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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In The Heart of the Sea (*1/2) is doldrums

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In The Heart of the Sea – 2015

Director Ron Howard
Screenplay Charles Leavitt based on the book by Nathaniel Philbrick
Starring Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy, Tom Holland, Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson, Michelle Fairley, Charlotte Riley

Since the time of his over reliance on Dan Brown to keep his directing career afloat, Ron Howard’s films have become incredibly boring. He’s gone back and forth between drawn out historical drama (Cinderella ManFrost/NixonThe Missing) one flashy recent historical film (Rush) and a comedy dud (The Dilemma). It seems the deeper in his career he gets, the more he replaces genuine feeling with sepia tone affected camera angles. This method has never been more in evidence than the In The Heart of the Sea.

The angle of the story of the making of the story has just about played out before this effort. Instead of seeing a master like Melville at work, we get to see a good actor (Whishaw) play a toothless version of him, begging for scraps of a story of an old coot named Nickerson who apparently spent many years catatonically sitting through life when it’s obvious he had to make a living somehow.  In this case the coot is a strangely ineffective Gleeson. The film starts with a needless back and forth where it’s obvious that an understanding has been reached off-screen, only to have the him try to call it off now that Melville made a long journey to hear his story first hand. Why do they play hard to get?  It’s a tease, of course, but a worthless one. We don’t need to know whether the author of Moby Dick is worthy to tell the story. History and the ticket price already proved it so.

Once that batch of foolishness fades for the first time (yes, they go back to that useless well), we see the narrator as a young man (Holland) as the basis for the story begins. This time, the First Mate, Owen Chase (Hemsworth) is expecting his first child and his first command. He gets neither before he is sent on his next mission aboard the vessel Essex. Instead of captaincy, he gets to serve under George Pollard, Jr. (Walker). The relationship between the two is foolishly contentious at first, but a respect grows eventually. This is one of the formulas in the film that works as much for the acting as the script and direction. Walker plays the part of a man gifted by family name well. We see that while he may not be worthy of the role of captain by ability, he certainly has the character to merit the part.

The whaling expedition begins late in the season and situates the crew with the burden of playing catch up. This leads to some poor decisions attributed to Pollard. Once they survive a near total wreck of the vessel, he is convinced by Chase to soldier forward and repair what they can on the way.

It’s at this point the film has its most interesting passage, centered around the killing and complete utility of a sperm whale. There is a mix of revulsion and fascination one feels when seeing the lengths the sailors go to in making use of the beast. It makes one wonder what the world would have been like had we found another way to use the resources we thought we needed from them.

At a stop in Ecuador, Chase and Pollard overhear a Spanish Captain’s story about a white whale that destroyed their ship, killing six men in the process. There would be no story if the two heeded the man’s warning.

The sequence involving the pod of whales that include the inspiration for Moby Dick is – of course – a big selling point of the trailer. It looks absolutely insane and scary as hell. The execution leaves a little to be desired, however. It’s a mish mash of cluttered scenes that while perhaps historically accurate, does not give as much dread as it does inevitability. From here, much was made of the journey of the castaways. It’s choppy and pushes forward without any scenes that grab this viewer. After the deliberation of Unbroken earlier in the year, this just seems like a bad couple of days out in the ocean.

In essence, Howard seems to be hitting spots without taking an adequate enough time to set the mood, outside of the relationship between Pollard and Chase. What we see are a series of events with little to no flow between them. This is likely because there is no real character growth within the ample 121-minute running time. If they had shaved the whole Melville / Old Nickerson story out and just concentrated on the characters in the actual events of the story, this may have turned out differently.

As it stands, the characters outside of those portrayed by Walker and Hemsworth seem almost comical in their devotion to cliché. What the hell happened to Murphy’s Matthew Joy? There is supposed to be some sort of backstory with he and Chase, but it’s so laughably bad, I can scarcely believe he agreed to play the role unless there was some 30 minutes left on the cutting room floor.

That Howard was given $100 million to play with on this film is absurd when one thinks of the final product. So many scenes feel emotionless and computer generated. This could have been made better by any hack director from Stephen Somers to Michael Bay. The end result feels like a true artist that has been marooned since he turned A Beautiful Mind into a beautiful fiction and was foolishly given an Oscar for his efforts.

The thing behind Howard’s best work was never effects, camera angles and overwrought and concocted drama. It has always been about character. From Night Shift, to Splash, to Cocoon, to Parenthood on through his best work, Apollo 13, each story had great characters completely drawn. He doesn’t know how to do that so much anymore. Instead he’s become reliant on little falsehoods woven into each biography meant to tweak Oscar voters, even if it leaves the story out of original territory and makes it just like everything else.

It’d be nice if he could find some way to get himself back into storytelling mode. Something similar to what Reiner has found with low budget gems like Flipped or anything that Jeff Nichols has done. It seems like he thinks he’s reached a status of auteur. These things happen when you make hack commercials for political figures or when you win Oscars for calculated half-truths.

This won’t happen though. He’s on well on his way to making the next Dan Brown movie based on crap theology. The 2nd one made half as much as the 1st, so we should see him make a few more before they realize they don’t make any money anymore. Just like Ron Howard career outside of those films.

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

Edge Of Tomorrow (***1/2): Try, try again…

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Edge of Tomorrow – 2014

Director Doug Liman
Starring Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton, Brendan Gleeson, Noah Taylor
Screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth based on All You Need is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka

First thing’s first.  Edge of Tomorrow is a likable film.  Tom Cruise puts everything into it, just like usual.  Cruise’s Major William Cage is a mouthpiece for the military who is busted down to private and shown the front line despite his protestations.  This puts him in line to be the butt of ridicule and low expectations, just like the good old days.  And also like his past, Cruise gets to rise above those obstacles and the enemy as well.

Why is he busted down?  It’s the thinnest of excuses, but it amounts to “I don’t want to film the front line.”  So here he is, thrust into the midst of a disaster so bad, the big hero Vrataski (Blunt) of the war is decimated quickly. He outlasts her only long enough to kill one of the blue ones instead of the many red ones.  The blue ones are known as Alphas.  And their death triggers a reset of the day, time-wise by the Omega, who is the big brain of the attack.  The Alpha’s blood is mixed with his and this gives him the ability to reset as well.  Of course he too has to die to enact these resets.

This is not apparent to Cage until he gets together with Vrataski to compare notes.  This is something that Vrataski knows because she used to have the same ability, until…well, I will let you discover why.  She works to train Cage and at the same time they try to figure out how they can attack the Omega while avoiding  the Alpha.  This whole section of the film is handled cleverly enough to avoid being repetitive.  Still, its loud and the bad guys seem too animated to give a visceral feeling to the viewer.  Compare this to the street battle scenes in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and it becomes obvious what is lacking.

Cruise is good, but he’s treading over oft covered ground.  Blunt gives the strongest performance of the film, even if her character is an extension of her Devil Wears Prada self.  Paxton is more annoying than he’s been in a while.  Brendan Gleeson is very large for a general wearing camouflage.  Doug Liman does a great job with pacing, but like any director given the keys to the computer after so long, using traditional filming methods, he relies too awkwardly on the effects and the result is disconcerting.

Edge of Tomorrow works hard to please, even if at 113 minutes it still feels long.  That feeling is completely subjective.  The film has been well received by audiences and critics alike.  As much as I respect Cruise for his efforts to bring something new to the table each time out (even with his M:I sequels), this is not going to be one that I revisit all that often.

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

The Raven: Is this John Cusack?

The Raven – 2012

Director James McTeigue
Starring John Cusack, Luke Evans, Alice Eve, Brendan Gleeson, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Kevin McNally, Sam Hazeldine, Pam Ferris, John Warnaby
Screenplay Ben Livingston, Hannah Shakespeare

There is a movie here, a damn good one…somewhere.  Cusack bears a resemblance to Edgar Allan Poe and the idea of a true serial killing spree based on his macabre works is intriguing.  The execution of this film, however, is atrocious.  Stumbling along from scene to scene, there is absolutely no charisma exhibited by any of the characters.  The plot is a mess, albeit an inspired one.

Many actors were tied to and eventually passed on this project.  Jeremy Renner and Ewan McGregor as Inspector Fields and Joaquin Phoenix as Poe.  Could the film have been better with any of them in the role of the protagonists?  I doubt it.  The problems here are much more than acting could fix.

The script does not allow for any sense of development for any of the characters before the jarring events begin to reduce people into things.  This is perfectly exemplified by one of the scenes featuring Poe at a poetry reading.  In the midst of revealing an absurdly wonderful interpretation of a woman’s poem, he is brought in for questioning by the police. For the rest of the film, we have Poe just telling people how he is a “master of his art,” while those who would have no means to judge him otherwise just nod blankly in agreement.  In this way, Cusack has nothing to push back on.  His performance is muted, like shouting into a void.

Part of this void is the character of Inspector Fields, played with a bland acceptance by Luke Evans.  Evans is an actor with a limited range.  When used correctly like in The Three Musketeers, he is quite entertaining.  Here, he is more of a confused but willing child.  One never gets the sense of him as anything more than someone to be awed by the events. Because of this, there is no real sense of justice or authority to any of his actions, and no real belief that he has anything of a motive to just hang around in the presence of Poe.

The casting of Brendan Gleeson is a mystery to me.  What he can bring to a film is not in any way needed here.  His role could have been carried out by anyone, literally.  As Captain Hamilton, all he does is play a middle-aged guy concerned about his daughter.  There are no other layers. His daughter, Emily (Eve) provides a haunted presence through much of the film.  Indeed, she fits well within the framework of someone caught in the web of a Poe reflected-tale.

The rest of the cast is a nameless, ineffective group.  Seeing Cusack amble back and forth among them makes me wonder where it is his career has gone.  He has been a great actor in some absolute gems (Grosse Pointe Blank, Say Anything, Being John Malkovich, The Grifters), as well a solid contributor in some good films (Hot Tub Time Machine, High FidelityCon Air, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil) and the lead in some trash (Serendipity, America’s Sweethearts, Must Love Dogs).  Then there is this.  He’s done so many films in his career, there is no real sense of who he is as an actor.  He used to be relatively easy to identify with.  In this film, it feels like you are watching person you can’t quite remember.

Why is it, exactly, that he would take a role in an incomplete script such as this, when others without his résumé would avoid them?  Anyone who follows Cusack on Twitter (@johncusack) knows that he is one who is apt to spend many hours a night following his muse.  He is approaching 9,000 tweets with over 1,000,000 followers.  Describing himself as an “Apocalyptic shit disturber and elephant trainer,”  he is a reservoir of thought and feeling.  I guess you have to go where you think the money is, once in a while.  It isn’t here.

Safe House: Bullets, Crunching Metal and Quick Cuts

Safe House – 2012

Directed by Daniel Espinosa
Starring Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Brendan Gleeson, Vera Farmiga, Sam Shepard,  Rubén Blades, Robert Patrick, Liam Cunningham
Screenplay by  David Guggenheim

“I need to find out who this Matt Weston is right now…” is a demand made by CIA Deputy Director Harlan Whitford.  This after the safe house in which Weston (Ryan Reynolds in doe-eyed mode) and rogue agent Tobin Frost (Washington) resides is blown apart by the bad guys, with everyone in it except themselves, shot all to hell.  It would seem that since Weston has been a low-level agent for years, it would not be too hard to figure out his history or credentials.

Frost, who’s been “off the grid” for many years is wanted for “espionage” in several countries.  He’s involved with some junk at the beginning of the film that gives us a sense of ambiguity as to his intentions, but when he surrenders himself to the American consulate in Cape Town, we’re pretty sure he’s a good bad guy.  He’s only had one Training Day, after all.  Even in the trailer one can tell this is another role that will likely trade on that performance.

Back at headquarters, we have Agents Barlow (Gleeson) and Linklater (Farmiga).  Previous experience with both actors and the Bourne movies gives us a decent idea which of them is the turncoat.  No need to get into that now, though, there are still plenty of budget dollars to blow sky-high.

Safe House is, essentially, a chase movie showing you many of the sights of Cape Town South Africa.  It is a beautiful city, and Reynolds and Washington are beautiful people.  What could be wrong about letting the tape roll a while?

Washington has reached the point in his career where he can afford to make decent action films that, without his participation would be substandard.  Reynolds is one of many young bucks who have seen themselves opposite Washington in recent years, learning the ropes dramatically, through much risk to themselves and others.

The key phrase Weston picks up from Frost is “You’ve done a fine job.  We’ll take it from here.”  After he hears someone in the CIA say this, Weston knows he is going to be spending more time running for his life.  He immediately goes to his girlfriend and confesses that he has been lying to her about his job, and has her take off to Johannesburg.  After some angry “you lied to me” slapping, they go their seperate ways.

Frost, meanwhile, goes about solving his dilemma in the bowels of Cape Town.  The chemistry between Reynolds and Washington is aided by the fact that the script demands that they spend crucial time apart, in order for Weston to develop on his own.  Washington is the equivalent of John Wayne, Toshiro Mifune or Harrison Ford by now: a finished product that requires only the slightest tweak to make the plot slightly more interesting.

Safe House will be enjoyable to most people who demand that their movies be loud, predictable and the good guys win, with an acceptable amount of loss.  It’s conventional, sure, and Denzel could do more challenging stuff, but what the hell.

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

The Guard shows real chemistry between Gleeson and Cheadle, kind of like Gibson and Glover

The Guard – 2011

Written and Directed by John Michael McDonagh
Starring
Brendan Gleason, Don Cheadle, Liam Cunningham, Mark Strong, Fionnula Flanagan, David Wilmot, Michael Og Lane, Dominique McElligott, Rory Keenan

Early on in The Guard, I got the ringing sense of familiarity.  At first, I couldn’t place it.  There was a ton of swearing with Gaelic accents, and more than a little violence.  Brash and somewhat crazed killers running a drug operation, an unconventional police officer, called a Garda in Ireland, who works better alone, and a straight-laced FBI agent who is in town trying to disrupt the ring.  It wasn’t until spent some time together, alone in a car that I placed it: this is an Irish version of Lethal Weapon.

It’s not a facsimile, for sure.  Gleeson’s, Boyle is not suicidal, unless you take his off day proclivities into account.  Cheadle’s FBI Agent Everett is not about to retire, and he definitely isn’t “…too old for this shit.”  Too American might me more like it.

“I don’t know if you’re really mutha-(expletive) smart… or really mutha-(expletive) dumb,” Everett says during the car ride.  So far, all the members of the Garda have been seemingly co-operative with Everett.  Boyle has been contrary, to say the least.  Contrary, but on point.

Soon enough we find Boyle, the only member of the Garda who colors outside the lines, is the only one that has a bee-line on the operation.  This gets him noticed by the bad guys, of course, who try to separate him from Everett until they can get him out of town.

The time they get to spend together, though, is pretty entertaining, in a slower, more Irish version of Lethal Weapon kind of way.  Gleeson is totally at ease here, but then, I rarely see him tense up in front of the camera.  The role has some excellent subtle touches, and then some that aren’t so subtle.  It is nice that he is getting some attention for a leading role, because he has done this in a supporting role forever.

Cheadle is one of the rare supporting actors who always seems smarter than everyone else on-screen.  It’s a different case here.  Everyone here seems nice and idiotic, or in Boyle’s case obtuse and nearly crazy stupid.  He is being played on both counts, but Boyle is only playing because he is bored.

As for the criminal element, I found them to be a decent mix.  I was thankful to find that Mark Strong wasn’t playing the lead antagonist.  Most movies where he is tend to tank, both artistically and at the box office.  David Wilmot is entertaining as the one who knows that he is a sociopath, and not a psychopath, but only because his therapist told him this.  Cunningham is shrewdly menacing  in that role as Sheely-Skeffington.

One of the characters that helps to give Boyle his depth in the film is his mother, Eileen, poignantly portrayed by Fionnula Flanagan.  Sick, and stoically looking for a way to end her suffering, she is comforted by her son’s presence.  One gets a real sense of a bond between the two, in the most subtle way.  They are direct, but avoid being overly dramatic.  His relationship with his mother is a direct parallel with that of his new partner.  Flanagan is the rare, wonderful actor, who radiates of intelligence, depth and pain.  Seeing her in her state in this film was jarring for how authentically she plays it.

The Guard received much high praise, probably more than it deserved.  This is primarily, because it’s a nice little movie coming out of what many people in the Western world think of as “a nice little country.”  Ireland has that effect on people.  No one expects much out of it.  In this way, Gleeson’s Garda represents Ireland’s impression of itself to the rest of the world.  Looks kind of slow, seems kind of dumb, and no one knows how it keeps going.  Slow and easy wins the race.   Eventually.

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