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.

 

 

Inherent Vice

Not hallucinating

inherent-vice-640x360PT Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, a novel written well into the age of irony and meta narrative, voluntarily entangles itself in genre trappings, and centers around a hippie version of Sherlock Holmes who simply cannot gel with the world in which he insists upon staying.  Doc (Joaquin Phoenix) is never without joint in hand and never has a clear thought.  He misses his ex, Shasta (Katherine Waterston), but doesn’t quite know why they broke up, and doesn’t quite want to be together again either.  His attempts at hardboiled dialogue quickly devolve into non sequitur.  His professional rivalry with oafish cop Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) consistently proves disastrous for him.  A DA with whom he’s having an affair (Reese Witherspoon) doesn’t trust his word because he’s stoned all the time.  Following a bold escape from white supremacist captors, a hand-off that should be climactic (complete with period cars parked at a safe distance whilst the skeptical strangers walk coolly toward one another) ends with a teenage girl flipping him off.  Like Doc, the film plods, meanders, and never forms any sense of direction, form, or anything that resembles a clear thought.  Doc pines for purpose but allows himself to drift, surrounded by people who inhabit rigid roles, and even when he actually does something (which is only ever in reaction to something that happens to him), he seems to resist genuine progress.

The film begins like the archetypal private-eye story: with a beautiful “dame” walking in and putting the reluctant PI on the toughest case of his career.  But the plot doesn’t take quite as long as The Big Sleep to become murky and incoherent because Inherent Vice does it on purpose.  Some things are resolved.  Some things are deliberately not.  Plenty of people – Rudy Blatnoyd (Martin Short), Sauncho Smilax (Benicio del Toro), Aunt Reet (Jeannie Berlin), and others – are there for no reason or do not accomplish what appears to be their one purpose (at least as far as Doc is concerned).  The characters are fun to spend time with in a Jackie Brown sort of way, though a first viewing of this film isn’t necessarily for purposes of finding out what happens, as the plot and story become extraneous fairly early on.  Anything that could be exciting, romantic, or conclusive is subverted – Doc’s relationships with Shasta and Penny, Doc’s big shootout with thugs, even the involvement of Sortilège (Joanna Newsom), who narrates the story and whose face is seen plenty of times, is never defined in any clear way as a part of this story or a character of her own: who is she to Doc?  Who is she narrating to?  Why would anyone care, given the nature of the story’s structure?

Characters are enveloped in thick white-gray light so that the film is always wrapped in a sort of haze, which not only mimics Doc’s pot-addled mind, but also makes everything seem realistic and down-to-earth when the goal of the characters (read: main cast – Doc, Shasta, Hope [Jena Malone], Bigfoot, Mickey [Eric Roberts]) is to get somewhere that isn’t real or to grasp something that no longer exists – Doc’s fantasy life of being a badass private-eye on a scenic coast; Shasta’s seemingly perfect life with business mogul Mickey (who has become so sick of his life of corruption that he joins a cult where he doesn’t have to think about it any more); Hope’s insistence that her life of heroin-fueled debauchery with husband Coy (Owen Wilson), who has also run away (to become a snitch for several dangerous organizations), can be reconciled into a happy family life; Bigfoot’s bravado and conservative bullshit about being a respected cop when he’s actually whipped by his wife and moonlighting as an extra on Adam 12 and doing commercials in which he’s forced to wear a fake afro; even Clancy Charlock’s (Michelle Sinclair) hope that her no-goodnik husband (whose corpse we saw two hours ago and never shed a tear over) is alive. Closeups of characters involve unflattering framing and light that makes them appear as real people with disheveled hair, natural movements, and nary an airbrushed mole.  There’s natural beauty in the tiny moments, when Doc and company are not reaching for the ephemeral.

The film’s roadblocks are all in the choices made by its director, and maybe its purpose altogether (i.e. its self-conscious lack thereof).  A film should not be made with the intention of becoming a misunderstood cult classic.  Nearly all of its most positive reviews by respected critics involve the phrases “a film for film lovers” or “a film that demands comparison to [this] and [that].”  Being derivative is one thing, but you cannot say those things and then call a film “unique” and “original” in the same breath, much less when it’s based on a novel and so desperately (and here’s where I compare it to something) xeroxes Coen Brothers material.  Yes, nostalgia is a big theme in the film, perhaps its strongest.  But nostalgia shouldn’t be the one thing that causes us to 1) see a film, and 2) get so precious about it – similar to actual memories.

Worst, maybe, is Anderson’s continued misuse (and the word “use” is sadly appropriate here) of the female cast.  Where his last film had Philip Seymour Hoffman singing an active and impressive version of “Amsterdam Maid” while dozens of nude young (and old, none in between) women bounced around like decorations, this one has plenty of attempted characterization of women with one common trait: they all sit around waiting for a man (or multiple men) to save them.  But look at Shasta: she’s the one who doesn’t seem to need any of this.  She’s the film’s most liberated soul.  Until, of course, she returns to Doc’s apartment, strips down, and nakedly monologues in a several-minute-long single shot about how she’s in fact a much worse kind of person, objectifies and verbally degrades herself while rubbing her foot along Doc’s crotch, and then allows herself to be spanked and sexually ravaged.  I’m not sure which I prefer, if I have to prefer one: a film with practically no women (There Will Be Blood) or one wherein the women debase themselves at the whim of the men before and behind the camera (and wherein their greatest fantasy is living a life that involves actually making choices).  Also note: the fact that the actress has stated that the scene did not bother her doesn’t mean that the scene isn’t problematic as a whole or that it doesn’t perpetuate serious issues in our culture.

So yeah.  Inherent Vice is nostalgic, deliberately uncomfortable, and fun to try to puzzle out, but when it “says” something, it says the wrong thing, and much like its protagonist, who never knows what’s being said or whether he’s actually saying much of anything, the film itself isn’t too clear about whether its makers understand exactly what they are saying.  It doesn’t take repeat viewings to figure that out.

Inherent Vice (2014); based upon the novel by Thomas Pynchon; screenplay and direction by Paul Thomas Anderson; starring Joaquin Phoenix, Katherine Waterston, Josh Brolin, and Jena Malone. 

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.