Well unfortunately I never did manage to come up with some kind of “celebration” post for my blog’s eighth birthday — that opportunity came and went without so much as a kazoo being tooted. Actually — that can still happen. In fact, here’s literally an entire kazoo band to make up for that:
Now, without further kazoodling, here’s what went down on Thomas J during the month of July.
Apollo 11 · March 1, 2019 · Directed by Todd Douglas Miller · A truly mesmerizing experience that’s more visual poetry than pure documentary, Apollo 11‘s “direct cinema” approach gives viewers a unique behind-the-scenes look at how the Americans successfully put men on the Moon half a century ago. Relying entirely on its breathtaking, digitally restored archived footage — some of which has never been released to the public until now — and audio recordings to deliver both information and emotion, Apollo 11 isn’t just a celebration of one of man’s greatest achievements, it’s an unbelievably effective time capsule that rockets us back to the 60s as much as it propels us into the star-strewn night sky. This is hands down one of the most insightful, hair-raising looks at any Apollo mission that I have come across. And it only goes to reaffirm Damien Chazelle’s First Man as perhaps one of the most accurate renderings we will ever get in a dramatization. *****/*****
The Red Sea Diving Resort · July 31, 2019 · Gideon Raff · Inspired by the real-life rescue mission, code-name Operation Brothers, in which a group of Mossad agents helped smuggle tens of thousands of Ethiopian-Jewish refugees out of Sudan and back to Israel in the 1980s, using a dilapidated tourist outpost as a cover. The story it tells is absolutely inspiring, but unfortunately the execution and the performances make it all seem like a vacation. A game cast turns up but is monumentally wasted, none more than Michael Kenneth Williams who disappears for nearly half the movie. Gideon Raff plays it fast and loose with the tone, creating a Baywatch-meets-Blood Diamond-meets-Ocean’s Eleven that makes for an oft unseemly watch. Even worse, it’s pretty boring.*/*****
Beer of the Month
A dangerously drinkable, unfiltered IPA from Stone. Their Fourth of July release is, I think, only the second time I’ve managed to secure one of their limited-release ‘Enjoy By’ drinks. Better late than never, because this one, at 9.4% ABV, is a Stone cold classic!
If you could only see one, which would it be — The Irishman or Ad Astra?
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 Evil, Mortal 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.’
Recommendation: 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.
Running Time: 136 mins.
Quoted: “We work in the dark to serve the light. We are assassins.”
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Huh. So that’s what it feels like to be completely ripped off by a movie.
I mean, completely. Like, I know it’s dumb to go all-in on a movie that has received so little attention and marketing for something that features the likes of Marky-Mark, the great John Goodman and a rising star in Brie Larson, but come on. Am I this much of a sucker? I just bought into a game that keeps on taking without ever giving back. I hate the dealer. Dealer always wins.
The lovable Mark Wahlberg drops 61 pounds (!) in order to get into the depraved character of Jim Bennett, some twit who spends his nights gambling and his days professing his love for literary genius in front of a bunch of disinterested college students. The legit job is the one he enjoys less, though he does enjoy holding this appreciation for elite novelists over his students, wielding his intellectual superiority as if it were some shield designed to protect him from the stabbings of his accusers, those who don’t give a shit about English lit. But as Rupert Wyatt is about to explain, there are better tools for Jim to rail against society with.
Like a gambling addiction! In my mind, shelling out one’s salary on a game of Black Jack on a regular basis, only to lose more often than win, constitutes a legitimate disease, and Wahlberg’s Jim is very sick. For nearly two hours he seems to acknowledge all the ways in which this lifestyle is wrong for him and yet continues to revel in it as he sinks into almost insurmountable debt, eventually having to be staked by the shadiest player in the room, some crazy named Neville (Michael Kenneth Williams) just so he can play his way out of his predicament. His actions throughout this entire film reveal a man who is not only incapable of change, but immune to it. I openly embrace characters who are severely flawed; there’d be virtually no entertainment business (or compelling literature) without them. I also don’t much mind when they aren’t dealt detailed development, so long as the lack of character development doesn’t take away from the ultimate experience.
Jim Bennett could have gotten into a three-way with Brie Larson’s Amy Phillips and his own mother (Jessica Lange) and still failed to find the motivation to change his ways. And that scene might have actually been interesting. But The Gambler insists on impressing (I’m wondering if depressing is an appropriate synonym here) those who have gambled their way into the theater with how much it enjoys the smell of its own stagnation. Jim goes from owing money to the charismatic Neville, to convincing Asian mafia — there’s always a higher power to answer to — that he’s worth their trouble, to taking a trip to the bank with mom for a casual $240,000 withdrawal. That’ll be in cash, please.
And that’s of course before he comes up against the film’s actual threat, a nakeder-than-life John Goodman as Frank and his tough-guy “cabbie”/right-hand man Big Ernie (Domenick Lombardozzi). Excluding Larson, who is woefully neglected in a role that reduces her to eying Marky-Mark’s character rather than becoming a flesh-and-blood character (Larson is far more effective as a texting addict in Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s amusing Don Jon), supporting performances feel inspired. Inspired to the point where the supporting roles outweigh Wahlberg’s. When you have supporting roles more memorable than that of your lead, particularly when the lead comes in the form of a major player like Mark Wahlberg, you have a problem.
So I came out on the losing end here. That’s alright; the dealer wasn’t my type anyway. I’m sure there’s a lesson to be learned here, and I know for a fact there are a few things to become fixated on in Wyatt’s overhauling of the apparently far superior 1974 thriller with James Caan. Things like the fact that while Jim Bennett remains a perpetual screw-up, he attracts the attention of beautiful women like April. Nonsensical. The phenomenon of how we always buy into the star power of Mark Wahlberg without thinking for a second about the material that will surround him.
Naked & sweaty man-date with John Goodman
Recommendation:The Gambler turns out to be a thriller without the thrills; merely a good-looking production lacking much in the way of originality, enthusiasm or particularly strong acting. Though the latter is much less of an issue, the repetition of Jim Bennett’s gambling problem becomes more than a little wearisome as this story doesn’t force any action or compelling reason to stick by his side. Wahlberg is likable, sure, but this character — and this very disappointing film — are not so much. I do not really recommend.
Running Time: 111 mins.
Quoted: “You’re born as a man with the nerves of a soldier, the apprehension of an angel.”
All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.
This hobby blog is dedicated to movie nerdom, nostalgia, and the occasional escape. In the late 90s, I worked at Blockbuster Video, where they let me take home two free movies a day. I caught up on the classics and reviewed theatrical releases for Denver 'burbs newspapers and magazines. When time is free between teaching high school music and being a dad, movies are standard. Comments and dialogue encouraged!