(On Cable TV, September 2017) Videogame movie adaptations have a terrible track record, and Assassin’s Creed won’t do much to counter the prevailing opinion. Some things that only make sense when you have a game controller in your hands don’t survive the transition to the big screen very well, which is demonstrated as Assassin’s Creed piles up a mythology that sounds ludicrous from the first time “genetic memory” is mentioned. Even after watching its conclusion, I remain unconvinced that the Assassins are the good guys we’re supposed to be cheering for (and the film does have an unexamined propensity for using violence as a tool that I find off-putting for all sorts of reasons, but again: look at the source material). It doesn’t help that the plot seems to be twisting itself in all sorts of needlessly pointless shapes, grandly referring to things that are of no interest to most viewers. (Deep and sombre contemplation of a “leap of faith” had me scurrying to the nearest explanatory web page, only to discover that it was an overblown game mechanic.) Still, even as mired in its own lore as Assassin’s Creed can be, it does sport one or two interesting things. Michael Fassbender is vastly overqualified as the lead actor, but he does bring his own kind of interest to the proceedings, helped along by Marion Cotillard and Jeremy Irons. The quality of the images show just how well CGI can now be used to create historical environments and bathe the rest of the film in gauzy haze. The production values are very good, including some impressive costume and set design work in its historical segments. Sadly, little of this leads to a film that can be enjoyed. In between the lengthy moments in which nothing happens, the ludicrous mythology, the confused morals and the self-important nonsense that passes off as dialogue, Assassin’s Creed remains a disappointment and another piece of evidence that no one has yet mastered how to bring interactive entertainment to the movies.
(On Cable TV, October 2012) Only in so-called “character studies” would twenty minutes of plot be stretched over a total running time of ninety. Still, let’s not dismiss Shame solely on pains of pacing: As a portrait of a New Yorker struggling with (well, sometimes enjoying) sexual addiction, writer/director Steve McQueen’s film reminds us that there is a place for frank explorations of sexual impulses within adult cinema. (It proudly received an NC-17 rating.) Shame is chockablock with nudity and simulated intercourse, but it’s also a melancholic portrait of a lost man refusing to connect in meaningful ways. Michael Fassbender is magnificent in a brutally naked performance that led to some much-deserved critical acclaim. It’s not hard to see where Shame could have been tightened into a snappier, more audience-friendly version: as it is, it’s a film best watched while doing meaningless chores. But McQueen’s choices can be as exhilarating as they are indulgent: for every overlong rendition of “New York, New York”, there’s an absorbing long shot of a nighttime jog, or a conversation exposing the film’s theme in a single uninterrupted shot. Shame has the qualities of its flaws and some arresting images as well. It’s an unusual film, and while it may pander to the usual art-house clichés, it also works for those who may resist the kind of aimless, shameless, conclusion-less drama it embraces. At the very least, it offers a startling revelation: in mainstream cinema, you want to fast-forward through the sex scenes themselves.
(In theaters, June 2012) It’s almost too bad that I didn’t write this review right after stepping out of the movie theatre, because once you let its beautiful visuals fade away, Prometheus gets worse the longer you think about it. Let’s get a few things out of the way: Yes, Prometheus is a Ridley Scott SF movie set in the universe of Scott’s 1979 Alien, but no, it’s not a coherent addition to the mythology: Thematically, the film is very different from the Alien series, but it’s really the muddled script that doesn’t really care about making all the parts fit together. It’s still a monster movie in the most classical sense (explorer discover a terrible threat, almost everyone is killed, etc.) but as far as monster movie go, few have the amount of visual polish and technical expertise than Prometheus enjoys. Visually, the film is stunning, with complex special effects well-used to create a state-of-the-art vision of the future on an alien planet. You can revel in the ways the film has advanced far beyond the now-primitive effects in Alien, or reflect at how thirty years have changed our expectations of what the future will look like. Scott is a gifted filmmaker, and Prometheus’ high notes come when he’s able to use all the tools at his disposal to explore fear, wonder or awe. There is a terrific medical-intervention sequence at the three-quarter-mark that is as good as any of the thrills delivered by the Alien series, and a lesser director could have blown it by lack of expertise. Scott’s moviemaking skill makes it easy to watch the film and let it wow you… unfortunately, the effect wears off as soon as you start asking questions. In terms of SF ideas and concepts, there’s little in Prometheus that hasn’t been picked clean in written SF by the 1970s, and few writers have ever felt the need to revisit those issues in the same pretentious ham-fisted ways than Scott does here. Basic fact-based objections to the panspermia theory are, in the movie, swept away with a simple declaration of faith, and it’s not the rumors about a more theologically-charged director’s cut of the film that will save Prometheus from charges of muddled thinking. But never mind thematic issues when it’s the plotting nuts-and-bolts of the film that don’t make sense. Characters are moved around like puppets, making the same dumb decisions as their counterparts in B-grade schlock monster-movies and dying in various ways that seem inconsistent with how smart they’re supposed to be. All the good actors in the film (Michael Fassbender is particularly effective as the de-rigueur android) can’t compensate from an undercooked script that doesn’t seem to care that we’ve seen that monster-movie stuff play out dozens of time since 1979. It makes for a curious viewing experience: Impeccably executed, but from a weak script that blends pseudo-profoundness with idiot plotting. It’s still well worth a look for the visuals and the atmosphere, but even measured against its own intentions, Prometheus is ultimately a disappointing mess.
(In theaters, June 2011) I wasn’t expecting anything after the underwhelming Wolverine, but this X-Men: First Class is a return to the strengths of the original trilogy: Some thematic heft, good acting performances, clever sequences and an sense of cool that doesn’t fall into self-indulgence. Even as a prequel, it works just fine: There’s some dramatic irony at the way the characters come together and split apart, and the script is wildly successful at weaving the October Missile Crisis in the fabric of the plot. James McAvoy may be good as Charles Xavier, but it’s Michael Fassbender who steals the show as Magneto, with plenty of good supporting roles for people such as Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence and Oliver Platt. (Meanwhile, January Jones -for all she brings to the film by parading around in white thigh-highs and gogo boots- seems unacceptably stiff). The initial X-Men trilogy worked well in large part due to its thematic ambitions about bigotry, normalcy and self-acceptance; if First Class doesn’t do much than rehash the same issues from “didn’t ask, didn’t tell” to “mutant and proud”, it’s still far more interesting than other recent meaningless comic-book films like Thor. The idea to set the film in the early sixties has refreshing stylistic implications (despite the anachronism of late-sixties fashion) that carry through to the Saul-Bass-tinged closing credit sequence. Director Matthew Vaughn manages to helm a surprisingly talky film with the right mixture of action and character moments, while giving some energy to the whole. X-Men: First Class may be a small victory for style over rehashed substance, but even in repeating itself it seems quite a bit better than the norm –and in presenting itself attractively, it makes itself difficult to criticize. Suffice to say that it’s an enjoyable film, and even one that may get viewers to watch the original trilogy again –something that seemed improbable after Wolverine.