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


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 *****)


X-Men Apocalypse (**): Where do we go from here?


X-Men: Apocalypse – 2016

Director Bryan Singer
Screenplay Simon Kinberg
Starring  James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, Olivia Munn, Lucas Till

A number of questions keep running through my mind as I watch Singer’s latest attempt to bring us up to date in the X-Men Universe.

  1. Why is Simon Kinberg still writing these movies? Hasn’t he done enough damage?
  2. How is it that mutants are captured and held hostage as gladiators by bullets and chain link fences?
  3. Why is Magneto anonymous and with a family now?
  4. So Jean Grey is a  real ginger now? And Storm has an accent?
  5. Why did Professor Xavier bother wiping Moira’s mind?
  6. Why does a guy named Apocalypse need help?
  7. How is one set free by and bound to Apocalypse?
  8. Why do we need to relive Magneto’s past again, while not bothering with any of the other’s backstories?  It’s now as often referenced as Spider-man’s Uncle Ben.
  9. How are Havok and Quicksilver still so young? It’s been about 20 years since the former was 16 and the latter still lives with Mom?
  10. Is Jean Grey referring to X-Men: The Last Stand when she says we all can agree the third one is always worst? Could we throw this one in for the second trilogy?
  11. How many times will Magneto declare war on the human race until he realizes he won’t win?
  12. What is Apocalypse and what are his goals?
  13. So if Xavier sends the message for Apocalypse, then what?
  14. Are we supposed to care about the new X-Men?  How about the 4 Horsemen X-Men?
  15. Can Mystique, Magneto and Xavier consider each other “friends” even at this point?
  16. Why hire Oscar Isaac to play Apocalypse? You can’t tell who the hell he is with all that make up.
  17. So Mystique really didn’t save Logan / Wolverine at the end of Days of Future Past?  How did he get loose with that mind control helmet on?
  18. Is there anyone besides Quicksilver worth watching in this movie? Sweet Dreams are Made of This, indeed.
  19. Why is Mystique a leader all of the sudden?  Box-Office potential?
  20. Who can possibly care when there is so much crap in the air and falling apart?  Do special effects always need to be so overwhelmingly awful? Who really can care since the first Independence Day?
  21. Really? Another prone body that needs protecting?  Twice in this film, once in the last. It’s the new version of falling from a cliff.
  22. Why can’t Quicksilver just say who he is?  Why the stupid melodrama?
  23. Between Magneto’s floating and Mystique’s sloganeering (“fight for what I have left“) why did they even come back?
  24. Really, Oscar Isaac, why did you even bother? “All is revealed” is that you signed on for a clunker.
  25. Can Jean Gray do anything besides look distressed and turn into the Phoenix?
  26. Is this the movie where acting goes to die?
  27. So what is going to make Magneto the asshole in the next movie?
  28. How much stuff is destroyed by the end of this movie?
  29. Will the world even act like it knew there was destruction in the next movie?
  30. Why is Brian Singer still making these movies?

(** out of *****)

Slow West (***) aims for poignant, misses by that much


Slow West – 2016

Written and Directed by John Maclean
Starring Michael Fassbender, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Ben Mendelsohn, Caren Pistorius, Rory McCann

There is a scene early on in Slow West where young Jay Cavendish (Smit-McPhee) has gotten a rude awakening about his journey West through America from newly joined fellow traveler Silas Selleck (Fassbender). Having just seen what appear to be Army officers run down and attempt to kill a Native American, Jay is astonished when Selleck kills the leader with no remorse. When Cavendish questions Silas about the fact that he was in uniform, he discovers that not everyone in uniform is an officer. Stunned, he numbly accepts Sellecks offer to take him the rest of the way to where he is going. He will take payment half now, half later. Okay. And, nervously, we’re off.

Where Jay is going is in pursuit of his lost true love, Rose (Pistorius), who left Scotland with her father for America, trying to outrun the law. Why will be obvious in no time. And so too will be many other things.

Silas is a man tortured and quite literally followed by his past, in the form of Payne (Mendelsohn) and his gang. They all seek the same thing. Give you one guess who’s gonna get it.

At first, things are awkward between the well-seasoned American traveler and his British counterpart. Jay has a soft heart, a trusting nature and he comes in peace: all things that should have him dead long before he ever met up with Selleck. To further prove a point, Selleck admonishes Cavendish when they start out because he tries to ride side by side with the American. Everyone who’s seen Star Wars know that Sand People ride in single file to hide their numbers. So, too, should Jay and Silas.

A few days later, once the two wake up literally in the middle of a stream in circumstances too dumb to describe, Selleck congratulates Jay on his inventiveness in creating a clothes line between their two horses, once more side by side. Why couldn’t they have the clothes line in single file? Because Maclean chose to forget his earlier point while trying to create the event.

Slow West pictures itself as a vessel to explain that all men, rough and soft alike, have a tender heart when they think for more than a few beats. Sure, we need to make tough decisions, but in the end, travelling across the world on an indefinite maybe makes one noble and pure of heart.

Fassbender’s character is confusing, primarily because I am not sure that the actor nor the writer director know how to portray him. Is he a wise man who will get the best of a situation were he is unarmed, or is he foolish enough to drink so much that he loses everything? The moment his guard should be up, his defenses are let down, because, darn it, his old gang just won’t leave him alone.

As the tender and true hearted Cavendish, Smit-McPhee fares better. He only has to approach the world in the manner of someone who doesn’t come close to understanding what makes men bleed. He’s Manny from Modern Family in an old west setting.

Mendelsohn has the easy job of playing the opportunist with no heart. This is something he has done before,  and better. He’s still good. I would like to see what Tarantino could do with him, though.

If one looks past the silliness of the story and takes a closer look at the heart, it’s not a bad film. It’s clear what Maclean wants to do, even if he doesn’t know how to do it and stay within the bounds of a consistent story. For now, it is nice that he has the opportunity to hone his skill with so much talent around.

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

Steve Jobs (*****) is a good find


Steve Jobs – 2015

Director Danny Boyle
Screenplay Aaron Sorkin based on the book by Walter Isaacson
Starring Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, Perla Haney-Jardine

There’s nothing quite as appealing as Oscar bait that actually feels like a real work of art. What we have with Steve Jobs is nothing less than Boyle, Sorkin, Fassbender, Winslet and even Jeff Daniels at their best. The film is like a play in three acts, all taking place in the timespace of three of his product launches. It is not so much a verbatim autobiography, but rather an intricately and carefully planned paraphrase of its subject during three phases of his life. I never held much interest in Steve Jobs the guy, even if he helped to guide the vision of the future of civilization to smaller, more powerful and easy to use communication devices. That his story is communicated in a similar fashion is beautifully appropriate.

Launch one (Macintosh) finds Jobs (Fassbender) at his most confident and misguided. He knows he is about to change the world and he does not want to hear anything that might get in the way of this. His interactions cut a jaded swath through everyone except for his most trusted advisor and Head of Marketing, Joanna Hoffman (Winslet). He is alternatingly harsh and dismissive to most people he comes across. He is not, however, without contemplation, as we find later on. He absorbs most of the information he is given, processes it, and saves what is necessary for later. And in a film like this, you can bet most of it is necessary.

Launch two (NExT) finds him scarred and smarter, for the most part. This is the Jobs that has nothing to sell, but is selling it for his future profit. Some who knew him say he was not angry as he is portrayed here. I can only say it seems a natural progression to have a little vengeance pointed at the company that you started that ultimately booted you out. His relationships are all reassessed as the people who were in his life the first time come back for another look.

By the time Jobs launches the iMac, his fortunes had permanently changed for the better. The third act in any play is a time to see what has been built by the first two acts and Sorkin does not let us down here. Every subplot has a sort of beauty in its completion None are concluded so eloquently as the resolution between Jobs and his now adult daughter Lisa (Haney-Jardine). That the two had the farthest to go makes the journey the delightful center of Steve Jobs, as it turned out to be in his life, too.

Everyone wins in this film. There is not one false note, and definitely no cheap tricks. The film is a beautiful translation that feels true of humanity, not just one person’s life. Fassbender is yet another 2015 performance that deserved the Oscar more than the actor who won it this year. His performance is fluid and graceful where it could have been done even more powerfully as cold and empty. Steve Jobs as conceived by Sorkin and Fassbender is someone I will not forget meeting, even if I never had the desire before the lights went out and the camera rolled.

My goodness, they really could give Winslet an award every year. She personifies heart, strategy and protection. Her character is more a pit boss than anything. She can see the whole road of Jobs’ life while he keeps his eyes on the next turn. She is given her Oscar moment to flip out and give a big speech, but her gift is making it seem more purposeful and less contrived.

Jeff Daniels, playing Jobs former partner / boss / nemesis / friend does another perfect definition of supporting actor. The director and writer work in perfect cohesion, even though I am not sure that they worked together before.  Boyle even went as far as to film each phase in a different film format (16mm, 35mm and digital). It works both as standards for each time, but the decreasing clarity that one experiences as life gets further away. It’s kind of like why I can only see images of my dad’s favorite films in the small bubble screen that used to be our television in the 70’s and 80’s.

The film is as finely tuned a biography as I have ever seen. In bypassing attempts to get time and place and instead going for feel and emotional honesty, they have struck a cord that will resonate henceforth. There will come a time when Sorkin and Boyle move on to the next part of life and we will look back and wonder how vastly we were blessed to have them in our lives.

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

X-Men: Days of Future Passed / The Rogue Cut: We can go anywhere from here


X-Men: Days of Future Passed – 2014

Director Bryan Singer
Starring Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Halle Berry, Anna Paquin, Ellen Page, Peter Dinklage, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart
Screenplay Simon Kinberg based on Days of Future Passed by Chris Claremont and John Byrne

Theatrical Version:

The X-Men movie series has infuriated those who love the comics as  well as many who love the movies series itself. For those who love the comics its been an endless – some say haphazard – onslaught of characters ripped out of their own stories and thrown into the backdrop of “What’s Wolverine doing now?” episodes. These critics also insist that the key interplay between Magneto and Xavier has been downplayed, outside of X-Men: First Class. This ignores certain truths about Marvel itself, that has never had problems reinventing characters in multiple story lines – different universes even – whenever the creative impulse hits.

As for the movies, the biggest problem until now is how each of the visions and various stories intersect, diverge or are in some cases, prematurely ended. X-Men: The Last Stand and the first of the Wolverine movies are the biggest violators of the implied agreement between story-teller and audience. Each film has taken liberties, though, to be sure.

In the same way as Star Trek‘s reboot in 2009, the beauty of X-Men: Days of Future Passed gives everyone what they were looking for, and more.  We get:

  • Xavier and Magneto contemplating the weight of their friendship in the midst of crisis
  • A bone throw for Kitty Pride (who was the hero of the comic series) as the portal for time travel
  • Halle Berry’s continuous mis-fire as Storm is kept in her place
  • Jennifer Lawrence gets to kick ass in blue, if not much else.
  • Dinklage  delivering to us his version of Bolivar Trask with minimal screen time, which is certainly more advanced than the Bill Duke version we see in The Last Stand.
  • Nicholas Hoult and Kelsey Grammer as Beast.  Hoult’s performance always begs for more screen time, while Grammer seems the perfect result for Beast.
  • Evan Peters in a remarkably sly turn as Quicksilver, perhaps the best segment of the film.
  • And what would X-Men film be without Wolverine getting 2/3 of the screen time?

The conceit to time travel movies is, really, they can go back to any time to get it right. If they go back real close to the event, well you know it’s because they have to ratchet up the tension. Everyone knows that Bolivar Trask could be eliminated at birth, but that would make it a bit cruel. Singer’s skill is making all of this flow as if it were in real-time. His story lines gather and then diverge effortlessly. There is not an ounce of clunk to the early 70’s scenes, even if the “present time” seems as forced as it did in the comic. We all know there has to be a deadline. This time, plenty of people get dead on the way to that point. Some even pull it off twice.

The acting is good throughout, with special mention to Hoult, Fassbender and McAvoy. Hoult’s Beast is a character that begs for its own story line. It would be great to see how we get from his uneasy early years to his confident older ones.

Fassbender’s character has the clearest delineation to McKellen’s performance.  Both are very driven and quite consistent with their rationale.

As his counter, McAvoy is all over the place.  It was a brave place to take the character, but he does a great job showing us what was on his troubled mind and not just saying it.

It’s easy to take Jackman for granted, since he’s been in every one of these films. The miracle is that he has evolved from Eastwood with a growl to a multi-dimensional bad ass. This time is a clear extension of everything he’s gathered from The Wolverine.

The best part about the movie is the epilogue. Seeing the result of the work is heartening because we get to see mistakes corrected without worrying about the consequences.This result will no doubt not give everyone a good feeling. Some might even feel like it’s pulling the rug out. It’s alright for this reviewer. Like merry go rounds, the ride is fun, even if it just goes in a circle.

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

The Rogue Cut

It is easy to understand why people become leery of the X-Men enterprise, especially when it comes to their home video releases. I bought 1.5 and wondered why the heck I did, and I followed through with purchases for every subsequent film, even following them to Blu-Ray. It is perhaps because I never read the comic and rarely followed any of the animated scenes that my patience has not frayed, even when the talk of Days of Future Past included news of a thread of scenes that would involve Rogue that were eventually excised from the theatrical cut. Most assumed that these few scenes would appear on the video release. By the time that arrived, the sequence had turned into a whole new cut of the film to be released at a future date.

If one decides that this is the place to draw the line…think again.

The Rogue Cut is like the bloom of a rose the day after you thought it had reached maturity. Instead of beginning to wilt, it flows even more thoroughly from its core, giving the bloom a depth and resonance it never had previously. The interesting thing about it though, is that it’s not only or even primarily because of the sequence of Anna Paquin scenes that this version of X-Men succeeds.

The best thing for viewers of the film is a fleshed out perspective of several characters, including Magneto, Mystique and Beast. The arc between past and present has more resonance and clearer connections. The weakest part of the film was that it never felt like it mattered what was happening in the present because even if it is riddled with challenges, the characters were able to continue manipulating time. This is changed for the better. Midway through the last act, they have a mission that takes them away from the stronghold. Accomplishing that mission is not without its cost. The consequence actually leads to a logical reason for a final battle, instead of just having the bad guys show up, because, well, it’s the last act.

The extra 17 minutes don’t feel extra at all. They are fully integrated within the story. Even when it changes the story slightly, this feels like the definitive version. There are some flashback scenes that go through every previous film, making their telling still relevant even if we know they will be ultimately stricken from the official record. It feels like this is the only way the story could have ever ended up. This is the new canon.

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

The Rules of The Counselor


The Counselor – 2013

Director Ridley Scott
Starring Michael Fassbender, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Dean Norris, John Leguizamo
Written by Cormac McCarthy

Rule 13: A spec script, or non-commissioned screenplay, is not solicited by anybody.  It must be sold.

Rule 25: A good opening scene, with remarkable visuals and as a bonus incredible sound, gives the viewer hope that they have not taken the first step down the wrong path.

Rule 32: No one in a movie who asks “Are you up?” ever lets the person sleep.

Rule 33: A demonstrative love scene in the first few minutes is pretty much a guarantee the couple is doomed.

Rule 34: White sheets indicate a love that hasn’t been tainted.

Rule 232: Guy watching a girl on a horse prancing with a cheetah is undoubtedly a sign that the grimy stuff being packed at the factory is not girl scout cookies.

Rule 237: Go ahead.  Have the cheetah chase down a rabbit.  It’s never been done before.

Rule 238: With that hair, its doubtful that you remind her of someone else.

Rule 242: Cute chick with the monotone voice saying she doesn’t miss things is a sure sign that she’s not a soccer mom.

Rule 245: It is possible to define women wearing huge diamonds as courageous.

Rule 327: Of course the diamond dealer wants you to understand the flaw in the diamond makes it perfect.

Rule 328: The more one talks about jewelry, the more one realizes they are being sold.  Kind of like a spec script.

Rule 354: Happy sinister couples often make happiness by the misery of others.

Rule 429: “The truth about women is that you can do anything to them except bore them.”  May just mean that you don’t understand the idea of nurture.

Rule 443: When casual conversation becomes more complicated than the end of Matrix Reloaded, then you are losing everyone.

Rule 445: If it’s “a one time deal,” then there is no movie.

Rule 446: It’s usually not a good film if you use the phrase “One time deal.”

Rule 448: When the conversation turns to how your head will be removed from your body, it’s a good idea to move away from the deal.

Rule 450: The guy peeing for no reason in the desert is usually going to be fodder.

Rule 492: It’s not wise to propose to her if she doesn’t notice the cheetah at the restaurant next to the Piano player.

Rule 659: You are a glory qualifies as a wonderful compliment.

Rule 670: Never trust a woman who can tell you how much your engagement ring is worth.

Rule 671: Conversations about confessing your dirty nasty sins to a priest is not a great sign either.

Rule 698: “You don’t know someone until you know what they want.”  Is redundant.

Rule 699: Long hair brings out the monotone voice in Brad Pitt.

Rule 845: If you want a good convict, choose someone who hasn’t been seen for years.  Like Rosie Perez.

Rule 866: It is possible to take Michael Fassbender’s personality away and replace it with the name “The Counselor.”

Rule 877: It’s kind of an axiom that opening a dance club is synonymous with being involved in the trade of another kind.

Rule 890: If one can be implicated in a bad plot, they will be.

Rule 934: Don’t ever go overboard when trying to intimidate a minor player in the plot, unless you want to use that minor player as your lawyer.

Rule 936:: When making a movie about the drug trade featuring a humorless lawyer, it’s a good idea to not have the guy who played Hank in the series that featured Better Call Saul.

Rule 947: If they show a guy who’s heading out-of-town more than 2 times, the guy will not make it to his destination.

Rule 982: They won’t show the signs of all the disappeared until someone’s disappeared.

Rule 1059: Most will finish watching a film just to see the horribly clever death scene.

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





12 Years a Slave: Real Real Gone


12 Years A Slave – 2013

Director Steve McQueen
Actors Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Lupita Nyong’o, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, Alfre Woodard
Writer John Ridley based on the book by Solomon Northup

I have owned a copy of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ for 10 years, and have yet to watch the film.  In my heart, it is easy to understand the sacrifice made on my behalf 2000 years ago, and my mind can go through the details of his life, death and resurrection.  Still, to watch the hands with a hammer and spike, drive through the flesh of his wrists…seems too big a task for me to endure.  Slavery occupies the same place in my mind.  One can know that it happened, in the U.S., in Rome, in Egypt, and yet still want to steer clear of seeing it first hand, in its rawest form.

Steve McQueen, a British director of African descent, has created perhaps the most riveting depiction of slavery in the United States in cinematic history.  His slogging through the kidnapping, torture, attempted brainwashing and bondage of Solomon Northup is startling, agonizing, stark and nearly without hope.  The performances are stunning, without exception.

The most remarkable thing about 12 Years a Slave is how relatable it is.  From the moment I first see Solomon Northrup (Ejiofor) with his wife and 2 children, I am brought to mind to my wife, and my own kids.  I see my happiness in concert with his.  It is a right and just state that every human should be able to experience.  In the space of 15 cinematic minutes, his life, his family and his freedom have slipped from his reach.  Just like that, in my mind, I am down the rabbit hole with him.  It’s the literal beginning of a nightmare and it nearly brings me to tears just to imagine it just now.

Northup is brought from Washington D.C. to New Orleans, where he, with other “property” is sold to plantation owners into servitude.  The complete irony within these and future moments is Northup’s skill as a fiddle player.  Solomon is made to play his instrument against the wailing of children being separated from their mother and in the middle of the night, when he and other slaves are awoken on the whim of their owner and made to dance, if for no other reason than amusement of the captor.  The fiddle becomes another form of torture for Solomon and it’s significance as a symbol is profoundly displayed by director, writer and actor.

Ejiofor is remarkable.  His eyes portray such a depth of feeling and emotion, it is impossible to not feel the agony that he feels as his life takes this detour through hell. The sounds of his wailing while being beaten will stay with me until my last day.  His whole person is so accessible to the viewer.   We know every thought, whether it be joy, hope or despair.  Especially resonant are the moments when he decides that he is not going to take beatings, whether by the deplorable character Tibeats (could it be anyone else than Paul Dano) or bottle of hell Edwin Epps (Fassbender, who is as brilliant as ever).  While not telling you what happens, I don’t mind sharing that he takes the same actions that I would have tried.  His past work has always been enjoyable, especially his wise turn as The Operative in Serenity.  This, though, is the role of a lifetime, and it should bring him to the forefront of actors for some time.

Nyong’o is harrowing as Patsy, a remarkably hardworking woman who easily doubles the output of her male counterparts.  She is cursed to be under the watchful eyes of Epps and his wife Mary (Paulson).  Epps ritually rapes Patsy.  Mary, thinking that Patsy has some sort of design on her husband, beats, scratches and otherwise tortures Patsy.  The cruelty of this absurd situation shows just another horrifying facet of slavery, and why there is no logic in the world, much more the misread Word of God, that could ever sustain its practice.  Call them property, lust after them like humans, and attack them like rivals.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays against type quite beautifully as a man of religious conviction who allows those convictions to be compromised by the conditions of the time.  His is a character that is somewhat relatable in any context.  Anyone who sees themselves as good, but allows bad things to happen (even in their name) can see themselves when they see William Ford.  A few have complained that Ford was portrayed as uncharacteristically harsh in the film.  After watching it twice, I still can’t see it.  He seemed humane, but flawed by his inability to live as he preached.  Who doesn’t battle with this every day?

The heart, led by the mind, wants to believe we are beyond events as they are shown in this film.  McQueen works the material to such tight frenzy, even through such seemingly innocuous sounds as crickets, the scratching of chords on a fiddle and even children playing, the story feels like it could exist at any time.  For me, it serves as a reminder that it is happening even today.  It could be in this country, when you consider migrant labor, or the rampant underground of sexual slavery in  Eastern Europe, Israel and Southeast Asia,  in Moldova and Laos in particular.  The practice of slavery beyond absurd, is beneath humanity, and hopefully, through art like this, will someday be eradicated from the face of the Earth.  This film is required viewing, for this reason, but not this alone.

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

Prometheus: Sail into the mystery

Prometheus – 2012

Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charleze Theron, Guy Pearce. Idris Elba, Logan-Marshall Green, Rafe Spall, Sean Harris, Patrick Wilson, Kate Dickie, Benedict Wong
Screenplay by  Damon Lindelof, Jonathan Sphaits

Early on in the classic film, The Player, there is one long, magnificent scene in which we get to see a number of pitches in a Hollywood studio.  Each one of the pitches involves, in some way or form, a “Julia Roberts”-like actress as the main female presence, starring in a sequel to any number of films, like The Graduate.  I thought of this yesterday, while reading the slew of reviews for the grand new film, Prometheus.  Many of these reviews portrayed Ridley Scott’s new film as a complete or a near miss.  Several of the films described the film as an overly graphic splatter film in which, essentially thinly explored characters die in reverse order of the credits.  Almost every review compares Rapace and, to a slightly lesser extent, Theron, as worthy successors to the “kick butt” archetype of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley.  Equally sad, most of these same reviewers sighed while passing judgement that this film failed to live up to its cinematic predecessor and chronological (in the Alien Universe) follower, Alien.   While many of these same critics decried that the story makers copied many of the elements of Scott’s earlier film, and having the gall to leave some of the story elements unresolved.  Intentionally, they said, for purposes of having a sequel.

This type of review, like the generic plots discussed in The Player, writes itself.  There is an element in the society of critics, both professional and self-proclaimed, that has an incredible urge to be the first one in line to see the film…and the first one to say they hated it.  It is really just the archetype of Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons.  It’s one thing to hear these a-holes rip a movie over Nachos at Applebees after the movie.  It’s quite another to see any of them paid by the column inch.

For those wanting to escape the world and go anywhere else, Ridley Scott, Damon Lindelof and Jon Sphaits have succeeded in bringing real world possibility into the promise of future exploration.  Starting out in Scotland, archaeologists Shaw (Rapace) and Holloway (Marshall Green) make a discovery of something that mirrors discoveries in many other parts of the world from many different times.  We witnessed one such discovery when my wife and I visited Chitzen Nitza for our honeymoon a decade ago.  The discovery, pieced together with the others, reveals itself as some sort of star map.  This map leads the archaeologists, along with other scientists and representatives of Weyland Corporation to a 4 year journey through space to LV-223 (as compared to Alien / Aliens LV-426), a semi-habitable moon off of another planet.

What they find, I will leave for you to discover.  Anyone looking for anything resembling an Alien feature, where people are picked off one by one by the creature, should be bottled up and shipped back to 1979.  This movie is called Prometheus for a reason, folks.  There is a yearning in this film that is missing from the other features.  It is a quest to find where we come from, and why.  Shaw and Holloway represent two sides of this search.  One believes in an ultimate creator, appreciates the mystery, but searches nonetheless.  The other takes Darwinism as a given, thinking that each piece leads to another.  The film wisely avoids answering this question, but it does offer clues for you to ponder.

As Shaw, Rapace is what you would expect from someone on a quest.  She is not daunted by new evidence, and gladly incorporates it into her search.  It is quite easy to appreciate the transformation that she makes from confidence to doubt and back into search mode.  All aspects are played convincingly by Rapace, even if some of the physical feats are more than a little remarkable.

Contrast this curiosity to Lt. Ellen Ripley, who asks Burke: “You’re going out there to destroy them, right? Not to studyNot to bring back.”  It is apparent that while everyone has motives in this story, there is no foreknowledge of what is to come.

Meredith Vickers is another case entirely.  She seems intent on playing defense through most of the film.  It is obvious that she is not happy to be where she is, but, as we’ll find, for her interests, there is nowhere else she would rather be.   Why is this?  Again, this mystery is for the viewer.

Elbas’ Captain Janek is a wonderful character.  His development is consistent with the circumstances surrounding the events.  While not throwing caution to the wind with false bravado, he seems genuinely strong in his character and his decisions quite reasonable.  Add to that a couple of ships officers that are always where he needs them to be and we have something unique to other films in this universe.

Michael Fassbender pulls off something quite beautiful with his portrayal of David.  As the 8th incarnation of the androids developed by Weyland, David is there to help the mission along, and otherwise serve the will of his masters.  This depends, of course, on who his master appears to be at the time.  His allegiances may be called into question at anytime, but certainly not his curiosity.  In this way, he is like a spiritual sibling with Shaw.  This is relevant, of course, considering where they go.

The parallels between David, Ash and Bishop are many.  One can picture the development of the android line from one to the next, and view them as sentient beings who wonder about their own purpose in life, all while serving out the commands of their “masters.”  So deep is the Universe that Scott helped to create, one could find a series of films based on their own self-discovery as interesting as anything else done to now.  Other’s might lazily make connections to the androids in Blade Runner as a potential parallel. None of the beings in the Alien Universe have any illusions to whether they are human.  They know they are not.  This does not entail they feel any less valuable, however.  They have an entirely different reality behind the one they present to humans.  The whole concept is fascinating.

Guy Pearce is a necessary addition, if for no other reason, the way that he approaches dialogue.  There is a ferocity to his eyes, even as an old man, that just could not be replaced by putting Hal Holbrook in the same position.  As smart as Weyland is, demonstrated by the TED Talk filmed by Ridley Scott’s son, he is also greedy and ferocious as any lion unwilling to cede his kingdom to the rest of his pride.

The remainder of the cast varies enough that it gives a feeling of uniqueness without being absurd (if you discount Harris’ Fifield).  They are given moments to show some individual character and sometimes are involved in contrived conflicts, but overall they work well within the construct of the tale.

Scott presented Prometheus as a chance to explore the world of the Space Jockey.  In this effort we have undoubtedly the most screen time dedicated, but also the least amount of concrete answers.  Their motives are hard to figure, and we are given precious little time seeing them in the act of doing much, except for recorded holographic images.  David helps to explain some of these, but are we to accept his answers?  The live jockey that we  are allowed to see apparently understands much, but reveals little.  The questions that arise about its intentions are fascinating and make the observant viewer yearn for more.

Does the movie accomplish the goals it sets out for itself?  It all depends on whether you can accept more questions than answers.  There are several things to criticize about the film, like the lack of scientific protocol for one and the superhuman (and unnecessary) ability of one of the characters after having been compromised by an abdominal cut.  These issues are small when compared to the glory of exploring new worlds, seeing new things.  These things seem dangerous for now, but that really kind of depends on if you take David’s word for things.  In this universe, who knows what tomorrow brings?

Notes on a second viewing, Saturday, 6/9/2012:

  • The thing that stands out most to me on this go through is DNA.  That is, think about the order people (and other beings) are infected, what they are infected by and who (or what) they infect.  I think this is vital to understanding what types of questions we are facing with the second movie.  From the very first infection and change to what we find in the space jockey’s helmet.  The Space Jockeys, I think, are not so close to us as we should think, based on how Shaw read it.  It took a change to reach that point.  As for the Alien DNA that Scott mentioned in interviews, I don’t think that was an accident.  I think he was not only giving the lazy reporters, reviewers and watchers a bone, he was giving the more discerning of those something to ponder about the rest of the film.
  • Reactions, especially facial ones, are the key to understanding both David and the Space Jockey.  When you see a peculiar expression, think of what was just said.  The last decision made by Shaw in the film is an excellent example of this.
  • Captain Janek was incredibly adept in his analysis of the planet they were on, and I believe this means we will find less “weaponry” in the next film.
  • One cannot say enough about the job that Scott did in this film.  The imagery, framing and pacing are all as good as I have seen.  The 3D effects are good as anything I have seen except for Hugo, then Avatar.  Still, the digital 2D looks even better and I saw several things more clearly.  This may well be, because I knew what I was looking for.  This is one of Scott’s top 5 films, to be sure, and the next one should be even better.

Shame is not the kind of thing you want your kid sibling experiencing

Shame – 2011

Directed by Steve McQueen
Starring Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, Nicole Beharie, James Badge Dale
Written by McQueen and Abi Morgan

At the beginning of Shame, my wife and I were discussing the countenance of Michael Fassbender.  I think that she was pretty close when she compared him to a combination of Campbell Scott and Willem Dafoe.  After he stands up and goes to the bathroom, I decide that we better add Mark Wahlberg to the mix.  Or Huey Lewis.  I am forever scarred.

Fassbender is Brandon, a sex addict who happens to have a good job.  When asked about relationships by a girl from the office that agrees to go out with him, he says “They don’t seem realistic.”  Nothing is real, it would seem, when you don’t really touch someone.

Things are a challenge for him, internally, but the compulsion overrides all.  Then his sister, Sissy (Mulligan) comes to visit and things get a bit more realistic.  His view of women as objects is countered by her allowing herself to be objectified by his boss, who is married with children.  This turns his shame spiral into a tornado.  Then she catches him in the act of…well, just doing what he always does.

Meanwhile, that girl from work, Marianne (Beharie) she’s a real person, who is separated from her husband.  She has a sense of his want, but no real clue how different his wiring is compared to hers.  Then his wires get…crossed.  Because he sees her differently.

Fassbender and Mulligan have an absolutely volatile chemistry that is hard to describe.  It’s sad, angry, devastating, passionate and recalcitrant.  Their past binds them together but only in, well, shame.

“We’re not bad people,” she says, “We just come from a bad place.”

There are plenty of reasons that this movie received it’s NC-17 rating, but not one of them derives from a place that even approaches joy.  Fassbender’s performance is note perfect, as he encapsulates every definition of the title.  The performance is matched by the tone of the film given by McQueen.  This is something that could have come out of the 1970’s, when movies really started exploring the depths of humanity.

Is there redemption in watching a film like this?  One can assume so.  It really depends on if he gets off the train.  Either way, films like this can only be viewed once, unless of course you are part of the tale, being spun out of control.

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


Haywire: Soderburgh gets the comfort of knowing that he tried action

Haywire -2012

Directed by Stephen Soderbergh
Starring Gina Carano, Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Channing Tatum, Bill Paxton, Antonio Banderas, Michael Douglas
Screenplay by Lem Dobbs

Gina Carano looks like she’s taken out more than a few people in her life.  Watching her march through an assemblage of bad guys in Haywire, the only thing I could think about is how much it would hurt to be beat up by her.  This is good in assessing her ability to do her own stunts, but it is quite distracting when she puts on a dress and heads for a night out.  Don’t get me wrong, she is beautiful.  It’s just more athletically inclined, and not a high heels, out on the town sort of beauty.  She is as good a fighter as I have seen on film since Hilary Swank’s last boxing opponent in Million Dollar Baby, but everything about her just screams cross fit, rather than character development.  Still, she is not the problem with this film.

To discuss the film in terms of problems is a little unfair.  It is a slightly above average film with more benefits than detractions.  There are as many stars in this film as was in the last, say, Ocean’s film.  They all are used sparingly, but still effectively, for the most part.  This goes especially for Tatum.  In somewhat the same vein as his meat head performance as Zip in the otherwise miserable, The Dilemma, he plays a person vacant of much except for the job at hand.  His interactions with Carano’s Mallory Kane, as well as McGregor’s Kenneth ring true.

McGregor’s performance, as the main bad guy, is perhaps the weakest performance.  He plays it in such a minimalist way, he seems more like the nerd in Jr. High who has decided, for the first time, to pick on someone he thinks is weaker than he, only to find that even smaller people can fight better than he.

The most taxing part of Haywire is the style employed by Soderburgh.  Never the most linear director, this usually works as a strength in his films, such as The Limey and Out of Sight.  The narrative style of the film, where Kane takes a young man “hostage,” after a particularly brutal encounter and proceeds to spill the beans in the subsequent car ride, is clunky, especially in the transitions.  As she goes into such detail, one can only question why someone of her profession would ever be so open with a citizen she barely knows.  The saddest and truest answer to this query is because the script told her to.  The kid seems even less of an actor than does Carano.  I think it’s more indicative of the choppy editing style of Soderburgh than anything else.

The feeling for the viewer of Haywire is not so much wall to wall action mixed with intrigue, as an awkward series of cuts and angles that deflate the intensity of the people on screen.  The reader should know that I am a huge fan of Soderburgh, and was very much looking forward to this film, featuring a woman who could truly kick some ass, not 98 lb Angelina Jolie with 2 lbs of lipstick.  Something is missing here, though.  There is a statement that the director is trying to make that one ready to see some serious action is not going to be prepared to absorb.  It may well be that it is so true to viewing action for action’s sake, this viewer did not make the transition between this and, say, MI: Ghost Protocol.

There may be some who like this better than me.  The film got an 80% on Rotten Tomatoes.  It was as much a labor for me to view as it was a joy.

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