Assassination Nation

Release: Friday, September 21, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Sam Levinson

Directed by: Sam Levinson

With a title like Assassination Nation, you probably shouldn’t go in expecting a film of subtlety and nuance, and that is exactly what you do not get in director Sam Levinson’s sophomore feature. In fact, a lack of subtlety and nuance is the entire point of this little social experiment. Seven years after his début Another Happy Day and Levinson’s imagined a sort of Salem Witch Trials for the Twitter generation, a vicious American satire that finds four teenage girls becoming the collective target of a town gone mad when a malicious data hack exposes everyone’s sordid little secrets and floods the streets with violence.

In the town of Salem (state unspecified), Lily Colson (Odessa Young) is just another normal high school student with a tight-knit group of friends in Bex (transgender actress Hari Nef), Sarah (Suki Waterhouse) and Em (ABBA), and they do pretty normal teenage things — finding that sweet selfie angle, partying, blowing off studying. When a casual hacker (Noah Gavin) stumbles upon a video of the town’s staunchly anti-gay mayor cross-dressing and engaging with male escorts, he can’t help but share the hypocrisy with the rest of the townsfolk and posts it to an online forum, leading to public outrage and an inevitable suicide. But Mayor Bartlett (Cullen Moss) won’t be the last to be outed. Principal Turrell (Colman Domingo)’s phone is the next to be hacked, precious photos of his young daughter presumed to be damning evidence of a pedophile.

In a movie that gets progressively more uncomfortable this awkwardness is merely the first drops of rain before the deluge. Still, there’s something really disconcerting about the way the chaos begins, the adults being the first to fall victim to their own indiscretions. But then it gets REALLY personal, with a major data breach exposing Bex’s identity as a transwoman and that of Lily’s secret contact ‘Daddy.’ Nude photos go viral, causing friendships to sour and intimate relationships to end in bitterness and violence. Locker room jocks are outed as homosexuals, then beaten down with the baton of Proper Masculinity, while computer geeks are tortured into becoming snitches, then murdered on camera anyway. “For the lolz.”

Aesthetically, Assassination Nation is what you get if you dropped Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers into the middle of The Purge. This is a very stylish presentation that revels in bloodletting as a holy war is ignited between the people of Salem. And on the matter of style, for me this film is also a tale of two halves, the first sluggishly paced as Levinson sets about establishing key relationship dynamics, like Lily and her envious, big-eyed beau Mark (a nasty Bill Skarsgård). Cut to the second half and the film really livens up. Despite the generally unpleasant characters it took all I had not to marvel at Levinson’s audacity as he turns the fall-out into an allegory for the most offensive aspects of social media — sanctimonious opinion-shoving, ad hominem attacks and baseless speculation.

Assassination Nation isn’t your typical high school drama. Lily isn’t your typical teen protagonist, and she and her friends aren’t your typical ‘Witches of Salem.’ Style and substance combine to form an explosive, invariably controversial package. Levinson throws down the hammer when it comes to expressing his thoughts on what life on the internet is doing to our life outside of it. Unfortunately he does this often to the detriment of our entertainment, with the coda about society’s double standards when it comes to gender roles tacked on at the end being particularly on-the-nose. Levinson’s forceful execution doesn’t always pay intellectual dividends, but it does succeed in creating an experience that isn’t easily forgotten.

Everybody gun-ho tonight!

Recommendation: In defense of Assassination Nation, it gives you fair warning up front about what it plans to do to you, opening with a list of trigger warnings in brilliantly colored font describing everything from teen drug/alcohol abuse, toxic masculinity, homophobia, rape/murder and even giant frogs. If any of that stuff actually does trigger you, I would actually take that message to heart and attempt getting a refund. Like, totes for realz. This is a film not for the squeamish (or fragile male egos, for that matter). 

Rated: R

Running Time: 108 mins.

Quoted: “This is the 100% true story of how my town, Salem, lost its motherf**king mind.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Assassin’s Creed

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Release: Wednesday, December 21, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Michael Lesslie; Adam Cooper; Bill Collage

Directed by: Justin Kurzel

Assassin’s Creed is simply not interesting enough for those who never played the game. You might fairly ask me why I would choose to sit through a movie based on a video game I never played. Um, I was expecting the acting pedigree behind the film’s trio of stars to carry more weight. Or for acting to matter at all in the film. I was hoping I could use what I learned here as a springboard for me getting into the games later. Here’s the best advice I can offer to those in a similar position: don’t do that.

I DON’T HAVE A CREED, SORRY

Everything is going to be okay, despite what Rotten Tomatoes says (yikes). I wonder how seriously game enthusiasts take film critics when they review game adaptations. Like recent releases inspired by gaming phenomena — Warcraft, Resident EvilMortal Kombat — the film has a substantial enough built-in fan base that will ensure a sequel or three will get the green light. So if you actually use the tomatometer as a measuring stick for what you want to watch, you might take a close look at how audiences are responding instead of reading my list of grievances against a pretty dull film.

The film doesn’t completely alienate the outsider, but it hardly gives you a warm fuzzy. Director Justin Kurzel’s reverence for the game’s well-established, sophisticated lore is apparent. We are effortlessly transported to a quasi-romantic/dystopian universe, one split between 15th-Century Spain and an hyper-stylized approximation of the present day. The film’s gorgeous in its steely griminess, a wardrobe tailored to the actors’ shape while remaining faithful to the ornate designs of the source material’s costumes. Assassin’s Creed clings to this façade with desperation, a large portion of the footage dedicated to overemphasizing said wardrobe. And an onslaught of skywards shots of our heroes parkouring the hell out of a city is presumably intended to invoke the sensation of being involved in this mission.

The narrative draws upon the mythos established in the original game, now a decade old, but instead of retracing familiar steps for those who have long been in control of Desmond Miles’ destiny, it opts for an origins story involving a completely new avatar. And while much of the film succumbs to the same issue that plagues many a video game adaptation — a confused or uninteresting point of view that just leaves viewers cold — at least the action scenes, particularly the furious hand-to-hand combat sequences, make an attempt to include the  average paying customer (the APC*).

Assassin’s Creed introduces everyone to Callum Lynch (Michael Fassbender), a career criminal who at the start of the film is preparing to be executed. Then he “wakes up” in what seems to be . . . um, Heaven’s waiting room? No, that can’t be right; capital murderers don’t get a pass. So this is Hell’s foyer, then? Wrong again. This is actually a sterile room within a remote Abstergo Industries facility, a modern manifestation of an ancient underground society known as the Templar Order. Callum is first greeted by a scientist named Sophia Rikkin (Marion Cotillard), the daughter of visionary Abstergo CEO Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons), who proceeds to inundate Callum with a few orientation materials. Like letting him know that he no longer exists in the world. That he is about to be repurposed.

SOME PHILOSOPHICAL SHIT

In 2007 Ubisoft engineered a stealth adventure for the thinking gamer. I can appreciate their popularity as these games have been able to separate themselves by blending heady science fiction with historical settings and events. Unfortunately the complexities pose a problem from a cinematic storytelling perspective. The task falls upon Cotillard to shoulder an encyclopedia’s worth of exposition because, let’s face it: there’s just too much world-building to be done beyond the physical, and no one is going to sit through a three-hour long movie based on a video game. Cotillard does what she can, but there’s only so much a great actor can do with such clunky, uninspired writing.

Through one of Sophia’s many monotonous monologues he learns he has assassin’s blood in his veins, and that one of his ancestors was Aguilar de Nerha, a noted assassin during the Spanish Inquisition who had for years been in pursuit of the Apple of Eden. This apple is not so much a fruit as it is a piece of technology that contains man’s original sin. It also possesses the very fabric of free will itself. (The more I write the stupider it all sounds, which is the very phenomenon that occurs the more these people talk.) Across centuries these assassins have had to contend with the Templars who don’t share their views on the future of mankind. While the Templars believe global peace is achievable, albeit only through control, assassins hold that man’s free will is a gift that cannot be touched or tampered with. On paper, all of this sounds like some pretty fascinating, philosophical shit, doesn’t it?

On screen, however, very little of said philosophical shit translates enthusiastically. Or creatively. The film looks great but the whole thing concludes in the same numbing state in which it began. If you’ve made the mistake of coming to the picture for the acting, prepare yourself for Fassbender’s first on-screen performance following the lobotomy none of us knew he had. Yes the action scenes are good, but everything else is so disappointing it seems almost farcical.

Assassin’s Creed stunningly wastes an opportunity to present an intellectually stimulating, challenging cinematic excursion. There’s a fixation on the god complex that is just begging to be explored in greater depth. The assassins we see early in the film prove their unwavering test of devotion via blood sacrifice. Callum’s body being manipulated by The Animus — a giant mechanical contraption that has undergone some physical alterations so the film, supposedly, avoids comparisons to The Matrix‘s own psychosomatic technology — often finds the character in Christ-like poses as he soars into the air and flails around. The script also tends to harp on the phrase “man’s first disobedience.” And Rikkin’s ambitions of uniting mankind under his thumb, well. That’s pretty obvious.

For all of the obsession with sinning and human imperfection the irony of how Kurzel and company have themselves ended up committing one of filmmaking’s greatest sins by producing one of the year’s most disappointing and boring movies becomes painful. I don’t know. Maybe I just need some secret codes or something.

* Synonyms include (but are not limited to) ‘loser,’ ‘heathen’ and ‘deplorable.’ 

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2-5Recommendation: Disappointing video game adaptation squanders the massive talents of its leading trio in Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard and Jeremy Irons. Of course, this film could have gotten by with some average performances if the story were presented more compellingly. The longer the film went on, the sillier it all seemed. Damn it, this should have been really good. I am so bummed out and I haven’t ever played the games. I still might, though. These universes are just too cool to ignore. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 136 mins.

Quoted: “We work in the dark to serve the light. We are assassins.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Lee Daniels’ The Butler

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Release: Thursday, August 15, 2013

[Theater]

I think the real question here is, “Is it pretentious for the director to include his name in the title of the movie?” Or is it just pretentious to think about this being pretentious? Perhaps I’ll address that later Nick addresses this down below in comments, but in the meantime — the answer to the first is a resounding “Heck no.” Daniels’ film, featuring Forest Whitaker in a possible career-defining role, is both a heartwarming and tragic epic that unfolds similarly to Robert Zemeckis’ multiple-Oscar-winning Forrest Gump in that we visit several crucial periods in American history and see how they impact the life of a strong central character who undergoes both external and internal changes throughout.

The resultant timeline is full of emotional highs and lows. As one might imagine, there’s likely to be a lot of lows, since the material incorporates the violence from the civil rights movement along with the Vietnam conflict, just as two major examples. Despite the horrors on display however, there is a substantial amount of pleasantness to the proceedings. A lot of it stems from Cecil Gaines’ family life and the general essence of Whitaker in this role. He is absolutely fantastic — it’s clear he’s fully embraced the importance of what his character meant (his Cecil Gaines is actually based on the real-life story of Eugene Allen). Nominations should be awaiting with this one.

Even despite the movie being a rather loose adaptation, his life story is miraculous, to say the least. Growing up on the Westfall plantation, Cecil bears witness to gut-wrenching violence of the worst (most personal) kind. After it happens, the elderly Annabeth Westfall (Vanessa Redgrave) tells Cecil he is to start working inside the house from now on. Though the job was offered out of pity, his general treatment doesn’t exactly improve much as the notion of being an invisible servant in whatever room was impressed upon him rigorously. As gloomy as his situation initially seems, and Cecil doesn’t know it yet, this is finally a job with transformative powers.

Similarly to Forrest Gump, The Butler is a lengthy journey and takes its time to unfold. Patience may be required, but also it is with great ease that most people should be able to adhere. Daniels’ vision may wander around a bit, but the transitions made from scene to scene are often subtle yet very powerful. From the plantation house Cecil moves on for the city life in search of his next job. The woman he used to work for is nearing her death and he sees no future staying around the plantation anymore. He soon comes across a man named Maynard (Clarence Williams III) under dire circumstances and asks him for a job doing anything at all. Maynard reluctantly agrees to temporarily help out a malnourished Cecil. However, Maynard quickly learns just how good Cecil’s skills are and he suggests the boy move on to still bigger things. He informs him of a job opening at a ritzy hotel in Washington, D.C. and that he should consider applying. From the hotel, Cecil’s gainful employment continues as he moves up to the White House after discovering an open position for a butler there.

Daniels allows each scene to speak for themselves. As each one unfolds, Gaines’ worldview widens steadily and our respect for him grows accordingly. There’s a wonderful flow to the way small villages give way to the rush of the bigger city. The audio narration, read by Mr. Gaines, explains circumstances to us so even though we don’t have many “images” of these places, the time and places are anchored efficiently with what he has to say about them. Eventually we will meet a fantastic crew of other butlers who staff the busy American landmark: some who stand out the most are Cuba Gooding, Jr.’s upbeat Carter and Lenny Kravitz’ more reserved, but respectable James.

And of course, once we’re inside the White House we also will be getting to see the current leaders of the nation at the time. One of the most effective elements in Daniels’ film is his rotating door of great actors filling in significant roles, specifically the eight different presidents under which Cecil serves throughout his 34-year career. When Cecil first enters the Oval Office, we see a very thinly-haired Robin Williams as President Dwight D. Eisenhower. He’s discussing something with members of his Cabinet while Cecil politely serves tea. The moment is just enough to give us the impression that a significant wind of change is about to start blowing  given the discussions ongoing. All those who fill in the presidential roles are terrific and similarly contribute to the scale of this story. Other famous personalities in the White House that we get to revisit include John F. Kennedy (James Marsden); Lyndon B. Johnson (Liev Schreiber); Richard Nixon (John Cusack); and Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman). Each actor really makes their mark on each of their respective presidential roles and it’s quite a bit of fun seeing how the attitudes and atmospheres change with each new leader.

While these sweeping changes are being examined at the top tier of the political ladder, Cecil must always mind his business and be sure to strictly stick to his job. . . . . . that old nasty adage of being seen, but not heard really applies here. By doing just that, the mild-mannered Cecil becomes one of the most entrusted employees within the building which is by no means an accidental occurrence. As he has attempted to be all his life, Cecil is simply a patient and humbled man who retains every ounce of his dignity even though things at home aren’t exactly perfect. His eldest son, Louis, isn’t particularly proud of his father and often overlooks the fact that he’s had to work extremely hard to get to where he’s at now. Louis leaves for college in Tennessee, where Cecil knows trouble is likely to find him, but Louis isn’t listening. His wife, Gloria (a beautiful and heartwarming performance from Oprah Winfrey was a terrific surprise for me) is more supportive of her husband but also more supportive of her son making up his own mind. A nail is driven between Louis and Cecil’s point of view on the issue of segregation that’s currently ravaging the nation and this becomes a major focal point of the latter half of the film.

With that said, it becomes increasingly obvious as the years pass and the story amasses more and more historical significance that Daniels’ has essentially created two movies in one. One is the story of Cecil and his evolution from the terrible cotton fields to the dignified role he plays in serving the many presidents. This is arguably the overriding narrative. The second is clearly the idealogical struggle between Cecil and his eldest son, who both obviously want policies and social status to change for blacks. Whereas Cecil is content to fight the good fight that he always has by maintaining his calm and working hard, Louis feels drawn more to the revolutionary points of view shared by the Black Panthers — and I needn’t say much more about that. We can see where that story may or may not go.

Because of the heavy emphasis on the struggle between father and son, the movie seems to take on a bit too much, perhaps more than it rightfully should have to handle in this limited run time. Had the movie lasted in excess of three hours the cumulative effect might have been more profound. Instead, the story moves back and forth between Cecil and Louis for about an hour and it can get a little confusing. Who should we have to care about more? There are definite answers to that question, but Lee Daniels doesn’t really know what to say. It’s not the worst complaint you can have for a movie with this much history tied into it, but it’s difficult to ignore the obvious transitions between the three major acts.

These moments are marked by Cecil’s entrance into the White House for the first time (thus identifying Act Two), and the start of the Vietnam War (Act Three). Although the fact that the two stories — that of Cecil and that of the relationship between him and his oldest son — don’t mesh as smoothly as they could have, this seems to be a relatively small issue with a movie carrying this much weight. Not to mention, every member in the Gaines household are represented with brilliant performances by young actors David Oyelowo (who plays Louis) and Isaac White (who plays the younger sibling, Charlie). It may be obvious when we’ve shifted gears a little, but their screen times are both equally captivating and White is absolutely hilarious as Charlie.

I really can’t say enough about the cast. Everyone involved turns in stellar performances and considering that, this movie is far better than it maybe should have been. It’s hardly a groundbreaking story that we learn of here, even despite the incredible truth behind it and when one considers the horrible political culture in America at the time. One man comes from behind to get ahead of most everyone else and of course, things go all but smoothly for him along the way. Gaines suffers terrible personal losses, as well as he experiences the pain of a nation suffering from prejudice, hatred and division. Even though we’ve journeyed through the filth and grime with other public figures in movies before, Whitaker’s performance truly makes Eugene Allen iconic — a label which he perhaps earned himself; but the actor confirms it.

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4-0Recommendation: Although it’s not perfect and at times darts between historical and familial themes of devotion, betrayal, respect and dignity, the direction by Lee Daniels affords the film a beautiful aura, a respectful tone and a richly detailed culture from start to finish. It’s both funny and extremely serious; simultaneously poetic and dispassionate. Juggling these extremes cannot have been an easy task, and if you’re willing to see how it’s handled, I highly recommend you give this one a try.

Rated: PG-13 (hard)

Running Time: 126 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.comhttp://www.imdb.com