Assassin’s Creed (*1/2) Now really, what did you expect?

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Assassin’s Creed – 2016

Director Justin Kurzel
Screenplay by Michael Lesslie, Adam Cooper, Bill Collage
Starring Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson, Charlotte Rampling, Michael K. Williams

There is an inexact scientific measure used to determine the worth of a movie that may be otherwise questionable. Three screenwriters or more is usually a good indicator they don’t have a solid story, they are just trying to hit the marks expected for an hour and a half film. A directing track record is also a decent indicator, but anything less than 4 major films and who knows. Kurzel’s last effort was the critically well received MacBeth. I have not seen nor do I plan on seeing this film. Shakespeare on-screen is worse than reading it for me: no annotations and the images don’t add up to excitement if I can’t tell what form of English they are speaking.

Less precise is the acting quotient. Upon discovering that not only was Fassbender playing the titular Assassin, but that he was to be joined by Cotillard, Irons, Gleeson and Rampling, it was a sell for a rental. There is no way all of these actors can be swallowed up by something that is pure garbage. And they weren’t. Not entirely.

Mostly though.

The property is not without cinematic promise. Taking a modern man of questionable repute and throwing him backwards through time with some scientific mumbo jumbo so he can…well, I am not sure what. Mostly find where things are hidden, I guess. This man needs to be related to Assassins. And these Assassins follow a creed, which is different from competing assassins who follow a different creed. Then they have to fight, kill one another, perform parkour and then jump off of high stuff.

To what end never really matters in the game, and here it doesn’t amount to much either.

This time we have Callum (Fassbender) who is on death row a few (lets say at least 3) decades after seeing his father apparently cause his mother’s death. Does he deserve it? Who cares? To get where he is going, he has to die anyway.

He wakes up at the Abstergo Foundation, where there are a peculiar set of people who are in his position. They are part of an experiment. This is supposedly of their own free will, but they really would prefer that you stay and help out.

The experiments are led by Dr.’s Sofia and Alan Rikkin (Cotillard and Irons). Sofia is young and idealistic. Alan seems more the cut-throaty type. They battle back and forth over the best way to move forward with their project, which now is focused on the genetic memory and abilities of Callum, in the form of his Assassin ancestor, Aguilar.

This leads to some back and forth between the past and present. None of this is interesting. The MacGuffin is an Apple device which contains the genetic code that is important for reasons not necessary to explain. Eventually this leads to the end of the film, which is a set up for the next film.

No thanks.

The actors give their B movie best here. It brings to mind that Fassbender has been in almost more crap than good stuff in his career. Cotillard is just as likely to be in average pulp like Allies as she is something originally delicious like Inception. And Jeremy Irons? Well, let’s just hope there is not a Pink Panther 3.

I never thought they’d pull Gleeson down, but they did. Charlotte Rampling was another one that feels like she’s only been in high brow stuff. Everybody has to cash a check once in a while.

Apparently, there is enough riding behind this one to push through at least one sequel. The director is actually interested to explore the cold war. If they let him come back, at least it won’t force some other director to take a dive for material that can only take you so far before it pulls you down into the pit of hitting the marks.

It’s the same kind of fate Michael Bay has been saving directors from since Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

(*1/2 out of *****)

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Divergent Series: Allegiant (***) gets worse than it gives

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Divergent Series – Allegiant (2016)

Director Robert Schwentke
Screenplay Stephen Chbosky, Bill Collage, Adam Coper, Noah Oppenheim based on the book by Veronica Roth
Starring Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Jeff Daniels, Octavia Spencer, Ray Stevenson, Zoë Kravitz, Miles Teller, Ansel Elgort, Maggie Q, Bill Skarsgård, Naomi Watts

This will be thought of as the film that ushered forth the end of Hollywood’s necrophiliac habit of making multiple films out of books that don’t warrant them. It’s a fate that should have fallen on a worse film, to be sure, but it had to happen sometime. It’s not a great film. It’s better than Insurgent. Having the cast it does, it should be approaching great, instead of treading through good.

That none of these films share even one author might have something to do with the increasing disconnect with audiences. In total, 9 writers claim credit from the first film until this one. At least the last two had Robert Schwentke, even if in the end it really didn’t help. He was off the docket if there had been a 4th cinematic venture. R.E.D. seems so far away now.

In it’s wake, we have a decent effort by Woodley and James, leading a revolution against an ever evolving foe. The mark has changed from film to film as the world of our heroes expands from myopia to dystopia. Moving from the formidable Kate Winslett to the frayed Naomi Watts to the deceptively smooth Jeff Daniels, the game is still the same: divide, conquer and use for testing.

That my daughter and I enjoyed this film more than the previous probably has more to do with changing venues than anything. We discover a few unsurprising things about the Earth and we’re supposed to root for these fresh-faced kids as they decide that teenage wasteland is not a fun place, because all of the adults are jerks.

As nice as this all is, it’s the kind of film that will be hard to remember in two weeks. To be fair, I waited two weeks before writing this review and my theory proved correct. I need to refer to notes more often than should.

If they’d finished, the series, it likely would not have been improved much. The same can be said for every film set that tried the same gimmick outside of the last Harry Potter film. In that case, the first one was the let down. Still, there are worse ways to pass a rainy Sunday. The Hunger Games series, for instance. Too bad the bottom didn’t fall out on that series first.

(*** out of *****)

 

 

 

Exodus Gods and Kings (****): Moses, Ramses II, God and his Angels

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Exodus – Gods and Kings (2014)

Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, John Turturro, Aaron Paul, Ben Mendelsohn, María Valverde, Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, Andrew Tarbet, Isaac Andrews
Screenplay Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine, Steven Zaillian

The prospect of a big budget film based on The Holy Bible is immediately deserving of skepticism these days. For some, like Aronofsky, use it to “explore the space”  adventurously within the original source. Most others, like Scott, openly admit that they shape the story and the cast to make the film as profitable as possible around the world. In this way, it’s kind of like a Transformers movie, but in the worst way possible. The formula works financially, as a little over 3/4 of the films $270 million gross has been outside of North America. We can expect certain allowances and even certain differences, which for many detract from the sincerity of the approach.

Scott is one of the most visually striking, if sometimes editorially distant, directors of our time. His desire for clarity of vision at times leaves the story in its wake. Having four writers for this tale further raises a red flag. The hopes for this experience are high, but the expectations are minimal.

The result is a remarkably deft presentation that does a good job giving a plausible reading of what everyone who has seen The Ten Commandments will recognize.  We start out seeing Moses and Ramses II as brothers in arms. If not brothers by blood, their combination spills much blood.

Moses (Bale) is a skeptic of the Gods Egypt worship. His confidence is more with himself than anything else. Ramses II (Edgerton) is to succeed his father, Seti I (Turturro) as Pharaoh of Egypt. His confidence in himself is lacking. The love between the brothers is not lacking. When Moses saves the life of Ramses II on the battlefield, the dynamic changes between the two. This unease is exacerbated through the death of Seti I, until a secret about Moses reaches Ramses II through the treacherous lips of Hegep.

Ramses confronts Moses about this, setting in motion a chain of events that leads Moses to become the leader of the Hebrews. This, of course is all the work of God. Moses is a Hebrew who by prophesy was to be the leader of the Hebrew slaves. Soon enough, Moses is banished, goes on a journey in which an attempt is made on his life thanks to Ramses II’s mother Tuya (Weaver). Escaping that, he then finds love (Valverde) and starts a family. Nine years later, he is called upon by God to fulfill his destiny and free his people.

At this point, Ridley Scott chooses to show the true meaning of the word Israel: to wrestle with God. To that end, we see Moses speaking with Malak (Andrews as an Angel of God) in barely civil terms. This is a verbal, philosophical and religious wrestling match. Scott makes a conscious choice to show Moses as believing what he’s seen, but not being able to completely accept what he’s been told. This perspective is something many people can identify with more than the Moses of tradition who was maybe more accepting. To be sure, the plagues and the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was as much for Moses’ belief as it was for Pharaoh’s. This is made clear n this version of the story.

The acting of the leads is excellent. This is big budget Bale at his best. We can see the journey he’s made from beginning to end in crystal clear terms. His relationship with Ramses II demonstrates how love can be driven south by fear and eventually, greed. Edgerton’s performance, more subtle, is also more memorable. His Ramses II rivals Yul Brenner’s in depth and scope. The greatness in both performances is in that we can see ourselves in both of them. They are not straight up good versus evil. They can be seen as examples of God’s power.

Of the supporting performances, only Mendelsohn’s wicked and deceitful Hegep stands out. His actions are integral as those of Pontius Pilate. A career in middle management which one would defend by shining the light on others. The rest have almost no moments of actual personality as they do reciting plot points. One wishes we would have had more time showing the dichotomy with Aaron (Tarbet) and Ramses II as brothers of Moses. What we get instead is a series of blank stares from Aaron, watching Moses talk to (apparently) no one. It’s a missed opportunity.

What can be admired about Exodus… is the focus. God’s wrath shown through Malak. Moses and Ramses II’s growth into their historically significant roles against one another. We see the wrestling match between Moses and God. We get that Ramses II moves from uncertainty to maniacal in his demand for respect and love. This is feeling of inadequacy is subtly hinted at in the triangle relationship between the two brothers and their father, Seti I.

If one is looking for historical accuracy, it should be noted that the events are more interpretations than they are Biblically accurate. The plagues are expounded upon, and the Israelites suffer as much as Egyptians. It is entertaining to see the leading minds and religious experts try to explain to the Pharaoh how one plague might lead to another or be easily overturned by ritual.

It is less entertaining to see Moses lead the Hebrews to perform what are essentially acts of terrorism against the Egyptian women and children, and then rationalize it in the name of their freedom. One could conceive that this is Ridley Scott taking sides on terrorism in the modern day, which is something Israel has to battle constantly. If he is trying to make a point about Israel’s hands being dirty, then he is making too big of a stretch based on historical evidence. This is but one small segment in the story. It does detract from the character that Scott, Bale and company hope to create, as it is not the same Moses that would historically downplay his earlier heroism in saving his brother on the battlefield.

Still, the overall story is solid enough and the visuals (as usual) striking enough that it makes the film worth watching. It’s not close to his best work, but it is inspired and it certainly does not plumb the depths of Robin Hood. Just don’t expect to have your local Christian or Jewish worship center presenting this film any time soon. On the other hand, we should just feel fortunate that the ending doesn’t take place in China.

(**** out of *****)