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

Random Thoughts on the “Batman vs Superman” Comic-Con Trailer

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San Diego Comic-Con has evolved over the years. That can be good or bad depending on how you look at it. What started as a comic book convention has evolved into a full-blown entertainment extravaganza. Movie fans have grown accustomed to a host of new reveals from an assortment of superhero, horror, or sci-fi films. This year one of the big ones was from Warner Brothers and DC Comics. It was a new trailer for “Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice”.

The sheer scope of this project was enough to excite me beyond measure while also concerning me that WB had bitten off more than it could chew. The first teaser certainly scratched my comic book superhero itch, but it also left tons of questions and worries. Well at Comic-Con we got a bigger, bolder, and more revealing trailer that shot my excitement levels through the atmosphere. So many nuggets of information was shared. It is impossible to process it all with one viewing. Here are a few random thoughts and observations about the new footage we were given:

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  • Finally context is given to the whole Batman vs Superman concept. The trailer unfolds the entire reasons for the impending superhero scuffle and it is pretty compelling. We still need to see how it plays out but it looks promising.
  • I love how this film will address one of the major gripes most people had with the last Superman movie – the seemingly careless disregard for Metropolis or human life in the finale. According to the trailer that subject plays a huge part in the BvS story. We see it early in the trailer through the people’s and government’s anger. We also see it later as a force behind Bruce Wayne’s drive to stop Superman.
  • WONDER WOMAN!!! I have to say Gal Gadot look fabulous and she could truly be a force in this film. The trailer shows her in the middle of an undisclosed fight unleashing a really cool move with her bracers. But we also see her in an evening gown which shows that her role is probably multidimensional. Gadot has me excited and I think Wonder Woman may prove to be a pivotal character among the warring alpha-males.

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  • Lex Luther appears in the trailer and he definitely has some devious plans at work. The trailer shows three key Luther images. First we see him with what appears to be Kryptonite. Second we see that he is in possession of Zod’s dead body. Third we see him talking to Superman from a rather dominant position and Superman doesn’t look too happy. Lex is clearly getting his hands dirty while the two heavyweights are duking it out.
  • Speaking of Lex Luther. We get our first look at Jesse Eisenberg as one of DC’s great villains. I have to say at first I wasn’t convinced with Eisenburg’s casting. Unfortunately his spots in the trailer did nothing to ease my concerns. I’m not sure what Eisenburg is channeling but it doesn’t resemble Lex Luther. From his terrible wig to his weird almost Joker-inspired line delivery. Hopefully better things lie ahead. The Luther character deserves greatness.
  • Jeremy Irons as Alfred. In the first Batman series Alfred was almost strictly a butler. In Nolan’s Batman Alfred was a butler, a sage, and occasionally a little more. In the trailer Irons’ Alfred is still dishing out wise advise but he looks as if he is ready to jump into the action. Not sure how I feel about that. But Irons is a great actor and I’m anxious to see what he brings to the character.
  • DC’s movies have generally been a bit darker than Marvel’s and we definitely see that in the trailer. It is something that may not work for some, but I love how it distinguishes the universe. And this is definitely a story that would call for a darker tone. Hopefully the movie sees it all the way through.

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  • Could we have gotten teasers of a possible Joker appearance? We see Bruce Wayne looking at a newspaper with a message written in red. We also see a suit of armor with another written message along with the familiar “HA HA HA”. Is this the Joker? We know he is set for “Suicide Squad”. How does he fit into this equation?
  • Speaking of that suit of armor, it doesn’t appear to be Batman’s. In fact, after a closer look it just may be Robin’s????
  • Batman in a trenchcoat? There is a brief shot of Batman in his batsuit but also sporting a trenchcoat. It is a very cool look but my bigger question is where is he? The next scene shows him fighting in this dusty ravaged almost otherworldly location. I’m curious.

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  • Speaking of that fight, the soldiers appear in several scenes. They are decked out in all black armor including face shields and helmets. Most intriguing are the Superman crests found on their shoulders. Who are these guys? Where are they from? Better yet, are they human? Why do I ask? In the scene with Batman we see him snapping one of their necks. We know Batman doesn’t kill, right? RIGHT???
  • That final shot! Superman rips off the top of a destroyed batmobile probably expecting to see a hurt and defeated Batman. Instead Batman slowly rises from the wreckage and we get a heart-pumping face-to-face. The absolute perfect way to end the trailer!

Those are just a few random thoughts about this exciting trailer. There are so many other potential nuggets of revelation. Have you seen it? Did you think it was as thrilling as I did? Whether you did or whether you didn’t, I would love to hear your thoughts on it.

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 Public Movie Defender : “The Time Machine” (2002)

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The idea behind The Public Movie Defender is to take up the cause of a particular movie that I believe is better than the majority of reviews it has received. These are movies which I feel are worth either a second look or at least a more open examination considering the predominantly negative opinions of them. The films chosen are ones that I like so therefore I’m taking their case and defending them before the court of negative opinion. Let the trial begin…

DEFENDANT #3 – “THE TIME MACHINE” (2002)

TIMEThe 1895 novel “The Time Machine” by H.G. Wells has long established itself as a science fiction classic. While I’ve never read the entire novel, I still remember seeing a film adaptation as a young boy. It was a film from 1960 which was directed and produced by George Pal (Pal had already made a film version of the other Wells science fiction classic “The War of the Worlds” in 1953). There was a made for TV movie in the late 1970s but Pal’s version from 1960 was my first real exposure to this timeless story (pun intended).

Time jump ahead 42 years to 2002 where Simon Wells, the great-grandson of H.G. Wells, made his live-action directorial debut with a fresh look at “The Time Machine”. It’s more of a remake of Pal’s film but it has several unique angles of its own. It’s certainly a movie I feel compelled to defend. It was universally dismissed and its current Rotten Tomatoes score sits at an abysmal 29%. I think this is a much better film than that and many of the criticisms fired its way are a bit unfair. For me Simon Wells puts out a vision with a little more heart and weight than the previous film and John Logan’s sharp screenplay is a crucial part of that.

But for me the biggest selling point for the film was the performance of Guy Pearce. There’s no need to dance around it – I’m a huge Guy Pearce fan. He’s an immensely talented and underrated actor who has shown diverse range throughout his acting career. This was one of the movies that really sold him to me. Some have found his performance “lifeless” while others have claimed he was miscast. I couldn’t disagree more. I think it’s Pearce’s performance and his ability to convey the driving force behind his character’s actions that gives this movie an injection of emotion. I also think he fits perfectly into the socially awkward role that’s called for early on.

Pearce plays Dr. Alexander Hartdegen, a Columbia University professor and part-time inventor. Alexander feels detached from his home in 1899 New York City where everyone are “dinosaurs” and “all alike, all in identical bowler hats”. He’s a nerdy fellow who loves tinkering and he has a hidden interest in the theory of time travel. Sometimes his interests take his focus off of his sweetheart Emma (Sienna Guillory) whom he truly loves. In fact, a horrible tragedy involving Emma is the catalyst for him building his time machine. In other words the romance is a key component to the story. It’s not delved into at great lengths but I do feel that Pearce sells it and the post-tragedy emotions especially well.

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“The Time Machine” can really be broken down into two parts, the pre-machine 1899 New York and the unintended future year of 802,701. Yet in between those two main focuses are several scenes featuring different time periods. Alexander’s ‘fish out of water’ status and overloaded curiosity at his futuristic stops was a treat for me, again much due to the performance of Guy Pearce. These brief scenes give some explanation to the bleak future that Alexander ends up in. They also offer a small bit of commentary which I quite liked.

The second half of the film takes place in the aforementioned future of 802,701. Technology and advancement is gone and humanity has basically started over. It’s here that Alexander meets Mara (Samantha Mumba), a young woman who is part of a cliff dwelling tribe called the Eloi. Naturally the clash of a well-dressed future man and an indigenous native tribe is a huge obstacle but fortunately Lara speaks a little English (the stone language). Don’t worry, this isn’t a random thing. The movie does explain it. But Alexander soon learns that even that time period has its own problems, namely a subterranean species known as the Morlocks.

I’ve defended the acting and the story. Now let me talk a little bit about the special effects. I found the movie’s visuals range from the bland to the spectacular. The time traveling scenes are beautifully done and show off the technical rise of society all the way through another Ice Age and the blossoming of a new world after it. I also loved the design of Alexander’s time machine. There is such detail and craft in the way it’s made and you can almost believe in it completely. Now I wasn’t as impressed with the Morlocks once they appear. They’re just a tad too fake. But that doesn’t apply to Jeremy Irons who shows up as the Uber-Morlock – their leader. He is disgustingly eerie. His makeup alone was a big reason the film received an Oscar nomination in that category.

There are several other great touches and key components that make this such a great film. I adore Klaus Badelt’s brilliant and stirring score. Orlando Jones is a blast playing a holographic A.I. librarian. And the touching final scene still pricks my heart every time I watch it. “The Time Machine” is an underappreciated movie anchored by a fine lead performance by Guy Pearce. Simon Wells would suffer from exhaustion and Gore Verbinski would finish up the film. I give them both credit for giving us a delightful science fiction picture that’s far better than what many critics have said. It struck a chord with me the first moment I saw it and in my eyes it’s still an overlooked gem.

VERDICT : “THE TIME MACHINE” – 4.5 STARS