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

The Light Between Oceans

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Release: Friday, September 2, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Derek Cianfrance

Directed by: Derek Cianfrance

Derek Cianfrance has emerged once again with another sweeping, emotional epic, this time The Light Between Oceans, an adaptation of the 2012 international bestseller by M.L. Stedman. Maybe you saw The Place Beyond the Pines, Cianfrance’s previous effort. From an ambitious meditation on how one man’s actions can have a rippling effect across generations of family, he turns now to a deeply personal exploration of a young husband and wife trying to start a family.

‘Deeply personal.’ Some people might call it something else, like . . . melodramatic. Which it is; The Light Between Oceans is so melodramatic. It’s also often too depressing for its own good; a joke or two wouldn’t have hurt, but you know what else it is? Incredibly well-acted. So much so, in fact, that leads Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander found art imitating life, er, rather, inspiring it. Since working on the project the two have entered into a romantic affair that they have (largely) kept private. Given everything the actors go through bringing this tale to life, it’s not that surprising to find fictional romance has begotten real-life romance. (If only the same could have applied to John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer.)

That last paragraph was risky for me. I vowed once upon a time that I would never allow my musings on film to become a gossip column. But I just find it so interesting in this case because actors this good — and these specific actors — often make it impossible to discern professionalism from deeper personal bonding. The Light Between Oceans absolutely demands chemistry, in the same way The Notebook demanded chemistry. In the same way A Walk to Remember demanded it. Fortunately, Oceans is a great deal better than one of those two, and I’ll give you a hint: it’s not the one with Ryan Gosling — incidentally an actor who has already appeared twice in Cianfrance’s brief but memorable back catalogue.

Tom Sherbourne (Fassbender) has returned from the Great War to a remote fishing village in Western Australia. He’s taking over the post at the Janus Rock lighthouse after the former keeper quit by, quote, throwing himself over the side of a cliff. (Hint-hint: this job is difficult insofar as it is lonely.) Tom believes isolation will be good for him after his horrendous experiences in the war. After three months he takes a ferry back into town, where he happens across a beautiful girl named Isabel Graysmark (Vikander), who takes a keen interest in him. Her father Bill (Aussie Garry McDonald) is actually the one who took Tom on as a keeper.

There’s an undeniable spark between Tom and Isabel — not the kind that’s scripted, but that which evolves from actors being genuinely comfortable in one another’s presence. The only thing more natural than Vikander’s smile is the pair’s affection for one another. Soon enough they’re crossing off one major item on the checklist for A Perfect Life Together and find themselves happily married, ready to start a new life together on the lonely island. Love faces its toughest test after the couple’s first miscarriage. After a second, life becomes downright unbearable. Then, quite serendipitously, a rowboat washes ashore carrying what appears to be a dead man along with a still-living infant.

The Light Between Oceans is meditative, a two-plus-hour runtime stretching out like the yawning cerulean gap between Australia and the nearest land mass. It is a very. Long. Sit. Perhaps that’s due to the frequent bouts of depression we must battle along with our characters that makes it feel that way. It’s slow going but Cianfrance, along with his DP Adam Arkapaw, makes the physical world such a wonder to behold. The whole thing feels like a postcard from Australia. Too bad the weight of the complex morality play ongoing eventually causes it to collapse in on itself come the dying light of the film.

It’s not Rachel Weisz‘s fault, who plays the part of Hannah Roennfeldt, a grieving mother who recently lost her husband and baby out at sea (cough-cough). We’ve been expecting (or is that, dreading?) to meet her. Her tremendous performance certainly leaves a mark, even if the character itself is more of a tool rather than a real person. Hannah represents a physical consequence of Tom and Isabel’s actions and yet the way Cianfrance chooses to insert her  (and depending on how faithful an adaptation this is, this flaw could be true of the book as well) feels blatantly manipulative. Her backstory is handled in a simple flashback or two, as opposed to the hour we get to spend with the other two. The manner in which she is brought into close proximity to the couple turns out to be the most offensive contrivance of all.

Contrivances be damned, though, when an experience lingers in the mind like this one does. It may not be easy viewing and it can be emotionally manipulative — the knife-twisting in the final act really proved a bridge too far for me — but Oceans is a film with tons of heart. It is further confirmation of why I love these actors. It’s a movie that made me feel, that made me bleed. Okay, not really. But still.

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Recommendation: The Light Between Oceans is an old-fashioned romance epic whose frequent trips into melodrama remind me why I can’t do romance that often. But when one features stars as reliable as these two, I find it very hard to say no. There’s a lot to like about it, including the breathtaking postcards-from-Australia scenery. It’s all a grand gesture, and for those who don’t mind sitting through a long, meditative drama this should definitely appeal.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 133 mins.

Quoted: “One day this will all feel like a dream.”

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 

X-Men: Apocalypse

'X Men - Apocalypse' movie poster

Release: Friday, May 27, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Bryan Singer; Simon Kinberg; Michael Dougherty; Dan Harris

Directed by: Bryan Singer

In the midst of Magneto’s metal-throwing rampage, a burning hot ember of emotion buried deep underneath the rapidly cooling coals of X-Men: Apocalypse, I glance over to find my friend fast asleep, head buried into his shoulder and a small puddle of drool starting to form. All I could do was smile, really. It was the perfect summation of everything I was feeling on the inside throughout much of Bryan Singer’s fourth go-around as the helmer of this most consistently inconsistent of superhero film franchises.

For about an hour I couldn’t come to terms with the disparity in quality between Singer’s previous installment and his latest; how is it possible to be so enthralled by one entry and bored to tears with the next? Seeing as though I wasn’t someone put off by the tweaks made to X-Men history in Days of Future Past, I then had the troubling thought that I was still better off than the purists, those who had a lot more invested in these adaptations.

Apocalypse is, if nothing else, a perfectly good waste of Oscar Isaac’s talents. As the titular super-villain En Sabah Nur, Isaac couldn’t look more disinterested. Was part of the plan caking the man in make-up to the point where his disgust over the poor (and I mean really poor) script would be concealed? If it was, that plan failed. In the early going Nur rises from the dead in modern (well, 1983) Egypt after being entombed under tons of rubble resulting from a last-second violent uprising that occurred during an attempt to transfer his consciousness into another mortal body. He quickly learns of how modern society has come to be and is profoundly disturbed by it. Like Tony Stark’s ultimate fuck-up, the Ultron program, Nur/Apocalypse is big on the cleansing of mankind but very slight when it comes to personality. (It’s a little painful to be comparing an Oscar-caliber actor’s charisma here to that of a robot, but here we are.)

Nur’s extinction-level plans simply boil down to nostalgia for them good ole days. With a perpetual scowl set upon his seasick-looking face, he sets about bestowing untold amounts of power upon already powerful, albeit vulnerable, mutants the world over, enticing them to join him in his effort to restore world order. His recruits include the likes of Ororo Munroe/Storm (Alexandra Shipp); Warren Worthington III/Angel (Ben Hardy); Elizabeth Braddock/Psylocke (Olivia Munn); and Eric Lehnsherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender). While each character’s alter egos manage to jump off the page from a visual standpoint, no one other than Magneto is given anything to do. Even their action scenes register as perfunctory.

Elsewhere, mutants both new and old are . . . doing something. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is professing at the school where he professes things, teaching students to learn how to accept being gifted with powers; Magneto, prior to being wooed by the job offer from the False God, is eking out a quieter existence in Poland following the disastrous events in Washington D.C.; Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is continent-hopping as a mercenary-for-hire, rescuing fellow mutants from their current miseries all while denying her heroism. The false modesty is soooo Katniss Everdeen Gwyneth Paltrow. And we are reacquainted with sidekickers like Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult); Jean Gray/Phoenix (Sophie Turner); Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan); and Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler (Kodie Smit-McPhee).

Aside from the dismal performance from Isaac, one that reminded me more than once of the kind of collapse Eddie Redmayne had in Jupiter Ascending last year, Apocalypse suffers from a total lack of enthusiasm in reintroducing its sprawling cast. The characters themselves, of course, are universally welcomed back, yet their presences aren’t so much felt as they are foisted upon audiences expecting an epic action spectacular. (More on that in a little bit.) It was during these protracted intros where my mind started to really wander, where my head started sitting heavy in the palm of my hand. ‘Why is this girl in front of me constantly reaching out towards the screen? Like, does she know someone in this thing or something?’ ‘Is she having spasms?’ ‘Do I need to call a doctor?’ Thoughts no one should be having during a film that features so many likable and unique characters, a film steeped in mythology now 15 years in the cinematic making, I was totally having, and constantly. It was as if Charles Xavier had somehow gained access to my cerebral cortex. Leave my cerebral cortex alone, Charles.

There is actually a defense against critics blasting Apocalypse for lacking originality in its ambitions to out-epic the competition. Sometimes a ‘back-to-basics’ approach can be rewarding. You can simplify the thrust of the narrative to the ultimate in superhero standoffs, wherein all roads to the end of days run through mutants brave enough to face up to Nur and his four horsemen. Unfortunately in this case there is such a lackadaisical attitude in bringing back the characters to face their toughest test. This is in some ways one of the most personal outings for the X-Men yet, but this latest installment feels cold and detached. Much of that can be traced to Isaac’s prominence, though the build-up to the climactic fight is just as off-putting.

Look no further than said capstone battle. Hasn’t Singer learned anything from the Bay’s and the Emmerich’s? Threat of annihilation by virtue of large-scale, pixelated destruction isn’t really a threat at all. In fairness, Singer tries to make up for some of the transgressions by ripping himself off and including another über-slow-mo sequence that shows off the greatness that is Quicksilver. That’s gotta count for something in the way of originality, right?

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Recommendation: If we’re talking hierarchy of awesomeness, X-Men: Apocalypse is a tier or two down from Singer’s previous output, Days of Future Past because it doesn’t express the same level of enthusiasm nor does the story work as cohesively as the ones that have come before it. The clichés are much harder to escape here as are the cheesy one-liners and there’s a sense of franchise fatigue. A poor performance from Oscar Isaac doesn’t help matters either. Still, there’s enough here to say I’m willing to see where the franchise goes from here. I’m also liking how the past is catching up to “the present.” It’s an interesting way to build a full and complete picture of the X-Men universe. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 144 mins.

Quoted: “Does it ever wake you in the middle of the night? The feeling that one day, they’ll come for you? And your children?”

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.cinemablend.com

Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs movie poster

Release: Friday, October 23, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Aaron Sorkin

Directed by: Danny Boyle

The poor return on investment regarding Danny Boyle’s take on the iGenius is quite surprising considering the quality of the product. As of this posting, Steve Jobs has just barely recouped half of its original $30 million budget, suggesting that perhaps the third time is not the charm. (Steve Jobs follows on the heels of Alex Gibney’s documentary Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, and arrives two years after Ashton Kutcher donned the glasses and black turtleneck in Jobs.)

Seems many are already thinking differently and choosing not to sit through yet another episode. It’s unfortunate because Michael Fassbender’s transformative performance, along with another scintillating Aaron Sorkin screenplay, one based partly on interviews he conducted and the Walter Isaacson biography of the same name, all but epitomize compelling cinema. Steve Jobs, the man, with all his idiosyncrasies and flare for making dramatic last-second requests of his thoroughly overburdened staff, is almost too good to be true.

Steve Jobs grants audiences backstage passes to three significant product launches, exposing them to the environmental, political and psychological conditions that, at least in the framework of the film, lend greater weight to the public unveilings. While the three-act construction has invited criticism over the fact it’s programmed to repeat itself — the story features the launch of the Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT Computer in 1988 (the result of Jobs’ brief departure from Apple in the wake of the failed Macintosh), and finally the iMac a decade later — there is beauty in simplicity.

The cyclical pattern yields an unexpected irony. The film boots up on a dramatic but effective note. Lack of exposure to Jobs’ abrasive personality is a great possibility for viewers not well-versed in their Apple history but in the span of a ten-minute scene wherein he insists he doesn’t have a daughter nor any financial responsibility to former girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), the cards are laid out for all to see. Alas, the curse of being gifted. The irony? Simply how applicable that old adage is: ignorance really is bliss. Are we better off knowing the jerk or just the icon? Alas, the curse of being better-informed.

Meanwhile a crowd buzzing with excitement begins stomping their feet in the auditorium in preparation for the revolution. Backstage, its creator is at war with personnel and with himself. In this particular setting technical issues arise when a failed voice demo, wherein the Mac is intended to greet the world with a friendly ‘Hello,’ sends Jobs into overdrive, prompting him to bring the heat down on engineer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg).

Like it or not, we’re going to become privy to more of Jobs’ brutal demands as the clock ticks away. Boyle makes sure to cut away just before Jobs steps out on stage — his instincts telling him the presentations themselves aren’t as interesting as the drama of Jobs’ crippling social awkwardness. Watch Jobs clash ideologically with former CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels, absolutely brilliant) as he attempts to make clear his vitality to a floundering company. His conversations with cofounder and closest ‘friend’ Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen, masterfully restraining himself) serve as some of the harshest truths as Jobs argues Woz and the rest of the team behind the Apple II — widely considered a failed product — deserve no credit for what they did years earlier.

Then of course there’s the motif of Jobs’ on-again, off-again flirtation with assistant Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet, and you guessed it, she’s also excellent). Hoffman remains by his side throughout, trying her best to manage expectations — good luck — and manage Jobs’ near-tyrannical approach to seizing control of the company he had created.

Where the repetition begins to truly bear fruit is the frequent reemergence of key characters in Sculley, whose relationship with Jobs throughout the film is fraught with tension, and a now matured Lisa Brennan (Perla Haney-Jardine), who Jobs has finally recognized as his own. Jobs eventually makes amends with the former CEO prior to the introduction of the iMac but Hoffman reminds him that his withholding of Lisa’s college tuition has embittered her profoundly.

The design was certainly a gamble. But repetition, as it applies to many things in reality, provides opportunities to improve and advance. Evaluate and reinvent. That’s precisely what happens in this taut and disciplined story, an emotional crescendo resultant from our third-party witness to his brutally honest interactions with a core group of individuals. It’s absurd to think of Fassbender as an insufficient box office draw — though I won’t deny names like Leo and Christian Bale would have upped the numbers — as the Irish actor has proven lately the depths of his emotive abilities as well as his tendency to play cruel characters. Leo’s too big and if you think Fassbender doesn’t look the part, how could Bale ever hope to succeed?

All of this isn’t to say the film is flawless. It’s not quite the product we’d presume its subject would like it to be. Boyle simply can’t resist the urge to tie the narrative up in a white little bow at the end, using the top level of a metropolitan parking garage as a setting to downplay the gravity of Jobs’ ultimate apology. An apology that couldn’t have come at a more awkward and unlikely time. It’s something close to heartwarming to watch unfold, yet for everything the film has done to prove why his Machiavellian mentality puts him in a category all his own, this is a betrayal.

Michael Stuhlbarg, Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet in 'Steve Jobs'

Recommendation: Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay is, in my mind, a serious Oscar contender. Richly dialogue-driven drama features few scenes where there isn’t someone going on a verbal tirade either on the offense or in defense of themselves and their reputations. Talky pictures aren’t everyone’s cup of tea but if they are yours, you won’t find many films this year that create such an intense atmosphere and a generally dramatic picture than Steve Jobs. I don’t think I care much for the guy but I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed this examination of him.

Rated: R

Running Time: 122 mins.

Quoted: “We will know soon enough if you are Leonardo da Vinci or just think you are.”

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

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

Frank

Release: Friday, September 5, 2014 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Jon Ronson; Peter Straughan

Directed by: Lenny Abrahamson

Any film that strives to turn Domhnall Gleeson into a thoroughly unlikable character is one I’m uncomfortable watching. Frank is just such a film.

Focusing on an aspiring musician who stumbles upon an eccentric pop band with an unpronounceable name (they call themselves The Soronprfbs), this oddball comedy does its best to distance itself from an audience looking to make connections with key characters. Its best is more than enough.

After witnessing a drowning at a local beach, Jon (Gleeson) finds himself being ushered into the band. They have a show to play that night and they need his help filling in on keyboards as that was in fact their keyboardist trying to drown himself. Excited for the opportunity, he shows up for a bizarre display of nonconformist musicianship, the heir apparent to a suicidal keyboardist — what a great guy.

Jon initially assumes his role in the band would be that of a temporary hired-gun. His involvement soon extends to filling in on a more permanent basis as The Soronprfbs seclude themselves in an isolated cabin in the Irish countryside to record a full album. Jon bemoans the fact no one told him this would be more than a weekend gig, citing he has to return to work as soon as possible. His kidnappers don’t much care though, for they have a lot of work to do. Seemingly this is now his job, trying to find a way to fit in amongst a crew of ragtags who themselves don’t fit in elsewhere.

There’s the dude who first offers Jon the chance to play, Don (Scoot McNairy). His determination to become someone he’s not is simultaneously driving him mad. We’ve got the non-English speaking Baraque (François Civil) and Nana (Carla Azar), who don’t do much beyond moping about and remaining wary about Jon’s presence. Then, chief among the antagonists — I’m sure none of these people are meant to be perceived that way but let’s just say these are some talented actors here — is Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Clara, a nutcase who takes an instant dislike to Jon and makes life in the band a living nightmare for him. Her role is akin to that of someone you come across in your early grade school years who constantly picks on you, but all along the bullying is that person’s way of saying they dig your vibe.

Unfortunately the only person’s vibe I can really dig in this oppressively odd film is Michael Fassbender and his papier-mâché head/mask. As Frank, Fassbender is simultaneously the leader of The Soronprfbs and the stand-out acting talent. He’s empathetic given the obviousness and severity of his mental condition. He’ll never remove the head/mask, a fact that yields all sorts of questions ranging from his ability to function in social settings to his general hygiene. Answers to a few of these are admittedly provided with a compelling, brutal honesty when Jon is able to convince the band to make an appearance at the SXSW festival, where he hopes their efforts to represent a very . . . different . . . music experience will finally provide them an audience willing to reciprocate their uniqueness. It’s an undertaking that does not at all go according to plan.

Despite few of the members being likable on any level, it’s clear there are sides to be taken in this awkward, personal tug-of-war. Jon’s main purpose is to become the wedge between Frank and the rest of the band. Amidst the hostility and intolerance that defines The Soronprfbs’ dysfunction there exists this competition to be ‘the next Frank.’ It’s a mentality that explains Clara’s treatment of Jon — she doesn’t believe he has any talent or originality whatsoever and is trying too hard to be like Frank; a mentality that also sums up the fates of other members who have stepped out of the band.

Abrahamson’s fourth directorial effort manifests as a sincere reflection of mental illness but sadly this is a production difficult to enjoy or even sympathize with. An hour-and-a-half featuring people arguing and making something akin to music. Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn about any of it.

Recommendation: If kinky films are what you dig, then maybe Frank will be something you might enjoy. With disagreeable characters, languid pacing and a band that makes no sense, it is a difficult one to recommend to anyone else. Even though the characters are largely detestable, my bigger issue is that it combined that with a theme of social anxiety that didn’t really work. Plus the film feels so much longer than 95 minutes would suggest. I was prepared for a different kind of watch, but maybe not one this repellent. It’s almost as if the film was actively trying not to be enjoyable.

Rated: R

Running Time: 95 mins.

Quoted: “Stale beer. Fat f**ked, smoked out. Cowpoked. Sequined mountain ladies. I love your wall. Put your arms around me. Fiddly digits, itchy britches. I love you all.”

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

X-Men: Days of Future Past

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Release: Friday, May 23, 2014

[Theater]

If Bryan Singer’s latest addition to the X-Men chronicle is any indication of the summer of movies that awaits us, by the shortness of Peter Dinklage we are in for a good one!

In fact the cinematic event that Singer has recently finished polishing off is one so grandiose it might very well make the controversy that arose prior to its worldwide debut a day simply of the past. With any luck, the quality of this much-anticipated material will be enough to satisfy most blockbuster moviegoers’ palate in the coming weeks.

The last time we hung out with any mutants, it was starting to become a one-sided affair, and Logan, a.k.a. ‘the Wolverine’ seemed to be receiving more than his fair share of the spotlight. Even though at this point it’s been all but pre-determined by the studio that Hugh Jackman’s gorgeously CGI-ed biceps is what we need the most, we are inclined to agree. His understanding of the character, and his command of it has been a thrill to watch; his pain consistently strikes at the heart of the struggle of the X-Men. And despite getting to spend that much more time with his charismatic manimal in The Wolverine and X-Men Origins — it’s not really his fault his character seems to be the most compelling of those who possess the magical DNA — these considerably lackadaisical entries contributed greatly to the sense that the series itself was a dying breed. Even despite Jackman and a wealth of material still yet to be tapped.

It’s fine, though. A few steps may have been taken backward but it’s with great relief to announce that what this summer has in store for fans is something that takes leaps and bounds beyond anything that has come before it. Simultaneously a compelling merger of the mutants in their younger and older forms, and an action-packed adventure/fantasy in its own right, X-Men: Days of Future Past is thrillingly paced, hilarious and keenly self-aware; intelligent on a level the series has been clawing at but failing to breach thus far. To be fair, few films with stakes this high can afford to be all these things at once without sacrificing something.

Given the final product on display here, it’s unclear what Singer or screenwriter Simon Kinberg have had to sacrifice. We join up with the few surviving mutants who are now hunkering down in the side of a mountain as the world around them continues to deteriorate. A government-sanctioned program has spawned a third race of beings on the planet: sentient robots built with the sole purpose of targeting those with mutated gene pools. These are the creation of the sinister Dr. Bolivar Trask (Dinklage) and they are horrifyingly efficient at what they do.

The crisis has reached a point where reconciliation is all but impossible for either party, and it’s even begun to sap Professor X (Patrick Stewart)’s optimism for a future of any kind. Fortunately he’s still got one more trick up his sleeve, and that is in Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page)’s ability to project present consciousnesses of fellow mutants back in time into beings that existed back then. One snag: the critical time period we must go back to is 1973 — fifty years removed from the present, and this eliminates all mutants but Wolverine, as they won’t be able to physically or psychologically survive such a sojourn.

Wolverine’s task is to track down certain mutants in 1973. Yes, this will indeed involve the unenviable challenge of intervening during a period where a young and besotted Charles (James McAvoy) is having a bit of a spat with the similarly naive Erik Lensherr, a.k.a. Magneto (Michael Fassbender). He must organize everyone in an effort to prevent a renegade Mystique/Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) from her inevitable date with destiny, as the blue-skinned beauty has taken it upon herself to even the score with Bolivar, whom she seeks for his inexorable experimentation on her mutant friends.

There’s no room for error on her part, and ditto that for Wolverine, only with exponentially less room. Not only is he battling the conditions of the time period he’s reinserted himself into, he’s having to convince those around him that there’s a bigger picture they all must pay attention to; and this isn’t even to mention that his journeying into the past has a perpetual impact on his physical and mental tenacity. This is assuming nothing goes wrong on the other end, as well.

Days of Future Past stockpiles the thrills as its labyrinthian plot unfolds piecewise. Its similarly expansive cast is on fine form and at this point in the game its more than a little difficult to separate actor from character. Familiarity typically breeds contempt, but here it breeds a hell of a lot of fun. Comparisons to The Matrix and Marvel’s The Avengers aren’t unreasonable — the teleportation of Wolverine seems to mimic the connection between realities found in the former, whereas both scope and visual grandeur make the comparison to the latter all but inevitable.

Comparisons run amok with Bryan Singer’s new X-Men installment, but it’s as well a thoroughly well-made product on its own merits. It looks sleek and best of all, it doesn’t feel even one second over 90 minutes. The film is actually over two hours in length, and even has time to factor in an exquisitely rendered and considerably extensive slow-motion sequence, without ever feeling like it’s wasting ours. Now that is effective storytelling.

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4-0Recommendation: Was it worth the wait? You bet your mutant ass it was. Days of Future Past may stack up to be one of the most heavily anticipated films of the year, and the final product is well-equipped to handle the challenge of living up to lofty expectations — expectations made so by frequent and repeated failure to get things right before. It deftly handles a dense amount of material by seamlessly connecting stories together, with a focus on the shadow games played by Mystique and Wolverine. Enthralling to newcomers and rooted firmly in the ethos of the comic, 2014 may well have brought us the definitive X-Men movie.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 131 mins.

Quoted: “Maybe you should have fought harder for them.”

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

12 Years a Slave

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Release: Friday, October 18, 2013 (limited)

[Theater]

Every so often there are those releases that stir up a buzz unlike any other; a certain climate that generates perhaps as much interest in the film as the film itself. This feverish talk might be about the cast involved and the work they have turned in, or the timing of such a film, or simply the subject matter. The hype can become so great as to almost assume a deafening roar, becoming something unto itself.

In the case of Steve McQueen’s telling of a free man being abducted into slavery in pre-Civil War America, the graphic contents of this particular journey certainly reached this kind of level for me. A great deal of discussion stemmed from the accuracy of its depictions of human suffering and cruelty, of violence and bloodshed, and what may be worst of all, the language and dialogue. 12 Years a Slave was thereby rendered as something more than what it perhaps should be viewed and appreciated for.

Even if personal expectations were skewed because of this unique psychological component, it would be wildly inaccurate to say the film did not do what it needed to. My bracing for some extraordinary scenes helped me get through them a little bit easier, but that’s not to say the rest of the material is easy, either. Yet, if there’s any beauty to be found within this piece (and there is, for if you want to tell me that this man’s true story doesn’t end well you’d be dead wrong), it’ll likely take several views to actually appreciate such beauty. Unfortunately most of the film is just miserable enough to make sitting through it all a second time a rather unreasonable proposition.

But maybe this speaks to the true scope of McQueen’s vision and the transparency of John Ridley’s screenplay adaptation of the memoirs penned in 1853 by Solomon Northup. There are beautiful moments to behold, but there’s a heavy, heavy price to pay. Like reflecting back on any number of societal injustices as through a textbook or studying up on it in class, the meaning is in the details but you must read to find it.

There is no question that 12 Years will become 2013’s most notorious film, and this will be for a variety of reasons — most of which are good, though some will be more difficult to understand than others. Among the more shocking revelations, the simplicity to the story will eat at the viewer for the entire two hours. Not only is it the ease in which Solomon disappears off the streets of his hometown that’s disturbing, but the constant physical and psychological abuse he suffers is mostly derived from his inability to proclaim his true identity.

In Saratoga, New York in 1841 Solomon is approached by a couple of gentlemen who have a business proposition for him. As a talented violist, Solomon has a great reputation, and is always away from home playing for a variety of special events. These men need some music for one of their own events, and they convince him to join them on a trip to Washington D.C., where he shall be treated well and paid for his efforts.

The deceit is unnervingly simple. One day, he wakes up not in his bed, but instead chained to a dirt floor by his wrists and ankles. Two men enter the dank room and tell him that he’s no longer who he says he is; from hence forth he is Platt, a supposed Georgia runaway. When Solomon begs to differ, he is beaten within an inch of his life and left to cry out for help, as a camera pans out, revealing the truth about his undisclosed location. Solomon is forced to put on new clothes — the pajamas he once was wearing being the last item from his home that he had on his person — and is then sent away from this place and put on the slave market, bound for Louisiana on a ferry.

Solomon will bounce from a couple of different plantations where his workload and conditions become more dire and degrading. First he becomes the property of William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a man who seems to possess at least some tangled thread of humanity. He is the one to provide Solomon with another violin, perhaps the single good deed that will befall him for the next several years. However it’s on his property where Solomon also clashes with a particularly nasty slave driver named Tibeats (Paul Dano), and incurs his wrath after Solomon proves himself more than a hard-working slave. This event results in a protracted pseudo-lynching scene — arguably one of the most difficult scenes to view throughout — and furthermore, it forces Ford to turn over Solomon to another man because of a mounting debt Ford has to pay off.

This transfer will land Solomon officially in hell, as he winds up the property of none other than Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a ruthless man with a reputation for being an “n-word breaker.” Simultaneously, Epps has heard some things about this Platt, about his work ethic and his reputation for questioning his Masters. Being the maniacally drunk, perversely racist man he is, Epps makes it his mission to go out of his way to really break him down, make him sorry for ever having shown up on his plantation. As if he could help it.

Mind you, while all this is going on, Solomon’s family is growing up. The man spends over a decade in the south under a new identity and not being able to communicate at all to the outside world. All the credit possible must be bestowed upon McQueen and Ridley here for their ability to convert their southern plantation settings into the scenic yet stifled pits of inhumanity that they effectively were. It is in these moments, these scenes where you truly feel cut off from civilization, suffocated. The difference between where Solomon starts off and where he winds up is really felt.

In his last year of being enslaved at the hands of Epps and the perhaps even more hateful Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulson), Solomon comes across a carpenter named Bass (Brad Pitt) who’s originally from Canada. A believer in the abolition of slavery, he is inexplicably friendly with Epps and these moments offer up some poignant lines that address directly what is being put in front of our eyes. . .as well as Epps’. The pair’s views on the matter couldn’t differ any greater; yet as strongly written as this moment is, and as accurately as these characters may be rendered, this oasis of peace seems very strange. At the very least, a little oddly timed.

We toil along with Solomon throughout this whole saga, feeling the weight upon his shoulders as he watches in horror at the pain others are also enduring. A mother whom Solomon is traded with earlier on is unable to reconcile her grief after being taken away from her young children. On Epps’ plantation, he meets a young woman named Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) who is the center of all of Epps’ affections. While she may be the most tragic victim on display, there are many others.

So we trudge through the weight of all of this, and yet there is a moment or two of tranquility. What does any of it mean? Is it just the sheer randomness of his abduction that we should be the most attentive to or is it the collective poison of slavery’s influence not only over those in the southern cotton fields, but over the spirit and soul of the nation at large? What are we to take away from this aside from receiving an update on the barbarity of the white man at his worst? It’s a little difficult to say really, because while McQueen does limit the violence to really only six distinct moments, the atmosphere of the movie will ultimately be more memorable than the miraculous survival of Solomon as a slave and his freedom finally regained.

Perhaps what hurt my own viewing was the aforementioned and self-imposed psyching out. I certainly elevated my expectations going in, most all of which were met (good and bad). However, what I recall the most after walking out is feeling a great sadness. This creation is undoubtedly a masterpiece, but yet it seems strange to only feel gutted after watching, and not something more akin to being enlightened. Yes, slavery and racism is pointless, but we knew that already.

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4-0Recommendation: Raw, visceral and unrelenting, 12 Years a Slave sets a new standard for cinematic displays of human suffering, not only in its realism but with regards to the nature of the treatment. At times, it can be certainly heavy-handed, though there’s no denying its a journey virtually everyone must see. Through graphic depictions we can start to get an appreciation for the barbarity of it all. It wouldn’t have hurt for an extended conclusion, but I suppose there’s enough there to nominate McQueen’s third project as one of the most powerful and well-crafted (and damning) pieces of the year.

Rated: R

Running Time: 134 mins.

Quoted: “A man does as he pleases with his property.”

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 

The Counselor

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Release: Friday, October 25, 2013

[Theater]

“If you keep heading down this path, you will eventually come to moral decisions that will take you completely by surprise.”

So forewarns the enigmatic night club owner, Reiner, played by a very colorful Javier Bardem in Ridley Scott’s latest suspense thriller, based on the first original screenplay penned by Cormac McCarthy. He was speaking to Michael Fassbender’s Counselor character in the film, but the line’s also apropos of anyone waiting in line to buy a ticket to see The Counselor, the film itself.

Scott’s latest is the schoolyard bully of fall 2013 releases. Unsparing in its austerity, substitution of prose for dialogue and inclusion of jolting and unsettling violence, his direction demonstrates he’s clearly not over the loss of his brother, Tony — which is certainly an understandable issue. But whereas his finished product simply screams misery, it could have cleverly suggested it (I’ve always felt Scott has been a director of subtlety, even in dealing with profound subjects like in Prometheus) and his counseling, therefore, ain’t a great deal of fun to sit through. The anguish on display makes it nearly impossible for even the most hardy viewer to say ‘well, I had a good time in that movie.’ While that may be sort of true, what they probably mean to say is that some of what they saw was enjoyable, but they couldn’t mean they actually enjoyed watching such suffering for as little payoff as they get in the end.

The Counselor fixates on a man (Fassbender’s character is simply known throughout as the Counselor, a description only slightly less blasé than Gosling’s in Drive) who gets in too deep with the wrong people, taking one job too many and becoming just a little too greedy. He’s meant to be a lawyer representing a variety of different, albeit all wayward clients, who insists he can protect them and get them what they want, though he’s really just in the game for the money for himself (and his soon-to-be-wife, the perpetually aroused Laura, played by Penelope Crúz). When the Counselor becomes involved with a multi-million-dollar drug deal and the deal goes awry, his world starts falling apart in unthinkably brutal ways.

The Counselor is approached by a shady, yet exquisitely dressed middleman representing the Mexican cartel, a man by the name of Westray (Brad Pitt), who presents him the opportunity to gain millions. McCarthy’s writing flusters both the audience and the characters in a scene intended to be pivotal for the rest of the proceedings, but it really just passes by as casually as death does here. This is aided by the fact that the discussions are absolutely loaded with metaphor; steeped in philosophy and ultimately add up to nothing more than “I wouldn’t do this if I were you,” just the kind of cautionary advice you fully expect the Counselor to ignore.

And he does.

We are treated to a whole slew of characters who would be compelling had the writing tried not to be so profound. The most compelling of which has to be Cameron Diaz, playing Reiner’s menacing girlfriend, Malkina. Diaz turns out to be the full embodiment of evil here, what with all those leopard print tattoos and her obsession with Reiner’s pet cheetahs and his Corvette (which she has sex with) — oh yeah, did I mention how misogynistic this movie is as well?

It could be to do with the fact that the director is trudging through some hellish waters here recently in the wake of his brother’s passing, and it may also be attributed to the general gloomy way in which McCarthy has consistently viewed the world. Arguing who is more responsible for the film’s tone coming across as bleak as it has could turn into an all-day affair, though. Point is, The Counselor takes an incredible cast and forces upon it some of the nastiest characterizations audiences have seen this side of Andrew Dominik’s morose political allegory.

Zoning out in this movie will not only be understandable but expected. That is, until you see someone’s carotid artery being sliced open in public, or their finger tips sliced off in the process of trying to remove the wire around their necks that’s causing this bloodletting. The viewer goes from being grossly under-stimulated by a wordy script to being just grossed out by scenes of graphic violence. Between the pretense and the pain, both which punctuate this script like stray bullet holes, the best thing that can be said of The Counselor is that its another extreme case of style-over-substance. The misuse of such a talented cast is what’s really difficult to get over. It’s as though the cast members blindly accepted the fact they would be speaking this legendary writer’s words, taking that reality for what it was regardless of the product his writing would ultimately shape.

Realizing this feels more enlightening than any of the lessons that are supposedly conveyed through such ugliness.

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1-5Recommendation: Very little of the film is enticing (except for Diaz’ back tattoos, of course). And when it’s not taking a mean-spirited approach to teaching the forever-sinning Counselor a lesson about being greedy, it’s boring. This movie is a failure on nearly every level, especially considering the talent on this set.

Rated: R

Running Time: 111 mins.

Quoted: “I can’t advise you, counselor.”

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