Sunday, January 1, 2017

Assassin's Creed, Passengers, Fences, Lion Reviews

Assassin's Creed
Dir. Justin Kurzel
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If there was finally going to be a movie that proved a good video game adaptation is possible, it was going to be Assassin's Creed. Although it's not the first with a giant budget or big names behind it, it was the first that seemed to be recruiting Oscar-caliber talent - with a cast including Academy Award-winning/nominated actors like Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, and Jeremy Irons and a director whose adaptation of Macbeth last year, while not a great film, looked absolutely spectacular. After watching the film, however, why all that talent was attracted to this project in the first place is totally baffling. Assassin's Creed is largely nonsensical, dizzyingly complicated, and mostly uninteresting for its 2.5 hour run time, and proves yet again that playing video games are more fun than watching them.

I'll try my best at a plot synopsis, but I have to be honest, I still don't know just what in the hell was going on in this film. The story follows Cal Lynch (Michael Fassbender), a convicted felon who is secretly freed from death row by a mysterious organization, Abstergo Industries. One of their key scientists (Marion Cotillard) reveals that Callum's ancestors were among a secret elite group of assassins. For some unexplained reason, Abstergo Industries is after an object called the "Apple of Eden," which supposedly will be used to stop all human violence in the world (how that's possible, no one explains). It's the most MacGuffin-y MacGuffin you'll ever see - it's totally meaningless. The scientists developed a machine called the Animus, which allows Cal to connect to his ancestor's memories (circa 15th century Spain), and they hope this will help finally lead them to this magic apple.

I had never played any of the countless Assassin's Creed games before watching the movie, but the filmmakers give little effort at making the rules of this sci-fi world make sense. It's unclear if Cal is able to control his ancestor or just watch him while going for a full-body "ride" on the Animus. If that's the case, this movie is literally the equivalent of watching somebody watching someone else play a video game. Cal has practically no agency throughout the film - he's just watching a cool movie about his ancestors while being whipped around on the Animus, which physically mimics every action his past relative makes. Making matters worse is that only about 10-15% of the movie takes place in the past while the majority of the film is made up of lifeless, gray laboratory hallways and prison quarters. As I understand, most of the fun of the games are that you get to explore these cool historical worlds, but this film is more interested in jargon-filled technical conversations about an apple we know nothing about.

It's not a total bust though - Assassin's Creed boasts fantastic costumes, set design, cinematography (at least in the period sequences), a ballsy amount of non-CG stunt work, and Michael Fassbender tries his best with the limited material he's given. Like the games, there are some interesting ideas that could have been expanded on - the idea of a cycle of violence across time and repeating the mistakes of your ancestors is a fantastic concept to explore in a science fiction setting. But Assassin's Creed eventually just falls under the weight of its own nonsense, reinforcing the idea that video games belong on your Xbox, not the silver screen.

Rating: C-

Dir. Morten Tyldum
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Passengers has one of the most misleading trailers I've seen in years. The advertising for this Jennifer Lawrence/Chris Pratt studio-produced sci-fi romance seems to suggest that the film is about two passengers on a spaceship who are accidentally woken out of suspended animation early... 90 years early to be exact. Unfortunately, there's no way for them to get back into their sleeping pods, so they have to figure out how to best survive their situation.

The plot of the actual film is much more sinister. Chris Pratt is actually the first one to wake up, and spends a year all alone aboard their luxury transport vessel. After having tried and failed to get his pod back up and running many times, he makes a horrible, dark decision to wake up a fellow passenger to alleviate his extreme loneliness. Had Passengers not been a holiday-released four-quadrant film meant for the teeny bopper crowd, it could have been a fascinating survivalist space movie similar to The Martian mixed with a Robinson Crusoe-style desert island story - but instead the film resorts to easy answers, one deus ex machina after another, and a somewhat uncomfortable philosophy about relationships by its conclusion.

If Passengers works at all it's because of the interesting nuggets of world-building we get and the sheer charisma of the actors. I liked the little details of the ship and how the "class" status of the passengers are not equal. Making things hilariously difficult for Pratt when he's on the ship alone is that only "gold" patrons have access to certain facilities and services, such as the better breakfast options; he's stuck with plain coffee and a miscellaneous cube of food every morning. The ship itself has almost a snarky bourgeois air to it that I found pretty funny; one of my favorite "characters" was a bar tending robot played by Michael Sheen who ironically has more life than the humans. Once J Law is up, the dynamic remains interesting to a point - while she doesn't know that Pratt intentionally woke her, the guilt is still there. The film doesn't go to any interesting place regarding Pratt's guilt though, which is by far the film's greatest flaw.

Overall, Passengers is a passable, entertaining-enough sci-fi movie that rests a little too heavily on its soft "blockbuster" laurels when its story required a bit of a darker edge.

Rating: C+

Dir. Denzel Washington
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I wouldn't know which way to argue if one were to ask me if Fences was more of a movie or a filmed play. Based on August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize winning play, Fences doesn't exactly make full use of the film medium - it's pretty much just a vessel to capture the performances. The result, to me, felt like a 2.5 hour long acting workshop, for better or worse. Directed and starring Denzel Washington, along with Viola Davis, this is purely and simply an "Actors acting" movie, but there's nothing wrong with that when the people you're watching are at the top of their craft.

The story takes place in 1950s Pittsburgh, following a cantankerous trash collector, Troy (Denzel Washington), who lives with his wife (Viola Davis) and son (Jovan Adepo). He has a bigger-than-life personality that Denzel imbues with an entertaining gusto, but we slowly realize that his bitterness of unfulfilled dreams of being a professional baseball player has created some deep-rooted tension within his family life that's grown to dark proportions. Denzel plays Troy with a complex, effortless charisma that you just expect from him, and his performance is equally matched by Viola Davis, whose handful of emotional, tear-and-snot filled diatribes are sure to play over her Oscar clip later this year. Even the bit players here are great; with Denzel as director, and with the movie fashioned more as a filmed play than a "cinematic experience," you get the sense that this is a piece made by and for actors to let their talents (and egos) run wild with juicy, if overindulgent, tome-length speeches.

While the performances all around were amazing, and I liked the themes of the film regarding this somewhat broken man stuck in life and bringing his family down with him, Fences feels very much like an Oscar-grab from all involved, and at 2.5 hours with little else but page-long, super-emotive monologues it starts to become a little tiring. 40 minutes could easily be shaved off this movie with little lost in the process. That being said, I enjoyed Fences, and you won't find two better actors working today than Davis and Washington.

Rating: B-

Dir. Garth Davis
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Once in a while in casual conversation, people will randomly ask if you ever want kids. My answer (if it's not "I hate kids!") typically gets some puzzled looks. I usually say that if I ever wanted to have a kid, I'd adopt rather than have my own. Personally, I don't have a big enough ego to feel as though I need to have a "little me" running around, contributing to overpopulation and heavy traffic on the turnpike. It's kind of controversial, but I'd rather give some poor kid's life back to them than be assured that my line of genetic code is further replicated. That may explain why Lion plucked at my heartstrings like a flamenco guitarist.

The film follows the incredible true story of Saroo - an Indian boy who at five years old got lost and accidentally took a train thousands of miles away from his family in a remote village. He learned to survive on his own in the bustling, somewhat sketchy city of Calcutta, until an Australian family ultimately adopts him. Twenty five years later, Saroo sets out to find his mother and two siblings using what little he remembers about his childhood and the then-new Google Earth technology.

Just the fact that this is based on a true story sort of sets you up for where this is headed. Lion can be pretty predictable and manipulative at times (the great, but melodramatic music score from Dustin O'Halloran definitely belabors every emotional beat), but it worked for me almost every step of the way. The child that was cast as young Saroo, Sunny Pawar, was incredible for his age - similarly to Jacob Tremblay from Room, he seems like a real little kid with real little kid emotions. In the "present" sequences, Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire) is old Saroo, and nicely conveys the conflicting emotions most adopted children must face in regards to their "two sets" of parents. Nicole Kidman plays the adopted mother, and there's one Oscar-grabby scene that really spoke to my aforementioned philosophy regarding kids. The only relationship that didn't ring true for me was between Dev Patel and Rooney Mara, playing his girlfriend who's really into Indian culture.

Overall though, Lion is an emotional, well-acted film that may be conventional and a bit on the melodramatic side, but made me weepy all the same.

Rating: B+

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