s emphasis on battle scenes and violence (in a play where most, if not all, of the deaths take place offstage), everything feels intensely personal.

Maybe that’s the key going forward with Shakespeare adaptations on film: not trying to make them cool and different (i.e. looking at the macro, the outward, the exterior), but to turn inward and examine what we can get from these characters now.

220px-macbeth_2015_posterMacbeth (2015); directed by Justin Kurzel; starring Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Sean Harris, and Elizabeth Debicki.

 

 

The Dark Knight Rises

Death by exile

Since this may be my last chance, I’d like to examine just a few of the logical missteps in Batman’s modus operandi, many of which were suggested to me by a friend during the car ride to see The Dark Knight Rises: Batman and other masked vigilantes cannot legally arrest anyone.  Without admissible evidence, any villain kidnapped by Batman and left on the stoop of the police department is free to get up and catch a cab home.  Adding the fact that vigilantism is largely illegal, “the Batman” (i.e. a nocturnal maniac in an elaborate costume who beats the tar out of people unprovoked) cannot present himself as a witness without revealing his identity.  The absolute only way Batman would be able to stop crime would be to murder every criminal he came across, curbing his “no killing” rule.  Even if Bruce Wayne were to come forth as witness to a crime or offer open help to the police, he has an endless assemblage of illegal tech in and below his house (including military-grade tanks).  If Christopher Nolan’s Gotham were a real place, rest assured, Batman would be spending plenty more time in his cave than anywhere else.

The final film in the Batman Begins series is an effective ending to the trilogy and the most character-centric film Nolan has done, albeit with more than a few failures.  On the upside, Batman himself appears for maybe ten minutes of total screen time, while his alter ego, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) deals with some personal trials after an eight year absence from crime-fighting.  The film focuses on these trials along with the exploits of Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a cat burglar who arranges to steal Wayne’s fingerprints in exchange for the elimination of her criminal record.  The film’s deuteragonist, John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) climbs the ladder of the Gotham police force and takes on a role very similar to that of Robin, the sidekick of Batman, a non-coincidence that provides some good payoff in one of the film’s final scenes.  The other major players are Bane (Tom Hardy), a terrorist with a cult-like following bent on purifying Gotham through its destruction, and Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), a determined businesswoman with lots of money and a nebulous agenda.

I’ve discussed Christopher Nolan’s writing problems in the past (see Inception), and although The Dark Knight Rises possesses a more emotional foothold than its predecessors, plenty of fundamental issues are still present, namely when it comes to female characters.  Women get a better deal here (which isn’t saying much, considering Maggie Gyllenhaal’s fate in The Dark Knight): Hathaway’s character gets plenty to do in the way of action, and more importantly, has some personal motivation for getting involved in Gotham’s criminal underbelly.  Cotillard’s character is an important business mogul with serious ideas for a billion-dollar company, but once the action starts, she becomes a damsel in distress, and later, when her true identity is revealed, she satisfies that Generation Nolan film convention in which women with goals must use sex to achieve them and/or be deceptive and snakelike (see also George Clooney’s The Ides of March).  Both women harbor romantic feelings for Wayne, and like Nolan’s two female characters in Inception, these two serve as disparate romance options for the male lead.  They revolve around the guy, and if he didn’t need them, they wouldn’t exist.  Additionally, while Hathaway tries to play against type and be a self-motivated character, these contrived feelings for Batman (not to mention the sexy catsuit and high heels she’s required to prance around in) subvert what is otherwise a valiant effort.  Selina gets a sidekick, Holly Robinson (Juno Temple), commonly known as one of the first openly gay characters in comic books, but Temple is criminally underused while time is wasted on individual male cops and criminals who have no real bearing on the story’s events, including Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy, who has appeared in all three films), in a mock courtroom side-story that is never actually resolved.

There are also some interesting “buzz word” moments that I think are worth examining.  Bane’s takeover of Gotham is described by Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) as an “occupation,” and Bane proceeds to dismantle the power structures of the city (which includes driving the entire police force into hiding) while claiming that he’s placing the power in the hands of the people; the word people is spoken very deliberately, like a taunt.  The city’s single court room is now run by a mob of cretins, and pyramids of books and papers are scattered and piled everywhere.  Every defendant is killed in a barbaric, Hun-like manner, regardless of guilt.  It seems that when the “people” obtain power and there are no billionaires or police to save us from ourselves, the system falls apart and the doors to the Dark Ages are reopened.  Nolan has already responded to this commentary, claiming that the film is “obviously not” a criticism of the Occupy Wall Street movement, but if it was obvious, viewers would not be making these claims based upon evidence gathered from the film.  You cannot create a story with the intent of having it interpreted; no matter what “side” you’re on, Nolan’s film glorifies the police and reinforces the necessity of the wealthy while trodding on free will and treating ordinary people like commoners.  Wayne’s ascent from a gargantuan (and apparently unsupervised) prison tower among the burbling chants of other prisoners (who all happen to be trained baritones) evokes a sort of religious vibe, satisfying the Rises part of the title while making one wonder what Batman himself thinks of the people – he’s a wealthy man who unconditionally aids the police, but he’s adamant about ensuring that Gotham’s savior “could be anyone.”

Among the leaps in logic is Bane’s (and his boss’s) ultimate plan: destroy Gotham as per the wishes of Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson), who was defeated in the first film.  Considering how petty their goals are (right up there with Hans Gruber), why are Bane’s thugs so devoted and ready to die for the cause?  The film’s opening brings on this question when a henchman happily goes down with a doomed aircraft simply because Bane asks him to (this scene also features Aiden Gillen as a cocky CIA agent with a pompadour haircut, illustrating the underuse of great TV actors in films).  How do the thugs plant bombs of incredible power beneath massive suspension bridges without anyone (particularly boaters) noticing?  What’s the point of isolating Gotham into a medieval city-state if you’re going to blow it up anyway?  How many movies are going to make use of the trigger-button MacGuffin before filmmakers realize it no longer provides any real tension or drama?

The film effectively book-ends the Batman saga despite the numerous hair-pulling moments, and the statuses of the film’s main characters (not to mention the Batcave) make for a surprisingly pleasing conclusion (with no cliffhangers or silly post-credits scenes).  For full enjoyment, however, please blacken your third eye.

The Dark Knight Rises (2012); written by Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan; directed by Christopher Nolan; starring Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, and Tom Hardy.

Inception

There’s still no spoon

I’m starting to realize something: when someone says a film was “hard to follow,” chances are that person does not read.  In our current world, rarely does a film come along in which you actually have to remember anything that happened in the previous scene.  There’s a lot of loud noise, flashing lights, quick cuts, unconvincing CG, violent pulses that pass for music, and distracting 3D nonsense.  This brings me to Inception, Christopher Nolan’s newest effort.  I’ve read/heard from a variety of sources that the film was “confusing” or “hard to follow.”  I’ve also heard the word “deep” used to describe it, though “deep” has such variation in meaning that it’s hard for me to tell whether someone thinks Inception was thoughtfully written or whether they’re going to base an entire religion on it.

Have these people ever read a novel?  I’m guessing not.  Inception is nearly three hours, and everything in the story is relatively spelled out for the audience.  Of the five or six main characters, only Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his past are truly highlighted, while everyone else has a specific role to play in relation to the plot action and Cobb himself (not so much their own lives and demons and what have you), therefore almost zero sideplots exist.  On one hand, you’ve got the mission: plant an idea in the head of a businessman (Cillian Murphy) by entering his dreams; on the other hand you have Cobb’s obsession with his dead wife Mallorie (Marion Cotillard) and how his memory of her affects the dreams he enters.  If that’s hard to follow, I can help you no further.  In fact, Nolan holds our hand through the entire film by having characters take turns saying things like “Wait, so whose subconscious are we in now?”

The film features a diverse ensemble cast including leading lady Ellen Page (who is really starting to make a name for herself now, and one can see why) as Ariadne, an architectural prodigy who is placed in charge of manipulating the scenery in the dream world; Tom Hardy as Eames, a “Forger,” a witty thief who impersonates others in dreams; a deep-voiced Joseph Gordon-Levitt (in one of his most mature roles to date) as Arthur, the team’s point man and DiCaprio’s fall guy; Dileep Rao as Yusuf, a creator of heavy sedatives and the team’s getaway driver; Ken Watanabe as Saito, a Japanese businessman with an intriguing proposition for Cobb; and even Tom Berenger in a nice supporting role as Browning, Cillian Murphy’s sidekick.  The immortal Michael Caine appears in a cameo role as Cobb’s mentor and Ariadne’s college professor.  Every performance is impeccably handled and every character is necessary to complete the plot puzzle.

One of the most impressive features of this film is one that might be easily overlooked once the story and the hype take your senses over: Inception is not an adaptation.  Christopher Nolan wrote and directed this monster from his own mind – as with every film ever, it takes influences and inspiration from elsewhere (i.e. every heist film from The Killing to The Hot Rock), but it’s not directly based upon anything.  It’s something new.

Nolan still has problems writing female characters, in that they continue to be little more than mismatched support beams for the macho male hero.  This film has a million men and two women.  Mallorie is an exotic beauty with a French accent – clearly an intentional retention, as Cillian Murphy stifles his heavy Irish accent throughout the film.  Where Mal came from (France, I assume) and how she became Cobb’s wife is never touched upon.  She ceases to be a person and becomes little more than a dark temptation for Cobb (and Nolan’s decision to make her dead only adds to the convenience of the situation).  Ariadne is said to be a genius, but she never gets to exercise that.  She acts disloyal and disobedient, to which we are supposed to respond with “Ugh; why’d she have to do that?” but she always has Cobb’s best interests in mind.  There is no mention of her personal life or desires.  See further examples of this problem in Nolan’s The Prestige and The Dark Knight.

Inception is a heist film disguised as a psychological thriller.  The ingredients are all there.  One might immediately draw comparisons to The Matrix, but this film is smarter and without all the popcorn sci-fi nonsense (and hopefully without broken, sloppily-done sequels).  This is not a film where you look up a plot summary beforehand and then go see it if you think it looks good (which is why I’m not providing one here).  It’s a film to go out and experience.  Possibly more than once.  Just don’t tell me it’s hard to follow.

Inception (2010); written and directed by Christopher Nolan; starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.