REVIEW: “Assassin’s Creed”

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I just knew they existed even before the first screenings of “Assassin’s Creed” – the haughty dismissive jabs at yet another ‘video game movie’. Nevermind that video games have evolved from simple pixels and sprites into vast interactive experiences often times anchored by deep, thoughtful stories. Forget that video games have surpassed both Hollywood and the music industry in the entertainment market. Many people simply won’t treat video games or their movie adaptations seriously, so in that regard “Assassin’s Creed” was already behind the proverbial eight ball.

But there is another unavoidable truth. Filmmakers aren’t doing much to quell these attitudes. In fact, video games have a history of spawning some truly terrible film adaptations. Look no further than “Super Mario Bros.”, “Street Fighter”, “Mortal Kombat: Annihilation” just to name a few. But isn’t “Assassin’s Creed” different? I mean it stars Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson, Charlotte Rampling. With that amount of talent it can’t be as bad as many are saying, right? The short answer – no it isn’t, but it’s complicated.

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The immensely popular Assassin’s Creed video game franchise from developer Ubisoft is ripe with big screen potential. This film clearly intends to be a launching point for a film series. The games have never been restricted to certain characters which enables to movie to create entirely new ones and tell a new story within the same universe. Fassbender latched on early in the process not only starring but also co-producing.

The story takes place during two time periods – 2016 and 15th century Spain during the Spanish Inquisition. An age-old war between the Knights Templar and the Assassins has bled over into modern day driving the mysterious Abstergo Foundation to create the Animus. The machine allows Abstergo to connect people with their descendants in order to glean information from the past. The foundation is ran by Alan Rikkin (Irons) but the Animus creator Sophia Rikkin (Cotillard) oversees the project. Both father and daughter have very different ideas for its use.

Enter Callum Lynch (Fassbender), a death row inmate who wakes up to find himself in an Abstergo facility. Lynch is the descendent of a 15th century Assassin named Aguilar de Nerha who may hold the key to locating a powerful relic called the Apple of Eden. Sophia sees the relic as a tool for global peace while others at Abstergo have much more nefarious intentions.

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Let’s get this out of the way. “Assassin’s Creed” isn’t the wretched, soulless dreck its Rotten Tomatoes score would have you believe. In fact, a solid two-thirds of its running time is a ton of fun especially for those familiar with the franchise. The film nicely juggles Creed’s signature crazy mix of action, historical drama, and science fiction while tossing out several nods to fans. But you don’t need to be an aficionado to understand what’s going on, at least until the last act. At that point things get a bit muddled and messy as the film tries to tie up its many layers of plot.

Director Justin Kurzel (who had previously worked with Fassbender and Cotillard in “Macbeth”) offers several interesting touches as he works in two very different time periods and locations. The 15th century sequences are exhilarating particularly one street chase that may be my favorite action sequence of the year. Kurzel and regular cinematographer Adam Arkapaw shoot the scenes with gusto and great detail. When it moves back to modern day it leaves the dusty, dirty shades of brown for cold, dreary blues and greys. This is where most of the story plays out.

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But now I get back to that third act. Overall I disagree with the criticisms calling the plot convoluted and overblown, at least for the majority of the film. But as it wraps things up it does get a little confusing. The story moves into full franchise setup mode, putting characters and tensions in places that clearly points to follow-up movies. There are some good elements to the finale, but some messiness as well. Even the action takes a step down in last 15 minutes.

Still, I had fun with “Assassin’s Creed” particularly with its wildly unique (and admittedly wacky) story. It also doesn’t hurt to have this level of acting talent in front of the camera. It does fall victim to some of the usual franchise-building frustrations, but at the same time it sets itself up for limitless possibilities. Where does it go next – the Civil War, the French Revolution, the Cold War? I don’t know. First it will depend on the box office and so far that hasn’t looked too promising.

VERDICT 3.5 STARS

3.5 stars

REVIEW: “Night Train to Lisbon”

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It was considered a talky and drawn out bore by a handful of critics, but I found Bille August’s 2013 drama “Night Train to Lisbon” to be a soothing and almost cathartic film despite its occasional lapses. It’s a swirl of mystery, romance, self-examination, and character study that does at times trip over itself and its subtle but clumsy preachiness. But ultimately the film dives into themes and reflections that I found fulfilling.

The film is based on Pascal Mercier’s 2004 novel about a man lost in his loneliness and plagued by feelings of unfulfillment and unimportance. The great Jeremy Irons plays Raimund Gregorius, a language professor at a college in Bern, Switzerland. The film’s opening scene tells us scores about its main character. We see Raimund in a meager, dimly lit apartment. The walls are covered with books portraying what almost seems like an obsession. Raimund stirs around but there’s no one else there. No voices. No vibrancy. Nothing lively or colorful. It’s a portrayal of his loneliness.

Later that rainy morning, while walking to school, he comes across a young woman standing on a bridge about to commit suicide. He’s able to grab her before she jumps and then takes her to his classroom to gather her thoughts. As he begins teaching his class she wanders off leaving behind her raincoat with a book in the pocket. Raimund immediately sets off to find the mysterious young woman using the book as a guide which leads him to Lisbon, Portugal.

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The story quickly moves away from Raimund’s search for the young woman and to his fascination with the book. It was written by a man named Amadeu do Prado. Raimund is mesmerized by the life depicted in the memoirs and he ventures across Lisbon putting the story together through the people who knew Amadeu. Along this personal journey, Raimund finds some people who are eager to help him. He also finds some who are reluctant to revisit the painful and tumultuous past they shared with Amadeu.

Through Raimund’s conversations with people we get flashbacks to Amadeu (portrayed by Jack Huston) and his life. We see his difficult childhood and his complicated relationship with his family. We witness his venture into a left-wing resistance movement that went against the Salazar administration. We see scarred friendships and fragile romances. It’s a truly compelling life story even though it sputters at times and its historical account is clearly told from a strict and persuaded point of view. This occasionally strips the film of its genuineness and makes it the film a bit like a lecture.

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While I found Amadeu’s unfolding story interesting, it was Raimund who kept me enthralled in the movie. With every peeled back layer of Amadeu’s past Raimund realizes how unfulfilling his own life is. Through the book he tries to experience the life that he has never had. Jeremy Irons navigates this journey with such temperate and emotional precision. It’s not a loud or showy performance. Instead he uses a more reserved approach which serves the character and his state brilliantly. I truly felt for Raimund and completely bought into his plight.

These dual stories are also helped by a fascinating assortment of wonderful actors and actresses. There are so many rich supporting performances from Huston, French actress Mélanie Laurent (a favorite of mine), Charlotte Rampling, Christopher Lee, Martina Gedeck, Auguest Diehl, Bruno Ganz, Tom Courtenay, and several others. Each have their specific role in Raimund’s journey and Amadeu’s story and the strength of the acting brings both vividly to life.

There is also plenty of beautiful scenery, wonderful locations, and interesting camera work to talk about, but this really comes down to the story and your ability to latch onto it. I had no problem with this mainly because of the film’s centerpiece Jeremy Irons and the story he tells. There is the occasional rough patch and a few hints of odd one-sided lecturing. There is also an intriguing human drama that sucked me in and had me genuinely caring about the characters. That’s an essential piece of any good drama and “Night Train to Lisbon” has it.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

“THE VERDICT” – 4 1/2 STARS

I really enjoy courtroom dramas and “The Verdict” is a good one. It’s directed by Sidney Lumet and stars Paul Newman in one of his finest performances. David Mamet adapted the Barry Reed novel of the same name. The film received high praise from critics and Newman, Lumet, and Mamet each received Oscar nominations. It’s unique compared to other courtroom pictures in that the main case isn’t a huge unfolding mystery. In fact the case at the center of the film is pretty cut and dry. It’s the organizing of their defense, the fighting through the legal process, and the presentation of the case that fuels the narrative.

But “The Verdict” is also the tale of redemption. Underneath the courtroom drama is the story of a man who has watched his life crumble and but now sees a chance to get his life in order. Paul Newman plays Frank Galvin, a boozing Boston lawyer who has found himself resorting to ambulance chasing in order to pick up clients. In fact, he’s only had four cases in three years and lost them all. Just like his practice, his personal life is in shambles and he finds his only destructive solace at the bottom of a bottle. Newman nails this character and his Oscar nomination for the role was well deserved. It’s a nuanced performance that shows Frank as more than just a down-on-his-luck alcoholic. Newman expertly conveys the inner conflict within Frank and it’s that internal, personal struggle that drives one of the picture’s most compelling components.

Frank’s luck appears to change when an old friend and former partner Mickey (Jack Warden) hooks him up with a medical malpractice case that should be a slam dunk. But what kind of movie would this be if everything was all sunshine and flowers? Frank decides to take the case to trial and turns down a substantial settlement which baffles everyone including his clients. He then finds himself up against a biased judge and a prominent law firm led by Ed Concannon (played wonderfully by James Mason). It’s a legal David and Goliath story with Frank running into one complication after another. Add to it his personal and emotional fragility and you have the ingredients for a top-notch story.

David Mamet’s screenplay is intelligent and razor-sharp. The dialogue is well written and the pacing is methodical. While Mamet’s story intentionally moves deliberately, it does seem to spin its wheels a little during the middle of the film. And some people may argue that the movie isn’t the most detailed and cohesive courtroom drama. But Mamet doesn’t use the courtroom as his main focus. It’s a vehicle that allows this tired and broken man to try for redemption by doing the right thing. Lumet’s direction is fantastic and his ability to capture emotion and intensity through silence is impressive. He also gives the movie a gritty edge and authenticity that perfectly fits.

While Lumet and Mamet’s work is solid and there is a wonderful supporting cast, everything comes back to Paul Newman. Almost always seen on-screen as the handsome and vibrant performer, here he looks old, worn-down, and defeated. He perfectly captures this character and we never doubt him for a second. There’s no hard-to-believe miracle transformation. Instead we see someone taking one step at a time trying to dig himself out of the hole he made. Newman sells all of this with a down-to-earth genuineness that is easy to buy into. “The Verdict” may not be the most highly polished courtroom movie but it certainly holds its own. It’s an emotionally charged drama with a redemptive subtext that worked for me on so many levels. And how can you not love watching Newman dominate the screen in what is arguably his greatest performance.