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.

 

 

12 Years a Slave

Platt, you are a marvel

12yasSolomon Northup’s true story is one of the greatest narratives about slavery and freedom in the history of anywhere.  Published in 1853 (in the years leading up to the American Civil War), Northup’s memoir was a unique look into not only the living conditions of slaves, but the real-life relationships between slaves and masters.  Steve McQueen’s film takes some Hollywood liberties with Northup’s original story (it’s not as if Northup himself is here to protest it, not that he would probably want to relive the brutality through fiction in the first place), but thankfully, he neither Hollywoods the emotional impact nor synthesizes a formula plot.

Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free black violinist living in Saratoga.  Through one thing and another, he is tricked, kidnapped, and sold into slavery by a couple of opportunistic charlatans, and finds himself on a plantation owned by baptist preacher William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch).  Once he accepts his position (though never giving up hope of seeing his family again), Northup is able to remain on good terms with Ford, who seems only to own slaves because he’s expected to (one must assume that he inherited his money).  Slaves Robert (Michael K. Williams) and Eliza (Adepero Oduye) are not so lucky.  Northup engineers a waterway for Ford, which leads both Ford and his head carpenter John Tibeats (Paul Dano) to wonder whether Northup is actually more than he seems.  Tibeats’ reaction is one of hatred, and he antagonizes the slaves, especially Northup, every chance he gets – in fact, the character is introduced when he sings the most evil song in the history of cinema (and I hope for Dano’s sake that it doesn’t become a meme anytime soon).

The conflict between Northup and Tibeats (which culminates in a horrific several-minute-long single shot of Northup hanging by the neck while everyone goes about their day around him) becomes a liability for Ford, who sells Northup to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a character so racist and abusive that he might be a caricature if not for Fassbender’s painfully truthful performance combined with the harrowing knowledge that Epps was a real person, and one of many generations of people just like him.  His wife, Mary Epps (Sarah Paulson) is a stock character whose scenes alone with Northup are mostly unnecessary, but whose verbal attempts to emasculate her husband in front of his workers causes plenty of trouble for the latter.  Epps directs his sexual frustrations and violence towards one slave in particular: Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), whom he rapes and brutalizes with absolutely no comeuppance or complaint.

Along comes Armsby (Garret Dillahunt), a white man whose drinking habits cost him enough of his living that he’s forced to get a job picking cotton on Epps’ plantation.  In a bit of nice (albeit appropriately frustrating)  dramatic irony, Armsby commiserates his position whilst cleaning lash wounds on Northup’s back.  Northup asks Armsby for a favor, but we know he’s a red herring and that Northup will not yet escape.  After being turned in, Northup remains on the good side of Epps, who considers Armsby useless anyway (going so far as touching a knife to Northup’s chest and stating, in regards to Armsby, “If he weren’t free and white…”).  Soon after comes the arrival of outspoken Canadian carpenter Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt), whom readers of Northup’s book (or viewers of the original film adaptation starring Avery Brooks) know will eventually help Northup escape.  It’s very telegraphed in the film, as Bass has no problem telling Epps that his slaves are human beings and that he has no right to own them (a concept that seems so foreign and ridiculous to Epps that Bass might as well have told him that one day there would be a thing called motion pictures, and that he himself would be played as a villain by a British actor).  Northup bonds with Bass after listening to this conversation, and takes another risk.

It’s difficult to see Northup’s homecoming as a happy ending, because most of us are still thinking of Patsey, who still lives and will eventually die on Epps’ plantation, alongside the countless other slaves still in the south, who were born into slavery and will never know anything else.  The film’s final line, “There is nothing to forgive,” has multiple layers to read.  The titles at the end, which reveal that Northup took his kidnappers to court and lost the case due to the fact that blacks were not allowed to testify against whites, did nothing to stifle the weeping of the entire theatreful of viewers where I saw the film (about a half-hour’s drive from Northup’s home).

The film is (expectedly) a marvel performance-wise; Ejiofor hits a vein of silver as Northup, bringing a careful respect to the character in every scene.  His performance of “Roll Jordan Roll” puts most of the cast of Les Miserables to shame, and acts as a fantastic figurative response to Tibeats’ hate-filled song earlier on (at the expense of reminding the audience that this is a movie).  Fassbender is incomparable in his second role in a row 1) as an American, and 2) alongside Brad Pitt, who acts more reserved than usual, letting the more important characters remain in focus.  What McQueen robs us of, however, is the scene in which Northup actually relates his story to Bass.  This is important; Northup has not told anyone his story in twelve years, and thus not heard himself say aloud who he is, where he is from, and what he cares about.  It’s something we’ve been waiting for, and the filmmakers sacrifice it for the sake of narrative movement in a film that has established a general okay-ness with slowing down and allowing people to talk (certainly, bits of Bass’s anti-slavery diatribe could have been trimmed if the issue was time; actually helping a slave escape holds a bit more precedent).  Nyong’o as Patsey really strikes a nerve: here is the character who receives every imaginable brutality, and gets absolutely no restitution.  Her whipping scene is something that no one will ever forget, and her performance (her face is in focus while blurry images of two or three different characters take turns decimating her) made me feel like I was standing nearby watching it happen, as helpless as Northup to do (or say) anything about it.

Unfortunately, 12 Years a Slave is the most recent (and hopefully last) in a string of movies about two things: 1) slavery, and 2) white people rescuing black people.  Lincoln, Django Unchained, The Butler, The Man With the Iron Fists, The Help, Elysium, etc.  Why the fascination with slavery?  Why not a film where the black characters don’t rely on white saviors?  Why can’t a popular film feature a black protagonist who isn’t the victim of her/his identity as a central point of the narrative?  McQueen’s film gets a pass because it’s a true story, but it still sets a certain trend, especially when it’s so extensively lauded.  I really hate to think the recent onslaught of slavery films has some ulterior motive, as if Hollywood knows it’s a sensitive topic that will automatically place it against the best dramas about other things.

I feel I should end with a lighter-hearted question: why isn’t Paul Dano allowed to play something other than a psychopath?  I’m not naive enough to think the other questions will receive actual answers.

12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave (2013); written by John Ridley; based upon the memoir by Solomon Northup; directed by Steve McQueen; starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, and Lupita Nyong’o.  

The Counselor

Truth has no temperature

the-counselorCormac McCarthy’s The Counselor is a film comprised entirely of dialogue and brutally matter-of-fact violence, wherein characters communicate via Shavian monologues and aphorisms.  On another level, it’s a film wherein everyone talks about decapitation, and then everyone gets decapitated.  I wish I meant it more figuratively.

McCarthy isn’t known for gentle narrative.  His themes of unstoppable evil and destruction in both the novel and movie versions of No Country For Old Men are about as subtle as a kangaroo in a dinner jacket (thanks, Chandler).  This worked well in tandem with the Coen Brothers, who employ similar themes, but when it comes to Ridley Scott, I’ve discovered that anything magical usually happens by sheer coincidence (talk to me about Alien sometime).  The narrative is right in line with Scott’s violent tendencies, but as far as thematic material, nuance is not part of this film’s vocabulary.  If a character in The Counselor gives another character a warning about how to behave in a certain situation, that situation inevitably comes up.  If someone seems way to concerned with his own well-being, or seems a bit too confident that he will make it out of this story alive, he dies (more brutally based on level of arrogance).  Early on, a bizarre, head-removing weapon is mentioned in casual conversation between the titular character (Michael Fassbender) and his associate Reiner (Javier Bardem).  Reiner tells him something along the lines of “You have to see these things to believe them.  Once you see them, they change you.”  By the patterns established thus far, do you think this exact weapon appears later on?  At this point, I almost wanted Reiner to add, “Do you know what the term ‘Chekhov’s Gun’ means?”

The narrative itself plops us into the middle of a business deal that has been in the works, in some form, for about two years.  Exact details are sparse, but the Counselor, an unremarkable lawyer whose greed has finally gotten the best of him, has invested in a drug deal with a four-thousand percent return rate.  His partners include the aforementioned Reiner, a posh mogul in the underground club scene; a blowhard cowboy named Westray (Brad Pitt); and most importantly, Malkina (Cameron Diaz), an unbridled sociopath with a traumatic past and a nearly full-body tattoo of a cheetah.  Malkina is named after the Grimalkin, an evil faery cat in Scottish mythology (during the infamous witch trials, many women were preposterously accused of using the Grimalkin as a familiar).  The other players are the Counselor’s painfully naive girlfriend, Laura (Penelope Cruz), who has no idea about his goings-on (and is thus destined to be a sacrificial lamb because of them); The Wireman (Sam Spruell), a simultaneously theatrical and stone-faced mook working for Malkina; and of course, the shadowy Cartel, who are never portrayed as much more than ill-tempered and bumbling grunts (with the exception of a high-ranking member played by Rubén Blades), but who, in the words of Westray, will “rip out your liver and feed it to your dog” in the event of a misstep.  Other vital but briefly-seen characters appear; I’ll get to them later.

The Counselor performs a legal favor for Ruth (Rosie Perez), a client currently in prison, whose son, a biker known as the Green Hornet (Richard Cabral), is a cartel member involved in transporting the cocaine – unbeknownst, of course, to the Counselor, whose involvement in the Hornet’s case is the Inevitable Fuckup that catalyzes the film’s tragic narrative thread.  When the Wireman assassinates the Hornet and steals the cocaine, everyone’s crosshairs gravitate toward the Counselor (which is a bit of a surprise, given his apparent knack for keeping his name a secret, but everyone knows that in the movies, two organizations are always invincible and omnipotent: the Mafia and the Cartel).  He asks everyone what to do.  No one knows or cares.  The wealthy Westray can make himself disappear if he likes, so he travels to London in order to waste time until everything blows over.

These events unfold on minimal sets, and through dialogue clearly meant for the stage.  People say big things, and you know that in this world, they’re right.  Irrelevant characters (albeit played by great actors like Toby Kebbell and John Leguizamo) are shoehorned between important scenes to pontificate about some broad concept.  While this approach to dialogue is pragmatic for this type of narrative and quite pleasant to listen to, I’m not sure I’d call it “good.”  It’s indulgent.  McCarthy’s characters resemble Greek gods, or some other beings that know more than regular humans do and stage their battles in a world separate from everyone else’s – note the names of the ancillary characters – The Blonde (Natalie Dormer), The Buyer (Dean Norris), The Diamond Dealer (Bruno Ganz), The Priest (Edgar Ramirez) – people named for roles and functions.   The Blonde exists to distract someone.  The Buyer exists to buy the cocaine (and give narrative satisfaction to, quite literally, the only bit of plot movement).  The Diamond Dealer exists to sell a diamond to someone important.  Someone more important will receive the diamond, and someone even more important will notice the diamond later.

The female characters are either stereotypically innocent and helpless, or sexually manipulative and calculatingly evil.  In and of itself, this is irresponsible and clumsy, even for (perhaps especially for) such a forwardly “masculine” writer as McCarthy, but consider the fact that none of the male characters are very layered either.  The Counselor is the everyman.  Reiner is vanity.  Westray is misplaced confidence.  The Blonde is a succubus.  Malkina is death.  I’m sure you could find a tarot card that corresponds to everyone in this story.  I’d never excuse badly-constructed female characters, and there’s no excuse for a story populated entirely with thin characters, but I guess I’m thinking about intention here – not that the writer’s intentions aren’t transparent or shopworn, but I still can’t help but imagine this same story with this same dialogue taking place in an arena theatre.  Cameron Diaz digs up a performance so commanding that one wonders why she has been so heavily relegated to funny love interest roles and self-conscious cameos.

I am lucky to have seen this film, but I’m not sure I could see it again (I had similar feelings about the adeptly-constructed Shame, also starring Fassbender).  All the wrong people are killed, and not ironically.  Death scenes are dragged on until the character bleeds out, and if that doesn’t take long enough, it’s shown in slow-motion.  The excess of the violence would be laughable if not for the film’s hopeless tone and the way the blood brightens against the black and yellow deserts and cool cityscapes, which are so bland they may as well be black-and-white.

I feel compelled to mention a certain internet consensus that states, “The Counselor has received negative reviews.”  I’ve read some of these reviews, and I’ve come to a conclusion that I cannot stop coming to: the Hollywood blurbsters cannot deal with anything that does not operate under a formula they’ve accepted as one of X amount of ways a storyteller is allowed to tell a story.  I promise you: there is no limit.  Everything has not been done.  A fiction author is allowed to write a screenplay any way (s)he desires, and you are free not to like it, but the implication that McCarthy had no clue what he was doing is beyond sophomoric and belongs on the blogging room floor.  Formula is dying.  Get hungry for new types of narrative.  As the final line of the film goes, “I’m famished.”

The_Counselor_PosterThe Counselor (2013); written by Cormac McCarthy; directed by Ridley Scott; starring Michael Fassbender, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, and Penelope Cruz.

Prometheus

What are my chances?

Prometheus, previously titled Paradise, and which I’ve privately renamed Battle for the Planet of the Space Jockeys, is Ridley Scott’s reimagining of 1979’s Alien mythology.  This time, however, Scott is armed with twenty-first century movie effects and has poured copious amounts of CG into an otherwise live action film (which makes one wonder whether he would have done the same had he possessed the technology in the seventies).

The popular question concerning this film seems to be whether or not it is a direct prequel to Alien.  The short answer is no, because Dan O’Bannon, who wrote the original, didn’t write Prometheus, having passed away in 2009.  Instead, we’re stuck with Damon Lindelof, whose unbridled hubris and laconic dialogue rendered the final season of Lost nearly unwatchable.  Lindelof’s writing has not improved, but having screenplay groundwork previously laid by Jon Spaihts and a plot structure defined by Alien, he manages to keep the goings-on (relatively) tight in this case.  I did occasionally feel “Island Syndrome,” however, during certain scenes in which the actors were clearly making the dialogue sound better than it actually was.

Set several decades before Alien, the film follows Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace, the original girl with the dragon tattoo), a religious archaeologist who discovers identical cave paintings all over the world, most recently on the Isle of Skye in Scotland.  Along with her romantic partner, Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), whose sensibilities starkly contrast her own, Shaw receives funding from the Weyland corporation (the company of devious motives for which Ripley and the crew of the Nostromo worked in Alien) to follow the coordinates suggested by the paintings, which lead to a previously-unexplored world in outer space.  The two are joined by a crew that will bring back immediate memories of the motley group of marines in James Cameron’s Aliens, in that they are unprofessional, disagreeable, and harbor an inexplicable disdain for the protagonist.  The film’s deuteragonist, though, is David (Michael Fassbender), an android in the tradition of the other films.  While David is described as having no soul, he displays limitless curiosity, seemingly genuine care, and a very real sense of vengeance.  Going against a popular sci-fi trope, David doesn’t want to be like his creators (who are, in turn, searching for their own creators in space); in fact, he’s quite relieved to be nothing like them.  Also onboard is Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), a Weyland executive with the compassion of a wolverine and the personality of an ice cube.  Guy Pearce makes an appearance as the elderly Peter Weyland, the megalomaniac who runs the company, and considering the tenure of his appearance in the film, I’m not sure why Scott couldn’t have cast a famous older actor instead of making Pearce go through five hours of makeup for a walk-on role.

The space expedition, as it must, quickly devolves into bad decisions, bickering, and jump-scares.  The less important/interesting members of the crew (a geologist and a biologist whom I mistook for mercenaries based upon their behavior) are the first to be picked off by the indigenous denizens of the planet, which clearly resemble the alien “facehugger” of the original film.  From here, however, the story does not fall into the slasher-movie structure of killing off each crew member one at a time as they grope around in the dark.  The discoveries and intrigue begin to pile up, including the revelation that the “space jockey,” a being discovered in passing by the crew of Alien, was a member of the species that may have spawned humanity and now wants to destroy us.

Sadly, Ridley Scott has never been as good with characters as his brother Tony (who along with Quentin Tarantino crafted True Romance, pound for pound one of my favorite films).  The former has always focused on set pieces before the people and stories inhabiting them, and therefore the character deepening (which should not be confused with character development) does not get off the ground until well into the adventure.  After Holloway, unbeknownst to Shaw (“but knownst to us” – Mel Brooks) has been intentionally infected with an alien agent by David, we get a tender scene in which Shaw reveals her sterility and her desire to “create life,” a possible motive for her obsessive quest for knowledge concerning the Engineers.  This is, for the most part, all we get.  The film relies on its action to familiarize us with the characters from there on out, and conversations between them serve to reinforce their respective dominant traits: Shaw is quixotic, Vickers is ostentatious, Holloway is a skeptic, Janek (Idris Elba) is a stoic, Fifield (Sean Harris) is a bit of an asshole, and so on.  Attempts to deepen them beyond these traits are glossed over.  David is the one who remains a mystery.  He gets his own scenes before anyone else does, puttering around on the ship for two years while the human crew members sleep through the countless light years it takes to reach the Engineer planet, and even though we get to spend this time with him, we’re never quite sure what he wants.  He’s always following orders, sure, but Fassbender often lets slip (in both his expressions and clever dialogue) that something more is going on in that milk-and-pasta-filled head of his.

Vickers is another anomaly.  While the rest of the crew, despite being esteemed scientists, continually fall into the Principle of the Inept Adventurer (moving toward scary places, thrusting their hands toward the maws of alien beasts, and taking their helmets off on an uncharted planet, which not even Buzz Lightyear was dumb enough to do), Vickers is always pragmatic.  She stays indoors when she knows something dangerous is outside.  She demands that everyone do their jobs and follow protocol.  When Holloway is infected, she will not let him back on the ship, and a scene reminiscent of one from Alien in which Ripley refuses to allow the infected Kane back onboard, yields ghastly results.  The issue is that the screenplay sets her up as an antagonist, then hints that she will eventually let her hair down (which she should, since the antagonistic forces in the film severely outnumber the good guys by the third act).  After the standoff scene, Shaw and Vickers are well-established as the yin and yang of the ship, two strong women made enemies by Vickers’ rash actions, but they barely, if ever, have another interaction before the story’s climax, and Vickers’ part in the film ends with an “isn’t that cool?” moment meant to inspire applause, but which rang hollow for me.

Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw is the film’s character centerpiece and performance gem.  Once the cast is inevitably shaved, she is forced to carry on plenty of scenes by herself, and these contain the most revealing bits of her character’s steadfast nature.  The film’s most frightening scene comes when Shaw is implanted with an alien embryo (retaining the original film’s theme of unwanted pregnancy) and must perform a Caesarean section on herself in order to remove it.  Suddenly, the horror is real.  The tears are genuine.  The sci-fi landscape crumbles away for a few minutes and we are left in a whitewashed room with only our heroine and an impossible decision.  In this scene and forward, Shaw begins to mirror Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley, the unwavering protagonist of the original film series: fixations on motherhood (Shaw is sterile and later must remove an alien fetus from her own body, Ripley’s daughter died and she must later care for an orphan), relentless pursuit of their respective alien Others (Shaw must gain knowledge, Ripley must destroy them), and a sort of quiet sympathy that radiates from both, despite their apparent two-hundred year gap (though their real-life timestamps are all too evident from their hairstyles).

Finally, H.R. Giger’s art style is well-preserved (the space jockey, the interior of the spaceship and pilot’s seat, the phallic-headed alien).  His name appears in the credits, but I do wonder if he was on set painting everything himself like he was decades ago.  Regardless, the use of his unique style (considered in the seventies to be too horrifying for audiences) is the linchpin for any argument in favor of this film being a true prequel (besides all the chestbursting, of course).

“Prequel” is a term I dislike for reasons created by George Lucas at the turn of the century.  Consider Prometheus, then, part of a grand mythology, one defined mostly in the imagination since it only spans three 120-minute films (I do not acknowledge Alien 3, Alien Resurrection, nor the Alien vs. Predator series), and a look at the other side of the mirror concerning powerful female figures through the sci-fi/horror ages – a rarity for genre fiction.

The Alien DNA is all there, but I promise, connecting stories with your imagination will work and satisfy much better than comparing graphics and storyboards.  It always has.

Prometheus (2012); written by Damon Lindelof; directed by Ridley Scott; starring Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, and Charlize Theron.

Shame

Day after day, more of the same

Steve McQueen’s Shame is rated NC-17, which I suspect has contributed to its absence at the Academy Awards this year.  Additionally, Michael Fassbender, who has won several awards for his role as Brandon Sullivan – including the coveted Volpi Cup at the Venice Film Festival – has been omitted (along with the much-deserving Michael Shannon) from the Best Actor category.  To paraphrase Roger Ebert, it seems the Academy is okay with Nazis (Christoph Waltz’s Supporting Actor win for Inglourious Basterds) but not with “masturbators.”

Surely we can attribute the rating to the film’s nudity, but I find myself wondering if a film involving a lead female character with as many nude scenes as Michael Fassbender receives here would have been a hard R.  It seems to me that society at large is comfortable with the female form, at least as far as objectification and (to a lesser extent) admiration, and in ways, it’s always been – just look at those ancient statues and age-old paintings in every art gallery and museum, created by the great sexists of every age, which depict women sitting and reading half-naked, combing their hair in the nude, flashing impossibly unrealistic breasts.  Men, though.  When there’s a naked man in the room, regardless of how much exercise he does, there’s always something that no one wants to talk about – those unsightly lumps of flesh swaying to and fro, that shrub of uncontrolled hair.  At some point, every man must pray that women never realize how ugly we are (and I mean this to be funny; it’s nothing compared with what women have had to deal with due to the expectations set forth by their artistic depictions throughout history).

Shame follows Brandon Sullivan (Fassbender), a loner with a nice apartment and a cushy job that not only allows him to slink away without his coworkers noticing, but apparently provides him with enough disposable income to be able to throw a perfectly functional laptop into a plastic bag and leave it for the trash collectors.  By night, Brandon prowls Manhattan in search of anything – or anyone – who can satisfy his ardent sexual appetite.  I hesitate to call him a “sex addict,” however, which seems to be the buzz phrase for this movie, because that’s a medical term (which at the very least would require Brandon to identify a problem and seek help), and the story does not revolve around (nor even hint at) his desires to stop.

Instead, the film seeks to dig into Brandon’s lifestyle as a whole and see what stimuli will affect it, specifically after the appearance of Brandon’s wayward sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan).  In this way, the film follows a standard Rat-in-the-cage model – that is to say, planting a character and a rat in a cage together and forcing them to square off, which can lead to a number of conclusions: 1) one kills the other; 2) they kill each other; 3) they become friends and leave the cage together; and so on.  In this film, we bear witness to several conflicts that sum up the film’s drama, the most prominent of which are Brandon vs. Sissy and Brandon vs. Himself.  Once Sissy comes to town, begging Brandon to let her stay in his apartment while she performs singing gigs in the city, she paints him into a corner.  All of a sudden, his apartment doesn’t seem so big.  In addition, his lecherous boss (James Badge Dale) takes a superficial interest in her, which introduces a subconflict: Brandon vs. his boss.  In his dealings with every person and situation forced upon him, we sense that the overarching interior conflict is Brandon vs. Intimacy, exemplified in two chief ways: Brandon finds pleasure and release in sexual encounters with strangers, as well as in his nightly perusal of internet porn, but avoids talking to his sister, who seeks a meaningful personal relationship with him, at all costs.  They are one another’s only family.  Later, when he attempts to sleep with a coworker who displays a real emotional connection with him, he’s unable to perform.

Michael Fassbender gives his bravest, most honest performance since McQueen’s Hunger and Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre, bearing not only his body, but the raw essence of his character.  Carey Mulligan bears a nearly equal burden in Sissy, breaking her self-described “staunch feminism” concerning nude scenes, and singing her heart out in a heart-squeezing scene involving a somber rendition of “New York, New York.”  The relationship between Brandon and Sissy is at the story’s core, and although we are never allowed to know what happened in their childhoods to create the dynamic they have now (they don’t budge at seeing each other naked, they have stark reactions to the other’s touch, Brandon cries when he hears her singing, etc), we push for them, hoping their respective imperfections can somehow mesh, somehow stop getting in the way of what could be the one healthy relationship either of them has.  What we do know is that they both have a history of self-abuse: Brandon’s sex life has become more function than fun, his penance for something we never learn about, and by his facial expressions during the final few orgasms he has in the film, we get the feeling that he’s no longer enjoying himself (has he ever?).  Sissy’s problems are more subtle.  As Brandon’s boss flirts with her, he touches her wrist and expresses surprise.  We don’t see what he sees, but Sissy’s reaction – “I was bored when I was younger” – gives away multitudes.  This scene, coupled with the fact that she was wearing a hospital bracelet when she showed up at Brandon’s place, brilliantly foreshadows what will be the story’s major turning point.

Perhaps the nature of Brandon’s addiction doesn’t matter.  An addiction to bodies and bodily functions rather than a drug, however, serves the underlying themes better: we get the sense that Brandon doesn’t even consider himself worthy of caring for another human being, and in the end, he is presented with two major decisions, giving him the chance to patch some things up, and perhaps more importantly, acknowledge that he himself had a problem in the first place.

You can count this film’s scenes on three hands.  The best ones are nearly endless, sticking with one shot (static, tracking, and otherwise) for minutes at a time, neither cheating the characters nor the audience of a single moment, a single change in facial expression, a single tear.  Signs on the subway often ask what we’re asking (or what we wish the characters would ask).  Shame is a film that shakes the basic film storytelling formula in that it does not prepare itself for any reasonable conclusion, and therefore does not reach much of one.  It does, however, present a conclusion, and if there was ever a movie in which the phrase “presentation is everything” applied, this was the one.

Shame (2011); written by Abi Morgan and Steve McQueen; directed by Steve McQueen; starring Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan.

Haywire

It begins and ends with the same word

“It’s always about the money,” says Ewan McGregor to Michael Fassbender, as we in the audience wait to be surprised.  Instead of a surprise, though, we get the feeling that what Ewan (or Kenneth, as his character is so named in the film) says refers to something broader than the events within the film.  Just look at the films Steven Soderbergh has done.  Now look at this one.  Now look at this one’s cast.  It’s either the director’s charisma and substantial resume, or an equally substantial paycheck that brought this group of fellows together.

You want a real surprise?  Okay, here goes: Haywire isn’t a bad movie.  There’s a literary form called Paraprosdokian, which occurs when the second half of a sentence or phrase is so surprising to the reader that it changes the reader’s interpretation of the first half.  Can you think of any films that effectively apply this technique to a visual medium?  If you answered yes, were any of those films released after 1990?  Countless movies of this generation attempt the “shocking” narrative twist, but they omit that special moment when, after hearing a clever turn of phrase, you take that split-second breath before saying, “Ohh, I get it.”  That breath is what makes getting it satisfying.  This generation’s thrillers do one of two things: hold your hand and ease you into the twist so slowly that nothing could possibly shock you, or lead you down one path before violently shoving you down another.  Haywire falls victim to the former (want an example of the latter?  Check out my review of Unknown).  Fortunately, Soderbergh’s thriller has a little bit of cushion.

A fair warning: if you don’t fall for Gina Carano’s character of Mallory Kane when she’s gently sipping tea in an upstate New York cafe’ in the opening scene, then you never will.  The film follows Mallory’s retelling of her betrayal at the hands of a private military company.  The fact that most of the film is told through flashbacks eliminates a lot of potential tension, but not inherently: Carano’s straight-laced delivery perishes any though of Mallory being an unreliable narrator (unlike last year’s The Debt, a similar narrative in which a detail left out by Jessica Chastain’s character changes the entire plot).  The company, which may or may not be run by Kenneth (McGregor), has murky dealings with contacts in Barcelona and Dublin, where Mallory is sent to do a couple of jobs.  The company also involves Rodrigo (Antonio Banderas) and Aaron (Channing Tatum), whose positions are unclear.  While doing a job with Paul (Michael Fassbender), an MI6 agent, Mallory is sold out and becomes the object of an international womanhunt.  While attempting to figure out who’s pulling Kenneth’s strings, she systematically takes down her hunters, simultaneously protecting the innocent people involved – namely a diner named Scott (Michael Angarano) and her father, John (Bill Paxton).  Michael Douglas even appears as a guy who does something for the U.S. government.

What struck me about the film is how quiet it is.  Not sound-wise, mind you; the gunshots are thunderous enough.  But there are long shots of Mallory running, walking, and driving – shots that I admire.  A scene in which Mallory backs up a car shows us not what’s behind her (all elements of danger: angry cops, wild deer, rugged road conditions), but just her face and what’s moving away from her in the safe distance.  Carano does all of her own stunts and fight work, which is refreshingly easy to follow, as it’s well-cut (i.e. not edited much) and makes no obvious use of wires or CG.  The music is equal parts calming and vein-pumping when it should be.

I’m still not certain, however, whether the “big reveal” is supposed to be a genuine surprise.  We had no reason to believe it wasn’t this person.  Furthermore, due to the fact that the male characters (with the possible exception of Paxton’s sympathetic dad) have as much personality and as many distinguishing features as a six-pack of toothpaste tubes, Haywire becomes a film in which it’s pointless to try to solve the mystery yourself.  You know it’s all going to be spelled out in an hour anyway.  The ending also leaves one begging for another five seconds with the characters (and not in the incredible way Another Earth did).  “That’s a hell of a way to end a movie,” a film-goer said to me as we exited the theatre.  “It’s like they were setting up a sequel.”

Mallory’s most revealing scenes happen when she’s sipping tea or walking through her apartment in a bathrobe.  There’s not much growth for her character – there almost is, when her father, unbeknownst to her, spies her killing an attacker, and we know it’s the first time he’s seen this happen – but we’re allowed to feel for her.  She has sympathy for the innocent, and has a life – or wants one – outside of killing bad people.  We did, however, need that extra five seconds.  The film’s best scene is a terrific one-shot conversation between Mallory and Michael Douglas’ character, who appear almost as silhouettes, in a garage at the end of an airport runway.  It’s tenser than any of the fight scenes, and the potential consequences are much greater (because, let’s be honest, are we ever afraid Mallory is going to lose a fight?).

Gina Carano is a good actress, though I’m afraid that if her career skyrockets, she will be pigeonholed into this exact same role again and again.  But at least it’s a leading role.

Haywire (2012); written by Lem Dobbs; directed by Steven Soderbergh; starring Gina Carano, Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor and Antonio Banderas. 

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